Rabbi Andrea's Sermons
Don't close your eyes
You all should have an Aliya one Shabbat or another. If you have never had an Aliya in your life, you should accept one. It does not take that much. Just reading the blessing before the reading, then someone else does the reading in Hebrew: Steve, Roger, sometimes the Rabbi, after which you say the concluding blessing and, well, it's done. It is a great mitzvah which, if performed when we are in shul, gives you the experience of seeing a Sefer Torah, or Torah Scroll. The Torah Scroll is a fascinating item, for several reasons. For example, there are neither vowels nor musical notes. Not only do we need the Sefer Torah to hold our services. The Sefer Torah needs us, so to say. It can only be read by a Jew who possesses enough knowledge of the text and knows which vowel is here and which musical note is there etc. We need the Torah for our survival, but the Torah also needs us, to become alive. When we are in Shul, we deal with a material Torah Scroll without vowels and music notes. We have to locate where the reading begins. Some people use a printed edition of the Torah, a Chumash and others use a Tikkun, a book which provides the vocalised and the un-vocalised text in two columns. This is to help find their way because sometimes it is very difficult. Some parts of the Torah are long paragraphs, more than one or two columns without any breaks, without a capo, and without interruption; good luck with that. Finding the proper place where a readings finish and the following begins is not at all easy. This week's Torah portion is one of those. It begins towards the end of a very long paragraph, two or three columns with no capo, no interruption and no white spaces. It is one of those portions technically known as stumah, closed. It is unusual. Most of the Torah consists of short-ish paragraphs (easy to memorise), and on the whole there are several capos. Why not here? Classical, medieval commentators have suggested interesting interpretations related to the content. In this part of the Torah, we read of the death of Jacob and his blindness; the lack of white spaces between the paragraphs. The "close" disposition of the text is a reminder of Jacob's condition and the confusing way he now sees the world. Others notice that in the second part of the Torah portion, Jacob addresses his children and somehow foresees their future and the future of their tribes. In this part of the Biblical narration, the past is confused with the present. The disposition of the text, the absence of white spaces and interruptions, impresses in our minds how Jacob felt, while his illness was progressing. But there's another reading, which I find incredibly profound. This text is about the last period of the life of Jacob, and it mentions blindness. Blindness in the life of Jacob was indeed significant, think for example of his father Isaac’s blindness, and why and how Jacob became the firstborn. Yet, this passage is not about Jacob. It's about his children, the B’nei Israel, the Israelites, the Jews; us. With Jacob's death, his children, the people of Israel, lost a reminder of their condition. No one was there to remind them that they lived in a land that was not theirs, Egypt. They have been living with their father in the land of Canaan, which is the future Eretz Israel. They moved to Egypt and met Joseph because of the famine, as we remember. The life in their land, in Canaan, was hard and difficult, marked by misery. In Egypt, thanks to Joseph's connection and the protection by Pharaoh, they do well. Quite naturally, they forget where they came from. The disposition of the text is there to remind us not only of the poor state of the sight of Jacob, whose eyes were closing, rather, his children are closing their eyes. They refuse to see where they come from and - crucially- what is going on around them. The Torah portion tells us, what is going on. Jacob dies and then Joseph dies, and next week we will read how Pharaoh also dies. Pharaoh had granted protection to Joseph and had encouraged the children of Israel, Joseph's brothers, to immigrate and to settle in the region of Goshen. The death of Pharaoh is the beginning of the worsening of the condition of the Israelites. When Joseph was alive, the Israelites were the middle class, intermediaries between the sovereign and the peasants. Joseph dies, and the new ruler is a king that, so the Torah says, had never known Joseph, therefore does not protect the Israelites from persecution and enslavement. Gradually the situation of the Israelites worsens. The Israelites keep their eyes shut. They did not see, or they did not want to see, where they came from. They didn’t want to see their connection with the land of Israel; and the fact that for the Egyptians they still are strangers, adversaries and possibly enemies. In other words, the text reminds us, graphically, what happens when we Jews forget what we are and think we can easily assimilate and integrate. In Jewish history, the changes in political systems such as the rise to power of a new Pharaoh, had often been uncertain moments, a time in which we were exposed and weak. The life of us Jews nowadays is not any more precarious and fragile as it has been for centuries. We have today a State, a place where to take refuge if and when things go bad, and we are in danger of becoming scapegoats of political tensions. We may not think about the Land of Israel every day, but we are not like the children of Jacob, who had forgotten the existence of the Land of Israel and where they came from. Contrary to the generation of those enslaved in Egypt, our generation benefits from the Jewish State's existence. And even the most assimilated Jews, who feel remote from the rest of the Jewish people, who believe they have lost any contact with our faith: even they have a sense of pride for Israel’s existence and achievements. As it happens now, when Israel has managed to conclude, first in the world, the mass vaccination of its population. The text's disposition reminds us, the readers, not to close our eyes, not to forget that we are Jews and to remember how meaningful the connection is for us with the Land of Israel. Forgetting Israel is forgetting our identity and ultimately means losing our freedom. It simply cannot happen. It must never, never happen. ........................................................................................................................................................................................
The Story of Three Brothers and a People Too
There are some books that are so influential that they shape entire generations. "Il Gioco dei Regni" (the kingdoms' game) by Clara Sereni, published in 1993, is one of those books, for the Italian Jews of my generation. Unfortunately not yet translated into English, so let me tell you about it. It's the story of three brothers, the Sereni brothers, from an upper-class Jewish family from Rome, all born at the beginning of the 20th century. Their Jewish world was cosmopolitan, emancipated, and definitively not observant, like twice a year Jews (Pesach and Yom Kippur). They wanted to be Italians first and then Jews. The father of the Serenis was, nonetheless, the personal doctor to the King of Italy.
The eldest of the three brothers, Enrico Sereni, embraced the culture of the world he grew up. Born in 1900; fervent patriot; decorated in WWI; at the end of the war resumed his studies; graduated in Zoology magna cum laude and went on to become the director of the Naples Aquarium. Enrico Sereni had two faiths: the nation of Italy, and science. And he was betrayed by both: when in the 20s nationalism became Fascism, and science became racism. Professor Sereni had to face increasing hostility from the Italian academic world he has given so much to.
Enrico Sereni took his own life. There's something poetic, and tragic, with the image of the Professor’s suicide in the bathtub.
The name of the second brother, Enzo Sereni, is inscribed in the annals of Israeli history. He was one of the first Zionists in Italy; he made Aliya in 1927; he was one of the founding members of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, now named after him, Givat Sereni. He advocated the coexistence with the Arabs in the name of socialism, refusing to retaliate on them after the pogroms. Then he enrolled in the British Army and smuggled people from Iraq and Egypt. In 1944 Sereni was then parachuted behind enemy lines in 1944. Captured by the Nazis, he died in Dachau: murdered because he was a Jew, despite the British uniform. There's a memorial plaque to Enzo Sereni, in the military cemetery on Har Herzl. After the war his widow, Ada Sereni, became the main coordinator of the immigration of DP Jews from the refugee camps to the Land of Israel. A founder, like her husband, of the Jewish State: that is the environment we are talking about.
And then there was the third brother: Emilio Sereni, the Communist. The story goes that on the same day when Enzo boarded the ship to Haifa, Emilio signed his application to the Communist Party. The Party was at the time just a radical group of young Socialist intellectuals captivated by the Soviet Union. Emilio Sereni worked hard as an activist and during the war was a leader of the Resistance. He is one of those activists who built the largest (and culturally the more vibrant) Communist Party in the Western world, able to attract intellectuals who were not Communists. After the war, Emilio Sereni continued his political militancy, he also became a renowned scholar and he wrote masterful studies of agricultural history, His interest for the subject dated back to his youth, when, with his brother, he was planning to make Aliyah and set up a kibbutz. Emilio Sereni was a great scholar. Unfortunately, he was also blindly devoted to Stalin and infamously engaged in academic denial of Stalin's crimes and of the Ukrainian famine, (as a historian of agriculture!).
The story of these three brothers, the scientist, the Zionist, the Communist is narrated in that book, Il Gioco Dei Regni, which has shaped my generation of Italian Jews. The author, Clara Sereni, is the daughter of Emilio Sereni, the Communist. And so this is also an intense, moving, and tragic family history: remember, 1993 the date of publication is only a few years after the end of the Soviet Union, a cause to which Emilio Sereni, Communist and Jew had been stubbornly devoted throughout all his life.
You really cannot forget the book's opening, in the former Rome ghetto. It's a part of the city still inhabited by the poorest, and most religious, part of the Jewish population, a world apart from the cosmopolitan, emancipated Sereni - doctor of the Royal House. Being in a hurry, the haughty Mrs Sereni hurls a jar full of olive, causing it to break. The lady seller lost all her merchandise, and hisses a traditional Jewish curse: "May your children grow up, like spikes of wheat, shining and ripe, under the sun". Lady Sereni did not get the curse. It came from another world. She thinks it is a sort of a quote. Olives and wheat, aren't both mentioned together in the Bible, somewhere? Why bother
But then it will happen. Her three sons had grown up like spikes of wheat, And like wheat, they have died, cut by sickle, crashed by these forces that have shaped the 20th century.
Italian Jews of my generation had read that book in a moment of history and of personal life when we were asking ourselves the eternal Jewish question:
That means: what shall we do with this -can I quote Lionel Blue?- with this business of being Jewish? Are we to embrace it fully, and with the sort of a revolution, like Enzo Sereni, turn the faith into a nationality? Or shall we trust our fellow co-citizens, and put our Jewish mind at the service of science and progress for the benefit of the Italian people - but in 1993 we were already thinking of ourselves as citizens of Europe. And, a few months after the book was published, Mr Berlusconi brought back the Fascists into the Government. Terrified, many took refuge dreaming of a strong anti-Fascist movement, and admired the generation of Italian Communists like Emilio Sereni, (some of them, prominent Jews as well). And they overlooked, precisely like him, the horrors of the Stalin era.
History never repeats itself. Yet, in the academic world, there are probably now the same feelings of anti-Semitic hostility that brought Enrico Sereni to commit suicide. Suspicions of double loyalty surround the Jews in politics, on the Right as well as on the Left - Emilio Sereni's extreme devotion to Stalin was almost certainly due to his need to prove that he was not a traitor, that he was indeed loyal to the cause. As we are approaching the conclusion of the book of Genesis, and the beginning of Exodus when the story of a family becomes the story of a people. We have just mourned (on Dec 25, this year) the destruction of the First Temple: which was rebuilt, but we are taught not to be complacent as it was indeed destroyed another time.
And I think of the collected writings; letters, articles of Enzo Sereni, published in a volume in 1973, twenty years before "Il Gioco dei Regni", the family story written by his niece. Whoever chose the title, we don't know, There's one long dispute about that (one of these never-ending Jewish disputes about small things terribly meaningful, like the title of a book); "Per non morire." Not to die.
Enzo Sereni, the Zionist, died before the birth of the State of Israel. Nonetheless, out of the three, he's the one whose legacy endures. And it's up to us, us Jews, not only Italian Jews, all of us, to be worthy of such a legacy.
Not to die, indeed.
[on the life of Enzo Sereni, see: Ruth Bondy, The Emissary, 1976]
Brothers at Limmud
Limmud is one of the highlights of my Jewish year. It's a festival of Jewish learning with thousands of sessions and shiurim to choose from. It's also a great opportunity for Sara and me to bring our children to a place which is (how can I put it) fully Jewish and where December 25 is just a day like any other. At Limmud you can forget about that non-Jewish holiday, which takes place at the same time every year, and you can schmooze, socialise, chat etc with other Jews.
Unfortunately, this social part will be missing this year. Because of COVID, there will be no coffees in the lounge, no queues to reach a jacked potato and no morning minyan. Every morning at Limmud there's a multitude of minyanim to choose from. The Orthodox minyan, the Masorti/Egalitarian, the Sephardi, the Reform... Taking part in these minyanim is a great way to learn about the variety of Jewish worship. Unfortunately, the prayer rooms are located in a building which is 20 minutes walk from the building where families with children stay. And time is tight: there's less than an hour to have breakfast, take children to their groups, then rush to the session. Therefore, we parents set up our own inter-denominational minyan every year in the same building. Another one. This is pure Limmud. Only at Limmud, can you have a minyan composed of two Orthodox Rabbis, one Reform (me), one leader of the settlers, various Israeli Leftists and the security guard. First we pray together, and then go to learn in different places. Perhaps after a couple of hours, we will find ourselves in the same room and will openly disagree on something we passionately care about. It's not easy to build such an inclusive atmosphere. It's difficult to create a place where so many Jews learn and pray together regardless of ideological differences. And indeed last year small minorities of hecklers, frustrated by the recent defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, had tried to disrupt some sessions. Why? Because they were held by Jews who dare to disagree with them. Cancel culture, unfortunately, has arrived at Limmud. This year we are all on Zoom, so this is not likely to be a problem; nonetheless last week, on social media, those same hecklers made their presence known, because they deeply dislike the new Israeli Ambassador, Tzipi Hotovely. You heard me correctly. There are Jews (who live comfortably in the UK) who believe that the Ambassador of Israel should not be invited to a Jewish event; even if the reason why such an event exists, and its success, is precisely to allow Jews of different opinions to discuss, and if necessary, openly disagree. To my knowledge, no one in the past has ever objected to the presence of Palestinian diplomats at Limmud. Why is the Israeli Ambassador a problem? Because as a politician she has expressed opinions they disagree with, about the settlements. Excuse me? I thought that Limmud was pluralistic and not judgemental. At least, so it claims to be on its website. Because only at Limmud can I learn how much I need that guy, with whom I disagree on politics, to have a minyan. Only at Limmud, can I find myself having a coffee (organic or whatever) and talk about how to keep our children involved in Jewish life. And only at Limmud, can I discover in the same day how different and how equal we are. Kol hakavod, (a Jewish expression which means kol ha kavod), to the organisers of Limmud. They did not give in to the pressures of these hecklers, regardless of how well connected they seem to be with some of Limmud's sponsors. And if you have some time between 27 and 29 December, I suggest you register to Limmud, even if only for one day and to attend one or more of these Zoom sessions. The Israeli Ambassador is Tuesday 29, at 11:00, but there are hundreds of other presenters, and enough sessions and Jewish learning to make you forget the festivities of another religion that the goyim are celebrating in the same season. Limmud is about Jewish unity and Jewish differences. But what is Jewish unity? In other words: what does keep us Jews together? Why do we Jews care so passionately about who's in and who's out? Why does it sound so bizarre that some Jew at Limmud, or anywhere, wants to keep out another Jew? "No-platforming" I believe is the expression. Well, this is a very important question. And this Rabbi has no answers for important questions. Judaism is the kind of religion in which people look for answers to important questions by themselves. Rabbis can help you to frame the question, at best. So I can tell you when this thing called "Jewish unity" was born. It is between this week's Torah portion and the next. Imagine the scene. Joseph has framed his brothers. They have not recognised him. Joseph has donated them the food they have asked for. But he has also hidden a precious goblet in Benjamin’s sack. The theft has been discovered, and now Joseph says he wants to keep Benjamin as his slave. This was the law in Egypt, for those found guilty of stealing goods from the Royal palace: they were punished with enslavement. "You can return to your father -he says-, I will keep this young one as my slave". At this point, Judah steps ahead and says: "We are really sorry; we are all responsible" This is where this week's Torah portion ends. Next Shabbat we'll read the full peroration of Judah. He will explain to Joseph what he already knew, that Benjamin is the most beloved by his father, Jacob, and that they cannot return without him. Jacob has already suffered the death of another brother, and he won’t survive. Judah will conclude his peroration by saying to Joseph "take me as your slave, instead; let Benjamin return home." Judah is the same Judah who had the idea of selling Joseph to the Ismaelites as a slave. The original idea was to kill him, but Judah said: "hang on a minute, he is our brother, after all, let us sell him and avoid shedding blood". A statement that stinks of hypocrisy, to say the least. And Judah, the same Judah who did not hesitate to sell his own brother as a slave now says, to Joseph, (who he doesn’t realise is Joseph), "take me, and let my brother return home". This process of repentance, this process of teshuvah, which we will hear next week, has now started, with Judah saying "we have done something wrong, we should take responsibility together." Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik teaches that we Jews are called "sons of Judah”, although biologically we may descend from other ancestors, because of that passage, because of that assumption of responsibility, because of that concern for Jacob, and because of that process of teshuvah. Truly the Jewish people were born at that moment: when eleven shepherds -strangers in Egypt- encountered their long time lost brother, now a powerful court officer, a court Jew, the prototype if you want, of the assimilated Jew and one of them said: "no matter about the law of this Country, we are all in this together". The Torah portion ends here. Strikingly, in the Jewish year, there are Torah portions that are often combined together, but this is not the case. Every year we are left with a week in between the moment when Judah says: "We are all sorry" and the moment when he acts. From a literary point of view, it's a marvellous climax. Ask every screenwriter; to halt a narration at this point is masterful. We live for one week in the time between the moment when Judah says "Hey guys, this is about us" and the moment when he will say: "Please, spare my brother, our father has already lost a son, he's the youngest. Take me."
For one week, while we wait to hear how the story ends, we are left to consider what unity among brother’s means. What does Jewish unity mean? Again, let me repeat: I am just a Rabbi; I have no answers for serious and deep questions such as this. But I know the benefits of Jewish unity. It is when I am part of a minyan of Jews from different backgrounds, different politics and different ideas, davening together early in the morning at Limmud. And I see the damage that we do to ourselves showing hostility to the Israeli Ambassador; because of her politics and perhaps because of different background. She's a Sephardi mezuzah-kisser, not a sophisticated North London academic.... Thankfully the plan to keep her out has not prevailed. As far as I know, no proposal has been rejected this year. Everybody who submitted an idea for a presentation has been given the space and the time. The exclusion of the Israeli Ambassador did not take place neither at Limmud or elsewhere. Limmud is, still, the festival of Jewish learning and of Jewish pluralism, and a celebration of Jewish unity, (which I don't know what it is, but I can recognise it when I see it). Long it may continue, and see you there.
PEACE AND ITS DISCONTENTS
This is a story from a time before the Internet, 1987 or so. A young man is sitting in the waiting room of a train station in a small village outside of Milan. He has taken the wrong train (remember, no internet or smartphones) and now is waiting to return. He's reading an Israeli novel. He wears a necklace with a Magen David.
A man of the same age enters the room and seats close to him. Darker skin: must be North African. He looks at the book that the other is reading. Then he looks at the necklace. Then, again, at the book's cover. And then he says, in Arabic accented Italian: "nice necklace".
The Jew looks around the room. I'm in trouble, he thinks. This Arabic guy most likely hates the Jews. And in this small room, there's only him and me. It does not look good.
These feelings did not go unnoticed. The Arab man smiles reassuringly. and says "Attah Yehudi?" Are you Jewish? (in Hebrew).
The Italian nods, relieved. And the North African smiles "Moi aussi, habibi". Me too, my friend (Arabic).
And then a long conversation follows, in a very Jewish mixture of languages: Hebrew, Italian, English, Spanish/Ladino, and a bit of French.
After more than 30 years I still remember that conversation and for a good reason: Yosef and I were born on the same day. Oct 21, 1968.
His family came from the Atlas region of Morocco; which means he could speak two more languages: Berber, and Judeo-Berber. As a young child, Yossef had seen pogrom and devastations, followed by peace, which was never completely peace. His mother had survived the pogrom, but her mind never recovered. Yosef grew up in a Catholic orphanage and had only one goal in life: to move to Israel. He had saved money for that purpose, and now it had become possible. A direct fly was obviously out of the question (retorsion on the family in Morocco was not unusual): Yosef had moved to Italy, and there he started the procedure for his aliya. When we met, he had just had a meeting at the Jewish Agency, and he also took the wrong train.
As you know, I am a staunch supporter of the cause of the Mizrahim, the multitudes of Jews from Arab lands that are still waiting for reparations —Middle Eastern refugees, whose tragedies are never mentioned. The media have eyes only for the Palestinians that are considerably less in numbers.
But numbers are numbers. It's different, and it's intense when numbers become human beings, with their vicissitudes of adversities, courage, resilience and bravery.
I often wonder what has happened to Yosef, my twin from Morocco. We met before the Internet. Then we lost track.
I know more of "Mar Haiim", the older man born in Casablanca who lived in the Beit Avot, nursing home, in Jerusalem where I used to volunteer. "Mar Haim", Mr Haiim, made aliya in the 40s, literally walking by foot from Casablanca to Jerusalem. He had managed to escape God knows how many armed forces who were hunting for Jews. He was one of the first Morocco Jews to be employed by the Egged bus company, which was then an Ashkenazi stronghold. Mar Haiim had been a bus driver all his life and he knew the city well. He could even drive through Mea Shearim during Sukkot, avoiding all the huts that the hareidis built at that time of the year.
I know a bit more about Anna, a friend of Sara’s and mine, whose maternal grandfather was a military officer in Morocco. Despite being hostile to Israel, the Army of Morocco did not close its doors to the Jews. Anna showed up one year on Yom Kippur, together with her Mum at the small synagogue is Sara's hometown. They had been living in Italy for years, but only after a certain time, had they found the courage to knock on the door of a synagogue. Because growing up as Jew in Morocco, even if you have a military officer in the family, means growing up always with some fear. Which never leaves you, unless you move to Israel.
Morocco has a long and fascinating Jewish history. The numbers are impressive: in the 1940s there were 250.000 Jews in Morocco. Now there are less than 5000. Today almost half a million of Israeli citizens are of Morocco origin; tens of thousands live in France, Canada, South America.
In the past two centuries, the European travellers who visited Morocco noticed how numerous the Jewish population was, either in big cities such as Fez or Casablanca or in the Atlas Mountains. They marvelled at their diversity: there were Jewish merchants and bankers, Jewish peddlers, Jewish musicians, Jewish blacksmiths; and of course, the French travellers noticed that all the most attractive women in Morocco, were Jewish.
It's a story of ups and downs, waves of pogroms and intolerance when fanaticism prevails and longer and quieter periods, when relations with the majority are more relaxed.
The current moment is one of those. The small Jewish community has excellent relations with the current King, Muhammed VI. Every year community leaders of the Morocco Jewish Diaspora across the world are invited for the Throne Celebration. In 2014, Rabbi Haim A. Moryoussef of Canada offered the King a handwritten blessing on parchment.
The establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco is part of this picture. It should not surprise anyone, since antisemitism is currently very low in Morocco, and it should be welcome for obvious reasons: because peace is good, even if it is reached under the auspices of Donald Trump, although negotiations started well before.
Yet, some people don't like this peace.
For example, the small number of Israeli Mafiosi that are currently living as ex-pats in Morocco; the local media sometimes report about them, and remarkably without any antisemitic undertone. They benefit from the absence of extradition between the two countries; thankfully, this is coming to an end.
Besides the criminals, someone else isn't happy. On social media the so-called "pro-Israel pro-peace" organisations on the Far Left, such as Yachad, complains in this way:
"Today it was announced that Israel and Morocco have agreed to normalise relations. In return, the USA will recognise Moroccan rule over the Western Sahara. Normalised relationships between the two countries is always positive, but it cannot come at the expense of ending any occupation".
(all of a sudden, they care about the Western Sahara; and still they do not care for Mizrachi Jews, and they continue:)
"Without a political agreement with the Palestinians that ends the occupation and gives the Palestinian people their rights and dignity, there will be no real peace".
When, on Thursday evening I bumped into this comment on Twitter, I felt speechless.
I thought that a "pro-Israel pro-peace" organisation celebrates peace, especially on Chanukah. Call me naive, but this is the time of the year for hope and optimism. This is the time of the year when we look at the lights of the candles that grow night after night. There are reasons to look at the growth of the number of Arab states that want to live in peace with the Jewish State as it was a miracle. Just think of how hostile relations were like back in the 70s or the 80s, when I met Yosef in that waiting room of the train station in the middle of nowhere a few miles from Milan.
Aren't we Jews supposed to look at the bright side? Have we not survived because of our ability to make the most with what we have? According to Yachad the "pro-peace pro-Israel" organisation, there is nothing to celebrate. What do these people want for Western Sahara, that, true, is currently under Moroccan occupation; although until now they did not care about it: they believe that the only occupation that exists in the Middle East, is the occupation of Palestine. But don't they know that by establishing diplomatic relations, it becomes easier to pressure and to influence through the non-violent means of the economy?
These "peace- supporters" would probably prefer the absence of diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco.
So that when Yosef or Mar Haim, of Hana, want to visit their families and see the places where their ancestors lived for generations, they have to travel to Morocco without knowing whether they will be allowed to return to Israel. I cannot see how the Palestinians are supposed to benefit from this.
It saddens me that almost all the members of Yachad (and of the so-called peace camp) are of Ashkenazi background, and middle class, in other words: they are privileged if compared to Sephardi and working class. And they show a callous indifference to sufferings endured by Morocco Jews and Mizrachi in general. To Jews less fortunate than themselves.
On Chanukah, we celebrate the defeat of those assimilated, Hellenised Jews who desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by placing idols and sacrificing to them. These idolaters were defeated by that portion of Jewish people who kept the monotheistic faith.
What is an idol? How is an idol different from God? An idol is made by human hands, says Isaiah.
An idol is the projection of human fantasies. And the idolaters know that they live in a lie, that their gods are not real divinities, but rather "produced by human hands".
Those Jews who react negatively, or with hostility, to peace between the Jewish State and (another) Arab State, make me think of idolatry.
They are like the assimilated Jews of centuries ago, who bowed to idols, knowing that they were a product of human hands, and a projection of human fantasies.
They seem to worship an idol that they call peace, while completely disparaging real peace between real human beings.
As a Rabbi, I can only wish they studied a bit more and to increase their knowledge of the principles of our faith. I bless the friendly relations between Arabs and Jews. I am happy for Hana, for mar Haim, for Yosef and their families. I wish them, and hundreds of thousands of Moroccan Jews, and all the Jews in the world, a Happy and peaceful Chanukah, the festival of miracles, including the miracle of peace.
Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melekh ha'olam shehecheyanu vekiymanu
vehigi'anu lazman hazeh
TWO LAME CHARACTERS
There was a Jewish Mum who was informed that her son suffered from the Oedipus complex. She replied: ‘Well, Oedipus Shmoedipus, as long as he loves his mother’. That's the best explanation of the Oedipus complex I have ever heard.
Oedipus is, as you know, the nice Greek boy who became famous because of a Jewish doctor, Sigmund Freud.
Things are obviously more complicated.
In Greek mythology, Oedipus accidentally fulfilled a prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother. When he learnt of the prophecy, Oedipus thought he could escape by moving to another city.
What he did not know is that his biological mother was the Queen of the city, so the foreseen tragedy took place exactly as it was told.
By telling the story of Oedipus, the ancient Greeks told and taught to themselves an important principle of their civilisation: that you cannot rebel against the gods. According to the Greek philosophy, the fate of each human being was decided by the gods, and human beings could not change it in any way.
Even in its body, Oedipus conveys such teaching: Oedipus, says the myths, is lame. He has very limited possibilities for action and movements.
Jacob is the main character of our Torah portion, and he is also lame, and this week's Torah portion tells us how Jacob became lame. When Jacob learns that his brother is coming to meet him, together with four hundred men, he is afraid that his brother is coming to exact revenge. Esau has been after him ever since the time Jacob stole his blessing. Much time has passed, but Esau is not the kind of person for which time heals wounds. So Jacob prepares some gifts to appease his brother but also sends his wives and children to a safer place, because Esau may want to take revenge on them.
And then Jacob remains alone. Here we have a mysterious passage. A being, the text says an ish, a man, but the Rabbis read it as an angel, wrestles with Jacob all night, until dawn. None of the two prevails.
The entire story is strange: why does Jacob remain alone? Has he a sort of appointment with the ish? And who does pick the fight? The ish or Jacob? The text does not say how the fight started, but it tells us how it ends. The ish sees that he cannot prevail, so he touches Jacob's thigh and strains it. From now on, Jacob will be limping, like Oedipus in the Greek myth.
But how different is the story! Jacob does not passively accept the fate that was decided for him. On the contrary, Jacob asks the ish for a blessing! "I will let you go, but you must bless me first".
The ish first changes the name of Jacob "Your name won't be Jacob any more, but Israel, which means the one who fights with God, because you have striven with God and men, and prevailed". And after that, after his name had been changed, Jacob/Israel receives that blessing which he had asked for before, when he realised definitively he could not prevail.
This is incredibly profound: the very need, nature and personality of Jacob/Israel has changed: even his name is not the one he had at birth. From now on, he will be limping, like Oedipus.
But Oedipus had tried to escape his destiny. Jacob had found the courage to meet with his brother, which he had been escaping until now.
Oedipus lived in a place and in a culture where the human being had no influence on gods' decisions.
Jacob lived in a culture - our culture, the Jewish culture- where God is perceived as a partner. Someone you can befriend with and, if it is the case, argue with endlessly.
Physically Jacob and Oedipus look similar. How often we have mistaken a Jew for a Greek and vice versa, indeed...
But how different are their cultures? In the world of Oedipus, human beings are subjects to a plurality of gods, and they enjoy playing with the lives of human beings. In the world of Jacob, human beings are partners of the One and Only God - who sometimes listens to us.
There's a reason why we read this Torah portion when Chanukah is approaching,
Chanukah is about the confrontation between two civilisations: the Jewish civilisation centred around faith in one God; and the Greek civilisation, with its many gods and idols.
In the Jewish culture in which we actually live in Chanukah is about the Chanukiah (not the menorah! It's called Chanukiah!), the chocolate, the latkes and the presents for our children.
But there is more. Properly understood, Chanukah is about the confrontation of the Greek culture and the Jewish culture. On one side: many gods that have fun playing tricks at the expense of human beings. On the other side: the call to human beings to collaborate with God. And, the call to make the world a better place.
Most important: in Jewish culture, there is room for hope. While the ancient Greek gods are indifferent to the pains of the human beings, we Jews believe in a God who listens, supports and helps.
Like all humanity, last week, we Jews have been celebrating the discovery of several vaccines against the COVID 19. Like all the rest of humanity, we hope that the pandemic is coming to an end. That is hope, and it's great!
But how lucky we are: our calendar teaches hope. Every year we experience hope, while night after night we watch the candles of Chanukah and their wonderful lights.
WE MUST REMEMBER
One of the features I love most in our prayer book is page 745.
It shows the structure of the service for Friday night and Saturday morning. It’s a sort of map; an essential help for those moments which I call “Jew-mbarrassment” when you see people doing things around you in the synagogue and you, being Jewish, are too anxious to ask anyone: “sorry, what’s going on?”
Just open the prayer book on page 745, and you are most likely to recognise where we are in the service, thus find yourself joining the singing, the praying, and avoiding the Jewmbarrassment.
You can see the flow from one prayer to another, which is not unplanned and has its logic.
For example, where we are now? We have just said the Amida and, after the Torah service, we’ll move to the Aleinu.
There is logic. During the Amida, we express our personal requests and desires.
We bless God for Shabbat, which is a way to ask for a peaceful Shabbat.
We thank God for providing us with the peace which is a way of asking for peace etc. These are all very particular, individual prayers even more specific during weekdays.
Then we have a bit of a great Jewish tradition, sidetalk! The reading of the Torah.
Then the service resumes with Aleinu, the expression of our community’s hopes for the messianic era and for the redemption for all humanity.
We then move from individual prayers to a collective hope.
There is a similar movement at the opening of this weeks’ Torah reading:
Jacob takes the stones (plural) and falls asleep over them. During the night he dreams of angels going up and down on a ladder.
In the morning he wakes up, and he says the famous expression Ma Norah haMakom Haze “How awesome is this place, Truly there is God here”. And then he consecrates the stone (singular), and begins to build the first Jewish altar.
Before going asleep, there were several stones; when he wakes up, there is one.
What has happened is a movement from plurality to unity.
There are actually some cute rabbinic tales about this passage. The Rabbis like to imagine the stones eager to merge with each other and to create the first altar. So you can figure out all these stones “me too!” “me too!” and jumping one over the other, and merging together to create one big, large stone.
A similar movement has happened over the last century to our people.
Before the foundation of the State of Israel, we were like these stones. Scattered, dispersed and isolated.
Jews have always been aware of the existence of other Jewish communities. Jewish travellers, in the Medieval times as well in the Modern Era, always take note of local Jewish communities when they found them. And some families moved from one place to another.
But only after Israel was born did it became possible for masses of Jews to move to the same place and then to co-exist, to live next to each other.
In this stage of Jewish history, our communities are close, physically close, as we have never been.
And, yet, there are Jewish communities that are close to us, but whose history and culture we pretty much ignored.
This Shabbat we commemorate the tragic end of the Jewish communities in Arab lands.
Tragic is the appropriate word if you think of the numbers.
It’s almost unbelievable: in 1948 more than 850,000 Jews were living in Arab and Muslim Countries. Now they are less than 35,000.
They are somehow lumped together under the name “Mizrachim” “those from the east”, but they were extraordinarily different as regards their Jewish religious practices, minhagim and customs; their Jewish language, the pronunciation of Hebrew, the culture etc.
They have lived and thrived for centuries in places different such as Algeria, Sudan and Afghanistan.
They only have one thing in common: their end. It happened between 1948 and the Six-Day War, by the hand of Arab nationalists.
Arab nationalists regarded Nazism as their model. They supported anti-Semitic groups and spread anti-Semitic propaganda. Nonetheless, during the Cold War, Stalin brought them under the Soviet umbrella and transformed these Nazi sympathisers as good guys and anti-colonialism heroes. Talking about Arab antisemitism, and about the persecution of Jews in Arab lands, became a sort of taboo, especially in the academic world, and it still is.
A few months ago a scholarly meeting on “Jews and Whiteness in Colonial spaces” was supposed to have been held at the SOAS (where else).
The program would have included lectures on “the extension of European citizenship to native Jews in North African under European colonialism” and of course “Jews as colonial settlers”. It was the legitimising of ethnic cleansing of entire communities in the name of anti-colonialism.
Thankfully the meeting was cancelled. I don’t know whether my piece in Times of Israel had a role on that. But unfortunately, this is the perception, not only in the academic world, of the history of Jews in Arab Lands. And if you dare to mention Arab antisemitism you earned the label of “Islamophobic”, which it happened to me, and good luck on social media, and elsewhere.
The sufferings endured by Jews in Arab Lands have not received the necessary attention. There is definitive empathy for “anti-colonial” murderers, and very few dare to side with the ‘Jewish’ victims. Moreover, you know, Arab petrol is always more valuable than Jewish blood.
For decades, even after the end of the Cold War, antisemitism in Arab Countries has been a regular and unpleasant feature of international politics.
I still remember when Italian businessmen who wanted to operate in Syria were asked to provide proof that they were not Jewish, such a letter signed by a Catholic priest!.
Those who protested were simply told that we had to learn to live with it because, you know, Israel. As if blaming the existence of a Jewish State for antisemitism was acceptable; does anyone consider it fair to blame Pakistan for Islamophobia?
But things are changing. During the last few months, Israel is establishing diplomatic relations with a growing number of Arab states. Economic ties are already established. Cultural exchanges will follow. Generations of citizens of Arab Countries have heard only bad things about Israel and the Jews, so far. But now they will meet with Jews in person, which is the best way to defeat prejudices. Already the local Jewish communities are revitalising.
There is hope.
But there is, still, so much to do. In these Countries, synagogues have been turned into mosques; buildings that used to host Jewish schools and Jewish institutions have been confiscated and donated to (what a surprise) some local satrap who boasts of being “Palestinian refugees”.
The most painful offence: Jewish cemeteries, often centuries-old have been desecrated, turned into shopping malls or parking grounds. The Arab leaders wanted to erase the history of our people, to prove to the world that their Country was Arab, and Arab only.
This year, for the third year running, a mass kaddish will be recited all over the world, including in our Synagogue. We do it every year since the custom has been introduced. We want to honour the memory of victims of antisemitism in Arab lands.
The date has been selected because it’s the Shabbat nearest to 30th November, the official day designated by the Israeli Knesset to commemorate the exodus of Jews from Arab countries.
The good news is that an increasing number of synagogues, of all denominations, will join the commemoration. What was originally a Sephardi-only commemoration, of persecutions about which it was not polite to talk publicly, has now become, literally, a mass movement. This year, not only will our Shul observe the commemoration, but another UK Reform synagogue, Mosaic, has joined.
And it makes sense. The wave of pogroms and massacres that marked the tragic end of centuries-old communities is not a local event. These martyrs must be commemorated by all the Jewish people. They were slaughtered not because of anti-colonialism or because of the Occupation of Palestine. They were murdered because they were Jews. Jews like us. Only, not as fortunate as we are.
There is still a long way to go before justice is restored. The quest for reparations from the Arab Governments is only at its beginning. For public opinion, it is still difficult to grasp the extent of the tragedy, and in the Jewish world, still, someone prefers to ignore the tragedy. But those who choose to commemorate are more and more, and this is a source of Tikvah, hope.
We shall never forget.
May the memory of the martyrs become a blessing.
May justice come, speedily, in our days and let us say Amen.
And now, the graffiti.
And now, the graffiti. [this is part of the sermon!!!}
For those of you who don't know, last week someone sprayed a slogan on a wall in Holland Road, 500 meters from our shul. The same slogan appeared on the seafront, probably done by the same hand:
"Jewish lies matter".
It is anti-Semitic.
"Jewish lies" are an evergreen. Martin Luther devoted a book against these lies by which we Jews had, (according to his view), corrupted the Christian civilisation. Chillingly, Luther concluded his controversial book with a programme, that four centuries later was implemented, (and quoted), by the Nazis. Burndown synagogues, burn Jewish books, force the Jewish population to physical labour... and so on.
In contemporary times, the motif of "Jewish controlled press" or "Zionist-owned media" is obsessively referred to by politicians when they perceive a decline of their popularity. We have seen it happening recently among the supporters of the previous leader of the Labour Party.
And precisely that, Corbyn devotees, are the authors of last week's hate crime. The police are treating it, as a hate crime, because it is precisely that.
To search for the criminals, we have to look at the Far Left. Not once, but twice, in our town, Corbynite supporters, have made public on social media their intention "to march on the Synagogue in Hove". Because, so they say, in our Synagogue "the Zionists" hang around and conspire against Afro British Labour party candidates. This is what they write publicly on Facebook and Twitter. God knows what they write in more reserved channels of communication, such as Telegram or Whatsapp.
The slogan "Jewish lies matter" is an attempt to divide the Jewish community and the Afro British community, at a time when they are organising around the slogan "Black lives matter".
With the slogan "Jewish lies matter" those anti-Semites are saying to the Afro British community: look, Jews are more privileged than you. Jews are the enemy. Jews lie and their lies are believed, while your lives do not matter to those in power. You, the Black community, descendants of slaves, still suffer, while the Jews are profiting.
Shall we remember that Labour leader who gained notoriety by spreading similar racist propaganda in the UK? The lady who maintains that "the Jews" were the main beneficiaries, if not the initiators, of the slave trade? A motif of anti-Semitic propaganda, unfortunately very common in the USA. She tried "to import" it into the UK. She's from South Thanet, and has followers here in Sussex. (She also pretends to be Jewish; and she's not, by the way).
By all means, there is no reason to panic. I speak as a parent who twice a day, during the school run, passes by that spot in Holland Road. The police are taking the matter very seriously. The writings have been cleaned away and we have received support from all the political parties.
This is, still, a wonderful, multicultural city.
Compare it with Milan; when I lived there, once I counted sixteen swastikas of various dimensions scribbled on multiple places near to the central Synagogue. Perhaps the vandals were football hooligans, who were not even aware of the existence of a synagogue in the neighbourhood. But the writings remained.
Brighton in 2020 is not, let me repeat, is not, like Continental Europe in the 90s. Nonetheless, in this town, there is a small group of visceral anti-Semites; and until now they have escaped the consequences of their actions. Is it too much to guess that they probably enjoy some form of protection? Certainly, their intentions are underestimated, and so is the danger they pose. In our city, of all the places of worship, only shuls are threatened. It's time to end this hateful discrimination.
But let us not leave any stone unturned.
I want to ask: how do we -Reform and Progressive Jews- want to deal with Left-wing antisemitism? It is the sort of antisemitism which is more threatening, at least in our experience.
I am afraid to say that, until now, we failed.
True: many Reform and Progressive Rabbis stood against Labour antisemitism. But there have also been community leaders who, perhaps wearing different hats, have adopted what they called a less uncompromising approach. There have been meetings of Rabbis with Jeremy Corbyn in the presence of some expert in "conflicts resolution". Other Rabbis were given entire pages by the Jewish Chronicle to write that the antisemitism from the Far Left was not a severe danger to the British Jewish community.
"Even if you see all forms of anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic, you need to recognise that they might stem from different political commitments. For many of us Jews today, structural forms of antisemitism are an increasingly distant memory. Minorities inhabit different structural positions. To fight the antisemitism of some European Muslims or some African-Americans without taking account of these disparities is not just tone-deaf to power, it is also ineffective".
According to this author, who by the way teaches in a Rabbinical College, when I pass next to that graffiti, I should explain to my son that there are "different political commitments". And that we Jews inhabit different structural positions".
I thought I could say: these people hate us.
I am not picking up on specific individuals. Unfortunately, there are many similar pieces of writings by academics, community leaders and even Rabbis. Their main aim seems to be not to defend our community. Rather, their main concern is to differentiate between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. And this inevitably brings us to underestimate the dangers from the Far Left.
The large majority of Reform and Progressive Jews thinks and feels otherwise. They (we) know that these distinctions are often a pointless exercise, or worse, a defence of the indefensible.
But it's hard to deny that in our ranks there is a cultural problem. People who belong to Reform and Progressive synagogues waste time and resources to "educate" non-Jewish audiences on the differences between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. They make a big deal about a "culture of victimhood" of which we Jews are allegedly victims, and why? Because we do not see the important difference between those who want to murder Jews here and those who want to murder Jews in Israel (and "Zionists" here).
Two years ago some Jewish youth leaders took part to the Kaddish for Gaza demonstration. Some of them (not the majority!) had been trained and educated within our movements.
Is it surprising? No, it is not.
People for which "opposing the Occupation of Palestine" is a sort of religious imperative, always underestimate the extent, the depth, and the danger of antisemitism in their own ranks. And they have not been taught to recognise antisemitism among the supporters of the Palestinian cause.
We have been lectured on the duty "to involve in the Jewish conversations" the anti-Zionists and the non-Zionists. Some of us (not me!) carefully displayed, close to the flag of Israel, the flag of the Palestinian entity (whose leader, the "moderate" Abu Mazen is nothing short from Holocaust denialism). Did we achieve anything? Is peace any closer in the Middle East? It's not.
Meanwhile, here, the "No to Occupation" has become "no to the Jewish State"; then "Zionism is racism" and now "Jewish lies matter". How quickly this happened.
I wish that this last episode will work as an alarm bell. I feel that in our world, in the Reform and Progressive Jewish world, we have underestimated antisemitism from the Left.
Too many of us have been searching for allies for their political battles about Palestine, social justice, about racism, global warming... They should have seen that there were enemies there; not allies.
I feel safe in Brighton.
I know I can walk around with my kippah and my tzitzit in full sight, with very limited chances that anything bad will occur to me personally.
But I also want my fellow Reform and Progressive Jews to realise where the enemy is, and how dangerous such an enemy has become.
We should teach our children that that graffiti is anti-Semitic. We should not feel compelled to lecture on "different structural positions"; which is a coded way to remind that the Palestinians live in a worse situation than us, (which by the way is not necessarily true, and it does not apply to all the Palestinians).
I really hope that the city where we live, and the part of the Jewish world we inhabit will learn the lesson.
Let's hope it happens speedily and in our days, and let us say Amen
What is antisemitism?
Two years ago, if you remember, the council of our city voted in favour of the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Such a definition does not equate to the criticism of Israel, and of Israeli policies (despite what you may read here and there).
Rather it establishes that it is antisemitic to deny us, the Jewish people, the right to self-determination which for all the other people in the world is taken for granted.
I regard that day a highlight of my Rabbinic career. I still remember sitting in the public's gallery together with almost all the other Rabbis of our city and other religious leaders, Christians and especially Muslims. They all wanted to show support for our community at that critical moment.
Not everybody was happy with the result; the most notable exception was a small, vocal, and not always law-abiding clique of pro-Palestinian extremists. Their spokesperson thus presented an opposite motion. According to that motion antisemitism was "to hate the Jews because they are Jews". Such a formulation will make legitimate expressions such as "I hate the Jews not because they are Jews but because they are usurers, conspirators, child killers, racists etc.". Such a position is nonsensical.
It was upheld by a pathetic person, a man whom we all know, and who also happens to be Jewish. Antisemites are always happy to welcome sympathetic Jews in their midst.
Nonetheless, let us consider it carefully; because the opposition to Jewish self-determination is not always expressed in an extreme way. It appears in a more diluted form; let's call it "soft-core", in between the lines of some editorialist or as part of the beliefs of many anti-racist militants.
It sounds like this: antisemitism is racism. I am against every racism; therefore, I am not antisemitic.
What's wrong with that? (you may ask).
The problem with such a lofty and idealistic statement is that antisemitism is not a form of racism like any other.
The average racist hates, or fears, different groups because he thinks they are inferior to him. He's terrified by blacks, Latinos, Arabs, (or Italians) who want to rise to his social level. Hence he calls for legal measures to enforce the hierarchy, to keep these inferior people (usually darker-skinned) "in their place".
But the antisemite does not believe that we Jews are an inferior race. Even at its peak, in Nazi Germany, we Jews were not segregated or persecuted because of supposed biological inferiority.
The antisemites believe that we Jews betray and conspire. He fantasises about a secret conspiracy to which all the Jews belong, whose ultimate goal is to establish Jewish power over the entire world. It's not clear what we Jews want to do when we achieve this world power we lust for.
In the 70s the leader of an Argentinian antisemitic party covered himself with ridicule during a debate on TV with a Jewish liberal politician. He revealed to the public that Jews were about to build a secret base in Patagonia and from there to establish control over all Latin America (science fiction; and of bad quality).
Few antisemites know with certainty what the Jewish conspiracy wants to achieve. And they are usually, as you see the most ridiculous among them.
Antisemites just believe that such a conspiracy exists, and express their belief in a somehow diluted form. They may tell, or think that Jews always help each other, that Jews never play by the rules, that Jews are too powerful... very general, not detailed beliefs, which as you see can be cultivated by the Far Left, by the Far Right, by religious fundamentalists and, in short, by every political party that needs a scapegoat, an enemy to blame, an adversary to mobilise against.
You see that antisemitism is not racism like any other. Assuming that being anti-racist (whatever this means) "is enough" to counter antisemitism is wrong and not correct. There is an enormous difference between these two statements:
"XYZ are an inferior race" and "XYZ are a part of a conspiracy".
Of course, racism is an abomination, and we Jews should be at the forefront of the fight for equality (actually we often have been and are, in places such as South Africa or the American South). But antisemitism deserves different treatment, different legislation and a different, more articulate, definition.
In the part of Torah that we have read, one passage points exactly in this direction. I am referring to the history of Hagar and Ishmael.
Sarah is annoyed because her son, Isaac, is bullied by Ishmael, the son of Abraham's concubine. So Sarah asks -actually she orders- Abraham to separate the family from Hagar and Ishmael, in other words, to send them away. Abraham is reluctant, but God tells him to obey Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael will survive in the desert. The Torah says that Ishmael is the progenitor of the Arab nations. This indeed is the moment of the separation between the ways of the Jewish nation and the ways of the Arab nation. And, very importantly, God himself demands such a separation despite Abraham being reluctant at the beginning. The text of the Torah puts in front of the reader a remarkable difference between the descendants of Hagar/Ishmael and of Sarah/Isaac. Ishmael will rule on a large swath of territory and will have plenty of children and grandchildren, while Isaac will have only two sons, Esau and Jakov, whose birth will be not easy.
Truly, two different calls, two different histories, two different destinies. This is not only a legend or a myth: it is an actual historical reality: we Jews are a small tribe, the Arabs are many nations. And while we both encounter racism and hostilities, they are different kinds of racism and different kinds of hostilities.
Racism is evil, we must counter it, and it is our duty to do what we can in order to have a more just and more equal society. But such a fight, such an important battle must be conducted without losing sight of the cultural and historical traits that the Biblical story, and the Rabbinic interpretation, explain so well.
In other words, we must fight against racism because we are Jews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and not in the weird and ineffective ways that a radical with a badly hidden agenda, enounced to the City Council of Brighton and Hove, two years ago.
LECH LECHA. REAL AND IMAGINED FAMILIES
I will remember last week as the "horseshoe week". I have received good news from both sides, the Far Right and the far Left. Good news, I mean, for myself. And bad news, hopefully, for both kind of antisemites. Two words about the Far-Right one, because I am sure you know enough about the Far Left. On Monday an Italian friend informed me of a journalists' investigation about the fortunes of an Italian lawyer whom we both know since High school. I have never been in good terms with that schoolmate. He was a Fascist and, obviously, an antisemite. Then, in the 90s, the Italian Neo-Fascist Party changed its skin and to a certain extent, its ideology. You perhaps remember when their leader went to Israel in a visit, put a kippah on his head and stood in reverence at Yad Vashem. Personally, I was kind of sceptical, but gradually I changed my mind, and now I believe he was sincere. My Fascist schoolmate took it very badly. Especially because he and a group of his comrades were quickly expelled from the new Party, who was now nationalist but not anymore fascist. As racist and antisemites, they were not tolerated anymore (an idea that may work for today's Labour Party...). My former schoolmate is now a lawyer. He is the kind of a lawyer who privately boasts about not having Jewish clients, and winning with Jewish lawyers: you got the idea. He is also high profile personality in the racist homophobic and chauvinist Party led by Matteo Salvini,the "Lega" - former Northern League. That is not surprising because that Party had become home for many Fascists and antisemite. He had done well: until last week when it became known that over the last years he has become the recipient of a considerable flow of money from Russia. Which may or may not be legal. Apparently, he helped himself with part of it). Still, the big news is that such money is channelled into -hold on it- "cultural activities". Publishing houses, review, cultural events... all about "Traditional Europe" or "Western civilisation". Regular visitors of these events are sinister characters who call themselves intellectual (the most notorious is a man named Alexandre Dugin). And they are of course all antisemite, anti-Zionist, and engaged in a war against the corrupting influence of "lobbies" of various kind, including obviously the Jewish one. Now I move to the other side of the horseshoe. Unsurprisingly the books and the authors that these people advertise and sell, can easily be found on the bookshelf of your average Corbyn supporter. Especially those supporters obsessed with spiels about liberal democracy that it is not really a democracy, and about the Jewish State in the Middle East that for them is a colonial enterprise; they are also very erudite about Jews killing babies, stuff that if you remember, some years ago was spread around the Internet by a Labour councillor of Bognor Regis (first he denied to have spread these lies, then he admitted he was the author but refused to apologise) I am not the first to notice how the two opposite extremes, in fact, overlap; and how similar they are in their hate for democracy, for modernity, and of course for us Jews. That's their appeal, after all. Militants who embrace the cause of the Far Right, or of the Far Left, are very similar for devotion to their leaders. But also for their deep insecurity and the need to be part of a herd. A thing that really impresses me is how both the extremists, Far Right and Far Left are obsessed with family. The Far Right makes a big fuss of the "Traditional Family" that they say they are the only ones to defend. Which is the stuff of a nightmare: authoritarian father, submissive mother, children always disciplined (and never loved). Also Far Left, especially nowadays, is about an equally nightmarish family. Their leader continually repeats that his parents have met in Cable Street. They believe that such a red conception is proof of not being antisemitic. Scores of militants who all come from "Communist families". How often you hear sentences such as "my father was a Communist, my grandfather was a Communist" (and I always want to ask: and they achieve nothing, right?) The families in the Far Right and in the Far Left are only very similar. They never change, they never develop. True to be told, these family are probably more imagined than real. Children exist only to reproduce the world of their parents. They grow up in the shadow of parents and exist only because of being similar to the parents. How different is the family of Abraham and Sara, the first Jewish family. When they meet, Abraham and Sara change. They change their names. Abram becomes Abraham, "father of a multitude of nations" and Sarai, "my princess", becomes Sara, the Matriarch. Abraham and Sara love each other. It is the first loving family in the Torah. There have been other unions before. There was desire, e.g. of Adam for Eve, but it was not love. The Torah gives us no account of any dialogue between Adam and Eve, or Noah and his wife. They talk to God, they answer to God, they lie to God. They do not talk to each other. Abraham loves Sara, and Sara loves Abraham because God planned for them to be a family. God will appear other times later in the Torah. He will give all sort of commands: "build an altar" (to Jakov) or "bring the people out of Egypt" (to Moses). Abraham is commanded to build a family. But not the static family of the political utopia and extremisms! It's a family which grows, develop, a setting for intricate dynamics. Abraham is commanded to circumcise his son. To inscribe the Divine Law, the commandment, the Jewish identity, in his son's genitalia, in the most intimate part of the body. And a few lines after that, the terrible moment of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Abraham is reminded that his son does not belong to him. Abraham learns that children belong to God, that they grow up, they become adult and gradually, get out of our control. There are so many things we can learn from this extraordinary and revolutionary concept: God reveals Himself in the family and commands us to give education, Jewish education, to our children. But I think that the most profound, the most radical element of the story is this: that the Jewish family, is a real place. It's a place where children evolve and grow, where the parents learn how to be parents, Jewish parents, while the children grow and become Jewish adults. This is incredibly different, radically different, in fact, is the opposite of the imagined families of political extremists -Left and Right, that often infantilise their followers. In political utopias people never grow up, they remain perennial children, unable to decide by themselves, they only have to trust Party/the Movement and do what the Party/Movement wants them to do. And guess what: both Far Right and Far Left do not like us Jews with our complicated and very real families. Both Far Left and Far Right cannot understand our commitment to Jewish education and are opposed to our faith in the potentialities of human beings to change, to evolve and become better.
This week's Torah portion is the favourite ... of the atheists.
It tells the story of Noach and of the Flood. Babylonian sources such as the "Epic of Gilgamesh" narrate a similar story. The Babylonians, as you know, were next-door neighbours to the Israelites. So the atheists claim, from many many years indeed, that in the Torah there is nothing original. It is not a divinely inspired text.
There is a slightly more patronising version of the same argument. It postulates that a giant flood actually happened. And that all the populations of the Ancient Middle East had some sort of memory of that event. The story of a single righteous man (Noah) who survives the Flood together with his family, is thus the Israelite version of such a common myth.
Those who see the Biblical narrative in this way may not charge the author of the Bible of copying his homework. Yet in the story of Noah, they see nothing original or divinely inspired.
The same can be said of the Tower of Babel, the other event that is narrated in our Torah portion and that we have read today. Stones and steles of the Babylonian times carry inscriptions about sovereign who built monuments known as ziggurats.
Archaeologists have located the remnants of these ziggurats in various sites around Baghdad. Once again, our "friend", the atheist, may notice that there is nothing original in the Torah and that the Bible is a just a bunch of ancient legends.
Figure out the atheist gloating after he (or she) has proven that Judaism is, like every religion nonsensical. See? The Bible is only a collection of old stories. Perhaps some of us have even personally met this archaeologically savvy irritating atheist.
Well, my answer is: I don't care.
I have never bothered about the historical plausibility of Biblical narrative. Neither I am impressed by the claim that some parts of the Torah are re-edited version of something else.
I don't care, and let me explain why.
First of all, the Bible is not a history book, neither it deals with science. History books and science books are written in another way; they provide the readers with more details, for example, the date or at least the year of a particular event. And on this respects, the Torah, the Pentateuch, is incredibly low. Dates are not given, most of the characters are nor even named; think of "Pharao" in Exodus.
We do not read the Torah because we want to learn the history of the Ancient Middle East. We read the Torah because of its profound moral teachings which are organised and exposed indeed in a unique way.
Let me talk about this week's Torah portion, the juxtaposition of the Tower of Babel with the Flood. These two stories are about order.
On one side God decides to destroy the world with a flood, because "all the flesh was corrupted": all the living beings were responsible for lawlessness (hence, all the form all life, including animals, deserved to be cancelled).
Unsurprisingly, Christians have built a great deal about this lawlessness. They look at the term with prudery; as if humanity deserved to be destroyed because they were having too much fun in the bedroom.
But the literal meaning of the root ש ח ת, which occurs twice in the same verse (6:12) is "to be rotten, to be broken" and it means to a variety of transgressions. With all the respect for the Christian theologians, here the text indicates that humanity, like all the rest of living beings, were responsible for many transgressions.
These sins were not only, or not mainly, of sexual nature. Indeed the text is far more specific when, in the following verse, these transgressions are named with a Hebrew word whose meaning is sadly familiar to us contemporary Jews. Hamas: violence.
It's not a chance that the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has named itself in that way. To resume: The earth was filled with chaos and violence. Hence, God decided to destroy it.
On the other hand, at the end of the Torah portion, when humanity decides to build the Tower of Babel, they are incredibly disciplined and ordered. It's a totalitarian dream.
Indeed, totalitarian regimes love to build towers. The highest unoccupied building in the world is in Pyongyang, 105 floors, more than 1000 feet with mostly nothing inside (it was supposed to be a hotel). To build such a high building, you need discipline workers and misunderstanding are not tolerable, because the orders need to be shouted and perfectly understood. To stop the enterprise, God creates a diversity of languages. Once human beings are blessed with many languages, they cannot cooperate among themselves anymore. And they have to cease the construction of the tallest building that humanity ever planned to erect, cannot continue anymore.
On one side, you have the absolute disorder, the chaos., the loss of boundary between man and animals, and the violence, to such an extent that God finds it intolerable.
On the other hand, you have an absolute order, discipline. Human beings are turned into elements of a system, each one in its own narrow place. They are all focused on one single goal: it is the kind of social harmony that dictators love.
These two scenarios, the absence of order, and the totalitarian order are juxtaposed together in the same Torah portion in an intentional way.
The Torah portion opens with the words Ele Toledot Noah "these are the the lines- of Noah" and it ends with another series of toledot - lines (11:7) Ele toledot Shem, this is the line of Shem (one of the children on Noah). These are genealogies, family lines, along which wisdom and experiences are transmitted and remembered.
There are two gigantic representations, the world before the Flood, and the plurality of languages. They are put together and framed by stories of toledot, of descendants and lines.
This is the thing with us Jews, we always talk about family, as doctor Freud shows well...
The two pictures, the two scenarios, or -if you like- the two dystopias of complete disorder and absolute order, are displayed in front of our eyes. We have to learn from these scenarios and pass along the generations both the memory of chaos and violence (which Noah witnessed) and the opposite horror of totalitarianism, of a State which rules every part of individual life.
Let's meet again with our friend, the archaeologically trained atheist. He shows us the ruins of the ziggurat and lectures us about the nonsense of every religious belief. "see, these stones? They really are the real remnants of what the real Tower of Babel was in reality".
To which we Jews reply that we see profound moral teachings, such as the encouragement to cultivate our differences and our identity where he, the atheist, sees just a pile of stones.
With all the respect for our atheist friends, I believe we lead a better life.
And then they came for Gal Gadot.
Last Sunday, the Israeli actress announced that she has teamed up with the director Patty Jenkins for a movie about Cleopatra. A woman actress, a female director, and a female screenwriter, for a movie about a woman. It sounds perfect, and appropriate for the post-#metoo Hollywood times, correct? Wrong. The always vigilant "woke" ring who always patrol social media, did not take it well. They massively went on Twitter to let the universe know how outraged they were, because of what they call "cultural whitewashing". An Israeli actor playing the part of an Egyptian character is, you see, an offence to all the Middle Eastern minorities. There has also been a column making the same case on The Guardian (where else?) Cleopatra herself was of Greek heritage and probably white; but who cares. The character belongs to the Egyptians, Egypt is in the Middle East, and no Israeli Jewess can be allowed to impersonate a Middle Eastern character. We do not belong to the Middle East, they claim. One militant wrote: "It is a truly insulting slap in the face. Any Middle Eastern/Arab actress would have been a far more correct choice." And another echoed: "Her playing an Arab woman is no different than a Nazi playing Anne Frank". "Shame on you, Gal Gadot" -tweeted another one- "Your country steals Arab land & you're stealing their movie role". This one anyway was my favourite: "Of course, she's from Israel, and Hollywood is dominated by the likes of her, which ain't a secret". So you get it: Gal Gadot is an Israeli Jewess. Hence the role of Cleopatra must go to someone else. Why? Because Gal Gadot is Jewish. Remind me please the name of the ideology that classifies human beings in worthy and unworthy on the basis on their birth. I'll help you: it's called racism. And racism against the Jews is called: antisemitism. Let's say it plainly. Gal Gadot has been a victim of an antisemitic attack. Antisemitism hits you even if you are one of the most successful actresses in the world and one of the most paid. Antisemitism hits you even if you are a critic of the Netanyahu government and a campaigner against "the Occupation of Palestine". No matter how loudly and how publicly you speak against the "Nation-State Law" that the Israeli Government was about to approve. Antisemitism hits you nonetheless. Gal Gadot does all of this, by the way. She ticks all the appropriate boxes of the Left-leaning Jew and Liberal Zionist. Yet, this is not enough, and for several militants, she is still guilty of colonialism and a complicit in the theft of Arab land. It's a sad and depressive story. And it's an old one. Very old. The accusation to the Jews to "steal other people's land" is not new. It does not begin with Palestinian nationalism, and it is not a reaction to the defeat of Arab armies in 1948. It was already around in the time of Rashi, more than 900 years ago! In his comment to this week's Torah portion Rashi asks: "Why does the Torah commence with the account of the Creation?" I think it's a brilliant question. We are so used to the Bible's beginning that we do not question it. But why does our Holy Book, which is the foundation of Jewish Law, include the narrative of the Creation? The Torah is a book of laws; it is the story of a people. Why does it have this "cosmological" beginning? Rashi's answer is incredibly profound. "Should the peoples of the world say to Israel, "You are robbers because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan" [when you entered the Promised Land], Israel may reply to them, "All the Earth belongs to God; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased". To appreciate the depth of Rashi, we ought to remind that he wrote and lived in Medieval France. At that time, the main occupation of noble families was to fight one against the other, for conquering lands and enlarging their dominions. In Medieval times, the land was acquired by force. Sometimes it could happen that the Emperor gave the rights over certain parts of his dominion to some family, as a reward for some war enterprise, like the Crusades. But even in these cases, military force was needed to keep other competitors at bay. The land used to belong to the strongest and to the ruthless. The robberies were the rule. Well shielded in their Universities, funded by sovereigns and rulers, scholars wrote at length to justify violence and abuses (certain things do not change). They did so via references to the laws and consuetudes dating back to the time of the Romans. But everybody took for granted that the stronger have every right to crush the weaker and to take his land. Enter Rashi, our Teacher. He thoughts differently. And his views were shared by all the Jews of his time (more of this later). They thought, and we think that it's not up to human beings to decide who rules the land and who owns the land. It's up to God. We don't know whether Rashi has ever shared this opinion with his French non-Jewish neighbours. We can only imagine their shocked reactions of them if and when it happened. Probably it was something like: "and what God has to do with thaaat?" (sorry I cannot reproduce any Medieval French accent). Remarkably, no Jew ever disputed this opinion of Rashi! Now, let me remind, in case you have forgotten, that we Jews tend to be quarrelsome. There's nothing we enjoy more than a discussion on different interpretations. Just pop into Limmud once to know what I mean. Or just join one synagogue's committee (now I've killed any recruiting efforts, sorry). We never miss an opportunity to disagree. Therefore it is noticeable, that no Jew had ever disputed the Rashi's statement, as bold as it may have sound at that time. Every Jew agrees that all the earth belongs to God, and God decides to whom it should go. Let's get back to the antisemitic abuses that Gal Gadot has endured. Slanders and lies that were around already at the time of Rashi, and probably before. The bad faith of the abusers is evident. It's not even the case of debating whether a black character should be played only by a black actor. Cleopatra was a Mediterranean woman, Gal Gadot is a Mediterranean woman. Ethnically speaking Gal Gadot is more than qualified to impersonate Cleopatra. Whoever attacks Gal Gadot is not defending any minority from the perils of stereotyping and cultural appropriation. It's just antisemitism, pure and simple. And the reason for antisemitism is this. We Jews are countercultural. At the times of Rashi the law of the strongest ruled the relations between human beings. The weaker could only accept the defeat and adapt to life as subjects. And we Jews continued to teach that the relations between human beings must not be grounded in prevarication. Rather the foundations of law are Mercy and Justice, that is -ultimately- God. Today we live in a cultural environment where the accident of birth dictates what one can and cannot do. If you are a Jewish actress and want to impersonate an Egyptian queen, scores of "woke" thugs will punish you for the terrible sin of "cultural appropriation". They are like the violent nobility of Medieval times, used to win battles through terror and prevarication. And even if this is the accepted cultural norm, we Jews continue to teach and to believe that your birth is not your destiny, that through hard work and talent you can become a diverse person, hopefully, a better person. Your birth is not your destiny, regardless of what arrogant Medieval nobility and contemporary so-called social justice warriors, want you to believe. I look forward to watching the movie produced by Gal Gadot, and I am sure she will be an excellent Cleopatra. Or if not, I will welcome the debate, as per our tradition.