Rabbi Andrea's Sermons


12th November / 18th Cheshvan

IT'S NOT ABOUT SEX


There are many jokes about Jewish lawyers (not all appropriate for a synagogue, so don't expect me to tell one!) And this is because there are many Jewish lawyers for many reasons. There is definitively something in Jewish culture that encourages the legal profession; apart from the will to please a Jewish mother!


For example, we are a chatty people, as everyone who has visited a synagogue knows. Keeping silent is not our forte, and for lawyers, words are the tool of the trade.


The Talmud is full of legal discussions about the implications and the meanings of laws and rules. This is the lawyer's business, as you know.


But there are deeper reasons for the unique relationship that many Jews have with the legal profession.

In this week's Torah portion, we read an episode often referred to by those who believe that Abraham, the founder of our faith, was the "first Jewish lawyer". Let me recap. The Almighty has decided to destroy the city of Sodom as a punishment for its inhabitants' many sins and iniquities.


Just as an aside: we all know what the word Sodomite means. The term derives from this Biblical episode and from the sin allegedly committed by the inhabitants of Sodom. But that's not correct!


According to the Biblical text and Rabbinic interpretation, the primary sin of the Sodomites had no sexual connotation. The prophet Ezekiel describes the residents of Sodom as arrogant and insensitive to human needs. They had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet they refused to support the poor and the needy. The Midrash describes Sodom as a beautiful town in an area full of natural resources, precious stones, silver and gold. Every path in Sodom was lined with seven rows of fruit trees. But the residents of Sodom were so greedy that they overturned the hospitality law and prohibited giving charity to anyone.


The cries of the children left without food: this was the reason why God decided to act and destroy the town: because children of refugees asked for the destruction of these cruel, horrible human beings.


There is much we can learn from the story of Sodom, but it has nothing to do with sexuality.


Now, let's get back to the Biblical story…

Abraham asked God whether God would sweep away the innocent and the guilty. He wants to know: if there were 50, 40, 20, or 10 innocent people in Sodom, would God not spare the city for the sake of the innocent ones? And each time, God agreed to do so.


Abraham's main argument goes this way: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly? You, God, claim you are just, and You are about to destroy an entire city with all the inhabitants, wicked and just alike!"


Abraham does not address God the way other populations in the ancient Middle East do with their prayers, asking for the favour of good health for themselves. No. Abraham reminds God of His own promises and asks God to be consistent. This is totally revolutionary in the context of the time he lived in. There is enough evidence from this episode to consider Abraham as a lawyer who addresses God with the code of law in his hands.


It is all very remarkable. In an era when God was perceived and imagined only as a punisher, and prayers were supplications from human beings, Abraham introduces a new concept: God as Merciful and loyal to His own words.


But let us not forget that Abraham's peroration did not work. God, in the end, will destroy Sodom. God already knew from the beginning that the just individuals living in Sodom were not 50, 20, or 10. The perverted city deserved its fate; there were no just people living there.

Which brings us to the question: Why? Why did God allow Abraham to exercise his dialectic skills when He knew already that it was useless and that no righteous individuals were left?

To answer such a question, we should look closer at the Torah portion. The Torah portion begins with the episode of the three angels who visit Abraham and Sara and announce that, despite her age, Sara will conceive a son and become a mother. Then the Torah portion continues with the episode of Sodom. The birth of Isaac takes place some years after the confrontation at Sodom.


When Abraham confronts God about the fate of the people of Sodom, he knows he is about to become a father. And perhaps God is teaching Abraham not to be a lawyer but rather how to be a father.


Think about it. God already knows that there are no just people in Sodom. God already knows the aberrations and horror in that city. Still, God does not say to Abraham, "give it up, the city is all evil, there are no just people there. At this very moment, children are crying out in hunger”.


On the contrary, God concedes that just people may exist in Sodom. And if they exist, even if they are only ten out of hundreds of thousands, God won't destroy the city. All of this was to teach Abraham how to pray and to let him know that God listens to prayers.


Maybe not today, tomorrow, another day, perhaps another year, but God does hear. And this is what Abraham has to teach his children.


The divinities worshipped in the Ancient Middle East were despotic sovereigns or whimsical kings. Unsurprisingly, the rulers who ruled those cities were precisely like those gods, tyrannical and oppressive. Enter Abraham, an older man who once lived in the city of Ur and one who portrays God not as a despotic ruler but as a family person, a parent who cares about children.


The God worshipped by Abraham did not order the people to build a temple, but rather to raise a family. It is a completely new religious worldview, especially at a time when marriages were dictated by the design to build alliances rather than by the project to love and protect each other and to raise children.


There are, of course, good reasons to think of Abraham as the first Jewish lawyer. However, at Sodom, he did not precisely achieve the acquittal. Nonetheless, the story of Sodom has so much to teach about contemporary issues, such as welcoming refugees and cancelling poverty, and the beauty for all of us Jews, to create families.



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5th November / 11th Cheshvan

THE SMURFS, THE FASCISTS AND THE ISRAELI ELECTIONS


I am about to share a secret. Ready?

The Smurfs are Jewish…

Or at least some of them are. The Smurfette, for sure, is undoubtedly a Jewish Princess (and I hope that by evoking the stereotype, I do not offend anyone).

Another recognisably Jewish character is Brainy Smurf, with his glasses and love for talking. Brainy Smurf is certainly one of the smarter of the lot. He is known for his pearls of wisdom, collected in several volumes entitled "The Quotations of Brainy Smurf", from which he quotes extensively.

Following the Israeli elections, the Brainy Smurfs among us have opened their ‘Book of Quotations’ and poured out their wisdom and anxieties on the Jewish world and on the rest of the Universe. They preach that because 10% of the Israeli voters have voted for a Fascist party (and 90% for something else), it is time for a "fundamental change in our relationship with Israel".

The same Brainy Smurfs endorse a warmer relationship between British Jews and the gang of non-elected crooks led by Abu Mazen, a Holocaust denier. So, it's not difficult to guess what sort of change they are waiting for.

No one is calling to change the relationship with Sweden or to renounce the ideals of Social Democracy, even though in Sweden, 17.5% of the voters have voted for a Far Right Party, which is now part of the government coalition.

Don't get me wrong. I am worried about the electoral successes of Ben Gvir, Meloni, the Swedish Democratic Party and all these parties, Fascist and populist.

They used to be lunatic fringes, and now they literally dictate the agenda. This is worrying.

Ben Gvir, Smootrich and Fascists like them have a dangerous, racist anti-Arab agenda - not what we need in the time of the Abraham Accords. They want to butcher the balance between judicial and political systems (an issue that has never been settled in Israel). They also want to shrink the pool of Jews eligible to make aliyah. This is a tragedy. There is a wave of Jewish immigration to Israel (60,000 this year alone). The Jewish State must welcome and help them to settle, regardless of their religious background!

Think how a Russian Jew, who cannot prove his status, may feel now. Or an Ethiopian Jew. Or a Jew who belongs to the LGBTQ community. Not knowing whether you can immigrate to Israel or not - the only place you can be a citizen - is a tragedy!

I believe that the Jewish institutions in the Diaspora, British included, must put pressure on the Israeli government on behalf of Reform, Liberal and Masorti converts. Their right to immigrate to Israel and become Israeli citizens must be preserved.

But we must also seek to understand the reasons of those Israelis who voted for the Far Right.

First, we think of the clashes between Jews and Arabs in the so-called mixed cities, which the previous Governments have been unable to prevent.

But there is another reason.

Insecurity. Fascism always stems from insecurity.

Fascism is when you know you cannot win the discussion with words, so you resort to violence.

I speak from experience, as I have been subject to Fascism in its left wing variety.

Remember when a group of militants were planning to march on this synagogue because they did not like what I wrote on social media?

Ben Gvir and Smootrich are Fascist because they are not secure in their Judaism. This is why they are so suspicious of the purity of other people's Judaism. This is why they instigate hate against the Arabs, whom they see as a menace. This is the reason for their homophobia, because the existence of a free and proud LGBTQ community - such as found in Israel - makes them insecure about their own masculinity. This is also why they want to subjugate the judiciary not to God, as the ultra-orthodox wish, but to "the people".

And unfortunately, these days, these feelings of insecurity are widespread and shared by many Israeli Jews; a proportion of whom voted for the Fascists.

Because everybody can become a Fascist.

Everybody experiences insecurity. Even Israelis, even Jews, and even Abraham himself.

We see Abraham's insecurity in several parts of this week's Torah portion, including the part we read today. At the very opening, we read that God tells Abraham Al Tirah [Gen 15:1] "Have no fear!". There must have been a reason for God to open a conversation this way. We can only imagine how deeply insecure Abraham was if God Himself must intervene!

Leon Ashkenazi, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, points out the most outstanding example of Abraham's insecurity. In chapter 18, Abraham argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom to save them from destruction. If Abraham had been more secure in his Judaism and Jewish faith, he would have converted the people of Sodom! And made them good people, so they did not deserve God's punishment anymore. But Abraham prefers to argue with God instead. To no avail, as Sodom is destroyed anyway.

Well done, Abraham, you spoke well! But to the wrong person...

No human being is always 100% secure in themselves. No human being is exempt from the possibility of becoming a Fascist, of being seduced by the worship of violence, or by the fascination for physical confrontation, or the ideology of law and order as a supreme goal.

This is, by the way, the reason why so much of contemporary, violent "anti-Fascism" is Fascist in itself. Because ‘anti-fascists’ also worship violence and advocate politics "to restore order" (like the Fascists). Only the order they want to restore is of a different kind.

And by the way, people like me and you ("the Zionists") have no place in either order, neither in the Fascist nor the anti-Fa camp.

Now, back to our opinionated Brainy Smurfs and their insecurities about the state of democracy in Israel, where they do not live. And back to the radical solution they suggest: "to fundamentally change the relationship with Israel", to preserve the purity of the Diaspora where they live, be it in North London or elsewhere.

Israeli voters are volatile.

The days when an Israeli citizen voted for the same Party his family voted for - which was also the Party that provided ‘protektzia’ to find the way through the craziest bureaucracy ever, and which provided medical insurance, and also dictated which football team to support (Beitar for the Right, Maccabi for the Left) - those days of political tribalism are now over.

Israel's society is increasingly individualistic.

And now, at every election, there is always one Party for which the media predicts stunning success, in a country where, to be elected to Parliament, you only need a few thousand votes.

These parties always come in third or so, based on the number of MPs. They are supposed to change the whole political system.

And then nothing happens. By the end of the term, these parties have split into two, three, or four factions.

Remember the secularist Shinui in 2003? The United Arab list in 2020? The secular right Yamina in 2021? They are all gone now. Those MPs still in the Knesset have changed Party, often more than once.

It may happen that the Far Right - notoriously like a chicken coop of different conflicting factions - does not reach the end of the term as a unified body.

Netanyahu has a talent for instigating divisions among his allies – ‘divide et impera’ – ‘divide and rule’, is his motto.

I have the uttermost respect for everyone's concerns and insecurities, including those of the Smurfs. But I see, even from this distance, more than a silver lining and no reason to give up on our support for Israel and the Zionist project. We must be part of the game. We must be vigilant over what happens and defend our rights as Reform Jews and Jews tout court.

Menachem Begin did not give up on Zionist ideals and remained an active and loud presence in Israeli politics for decades while his Socialist foes were in power. They targeted him in every possible way and worked hard to destroy his reputation and disrupt the support he had from the working class. Until one day in 1977, the voters gave Begin the leadership role he deserved. And peace with Egypt came (from a man of the Right!)

Israel is much safer now than it was in those days.

Those Jews like us, for whom democracy and the rule of law are not just words but values - and Jewish values! - must take inspiration from Menachem Begin.

Let me take strength from his resilience, perseverance and commitment to democracy:

Don't listen to the Smurfs.

The Fascists won't last.

Am Yisrael Chai.


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8th October / 13th Tishrei

IN VIEW OF SUKKOT


Like many American cities, Detroit in the 60’s became a dangerous place. Few Jewish families remained to live in the suburbs. One year on Sukkot, on Shabbat, one of those families was sitting in the Sukkah, eating warm cholent, that traditional Ashkenazi stew: meat, potato beans...


To conform with Jewish laws that prohibit cooking on the Sabbath, the cholent pot is brought to a boil on Friday before the Sabbath begins and kept warm in a slow oven until the following day.


Two robbers armed with guns broke into the property - unfortunately, not an uncommon event in those days in Detroit. Being Orthodox, none of the Jews present had access to money, so they stared in silence at the two criminals, who stared back in turn.


After a long awkward moment, one of the two robbers looked at the other and said, "I don't think these people have anything. They're sitting in a hut! They're eating beans! They've got less than we do! Let’s go somewhere else.”1.


I love this Sukkot story, and I apologise to those who have heard it already. But we can only imagine how grateful that Jewish family felt. And indeed, Sukkot is about gratitude.


We live inside the Sukkah; if we cannot live, we eat a meal; if we cannot have a meal, at least we do the Kiddush to fulfil the commandment in Leviticus:

"You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God". [Lev 23: 42-43].


The first mitzvah of Sukkot is to live in temporary accommodation - the Sukkah indeed.


The other commandment is the waving of the arba minim, a sample of the four natural species for which the Land of Israel was known. We wave the arba minim while we recite the Hallel, the series of Psalms with which we express gratitude to the Almighty. Waving a sample of agricultural produces while reciting the Hallel is a way to express our gratitude for the harvest.


The thing about gratitude today is that we do not feel it in the same way anymore. In the contemporary world, nothing seems more foreign to us than contemplating a harvest sample while elevating thankful prayers. When we think about agriculture and its products, we rather experience other feelings. Concern for the equity of distribution, the fact that too much of the earth’s bounties will go to too small a group of people. We are concerned for the exploitation of the environment. The fact is that the natural resources - land and rain - that are required to produce these bounties are not infinite.


We struggle to understand the feeling of farmers in the ancient Middle East who, every year in this season, looked at the harvest, trying to speculate whether they had enough food to survive another year.

We do not feel gratitude in the Western world. Not anymore.


In the democratic society in which we live, we know we have rights: the right to live, the right to housing, civil rights, and cultural rights. We are not grateful when we exercise these rights; instead, we feel entitled. Gratitude is not the way we, in Western democracies, relate to the world.


On the other hand, as Jews, we are addicted to gratitude.


The memory of the attempt to exterminate our people during WWII is still vivid; it is impressed in our DNA, it is part of the Jewish identity, and it will remain as such forever. When we remember the genocide, we also express gratitude for those non-Jews who protected us at the risk of their life.


In this Country, we are grateful to the Royal House and Winston Churchill. Because they refused to appease the Nazis to enter into some form of alliance, which would have brought antisemitic legislation to the UK.

We look with pride and relief at the military achievements of the State of Israel. Because we know that if and when - God forbid! - things become difficult for us Jews, then at least we can find shelter there. We are indeed grateful to Israel because it exists and - for all their faults – to its leaders for having been able to defend it so far.


Sometimes the Jews' relationship with gratitude becomes a caricature: a particularly hateful motive of Vladimir Putin's propaganda or Jeremy Corbyn's is to present these leaders as champions of anti-racism and anti-Nazi resistance. We are told that leaders like those are "protectors of the Jews", and we should be grateful to them. In the past, they had the chutzpah to say we should have been grateful to Stalin because - in their imagination - Stalin alone defeated the Nazis.


So, to sum up. As Europeans, we don't do gratitude. As Jews, we do it too much! The point is that in both cases - either as Europeans or as Jews - we forget what gratitude really is and to Whom it is due.


Enter Sukkot: a few days after Yom Kippur, which is not a tiny detail. On Yom Kippur, we experienced the Divine Presence. We have followed the reconstruction of the Biblical ritual for the Day of Atonement, going through the list of our transgressions and committing ourselves to do better, and making peace with our friends and family. All these are ways for us to perceive the Divine Presence, which the ancient Rabbis called Shekhinah.


That feeling, the Presence of God as our Protector, is symbolised by the Sukkah. We dwell in the Sukkah because we remember the forty years of wandering in the wilderness when we had only God to protect, feed, nurture, and guide us. And indeed, the Sukkah is both fragile and permanent: two opposites, it defies logic (just like God!).


The symbols of Sukkot - the Sukkah and the arbah minim - speak to us of gratitude. They remind us that we should be grateful not to human beings, not to ideology, but to God alone. And this is, I think, the reason why the holiday of Sukkot, which is about to begin, is so difficult for us.

And perhaps this is also why, despite being an important holiday, Sukkot does not attract masses of worshippers as we are used to seeing on Yom Kippur. Because, as citizens of a democracy, we find gratitude a difficult feeling to express. And because we tend to be grateful to any sort of thing, ideology, or army, except God.


But then miracles happen. Miracles like that in Detroit, when criminals run away because they see bowls of cholent, a dish prepared following the rules of kashrut, and to fulfil the mitzvah of eating warm food during the Jewish holidays. All commandments were given by God.


See how many things we should be grateful to God for!



1. [https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/food/articles/saved-by-cholent]





24th September / 28th Elul

NOT IN HEAVEN


I don't care about archaeology. You heard me well. I don't care if there are no historical pieces of evidence to prove that, at some point in the Bronze Age, twelve tribes of the descendants of slaves assembled on the bank of the Jordan River to listen to a long speech given by a very old former Egyptian prince, Moses.


I really don't care about the historicity of this; frankly speaking, quite an improbable event. I don't think anyone could physically stand for hours and hours while Moses was giving the long speech that later became the Book of Deuteronomy.


I am more interested in, and I think there is much more to learn from, the content of such a book, the recapitulation of historical events and the moral teachings we can learn from these accounts.


If you take the Biblical account literally - which almost no Jew does - you have to believe that Moses gave a long speech to educate the people before they took possession of the land through a war of conquest. And that long speech later became the Book of Deuteronomy.


For us today, this is a very important teaching. Even in extreme situations like war, we have to follow moral standards. Even in war, there must be morality.


Again, let me repeat: the Torah is not a book of history. We don't care whether the events described in the text really took place. What matters is that Jewish civilisation has been built around that text and around the Jewish values contained therein.


I'd like to point out two of the moral teachings from the Book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy, from that speech of Moses.


First of all, the actual context in which the speech was given. The Israelites stand, Moses said, not only at the beginning of the conquest. They have in front of them a choice. They can follow ways of justice and compassion (and build a society around those values) or they can transgress the Divine Law (return to idolatry and set up a society similar to the society they have left, based on slavery and abuses.) And we, descendants of these Israelites, are faced with the same choice as to which sort of society we want to build, and based upon which values etc.


Let me be more specific and introduce a passage from this week's Torah portion and another powerful teaching. (Dt 30:11-14]


"For this Law which I command you this day, it is not too baffling for you, neither is it beyond reach. It is not in heaven[...] Neither is it beyond the sea [...] No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to observe it".


לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא

"Not in the heaven". The Torah is not a set of observances that are impossible to follow or rules that are so demanding that only exceptionally gifted individuals can follow them. Most importantly, "The Torah is not in the heavens" means that it is up to us humans to put it into practice and work out our interpretations. It is our duty to discover the meaning of the Torah through open and unrestricted discussions, which can be found in Rabbinic literature.


We own the Torah. It's up to us to find a way to follow its rules. God gave the Torah to human beings. God trusts the human beings that are us, the Israelites.


And now let me go back in time to 1884. It was in Italy at the time of Emancipation. Jews were free to move away from minor centres and relocate to the largest cities. Many small provincial communities in the Centre and Northern Italy suffered depopulation. Those communities followed traditional Orthodoxy. The rule was that in order to hold a public service and read from the Torah, a minian, the presence of 10 adult males, was a requirement. But having a full minian was impossible, especially on weekdays. Either because of emigration or due to the unification of Italy, many new opportunities had opened up to entrepreneurial folks – which Jews always are - so that people travelled, opened new businesses and, guess what, they did not go to shul (how familiar is that?...)

Then, an idea occurred to the very Orthodox senior Rabbi of Mantua. Mantua was one of those depopulated communities. There is a wonderful synagogue in Mantua, and the whole city, a Renaissance jewel, is worth a visit. It's a World Heritage Site. And being Italy, the food is just delicious.


Let me repeat: this was 1884. And the Rabbi was the strictly Orthodox Marco Mordechai Mortara. He proposed to reduce the required number of adults for a public service to seven. He also proposed to include women in the minian at a time when even the most radical reformers in Germany or in the USA did not dare to conceive such radical innovation.


Why did Rabbi Mortara make such a bold proposal? Because without public reading, the Torah, our wonderful and ancient Scrolls, would suffer damage! The climate is humid (if you have ever been to Milan in the Summer, you'd agree with me. And Mantua is worse). The parchments can degenerate easily if they are not exposed to light.


The minian rule is ancient and established, so reasoned Rabbi Mortara, but it derives from an interpretation of the ancient text that can be over-interpreted, with benefits for all the community. Rabbi Mortara went back to the origin of the rule, and - erudite as he was - he pointed out that there was room for flexibility.


Remember the passage? לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא "Not in the heavens". The Torah has been given to human beings, together with the permission and the skills to interpret it, to make it alive, and - as is the case for too many Torah Scrolls around the world - not to allow our Sefarim to wilt.


When Rabbi Mortara published his article, there was a debate among Italian Rabbis about innovations in a post-Emancipation world. Scholars believe that a consistent part of Italian Jewry embraced the ideals of Reform Judaism, but that's another matter - although I pride myself on adhering to that interpretation.


And I know that someone is wondering why I am focusing on those old Rabbinic intricacies, such a minor episode in Jewish history, on the verge of the New Year. There is a war in Ukraine. There are mass revolts and mass repression in Iran (not that our friends at Yachad took notice...). The Far Right is about to reap its largest electoral success in Italy.

The thing is: that autocrat in Russia who is sending people to die in Ukraine and to murder civilians there does not care about the rule of the Law. The venerated Rabbi Mortara did. He took that decision looking for precedents in the sources. He did not put himself above the Law.


The Iranian women who are taking the streets these days - rebelling against the Ayatollahs and their misogynist and medieval regime - claim equality. Which is what Italian Jewry could have achieved had the proposal of the old and wise Rabbi Mortara met the approval it deserved.


It cannot be a coincidence that so many Italian Rabbis of that generation had professional experience as teachers in the State's girls' schools. The better-paid positions of teachers in boys' schools were, for some reason, not available to non-Catholics. So those Rabbis knew how stupid it was to deny women full civil rights, including voting rights.


And last, but not least, I think of these enlightened 19th-century Rabbis; their faith in humanity and their reverence for a religious tradition that so much empowered human beings. I know they belong to a better Italy. Better than that arrogant populist who most probably will win the elections tomorrow.


Our religious tradition had been passed to us by spiritual giants; this should be for us a source of inspiration and a reason for hope. Something we all need in the coming year.


Shanah Tovah. Keep the candle burning.


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17th September / 21st Elul

THE JEWISH WAY IS DIFFERENT


‘Menachem Begin ordered "a simple Jewish funeral", which he got a few hours after he died in Tel Aviv at the age of 78. Begin was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem beside his beloved wife, Aliza. U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle was poised to fly to Israel to represent the American government at the ceremonies. So were former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. But their trips were cancelled when the timing of the ceremonies was announced. Begin's son, Binyamin Ze'ev Begin, told the government's Ceremonies Committee, that the family wanted a "Jewish funeral, not an international event".

Nevertheless, at the graveside, with "Benny" Begin and his sisters, stood President Chaim Herzog of Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and long-standing political opponent Labor Party Chairman Yitzhak Rabin. There were also thousands of mourners from every walk of life and every political persuasion. Religious Jews and secular ones alike, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, new immigrants and veteran sabras massed outside the funeral parlour in Jerusalem and followed the procession to the Mount of Olives cemetery. Seven of Begin's former comrades-in-arms of Irgun Zvai Leumi, the guerrilla army he led against the British authorities, served as pallbearers.


Benny Begin recited Kaddish at his father's grave. Begin's loyal friend and longtime personal aide, Yehiel Kadishai, recited El Maleh Rachamim. After the family and dignitaries left the grave, thousands of onlookers broke through the human chain of police to pay their last respects. Some saluted, and others laid stones on the mound of earth.’


This is from the Jewish Telegraph Agency, 10 March 1992.


These days, thousands of UK citizens line up to pay their respects to the Queen. Ten days of mourning have been proclaimed. Heads of State and personalities from all over the world will gather next week in Westminster. Soldiers in uniforms have paid their respects. Among them was the new King, in his military regalia.


What a difference. Menachem Begin had been one of the great leaders - if not the greatest - of Israeli history and of 20th century Jewish history. He led the War of Israeli Independence and was a hero for the Israeli working class. He made peace with Egypt and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Yet, as the media reported, his funeral was unbelievably simple "in the tradition of Jews, who bury their dead quickly, frown on floral displays, and lie in state".


See the contrast? As a rule, the bodies of the European Royals are preserved. And so is Queen Elizabeth's. Sophisticated technologies, like a special kind of coffin, have been put in place to slow the natural process.


The royal bodies are believed to be holy. People often mention an aura of reverence or history around a monarch's body. Someone even compared the relation with the monarch to the relation with God (talk about idolatry!) Until the 18th Century, it was widely believed in Europe that the touch of French and English Royal could heal skin diseases.

On certain days of the year, the King received the ill subjects and laid his hands over their body to heal them. Until 1732 the ritual was codified even in the Common Book of Prayer with a specific liturgy.


The great French Jewish historian Marc Bloch has written a seminal study on this peculiar belief (‘The Royal Touch’ 1st ed, 1973). They believed that Kings had the power to heal those diseases that affect the patient's skin and make them look older. The belief was that the King had the power to halt time. And as such, his body had to be preserved, protected and put outside of time.


We don't know whether the Queen had opted to be embalmed, as in the case of many of her ancestors or - back to a time we Jews are familiar with - like the Egyptian Pharaohs. But we know that the marshal, the courtiers and those taking care of her funeral, choosing the coffin, organising the ceremony and so on, are all following the same imperative: to slow the process of time.


How different things are for us Jews. As exemplified by the funeral of Menachem Begin, in Judaism, the burial must occur as soon as possible - the following day or even the same day if the passing happens in Jerusalem. Even the President of the USA did not have the authority to change these rules.


Family and friends escort the coffin, quite often in a chaotic way. At Begin's funeral, the crowd even broke the barriers.


There's no order in a Jewish funeral. There are no ranks in the procession. The death has just happened, and the mourners are still in shock. We return to behave in an orderly fashion only when we line up to extend condolences, only at the shiva, in the evening.


Contrary to the European Royals, we Jews don't try to slow time. Instead, we acknowledge the passing of time. This allows us, Jews, to own the memory of our beloved.


Jewish graves are notoriously simple. We avoid monuments. The most beautiful memorial a Jew can aspire to is the memory of the many mitzvahs done in life.


We place stones on the graves because stones last longer than flowers. Flowers suffer over time, stones do not. By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, that the individuals continue to live on in our memory, not with their bodies.


It is, as I said, a stark contrast with Western civilisation. They try to slow time; we own time.


As English Jews, we can (and I think we must) pay honour to the Queen, together with our non-Jewish fellow citizens. We follow the law of the Country. Yet the Jewish approach to death and the way we Jews conduct our funerals radically differs from what we currently see.


Now I'd like you to think about another essential difference between the general culture and our specific Jewish culture. And it's about guilt.


In Western culture, guilt and death are connected. Christians believe that our souls deal with guilt - by suffering - after the end of the bodies, in the afterlife. Traces of this belief – that humans expiate their sins after death - are even present in the atheists' minds, like those who have cursed Queen Elizabeth after her death, in a very telling example of bad taste. I mean: she is dead, you are supposed to be an atheist; what do you care about her soul and where it is? Clearly, the belief that after death one deals with one’s sins is so widespread that even atheists subscribe to it.


But this is not how Judaism works. We deal with our sins, transgressions, and mistakes during certain days of the year. This period is about to begin this evening with the Selichot, a service named after the most important element of the reconciliation process: Slicha, apology.


This evening's service is called ‘Apologies’ and it inaugurates the period of the year during which we deal with our sins and mistakes. A period which will culminate on Yom Kippur. We do not have to wait for the time of our death to make amends. We can begin now. It's another remarkable contrast with Western civilisation, and I believe the Jewish approach works better.


It's very much easier to acknowledge our mistakes while knowing that our fellow Jew, who sits next to us is doing the same. When we try to overcome our limitations, the community's support is so important.


Once again, it's about time. We can decide to bear a grudge, to remain stuck in the moment when we were offended and to embalm our wounded feelings. Or we can choose to enter the process of healing, with the support of our friends and of our Tradition, expressed in prayers and rituals, in the series of days that begins this evening.


As British citizens, we can decide to join our co-citizens in mourning for the Queen. Or we can use this long weekend - like many other British citizens do - to rest, have fun, and watch The Crown on Netflix.


But as Jews, we also have an extraordinary opportunity that our Tradition offers. Come to the Selichot service and start with our fellow Jews on the journey towards teshuva, change and return.


It's a great opportunity.


Not to be missed for sure. See you this evening.


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10th September / 14th Elul

LONG LIVE THE KING


There are two sanctuaries in the synagogue in Turin.


One is the magnificent "Tempio Grande". It can host 1400 people; there are stuccoes with geometric motifs and arabesques. It is used mainly on Shabbat.


Then, almost in the basement, there is the Tempietto Piccolo, in use for the daily services, with only six rows of pews. There, the Aron HaKodesh - the Ark - is black. It was painted in such a colour in 1849 as a sign of mourning for the death of King Carlo Alberto di Savoia. King Carlo Alberto was an enlightened sovereign. He signed the first Italian Constitution, banished judicial torture, introduced a free market and granted civil rights to Protestants and Jews.


The memory of such a benevolent sovereign is honoured by all the citizens of Turin, among them the Jews. They massively altered an essential piece of synagogue furniture in his memory.


Since that king's death, Jews in Turin daven in front of a black Aron HaKodesh on weekdays.

There's a sort of contradiction. On Shabbat - once a week, in the large and magnificent prayer room - they read the Torah and the Haftarah. Words of freedom and justice and harsh critiques of corrupt rulers. Openly, they proclaim not to worship human beings and do not believe that kings reign for the Grace of God. Then, on weekdays, six times a week, prayers are said in front of a visible sign of gratitude towards a King. A man who believed in ruling in the name of God.


And this is Turin, remember. The city of Attilio Momigliano, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg... most likely, those who go to shul less frequently - in the main room - are sophisticated intellectuals. While those who daven every day at the Aron painted in honour of the king are, who knows, working class and petite bourgeoisie. Less intellectual. Less sophisticated. But maybe I am speculating.


The point is that Judaism doesn’t have a good relationship with monarchies. In the Biblical narrative, kings are generally bad people: petty, unrepentant idolaters and power-obsessed control freaks. The Bible is a Republican text. It exposes faults and failures even of the most famous royals, David and Solomon.


The primary evidence of this Jewish anti-monarchist feeling is found in the Book of Samuel.

The elders of Israel wanted to be ruled by a king “like all other nations.” The people want to appoint the king so that "he will judge over us". But by making a man a judge, they challenge God, who is the Supreme Judge.


In his effort to prevent the establishment of a Jewish monarchy, Samuel goes to great lengths to describe the evils of monarchy and how badly kings misbehave: "The king will take your sons and make them soldiers and will send them to die in war. He will take your daughters and will turn them into his servants. He will steal from you your fields, vineyards and real estate and give everything to his favourites". We can quote several other passages, but I think the message is clear. God likes neither kings, royal families nor sovereigns.

These people tend to rule in His name. We prefer not to mention it or not to discuss it openly - because nowadays it sounds like such a ridiculous concept - but the point is that European Royal Houses are where they are - in power - because, in Medieval times, people believed in the Divine Right of Kings. It is still reflected by the formula "by the Grace of God", which you may happen to hear during coronations and similar ceremonies. The idea that before birth, an individual is selected to have power over others and is accountable only to God and not to human beings is utterly foreign to Judaism. For centuries most Europeans believed in such nonsense and we Jews were the only ones to question it.


And yet, in our daily life, we express gratitude for certain kings and queens, if not admiration. There is nothing in Judaism that forbids being grateful to royal figures. There is even a blessing to recite when we see a monarch (see p. 410 of our prayerbook). And, of course, we have prayed for the health of Queen Elizabeth II, as we will continue to pray for Charles III.


Regardless of our opinion on monarchy as an institution, we have several reasons to be grateful to Queen Elizabeth. She has allowed, if not facilitated, the process of decolonisation - that is, the journey towards self-determination of other peoples. Please do not take it for granted. At this very moment, a ruler opposes the Ukranians' rights - with iron, blood and weapons - in the name of Russian Christian Orthodoxy. England could have gone through the same path countless times with the remnants of the Empire. Queen Elizabeth II opposed it.


By the way, this applies to us Jews as well. Following WWII, the British Empire was the first obstacle in the way of Jewish self-determination, and lest we forget, there had been pogroms in this Country as revenge for what was taking place in the Mandate. None other than George Orwell, not a fan of the Jews, took the pen to express support for the Jews' plea. How things have changed is now apparent before our very eyes. Israel is one of the strongest allies of the UK. On a recent visit, Tzipi Livni, whose parents were both incarcerated during the Jewish insurrection against the Mandate's authority, could thank Queen Elizabeth because the monarchy acted as a good Shidduch for her Mum and Dad.


As Jews, British citizens, and members of one of the many minorities in this multicultural country, we have plenty of reasons to be grateful to Queen Elizabeth II. She took her religious duties very seriously.


She was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and, like her ancestors, she styled herself as ‘Defender of the Faith.’ She was the first sovereign to inaugurate the Church’s general synod. In her position, she actively encouraged Christianity to review the traditional anti-Jewish doctrine. The Catholics only officially rejected it in the 60’s, but Queen Elizabeth broke new ground in 1952 - immediately after her coronation: she became a patron of the Council of Christians and Jews, an organisation founded to counter antisemitism in the Christian world.


Perhaps Judaism, for you, is a matter of faith. Or you simply feel you belong to the Jewish people. Whatever your relationship with Judaism, there are many reasons to be grateful to Elizabeth II, an extraordinary historical personality who has served our Country with dignity and grace. She has shaped for the better the society we live in. May her memory be for a blessing - and long live the king.


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3rd September / 7th Tishrei

GUIDELINES FOR TESHUVAH


They say that Communism was defeated by three leaders. One was Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away last week. Another was Ronald Reagan, the man of the 1987 Berlin speech: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” By the way, many Democrats thought it was inappropriate, raised too many expectations, or whatever. You know, sometimes American Democrats can be wrong too.


And the other man who defeated Communism was Karol Wojtyla. He turned the Catholic Church into a belligerent machine that supported movements in Poland and elsewhere and instructed the Vatican diplomats to adopt a no-compromise attitude.

Wojtyla achieved his goal - ending Communism. And he brought religion back into politics. Before him, the general understanding was that Christianity was a thing of the past. He showed how strong faith could be - and Khomeini was doing the same thing for Islam, but that is another matter. The end of Communism was not enough for Karol Wojtyla. After achieving such a historical goal, he led the Church in the following years, through a series of solemn apologies and reconciliations, with the 2000 Jubilee in his sights.


Wojtyla gave solemn speeches, asking for forgiveness from the Jews. He apologised to the women. He met with representatives of the Protestant Churches persecuted by the Inquisitions. He apologised for the conquest of America, the genocide of the natives, the involvement of Catholic missionaries in the slave trade, etc.


That series of apologies was a historical turn - but, from a Jewish point of view, extremely problematic.


Note, I am not engaging in anti-Catholicism. In fact, most of my friends are Catholics. But those apologies are different from the Jewish teshuva, repentance, which is what we should devote our souls to these days in preparation for Yom Kippur.


Those Catholic ceremonies were collective, solemn events. The world saw the Pope apologising, sometimes in front of representatives of the offended communities. Everything happened in public, in front of the cameras. All the world could see.


But what if the representatives of those abused communities did not feel they could accept these apologies on behalf of all women, Protestants, Jews, and American natives...? What if they felt that they count only for themselves? What if they couldn’t act on behalf of - for example - all the witches burnt at stake, all the Jewish victims of the Crusades, all the Huguenots massacred in Paris in 1572?


In fact, Jews, women, protestants, natives and other communities don't have a leader who takes this sort of decision. Who is the leader of the witches anyway?


And yet, when you are in front of one of the world's most influential and respected leaders - a man who defeated Communism - and he demands you to accept his apologies ... it's impossible to say no. You are playing a part on the stage of world history, under the spotlight of public opinion, and of course, "the show must go on": you have to say yes. “Dear Pope, apologies accepted, forget the past, from now on we are best friends...”


From a Jewish point of view, these public and collective apologies are very problematic. They certainly are not teshuvah.


The Jewish process of teshuvah or repentance (and reparation) is a personal, not a collective process. You cannot apologise on behalf of others. We cannot delegate to a Jewish leader the power to accept apologies for our pain or the offences we have suffered.


Collective guilt, collective sin, and collective repentance are not Jewish concepts. For us, guilt is a personal condition that must be sorted through personal relations, possibly with a private conversation. The Jewish way of offering apologies is direct. It does not require the presence of an audience.


Ideally, on Yom Kippur, in the synagogue, you should make the first move when you meet someone you have a problem with. You should say something like "can we talk for a moment?" and see how it goes, hopefully achieving the moment when apologies are given and accepted. A one-to-one conversation around Yom Kippur, even on Yon Kippur, when everybody is aware of their limitations and feels fragile and exposed.


And now you know why we have such a long break on Yom Kippur.

It is, as you can see, a very different scenario from those solemn papal messages addressed to the crowd assembled in St Peter’s Square.


The problem is that repentance and apologies in contemporary society follow a pattern more similar to the Woytyla model than to the Jewish ideal.


People offend routinely on social media. (By the way, I find it increasingly difficult to call Twitter and Facebook ‘social media’. They do not encourage sociality – in fact, we should call them ‘anti-social media.’) Offences take place. But what happens with these offences?


I've seen two kinds of scenarios. In one scenario, typically, the offender uses racist stereotypes and language against a political opponent. Something like “You are XYZ because all people like you are XYZ - and especially you.” Then the offender hurriedly posts a couple of lines of apologies. Then everything is forgotten: "I didn’t mean it; let's move on.”


It is hard to see anything sincere in such a process. The only thing that matters to the abuser is his reputation. There is neither empathy nor care for the abused person. No commitment to change behaviour. No understanding of the reason why that prejudice or language has been used against that specific person. And indeed, after a short time, a couple of hours perhaps, friends of the abuser resume the offensive behaviour again.


Then there is another kind of process, the "cancel culture". It works this way. Someone claims to have been offended because of something read on social media. This time it is not a targeted offence but a general statement, perhaps poorly phrased ("I think that the XYZ people have a problem with..."). Someone who self-appointed himself as a spokesperson for all the XYZ people in the world makes a big deal of "feeling unsafe", of "being a victim", of "structural racism", and other fashionable blah blah blah. The offender did not intend to offend anyone. Nonetheless, he is now forced to pass through a series of humiliations. None of the apologies will be considered acceptable or indeed accepted.


Here, too, everything is public - the posturing of the self-proclaimed offended person, the attempt to achieve forgiveness, the series of increasing humiliation. Everything is in the public arena, everything is under the eyes of the reader and nothing is personal. Nothing, in the end, is truly sincere.


I am grateful to Karol Wojtyla, as well as to Michael Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, because he defeated one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century. But I must also point out that the model of repentance he has popularised is very problematic. It has encouraged the culture of victimhood and made interpersonal relations very difficult. And it has nothing to do with the Jewish teshuvah., which requires time for personal conversations.


We have an entire month at our disposal to prepare ourselves for a proper teshuvah. The month of Elul - this month. Let's make the best of it.



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27th August / 30th Av

Look, it's Elul


I want to begin with a word that you rarely hear in a Synagogue.

Pornography!

Oh, so now I've got your attention.

It's an exciting topic, I know.

But, seriously, how can you define pornography? That's a problem. It's almost a cliche: what was obscenity yesterday is acceptable today. There was a time in this Country when people covered even the legs of the pianos. Now just take a walk in the Lanes on a sunny summer’s day and see how things have changed.

The criteria to define obscenity and pornography vary according to the time and the place. But even if we cannot establish rules, we recognise pornography when we see it.

The keyword here is to see.

Our civilisation is based on seeing, on sight. We want to look good, or to look nice, or to look attractive.

As John Berger, an influential art critic, explained, the problem is that "looking nice" often means "looking desirable for the eyes of a man", with all the difficulties implied. There are exceptions, but for centuries the art market was driven by men; men decided what was art and what was pornography, what was attractive and what was not.

In the 20th century, things started to finally change; thanks to influential Jewish women artists and art merchants such as the larger-than-life Peggy Guggenheim. The change then percolated from the figurative arts to the rest of the culture, including popular culture. Nowadays, the definition of beauty and what is attractive is no longer the domain of men. But there are still too many places, (in politics, business and academia), where "being attractive" is perceived as an advantage, and being not attractive, (or being seen as unattractive), considerably lessens the chances to succeed.

We are still a visual civilisation. A civilisation based on seeing and to be seen. A civilisation where the highest achievement is becoming visible, to be seen.

But in Jewish civilisation, things work differently. We Jews are forbidden to visualise God. In Jewish texts, pictorial representations are forbidden; the only exception is the Pesach Haggadah - mainly for educational reasons.

Our religion is based on listening, not on seeing. Our central prayer is Shemah!: "hear!", "listen!".

In the Torah, God talks a lot with humans, especially Moses, but God never shows Himself. The Jewish God cannot be seen. There are even moments when God forbids Moses to look in His direction.

Listening is so vital for our faith that traditionally, when we say the Shema, we close our eyes, focusing exclusively on what we hear. Perhaps you remember the translation of the third part of the Shema (Vayomer Adonai el Moshe lemor...) [p. 216 in our Siddur]. God commanded us to place fringes at the corners of our clothes, to remind ourselves that our eyes are supposed to not wander around. Definitively our religion does not encourage the visual.

Think of a traditional Synagogue as opposed to a traditional Church. In a Church, there are plenty of images, statues, and representations of saints, and sometimes people literally venerate them as if they had something divine inside.

Nothing of this kind in a Synagogue, where people mumble, sing, speak, read, listen.... all varieties of the listening, and no participation of the visual.

These considerations make this week's Torah portion very remarkable. Because its first word, and its title, is Re’eh! "Look!"

It is definitively not common to find references to the sense of sight in the Torah, and it's noticeable that we find it here.

The word Re'eh sometimes appears in Deuteronomy more as a rhetorical device. Still, here the meaning is literal, and it is an appeal, or a command, by God to the Israelites to actually look.

And, of course, the question is: look at what?

The plain reading of the text helps: "I set before you blessings and curses".

Let us remember where we are in the narration. This is part of a speech by Moses to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. The Israelites are demanded to see with their own eyes the consequences of choosing the blessings - walking in God's path, doing mitzvot, being Jewish... as opposed to the results of selecting the curses, choosing idolatry, disregarding laws and traditions, leaving Judaism etc.

Later the text becomes specific, making a very detailed list of what to do and what not to do, how to worship God and how not to worship, what to eat and what not to eat, which kind of poor to help first, how to compassionately deal with war captives and so on. The assumption may or may not be that God will reward just behaviour with blessings and punish unjust behaviour with the courses.

The point is the fact that we keep the mitzvot and walk in God's ways and do what is right is described as a blessing, Not for its rewards, but because it's just. These are mitzvot and you do them because you do them, and that's how it is!

We read this Torah portion on the Shabbat before the month of Elul, when Rosh ha Shana and Yom Kippur are approaching. Rosh ha Shana is indeed one month away - "I did not realise how close we are to Rosh ha Shana!" I hear someone whispering already.

Choosing between the good and the bad, the blessings and the curses is what Rosh ha Shana is about.

Yes, of course, the honey cake, the apple dipped into honey, the long hours in Shul waiting for the Shofar etc. etc... that’s all true. But the main theme of the High Holydays is self-scrutiny, looking into ourselves, trying to be honest and asking, "What did I do last year? Did I choose the blessings or the curses? And if I have done anything wrong, which has become a curse; and I feel the guilt of it; how can I turn it into a blessing, into something constructive and not destructive?"

Self-examination is what the High Holydays are about. And the self-examination is not easy.

It requires honesty; it requires us to unplug from the external world and spend some time thinking about what we have done to the people we love and by which we want to be loved, and to examine seriously whether we have always been honest and caused any pain.

It's a long process which needs time: we are given a full month, Elul, indeed, a month which our tradition devotes to such a spiritual exploration, and it is introduced by the Torah portion of this week, Re’eh! See!

I opened this sermon mentioning a thing we recognise when we see it.

And I want to conclude by inviting you to think in the same terms about the Teshuva, the repentance or return, and the spiritual process of the High Holidays.

I cannot describe the transgressions, the aveirahs, the wrong thing we have done. No one can accurately describe the mistakes that have done and consider all the consequences or the curses completely.

But we all feel when we have done something wrong or when we have caused pain. We cannot define it, but we feel it. And that is what matters. We recognise it because it is in front of us; maybe we don't see it. But we feel it. And we can allow ourselves to feel remorse and guilt because that is the beginning of the process of repair.

In the month of Elul, which is about to begin, I wish everyone the courage to examine ourselves honestly, and especially I wish everyone strength to repair, to make amends, to do a proper Teshuvah

Chodesh Tov ve Shabbat shalom



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6th August / 9th Av

ON TISHA B’AV


Here we are again, like every year, Tisha b’Av approaches. It begins this evening and as always, it is up to the rabbis to explain what it is about, what we commemorate and all the rest of it.


It is hardly surprising that Tisha b’Av is the least observed Jewish recurrence in the Diaspora and in Israel.


There are trivial reasons. It's the saddest day of the year, and nobody likes to be sad. Nobody wants to remember tragedies such as these commemorated on this date: The destruction of the first Temple of Jerusalem by the hand of the Babylonians; the destruction of the second Temple, by the hands of the Romans; then all catastrophes of Jewish history, of which there are plenty. The Crusades, the expulsions from England, the expulsion from Spain, the blood libels, the pogroms, World War I ... tragedies which Rabbis and commentators have found, often creatively, a way to link to this mournful date.


So, that is the first problem. No one likes being sad, and this is a sombre day. It is the day when all the possible reasons for sadness have been stuffed together to give us reasons to cry, mourn, and be sad for a full day.


It is also a fast, and this also is a problem. No one likes to fast, obviously. But we also fast on Yom Kippur, or at least we try. And Yom Kippur is by and large the most attended of the Jewish holidays, So what is the problem with the fast of Tisha b’Av? Perhaps the answer is its conclusion!


On Yom Kippur, the conclusion is uplifting. The Neilah begins with El Nora Alila, just before sundown, and it goes on with familiar words of prayer, (by this point, they have become familiar), until the longest Shofar blow of the year. We experience a real catharsis at the end of the 25 hours after all these prayers, songs, and cries.


On the other hand, the conclusion of the fast of the ninth of Av is not particularly inspiring. The day ends, fasting ends, and that's it.


Let's be honest: no one wants to spend a summer’s day in Synagogue remembering a series of catastrophes distant in time and space. Finding the motivation to go to Synagogue on a regular Shabbat is difficult enough.


Why should we attend a sad service in the middle of the week?


For Reform Jews, the matter is even more complicated; the day of fast even more challenging to observe.


Historically, the Reform movement celebrated the Diaspora against the land of Israel. If you think that Jews are at their best when they are scattered around the world, there is not much to mourn about the loss of Jerusalem. More than a century ago, someone had even proposed to transform Tisha b’Av into a day of celebration as it marked the beginning of the Diaspora. These are provocations that we have largely overcome. However, still, there is in the DNA of us emancipated and modern Jews an intense hostility towards the theology of Tisha b’Av. And rightly so! To put it mildly, we dislike the idea that the loss of Jerusalem is Divine punishment for our sins and moral failures.


We are rational human beings; we see the world as it is, and we see that things in the world do not work out as the Rabbis would like them to. We are aware that Divine justice does not exist in this world. We all see wicked people rewarded, for example, with massive business success. We all know of righteous people whose life is a sad succession of misfortunes. This story of divine punishment does not correspond with what we see, and it is foreign to our idea of religion.


Tisha b’Av is scarcely observed in general because it is a low recurrence. And for the reasons that I have mentioned, it is even less observed by Reform Jews. Tisha b’Av is also problematic for many Zionists, a large part of the Jewish people, who also do not keep it. They argue that there is no reason to commemorate the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of our people from the Land of Israel since these are things of the past. We are now returning to live in the land of Israel.


And yet. Can I ask? What are the consequences of this lack of observance? Shall we have a look at the Rabbinic interpretation? Or, if you prefer, to the stories the Rabbis have made up, told and retold to explain the tragedy? The Rabbis teach that the root causes of the destruction of the Temples are the divisions within the Jewish people.


Divisions and factionalism are the causes of the tragedy and the catastrophe.


If you want to know more details, join the Zoom service and shiur tonight. I do not mind if you don’t observe the fast; the stories are interesting and must be told and retold and studied because right now, there is a lot to learn from them.


According to the Rabbinic perspective, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem was caused by the internal divisions of the Jewish people, by hatred between one Jew and another.


Such hate - and that's crucial- was not theological, ideological, or political: people did not disagree on religion, what to observe, how to follow, which party to support, which to oppose, etc. There were no confrontations between different factions or parties or ideologically driven clashes. No. The divisions within the Jewish people that caused the catastrophe were purely personal.


It all started with the rivalry between two people when one guy came to a party without being invited. Can you imagine something more trivial? I will tell you the details if you connect ... The rivalry then degenerates because, as it often happens with rivalries in the Jewish world, at a certain point, non-Jews are involved, or worse, they are called by one Jewish side to support the fight against the other. It sounds familiar, I know, but in this case, the non-Jews who got involved in internal Jewish infighting were not the Evangelicals or the Soviets, but instead, they were the Romans ... and when you look for help from the Romans, then things always go wrong.


Here you are. By failing to observe Tisha b’Av, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to reflect on the tragedy of our internal divisions and their consequences.


Look around. There are Jews who refuse to attend one Synagogue because that Synagogue is egalitarian. As if the sight of women wearing a tallis was offensive to the religious feeling of pious Orthodox men.


And there are Jews who refuse to enter an Orthodox Synagogue because that Synagogue is not egalitarian enough. But then no one raises these problems of this sort when participating in services in a mosque in the name of inter-religious dialogue. And in a mosque, men and women are separated!


This constant search for internal divisions is absolutely counterproductive.


Tisha b’Av should be observed to remind us how stupid it is and how much damage this attitude produces, of this obsessive focus on the things that divide us.


Through fasting, we discover that those Jews whom we never talk to because of ideological or political choices, are grieving the same tragedies that we suffer, are mourning the same victims and martyrs that we mourn. And then that strange, unfathomable experience of empathy, unity, and understanding develops, and it blossoms, despite any ideological or theological difference.


Comforting each other while commemorating tragedies, is a psychological transformative experience. But we avoid it. We prefer to isolate ourselves in our bubble and protect ourselves with narcissistic arguments and excuses. And more often than not, there is the competition of who is more Reform, who is more Orthodox, and how do you prove you are really Orthodox or really Reform? By scorning and hurting your fellow Jews.


Well done. Great job. Really something to be proud of...


There is another crucial lesson to be learnt from Tisha b’Av. It is said that the Messiah will be born on that day.


I don't believe in a personal Messiah; among us, thank God, very few believe in it. Possibly nothing has caused harm to the Jewish people than the belief that regular Jews, such as the son of a carpenter, can be the Messiah, (and don't get me started with Sabbatai Zevi).


This is not the most essential point of the Jewish religion. But I find it extraordinarily poetic and inspiring that at the most profound moment of the most intense time of mourning, a new page can be opened, hope can rise, and we can glimpse at redemption.


It is an incredibly profound idea. When all Jews can identify with the other Jew, regardless of theological or political or ideological positions, at that moment, we can see the dawn of the messianic era, the beginning of a new stage of our history, a more serene and less mournful page of Jewish history. Because we have become capable of deep permanent empathy among ourselves beyond the temporary divisions on which we focus too much.


We are not there yet. We do not yet live the messianic moment of Jewish unity based on empathy, but we can pray for it to get there soon.


I wish you an easy, fast.


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30th July / 2nd Av

THAT THING WE HAVE IN COMMON – ON PARASHAT MAS’EI


In Memory of Professor Marino Berengo

8th November 1928 – 3rd August 2000


The name of Professor Marino Berengo is probably unknown in this room. But for myself and Italian history scholars, it was a name to be mentioned with reverence and awe.


Marino Berengo was an academic of Jewish origin. Learned and very influential, he was one of those professors who could make or destroy a career just by writing a review. Like many academics of his generation, Berengo was a Marxist. To him personally, Judaism had never been of great importance. Author of - as they say – ‘fundamental studies’ on the history of Lucca in 500, on Venice in 700 (exciting stuff - I see people falling asleep already) and Director of the most important series of studies on the history of Italy, Berengo reluctantly found himself in the 90’s having to edit a volume on the History of Jews in Italy.


In the previous decades, there had been a flood of publications, and local history studies, like "History of the Jews of [name of an Italian city]". Jews have been in Italy since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, that is two thousand years of continuous presence. So there are plenty of things to research.


In the academic world, it was time to take stock through a volume with a nationwide focus: the kind of work that will be mentioned in the footnotes for, say, the next half-century. The other academic who edited the volume - "Storia d'Italia. Annali. Ebrei in Italia" - was another Jewish scholar, Corrado Vivanti. Berengo and Vivanti had many things in common: being Jewish, and having Marxist problems with religion, with Zionism, with Israel and with the concept of the Jewish people.


Of course, the two scholars exchanged letters. (It seems prehistoric, but it was only the 90s - before email - remember? There was a time when we did not use email...) These two scholars exchanged letters, typed, with the concluding greetings and signature by hand.


I must tell you, these letters can be moving. Because in such correspondence you see how they would like to talk about something personal (grandma's recipes, perhaps). But they try hard to keep the conversation on a scientific level: they are Marxists, after all! Yet, the history they are talking about is not, say, about the booksellers of Milan in the post-Napoleonic era or about the Protestants of Lucca in the 16th Century, topics on which, incidentally, they are the highest world authorities. No, these two historians are talking about their own culture, their own people, their own history. (Of the two, Berengo was the more assimilated. Vivanti had been part of a socialist kibbutz until the Six Day War). Paradoxically Berengo was the first to mention Judaism.


In a letter that I saw, he wrote: "that religion that unites us" and then deleted the word religion and replaced it with the word culture, which he deleted again to write "that thing".


Judaism was "that thing that unites us".


Martino Berengo authored very important studies. Mention his name to any scholar of Italian history, and you'll see respect and admiration, But to me, that written and rewritten sentence, and the final version "that thing that united us" is his most important contribution. For my spiritual growth, I mean. But not only for that – but by its implications for all of us, for all Jews.


In fact, what is Judaism? A faith that is not only a faith but also a culture. Its language is called leshon ha Kodesh, the sacred language, but in Israel, it is a common language with which to order a coffee in a cafe in Tel Aviv or to jolt down the grocery list (or more commonly, type it into some app on the smartphone that then orders it).


Like it or not, religion is part of the package of "that thing" called Judaism. Judaism is not just a culture like English, French or Italian. English, French and Italian literature does not necessarily speak of God. Hebrew literature, however, speaks of God. Its greatest masterpiece is the Bible! And even in the most secular moments of Jewish culture, there is always religious resonance.


I find it very poetic that not even highly educated Jewish academics have managed to find the proper words to define what Judaism is, so that Judaism has been described by them as "something".


Note: something that unites.


Because this is Judaism. Something that we can never accurately describe. Something that holds together. Something that unites the Jews, that is: us. Something that founds a community.


One cannot be a Jew outside of a Jewish community. A Jew always needs other Jews. To have the minyan, to create a market for kosher products and to spend Shabbat evenings or an evening of Chanukah with. Can you imagine lighting the Chanukah candles by yourself? Of course not; there has to be another Jew there!


In the contemporary world, the need for community, authentic community, and real people in flesh and blood, is very counter-cultural. We live in an increasingly atomised world. We create temporary, virtual communities of equally atomised individuals. We interact through the smartphone's screen and when we are bored, we disconnect with the simple flick of a finger. These are temporary interactions, made up only of exchanges of words. We do not live together through events such as a Shabbat, a holiday or a simcha. One can spend days on Twitter or Facebook, but it will never be like sharing the same space in a synagogue on a Saturday morning; that "something that unites us" is not fully there.


Our religion is based on community. The contact with Jewish communities gives us a sense of holiness. How else can you explain that feeling when we "discover" another Jewish family, or an entire community, in unexpected places? Some years ago, we at BHRS ‘discovered’ the Jewish community in Taiwan, and if you remember, we spent that strange Shabbat together (via Zoom). There are Jews in Taiwan. That's fantastic. That's magic. But you don't need to go to remote places like Taiwan. Equally thrilling is the feeling we get when we discover we are not the only Jews in the neighbourhood or in the village. That there is another Jewish family or Jewish individual down the block. Our first impulse - which we don't always follow up - is to make contact, to create a connection, to invite, say, for a Shabbat dinner. To experience together "that thing that unites us."


I have often wondered what that "thing" - that unites atheist Jews and religious Jews and Jews of all shades in between - is.


Perhaps the answer lies in this week's parashah. In this week's Torah portion, the part we have just read. When you read it, it seems just a list of names of Biblical places. In their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Israelites have been here, then have moved up there, then they have been there etc. Very little is said about what happened in these mentioned places. It is a rather dry list, and one wonders what the point is of including it in a Holy Book in the Torah.


And I think the answer is this: God - or whoever you fancy thinking is the author of the Bible - wanted us, Jews, to internalise that we are people on a journey, that we travel through places and that we do not settle.


Now, there is one curious thing about being on a journey. When you find yourself travelling with someone, you bond with those who are on your same journey. So perhaps the "thing that unites us" is this bond between people on a journey. The journey of our families. Many of us are children, grandchildren or descendants of immigrants. As a community of immigrants of people who never properly belong (or never properly completely want to belong), we have that sixth sense, that bell that rings when things go wrong - when we spot intolerance and antisemitism. Think of that as having a sense of ambushes and potential dangers while you are indeed on a journey in uncharted territory.


It is only an example. You don't have to see it as a negative. That thing that keeps us together is also the Jewish calendar, with all its opportunities for holidays and community celebrations. Holydays that are community-based but also have different spiritual meanings, which every individual Jew lives in his/her own way.


We Jews are a community on a journey. A journey, if not through space, like our ancestors or our parents and grandparents, then certainly a journey through time. This perhaps answers questions such as that from that old professor of mine: the thing that holds us Jews together is that feeling of being on a journey. Like every feeling, words never properly describe it. Even learned academics struggle to find the proper words. But we know it exists, because we feel it.





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