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Rabbi Andrea's Sermons

8th July / 19th Tamuz


I am often invited to visit schools to talk to the students. It's a significant part of my job. I want to allow the students to meet with a Rabbi in person to learn about Judaism and Jewish culture without the mediation of their teachers. Moreover, by meeting a Rabbi, they can realise that we Jews are regular human beings.

Over the years, I have developed a format. I address the assembly for 10 minutes, usually about one Jewish holiday, and then open the floor to questions.

This is the moment when the dreadful questions about Israel crop up. The language of those questions betrays the source of information those students have been exposed to. Invariably they see Israel as an aggressor and the very existence of a Jewish State as a source of trouble, if not a problem in itself.

At this point, when I tell the story of my friend Sergio. Sergio and I grew up together, as teenagers, the only two non-Catholic kids in the class. Sergio was Armenian. You can spot an Armenian because of their family name, which ends in ‘-ian.’ Like the football player Makhtrian -who did not play well against Manchester United some weeks ago. The hi-tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, who invented Reddit. And Kim Kardashian (at this point, I always ask: "Why are you laughing?")

Like us Jews, Armenians are both a people and a faith. There is an Armenian Diaspora; 13 million live around the world. There is an Armenian Country, Armenia indeed, in West Asia and bordering Turkey. By the way, Armenia has an ongoing conflict with a Muslim neighbouring Country - Azerbaidjan.

Armenians in Europe and America tend to be middle class, although there are very wealthy dynasties. They are very entrepreneurial. They even have their own Birthright program; young Armenians from the Diaspora travel around Armenia for two or three months.

And, like us Jews, the Armenians carry the memory of a collective trauma, the genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Armies in 1916, when 1.5 people were murdered and killed by starvation much to the general indifference of the Western world.

Famously 1939, before invading Poland, that failed painter said: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?".

By the way, in 1916, in the Armenian village where he was born, the grandfather of my friend Sergio survived because he pretended to be dead; imagine that, a child under a pile of corpses, among them his family, slaughtered by Ottoman soldiers. 7 years old. Not one of those underage terrorists in Jenin, you know. He did not carry weapons. He was not taught how to kill. He was just a child.

While I talk about my friend Sergio, I leave out the account of our funny teenage escapades, which I will leave to your imagination. The students get my point; they understand the similarity between Armenian and Jews - even if I am yet to find a Jewish equivalent of Kim Kardashian. And the teachers cringe while I talk, realising that – once again - they have forgotten to teach about the Armenian genocide.

And then I ask a question. This is: Why are our media obsessed with Israel/Palestine while paying no attention to the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan - which leads to periodic outbreaks of violence. Last week the Azerbaijan PM went into a tirade about how evil contemporary Armenians are; they have become like their persecutors and have forgotten their faith's values - does it sound familiar?

But why do we hear so much about Israel from the media while Armenia gets no coverage? Am I more interesting than my friend Sergio?


And my answer is: you tell me.

With this, the assembly comes to an end. I leave the school and the kids to their education. Hopefully, they will look at us Jews as just one of many minorities and not as a bunch of racists. Hopefully, they will learn to approach the Middle East's conflict with empathy for our side. Hopefully, their teachers will teach them better about WWI. Hopefully. I hope so. Never give up hope.

But I know why so little attention is devoted to the Armenians and so much is given to the Jews.

Because there has never been a level of anti-Armenian racism comparable to antisemitism.

Life for the Armenians, as a religious minority in the Ottoman Empire, was never easy, especially in the late 19th Century, with the rise of Turkish nationalism. But Armenians have never been segregated in ghettoes to pressure them to convert to Christianity; they were Christian already. They have never been excluded from a wide range of professions, and only allowed to take despicable jobs such as moneylending. There are very wealthy Armenian families, but no one has ever built a political movement against the international Armenian lobby, let alone suggested Boycot, Divestment and Sanction against Armenian businesses.

Armenians have never been considered a different race. Armenians marry inside their faith, as we Jews do, but they are not called racists for this.

There are no popular legends about Armenians kidnapping kids and using their blood to bake unleavened bread to be served on religious occasions. As a result, no BBC reporter has ever insulted or offended a member of the Armenian government with statements such as:

"Young people are being killed [...] Is that really what the military set out to do? To kill people between the ages of 16 and 18?. They are children. The Israeli forces are happy to kill children."

This happens only to us Jews. It happened last week. The BBC has issued a poorly worded apology, in which even the name of the reporter was omitted and the antisemitic motif was rephrased.

I am not furious, because the BBC is biased. That I already know, and I have learnt to ignore what they say when they report from Israel - Israeli newspapers and the incomparable Times of Israel podcast give me what I need to know about what happens in Israel. I don't need the BBC.

But, as I explain to the students and their teacher, I feel incredibly sorry for my friend Sergio because his story, his identity, is completely ignored – just as it was when the genocide was being perpetrated. In the subsequent decades, out of fear for Turkey's reaction, the whole world has forgotten the plea of the Armenian diaspora, their long request for reparation and justice.

I will be blunt. The British media have primarily embraced the perspective of Palestinian extremists and disseminated a black-and-white representation of the conflict. All the faults are on the Israeli side. Israel is portrayed as the ultimate agent of evil.

The Israeli LGBTQ community, after many legal battles, now enjoys a degree of freedom and self-determination which even Greece and Italy do not have, not to mention the Muslim Countries neighbouring Israel! But even this is evil for the enemies of Israel - sadly, some of them Jews. Even this is proof of how bad Israel is.

Last week there was a demonstration in Brighton against the proposed judicial reform and to defend the Israeli rule of law. Almost all our Cheder teachers were there because they take the commitment to be a light unto the nations seriously, and you cannot be a light unto other countries if the judiciary is not independent.

I am proud to say that I joined that demonstration - I was the only Rabbi there. On social media, the enemies of Israel, some of them Jewish, some of them people who live in our town, mocked the demonstrators. Why? Because the problem is the Occupation, and the Israeli flag represents the Occupation, and if you are Jewish, you should carry the weight of shame and guilt, your State was born in sin, and people like you murder children and enjoy it.

This is the current atmosphere, the narrative that is out there, and I think we have a duty to resist and do what we can to change such a narrative. We have started the Israel in Focus group this morning, which I hope will continue activities and meetings from now on. I really hope other Reform and Progressive synagogues will follow our example. There's a legend about the lukewarm relationship with Israel of Reform and Progressive communities. They say that we are not Zionist, and I feel we must dismantle such a vicious rumor. We must inform and educate about Israel because we all feel for that Country in the same way that my friend Sergio felt for Armenia, a Country far away from where he lived. Even if the Armenian government is not ideal (it is actually pretty bad, kind of Putinista...) Because the connection with Armenia, repeated in prayers, narrated in tales and legends, and portrayed in paintings and landscapes he had at home, is precisely like our connection with Israel. Both intense and intimate at the same time, difficult to explain, impossible to deny. But at the end of the day, nothing, absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.


27th May / 7th Sivan


Are you looking for a piece of text proving Judaism is a patriarchal religion? Do you believe that Judaism is a barbaric, horrible set of beliefs, dangerous, especially for women?

Don't look further, you've found it, and it is this week's Torah portion.

This week's Torah portion, indeed, includes the description of the horrifying ritual of the Sotah. The term Sotah means "the woman who went astray". The ritual worked this way. If the husband suspected that his wife had slept with someone else, this poor lady had to undergo an ordeal: to drink a potion administered by the priest. If she died - and the potion caused a horrible death (her belly and genitalia swelled) - this meant she was guilty. But if she was not guilty, then the potion was supposed to have no effect on the woman's body, and she was free to return to her husband, who - for a certain time at least - set aside his jealousy.

Everything in this ritual is horrible. It's a case study of men's will to control the woman's body: a matter, literally, of life and death; the wife is presumed to be guilty unless proven otherwise, a horrifying thing in itself. And even if the woman is lucky, survives and returns to her husband, can you imagine what sort of married life she will have with a man who was about to poison her?

The Sotah is a horrible procedure based on the assumption that women cannot be trusted and that the husbands must have the power of life and death over their spouses.

Except that it is none of this.

To better understand the Sotah, we must consider that the description of the ritual is immediately followed by the piece of Torah we have just read: the norms and regulations of the Nazir.

The Nazir was a man (or, in some cases, the woman) who had taken upon himself a series of extra obligations on top of what was required of the ordinary Israelite. The Nazir vowed to abstain from wine and all other grape products, such as vinegar, to refrain from cutting the hair on his head and not to have contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members. The Nazir were forbidden to attend the funerals of their family.

In short, the Nazir took upon himself a series of obligations over and above the other duties required from all the Israelites. For example, all corpses were considered defiling. Every Israelite who had been in touch with a corpse had to undergo a ritual process of purification. But the Nazir obligations were even more strict and radical; they had to avoid corpses entirely, not visit the cemeteries and not even participate in funerals.

But what does the Nazir have to do with the Sotah? Why, in other words, is the description of these two rituals juxtaposed so that after having read of one, we are immediately faced with the other?

The Midrash answers this textual question with a simple explanation. Suppose a man witnesses the horrible consequences of drinking poisoned water, as in the Sotah ritual. In that case, he will avoid any kind of alcohol, and alcohol-related material, even grapes. So, he will become a Nazir.

This is somehow a funny reading, but there is a more profound truth.

Both the Nazir and the Sotah are about avoidance. Both rituals teach us to avoid transgressing and being seen as transgressors, to avoid situations that may lead us to cheat or quickly get drunk.

Not by chance are the descriptions of these two rituals followed by the Birkhat Cohanim,

The Birkat Cohanim is a formula of blessing with which we are all familiar. It is also the text of one of the oldest Hebrew inscriptions ever found by archaeologists: "May God bless you and keep you, May God shine his light upon you, May God be gracious to you and give you peace." According to Rashi, these three blessings are good wishes. With the first, we wish the person to receive material sustenance ("to keep you"). With the second, which mentions light, we want a spiritual blessing to live a meaningful life; the third blessing sums up the previous and wishes for peace because, without peace, no blessing is effective. And to have peace, we must learn to keep our distance from dubious situations.

The Kabbalists go to a great extent to draw parallels between the Nazir and the Sotah - which they explain as being pure fantasy, as the Torah did not record one single case when the ritual was enacted.

The Kabbalists explain that there are no stories in the Bible of women suspected of adultery and forced by the Cohen to drink poisoned water. Not one single record.

Therefore, reason the Kabbalists, if the procedure was never enacted, the description is there for another reason: to teach something to all the Israelites. They then give fascinating descriptions of the levels of the human soul - compared to the different obligations of the Nazir and the various stages of the rituals of the Sotah. It is intriguing and even funny - well, Rabbinic fun anyway.

But let us think, once again, about the Birkat Cohanim. The first blessing is for financial safety, the second for a spiritually meaningful life, and the third is to live in shalom, in peace. It may sound a bit elitist, but only privileged people can afford the luxury of living in shalom, in peace; for us normal human beings, life is a constant battle, and it is full of fights,

Which is true. But if you - like the Nazir - avoid putting yourself in difficult situations and avoid situations when you know you become angry too quickly (like a drunkard in fact), it is possible to bring more ‘shalom’ and peace into your life.

If you do not make your beloved drink the poisoned water of your jealousy, there will be more ‘shalom’ and peace in your life and the lives of your family.

Taken out of context, the Sotah describes a brutal ordeal, and the Nazir that of a mental health disorder; OCD, I believe is called.

But suppose you read them together properly, as the Torah presents them to us, followed by the Birkat Cohanim. In that case, you realise how these ancient texts do not actually describe the ancient Israelites' society but teach something profound about human nature. That we need shalom, and we have at hand a way to achieve it.


13th May / 22nd Iyar


Tomorrow at 12.00pm a demonstration will take place. It will be in Palmeira Square, less than half a mile from our synagogue, around the time when parents collect their children after Cheder.

It's a demonstration organised by the BDS, the anti-Israel movement. Because tomorrow is Nakbah Day, the day when supporters of Palestinian nationalism take the scene to air their narrative (not as if they lacked opportunity any other days of the year.)

To be clear, they have the right to say what they want to say to those who want to believe them. Even Donald Trump has the right to say to his followers that he never gropes women. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in democratic societies.

However, why those folks - some of whom a few years ago promised to "march on a synagogue in Hove"- have chosen to gather at a few distances from three synagogues at a time when tens of Jewish kids are picked up by their parents, is a different matter. What are their intentions, and precisely against what or whom are they rallying. Good question, isn't it?

I know why similar demonstrations in Italy were held near to synagogues in the 80’s. And why, during one of those demonstrations, in 1982, someone left an empty white coffin on the stairs of the Great Synagogue in Rome. A few weeks later, on Shemini Atzeret, the synagogue was packed with children, and Palestinian terrorists opened fire: a toddler was killed, and forty Jews were seriously wounded. The empty coffin was now full.

This is how the Palestinian cause is advanced: by intimidating Jews in the Diaspora. The goal of these demonstrations is always to terrorise the Jews, that is us. To pressure us Jews (with the threat of violence) so that we soften our support for Israel. They want us to condemn Israel. To give up on Zionism.

The message from the Far Left is always the same: “Enough with Israel. Condemn Israel, Give up on Zionism - and you'll be safe. Moreover, we will consider you Jews our most precious allies in the fight against racism, oppression, the patriarchy, the matriarchy, NATO, the Tories, the Blairites... we have plenty of causes to support and plenty of battles. You Jews will be warmly welcome... if only you rid yourself of this Zionism stuff.

Because if you do not, how can we control the rage of the Palestinians and their allies? The symbols you are so fond of - the knitted kippah, the Israeli flags - the food you put on the kiddush table - the Israeli wine - trigger such fury among decent persons like us. These are symbols of oppression. Don't boast too much about Zionism. Distance yourself from Israel on every possible occasion and in any way you can. It will make you safer. And if you really want to be completely safe, renounce Zionism, call yourself an ‘anti-Zionist Jew’, and then you will have nothing to fear from us, from the Far Left. We will protect you against the Fascists – like we did in Cable Street."

I have heard this message from the Far Left ever since I arrived in this Country - and possibly before. And I have seen different ways to react.

Sussex Friends of Israel, if you remember, was founded precisely for this reason; to actively confront Left Wing antisemites when they were mobilising against an Israeli business in our town. They challenged them, literally in the streets, and on social media. Honestly, this kind of answer - open confrontation, and shouted slogans - speaks to my Mediterranean heart.

Because as an Italian Jew, I am familiar with the stories of pogroms and expulsions from Libya and Iran. Many of my Jewish friends' parents have witnessed these tragedies. Hiding in the trunk of a car on the way to the airport, taking the last plane and escaping, or bribing some officer or other. These were not stories. They were real-life episodes in the lives of the parents of many of my friends. Often, they were the reason that they were alive to tell the tale.

You can tell the Guardian readers that the military who tormented the Jews on their way out from the Country where they had lived for centuries was - who knew - a Socialist. That his Soviet-allied government was on the right side of history. Tell this to the Guardian readers. But you cannot tell this to the Jewish refugee families of my friends.

I have excellent reasons for my skepticism about that rosy representation of "Jew and Arab coexistence" that those protesters believe will naturally blossom once Israel is replaced by a "bi-national Arab majority State".

Such a vision is endorsed by some Jews. Those who want to welcome tomorrow's protest waving a Palestinian flag. Those who believe that anti-Zionists and enemies of Israel should be "part of the Jewish conversation" (because, you know, those who criticise Israel are never invited to any conversation - except for the BBC, the Guardian, The Independent, Sky TV, Channel Four, Al Jazeera,. LBC, ...) Those who believe that boycotters of Israel are reasonable people and are doing their part for Tikkun Olam, improving the world. Those who believe that authentic Jewish life should be a never-ending begging for forgiveness from the Palestinians. Those who never lose any chance to publicly distance themselves from Israel and smear the citizens of the Jewish State.

In short, those who believe that the protesters who will gather a few distances from three synagogues on Sunday have some good reasons, perhaps poorly formulated, maybe with some tone that is wrongly perceived as antisemitic, but at the end of the day, the only thing they want is justice and equality… This is rubbish.

If you want justice, you don't call for a rally near a synagogue at the time that parents will be picking up their kids from Cheder. You don't want justice. You just want to traumatise children! Jewish children.

If you want equality, why don't you call for meetings in front of Anglican churches every time your bleeding heart is outraged by the UK foreign policy? Why don't you organise a demonstration in front of some Catholic church every time a Pope says something you object to? Tell me, please, why, of all the religious buildings, only synagogues are targeted by your politically-inspired fury?

I am genuinely not interested in discussing whether the demonstration which will take place on Sunday will be an antisemitic or anti-Zionist demonstration or anything in between. Because it does not matter.

These people wish for the end of the largest Jewish community on Planet Earth. Their goal is to cancel a State where me, my family, you, and your family can find shelter if and when things go bad for the Jews in your neighbourhood, something that, you know, has a tendency to happen in history with a certain frequency.

But do they think they can intimidate us? Listen. Some weeks ago, two or three congregants asked to strengthen our relationships with Israel when the Country was so divided. Which is worrying but also inspiring. It was great to see such a diverse crowd taking the street to defend the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel. And our very own Synagogue, we are about to launch an "Israeli History and Culture Group" to strengthen relationships. Details to follow. Watch this space.

Also, Shavuot is coming, and it is customary to study Jewish sources overnight on Shavuot. This year we will study the Israeli Declaration of Independence, with all its Biblical and Rabbinic sources. We will see how deeply Israel and Zionism are rooted in Jewish thoughts and tradition. Perhaps you have heard that Zionism is a contemporary political movement and Judaism is an ancient religion that is only vaguely related. My goal is to show you how this assumption is wrong, and the connection is very strong indeed.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we will also study the code of honour of the Israeli Army. Because I am tired of hearing falsehoods about our brethren who spend their best years protecting the Jewish State while others - sadly, sometimes Jewish - lose time on social media slandering it. Not to mention their friends and comrades who are about to gather at a short distance from our synagogue to cause us trauma and distress.

Do not let them threaten you.

Come and study -

and Am Yisrael Hai.


6th May / 15th Iyar


Well, thank you! Thank you for coming to shul this Shabbat; rather than spending your Saturday morning in front of the TV to take part in a Christian ceremony. I am so grateful to you all, to each one of you. It is beautiful when Jews keep loyalty to the Jewish faith and observe Shabbat despite everything.

But I don't want to sound too judgmental towards those Jews who right now are expressing their loyalty to the King and will read this sermon in the coming days. Someone - I think it was Howard Jacobson - said that "as long as the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, my Jewish family are safe in Hendon". Actually, I don't know who said it, but it perfectly summarises the prevailing attitude of a large part of the Jewish community towards the Monarchy.

And for many good reasons.

As Jews, we have many reasons to be grateful to the British Royal Family. None of them signed any antisemitic legislation, like Vittorio Emanuele III of the House of Savoy, the operetta villain who led Italy through two World Wars and handed the Country to the Fascists. Thankfully, the current British Royals are a different kind of people.

The Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue has been invited to attend the ceremony with his wife. Everything has been provided so they won't have to publicly desecrate Shabbat. Last night they had a nice sound sleep in Buckingham Palace. Yesterday evening they had a nice kosher Friday night dinner, and the Chief Rabbi recited Kiddush.

At the coronation of Richard III, back in 1189, Jewish dignitaries were beaten for daring to show up. See how different things are now, just eight centuries afterwards!

The British Monarchy, but I would say the culture of British aristocracy, is quite different in their attitude from their continental equivalent and relations.

Many French aristocrats still resent the moment when a head fell into the basket - and guess who they blame: the Freemasons and the Jews.

Among Italian nobility, there is still nostalgia for the times when the Pope ruled over Italy, and we Jews were secluded in ghettoes - we call them nobiltà nera, "black nobility", for a good reason.

And as regards the attitude towards the Jews of the nobility in Germany, Poland, Hungary... well... don't go there. Literally.

England is different, everybody knows it, and we proudly show it off, up to the point of actually spending a Saturday morning in front of the TV, something that we only do for very important reasons - a match played by Brighton and Hove Albion, for example.

But why? Why is the British Monarchy and its influence on British culture so good for the Jews?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote extensively about this topic. He agreed with the general opinion that the roots of democracy are in the Western Enlightenment. But he made a distinction. There was an anti-religious Enlightenment, such as in France, that led to totalitarianism, and hence was not democratic. While the Biblically-based British and American Enlightenment led to modern democracy.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently demonstrated that the great architects of British and American democracy drew their inspiration from the Hebrew Bible. The arguments for democratic government carried force precisely because they were based on Biblical principles and values. Even if those principles - the rights of the individual and the family, the common good, and freedom of speech - are now under attack. They still hold together British society and shape the life of most British citizens - at least of those who do not lose their time supporting battling on Twitter for some woke cause. Respect for the Jews and reverence for the Jewish tradition are cornerstones of that system of values.

Jonathan Sacks has devoted all his public life to defending "the home that we built together" -the Western civilisation- and spoke at length of the room the Jews have in that house.

This is possibly one of the reasons why antisemitism here is confined to the outsiders: the grim thugs of the Far Right, those addicted to intellectual blathering on the Far Left and the Islamist. Those parts of British society are definitely not the mainstream, for which Charles III is the legitimate King, and God save him.

Then there is another explanation of this, generally speaking, favourable attitude of the British monarchy and society towards us Jews. Less intellectual, perhaps. It may sound naive, but it has some value. Let us call it Progressive, as it is based on the belief in human progress. It goes like this:

Suppose you look at the 20th century with a progressive attitude. In that case, believing that the future can be better than the past, you have good reasons to be optimistic. People live longer and better now than they did 100 years ago. The most evil dictatorships that ever appeared on European soil have both been defeated. Germany, the Country that once declared war on world Jewry is now a trusted ally of the State of Israel. Living in a ghetto is no longer the default condition for European Jews. We Jews in England have benefitted from the State and Monarchy's protection. At the same time, in the rest of Europe, our brethren were rounded up and sent to die in the gas chambers. Britain has led the way for the rest of Europe towards a more tolerant, less hostile relationship with us Jews. Even now, for example, the alliance between Israel and the United Kingdom is one of the strongest; it is based on common interests and on shared values - maybe this King will visit the Jewish State one day...

There are good reasons to be optimistic if you are used to looking at the half-full part of the glass (or the bottle. We are in Brighton, after all!). We are grateful to the Monarchy because it has made this Country a good place for us Jews. Better than France. Or Italy, if you ask me.

I have to add another explanation that neither invalidates nor confirms the previous two. It is based on my experience as a Rabbi while attending one of my activities; not everybody's favourite topic I know, but still part of my job - and no pun intended - part of life, and that is officiating at funerals.

I officiate at funerals, as you know, and quite often, those funerals are attended by non-Jewish friends and acquittances of the deceased person.

Funerals can be awkward, as you can imagine. They are times for the expression of deep and personal feelings. At the same time, there are cultural rules and norms which one is supposed to know and are often unconsciously broken, in total goodwill.

One day I will write a book, I promise, about my (and Martin's) experiences at funerals; I can tell you it will be real fun. Mourners - who have not been exposed to the beauty of Jewish funeral practices, such as the placing of stones on the tombstone (because they last, like memory) - show up with their arms full of very expensive (and quickly perishable) bunches of flower. What do you do at that moment? You don't want to embarrass anyone, but there are rules, customs and traditions that the deceased person, and the family, expect to follow.

I often recognise non-Jewish friends and relatives because - if male - they do not wear the kippahs. And often they are dressed in their best outfit, stylish and appropriate. No one would dream of damaging these expensive fashion pieces with the keriah! etc

Yet, the general British attitude towards Judaism and the Jewish mourning customs are always respectful, sometimes curious, and often benevolent. Genuine and respectful questions are sometimes asked, such as "Why no flowers?" or "Should I cover my head?"

Don't take it for granted. Elsewhere people love to have fun with our mourning traditions and customs that comfort us when we are vulnerable and exposed.

I experienced the length and, quite often, the cruelty of Italian bureaucracy. They really cannot get - or they like to say in your face that they don't get - why a Jew cannot be buried in a "regular", that is, Catholic, cemetery. Why all this fuss to defend your privileges? What's the problem of a dead Jew buried next to a cross?

Other European Countries can be worse. Do you know that the Jewish cemetery of Geneva, the Swiss city, is literally outside the border, in a village in neighboring France? That is because, in 1916, when the Jewish community had to expand the existing cemetery, the authorities of the city of Geneva could not find a place suitable to host the cemetery. The placid and tolerant and - at that time - piously Christian city of Geneva did not want to have anything to do with dead Jews. We desecrate the ground, apparently.

Things are obviously worse in places like Iran or Tunisia, where the Muslim authority uses the memorial stones taken from Jewish cemeteries to pave parking slots or public toilets. So much for the much-praised Jewish-Muslim coexistence, Not to mention – again - the number of Jewish cemeteries in France and elsewhere vandalised by Fascists, Palestinians and everything in between.

None of this happens in England. There is much more respect. A bit of curiosity - our family names are sometimes difficult to pronounce. But in my experience, it is always a benevolent attitude.

And the reason is that they do not feel threatened.

British people do not consider us Jews a menace to their life. Remember, working-class people, even in difficult times, did not fall for the promise of economic improvement by Jeremy Corbyn. "He promised us that we will be better if he's in charge, but he is not a friend of the Jews - so, sorry, no, thanks."

It's quite easy to scapegoat the Jews, and - historically speaking - showing contempt towards Jewish customs and observances carries almost no consequences.

But in this Country, things are different.

Only a minority of Left and Right Wing fanatics see us as a threat. For the general British public, we Jews are not a secret cabal that conspires to protect their privileges. Perhaps because in British popular culture such a role is played by someone else: the aristocracy no less.

But most likely because British people value stability. They feel stable and secure, on average more than in the rest of Europe.

And the monarchy is precisely that: a symbol of British stability, security, and continuity.

Generally speaking, Parliament rarely provides a great example. It's difficult to remember a Prime Minister who has covered the role in a dignified, non-divisive manner. Not so the Monarchy. Go into every place that keeps this nation together, the hospitals, the post office, the schools, the police station, and you will find a portrait of the King, more personal than any other national symbol.

It's a play, perhaps. I have a problem believing what King Charles is doing, as he says, "a service to the nation". I am part of this nation, and don't look at him as a public servant! However, the King's presence in public life is undeniably a sign of stability. And we Jews, as members of a minority, highly value stability because social turbulence always turns us into scapegoats. A great majority of our non-Jewish British co-citizens see the King as a guarantee of stability; they feel safe and secure, regardless of the turbulence of the economy or the speed by which the society is evolving.

They look at the King and - even if many cannot voice this feeling - feel safe (why should a British person voice feeling after all? Let's have a cup of tea instead. Or go to the pub).

And this is good for the Jews.

Whether you like the Monarchy or not. Wherever you are, davening in shul and talking to our Melech halakhic - the Heavenly King of Kings, or back at home on your sofa, right now, watching the Coronation of King Charles III.

So we can say, with hand on heart: God save the King.


29th April / 8th Iyar


So the Coronation is here, it will be next week. Details of the ceremony will be made public this evening at 10 o’clock. Where? On the website of the Church of England.

Lest we forget, the Coronation of King Charles is, first and foremost, a religious ceremony. He is the "Defender of the Faith" and "Supreme Governor of the Church of England". Many religious elements will be part of the ritual of Coronation, which we no doubt will watch with interest and fascination. I mean, who does not like religious rituals?

But, at the same time, we Jews feel a bit of discomfort, of being out of place, because that religion, Christianity, is not ours. Actually, the relationship between us, the Jewish people, and the Christian Churches has often been difficult, to say the least. Our enemies used the symbols of Christianity during the Crusades and while leading the pogroms. The Inquisition, by whose hands so many Jews have been burnt at the stake, was - generally speaking - a department of the Catholic Church. True, the record of the Church of England is better than other Churches, yet their symbols and beliefs are not compatible with ours.

And most of us literally cringe at the thought of Christian customs surreptitiously introduced into Judaism: flowers at the cemetery, for example.

On a more general level, as we Jews know too well, marriage between religion and political power is never good.

It gives religion a horrible reputation.

Religion is especially unpopular when it practices power and control over human bodies. It is inconvenient or annoying to fast on Yom Kippur or during Ramadan. It can be actually argued that this is precisely the point; religious fasts and other forms of self-denial (such as those prescribed in our Torah portion) exist - among other reasons - to make us human beings feel weak and exposed and allow us to experience the limited control we have over our bodies - which for the rest of the year we believe we have.

Fasting is a spiritual experience. But no one can deny that it is difficult. And it's obviously difficult to like religion when religion prescribes fasting and other practices of self-denial.

But is this, let me ask, really the problem that people have with religion? The connection with power and authority, the restrictions to observe?

I think there is something more. I believe religion is not popular nowadays because it deals with something we don't like, a part of human nature we would prefer to ignore. That is guilt. We fast on Yom Kippur to do teshuva, adjust our spiritual journey's direction, and amend and correct our mistakes. Or, to use a language, I do not like, to expiate for our transgressions. Part of the process is the examination of our past actions. We examine what we have done in the past year and the status of our relationships, and we try to recall mistakes to amend.

This is the meaning of the expression תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם which we find at the beginning of this week's Torah reading (Lev 16:29). It is often translated as "you shall afflict yourself" and in our Chumash, we read "you shall practice self-denial". But, as correctly pointed out by the great Sephardi commentator Abarbenel [ad. loc.] the real meaning is "you will make your souls more humble". This is how the process of teshuva begins; when we face our mistakes and transgressions honestly and with humility. And now we begin to understand why religion is not so popular nowadays. Because this process - humbly recognising your mistakes so that you can make proper amends - is literally the opposite of what we see on the public scene today.

Last Sunday, I was, like everyone in this room, appalled to read the letter by Diane Abbot to a Black journalist (Tomiwa Owolade). There, she stated that Irish Travellers and Jews have never truly experienced racism, only prejudice - like redheaded people. Nothing serious.

Jews have never been asked - she explained - to sit on the back of the bus like Afro-Americans during the Jim Crow era (yes, Diane, more or less in the same era, Jews were put on cattle trains instead). Nothing similar happens to the Irish Travellers, either (yes, Diane, even today, Travellers are instead asked to get off the bus - at least in Italy, as I have seen with my own eyes).

As if the letter was not enough, Ms Abbot managed to be more offensive with her apologies. First, she bubbled some nonsense about sending a draft, not a letter. A draft with no mistakes at all, it seems...

And then she rushed to apologise "publicly".

Yes, to the public. Not to the persons she offended. Not to the Irish, not to the Travellers, and of course not to the Jews. Corbyn acolytes never apologise to the Jews.

That was one of the most pathetic and fake letters of apology I have ever seen. Nonetheless, I am grateful because, with that letter, Ms Abbot has provided an accurate example of what is not genuine repentance, real teshuva.

There was such arrogance in these apologies to the public. And even worse in those tweets, posts and social media entries by Diane Abbot supporters and the Corbyn fan club - sadly, some of them Jewish.

A few seconds after her apologies appeared on Twitter, the deluge started. They all preached that we Jews had to accept Diane Abbot's apologies. We needed to turn the page on the incident as soon as possible and move on. The wording may be unfortunate (the vocabulary of a Cambridge graduate, mind you...), but her intentions were good. Why? Well, because she is Diane Abbot, because she has been racially abused so many times, because she is the first Black British MP and so on. The journalist she was lecturing was Black as well, but this does not matter for the devotees of Ms Abbott - some of them, let me repeat, Jewish. Even the fact of not accepting her apologies became, for her devotees, further proof of how marginalised she was. On the planet where I live, a Cambridge-graduated MP does not look precisely "marginalised", but never mind...

In other words, we have to take as authentic and sincere a poorly written letter of apology to the public, spiced with lies about a draft. This is the precise opposite of what Judaism teaches. This is the gloomy thing: Jews who side with Dianne Abbot should know about Judaism, at least...

These apologies "to the public" have nothing to do with teshuva, with a real change of attitude towards the non-Black minority and the younger Black journalist so brutally patronised.

Will Diane Abbot and the people she used to vacation with in East Germany ever admit that racism may have nothing to do with social class? In other words, even if Jews or Travellers are relatively well off (as some Travellers really are, as we in Sussex know well), can they nonetheless be victims of racism? Of course not!

And yet, this is what nowadays passes as an apology. A couple of lines, which everybody knows won't cancel the abuses, and that the offended person is supposed to receive with grace, perhaps even be grateful. What an honour! Haven't you seen it? Diane Abbot apologised "publicly". Now shut up.

This is why the Jewish concept of teshuva is not so popular nowadays. Equally unpopular are those religions that teach to deal with guilt through humility. In the current cultural atmosphere, humility is no longer a virtue, and many politicians, unfortunately, know this too well.


8th April / 17th Nissan


Jewish holidays are always an emotional experience, and many of them are based on family observance. Pesach is undoubtedly unique. It is the only holiday centred around children. Consider, for example, the Seder. It is all an educational enterprise. The starting point of the Seder are questions asked by children - the Ma Nishtana.

Children are the central characters of the Haggadah. The text lists four children: the wise one, the bad guy, the simple one and the one who cannot ask. The commandment to teach children the story of Exodus is repeated over and over. Even the concluding songs - Had Gadya, Adir Hu, Who knows one - can be sung, and often indeed are sung, as nursery rhymes.

On the other hand, Pesach is a solemn holiday. Many scholars - [see here for example: ] have compared the Seder to the symposium, a banquet that in Ancient Greece and Rome took place after the meal when drinking was accompanied by a conversation between learned men on important philosophical matters. Philosophers such as Plato and Xeno wrote literary works titled Symposium. These are conversations between philosophers, politicians, generals, writers... all adult males. Children are remarkably absent.

The Haggadah deals with important matters, such as Divine justice (think of the plagues), the political leadership (entire books have been written about the absence of Moses) and especially freedom.

Freedom is, indeed, the main thing Pesach is about. "It is the festival of freedom", we often explain when non-Jewish acquittances ask about the holiday.

The problem is that we do not associate children with freedom, in our society. On the contrary, children quite often keep us very busy. Take the case of the Orthodox man on a Tel Aviv bus, with four children, who are jumping all over the place, running after each other and shouting loudly - I mean loud even by Israeli standards: constantly on the move - you know how children are when they are restless.

The exasperated bus driver tells the Orthodox man, "Do you always have to travel with your children with you? That's a nightmare! Can't you ask some family to help? I mean, next time, travel with half of your children, not all of them!" And the Orthodox Jew replies: "I already do. I have eight children!".

When we mention freedom or having a free life, we do not think of people like that Tel Aviv passenger. Nonetheless, Pesach, the holiday built around our children is a festival of freedom. That seems a contradiction. What's going on?

To tackle this issue, we should consider first the Biblical name of the holiday - which is about food (it's a Jewish holiday, isn't it?). Hag ha matzot, "Feast of the matzot". That's a bit complicated. Do you usually associate matza with freedom? - as Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik famously observes. Is freedom what comes to mind when you see a piece of matza? I bet not. You more likely associate freedom with challah!

The text of the Haggadah is quite clear. Matza is "the bread of affliction" halachma anya, as per the Aramaic formula we recite at the beginning of the Seder. Bread of affliction, not bread of freedom.

But what is matza?

Matzot are baked very quickly so as to prevent the dough from leavening. The rest of the year, the dough leavens and is baked afterwards to produce the bread we usually eat. Matza is bread at its very beginning. Matza is not fully-fledged bread. It is bread at the beginning of its production (to quote Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun). It is ‘potential’ bread.

So here we begin to understand what Pesach is about and why children are involved. The freedom we celebrate on Pesach is not freedom to do whatever we want. Instead, on Pesach, we celebrate freedom as potentiality, the possibility that free human beings have to decide their own destiny and future. The freedom we celebrate on Pesach is not freedom in itself, freedom as a goal, but rather freedom as a means.

A means for what? To answer such a question, we ought to remember that the Exodus from Egypt is the beginning of a journey, the journey towards the Promised Land. This is why children are so important. Because by answering their questions and encouraging them to ask questions, we continue our journey toward the Promised Land.

We Italian Jews have a fascinating tradition. At the beginning of the Seder, after breaking the matza, one participant places the afikomen on his left shoulder. The other asks: "Who are you? And where are you going?" He (or she) says his name and explains, "I am going to Jerusalem", And then passes the afikomen to the person of his right, who is asked the same question and answers in the same way "I am going to Jerusalem". When the afikomen has completed the table tour, it is hidden, so the children will search for it at the end of the meal.

So think about this. The Seder is the beginning of our collective journey toward Jerusalem. And we include our children in our same journey - more: we give them a chance to travel ahead of us, to continue the journey. This is the freedom we celebrate on Pesach, this is the Jewish understanding of freedom.

It is not the freedom just to be what you are; it is the freedom to envision, to pass our heritage to the next generations, and the hope and faith that they will continue our journey.

It is actually very counter-cultural. In this time and age, the common understanding of freedom is the freedom to be what you want - usually to identify yourself as a member of this or that persecuted minority.

I am not a fan of the custom to fill the Seder plate with items to symbolize this or that identity - olives for the Palestinians, artichokes for intermarried Jews and, of course, how can we miss it - a bread crust to represent Jews who are excluded (bread on a Seder plate, imagine that). These are all important causes, very urgent matters. But they are expressed through the language of identity. They are all statements about what people are: a Palestinian, an intermarried jew, a ‘whatever-the-bread-crust-is-supposed-to-represent’ person.

Pesach is not about the freedom of being. Pesach is about the freedom to become and project the future and imagine our journey towards the Promised Land.

The proof is here, in days like today, the days that follow the Pesach Seder, when we indeed count the Omer. We count the days until Shavuot, the celebration of the Revelation on Sinai when we Jews accept the Torah and the Divine Mission to make our lives an example of chesed and rahamim, kindness, and mercy.

Is Pesach a festival of freedom? Yes, the freedom to live according to kindness and mercy. And to teach our children the same values and principles as part of a collective journey towards justice and freedom.

I wish you Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.


1st April / 10th Nissan


You know that I am a proud Italian Jew and I love Sephardi food (rice on Pesach? Yes!). But I must admit that, at times, I cheat. I love the most Ashkenazi dessert ever: cheesecake. I would eat tons of it. I am sure many of you share my passion, so hopefully I will be forgiven. My wife knows all about it anyway.

The problem is that at the moment it is so difficult to find a good cheesecake in Hove, actually. Because a good cheesecake is not only a multi-layered dessert. There is the feeling that you know the food has been prepared following specific rules, rules that you know, rules based on values you agree with. There is the awareness that people around you in the same place share these same values in their own way. Jewish food has a spiritual element — you can experience it even when you see another person hanging around in the kosher food aisle at Tesco.

And if you want further proof of the spiritual dimension of Jewish food, think of what happened last week in Israel when a group of secular protesters went to demonstrate in an ultra-Orthodox city. In making such a choice, there was an element of provocation (which, of course, is part of politics). But rather than being pelted with stones or worse, the protesters were welcome by haredi youth who offered them bowls of cholent. And what was meant to be a protest ended up being a festive kosher meal. People from (literally) opposite sides of the barricade sharing a dinner together: That is Jewish spirituality. Sharing food, sharing values and, of course, sharing space, be it a city in Israel (a Jewish town in the Jewish State) or a kosher cafeteria.

I am sure I am not the only one looking forward to the new Jewish Community Centre cafeteria opening. Eventually, I will have a good cheesecake (together with my wife!) at the cafeteria before heading to the presentation of a Jewish book.

But not everybody agrees. Meet Prof. Ted Cantle, Chair of the Cohesion and Integration Network, a national charity established to build the capacity of interculturalism and community cohesion.

According to the professor, having a slice of cheesecake in a kosher cafeteria is very dangerous. And he’s not talking about glycaemia. Last Sunday, on Radio 4, [ from 12:40 on] the leading British authority on community cohesion admonished that the new BNJC community hub shouts out that “we are different, we are not part of the community, we don’t want to live as the rest of the community”. And we know [or at least, the authority in community cohesion, knows] that “people that live in isolated and separated communities are much more likely to be subject to discrimination and prejudice” -which, by the way, is demonstrably false about us Jews - more on this later.

The new community hub is, according to Prof. Cantle, “really a step backwards for the sort of intercultural community we really need to have in modern-day Britain.”

See, those Jews. You think you are having a slice of cheesecake with your friends, but - the authority on community cohesion explains - at that moment, you are taking part in a conspiracy to change the direction of the society, Those powerful Jews.

I admit, until last Sunday, I did not know who Prof Ted Cantle was. But what I heard from his voice on Radio 4 sounds incredibly familiar - and false.

Let me ask a question. At which point in history did Jews make the most enthusiastic effort not to live as isolated and separated (which should prevent prejudice and discrimination according to Ted Cantle)? The answer is: Germany, one century ago. There, the Jews called themselves German citizens of the Jewish faith, gave up with kashrut, did their best to integrate and cancelled from their prayers any reference to an independent Jewish nation in order to be seen as good German citizens. Remarkable effort was made not to shout out “we are different”, and to state: “we want to be part of the community and live as the rest of the community.” Did it help? No. Six million times, no.

The same can be said of Italian Jews during the same period. They eagerly embraced the Italian nationality and identity, did their best to show off what good citizens they were, and avoided any reference to Jewish difference… did it work? You tell me.

And one can observe the same phenomenon in France during the age of Emancipation (have you heard about Captain Dreyfuss, Professor Cantle?) Or in Soviet Russia, where several Jews embraced communism and ended up purged by Stalin for the crime of being “Zionist” - a term that many still believe is a bad word. And most of them are attentive Radio 4 listeners.

Reform Judaism, or better, Jews who started calling themselves Reform, were part of this movement towards an idealised acceptance. It was called “universalism”, an idea to be achieved so that you can shout “we are part of the community - giving up differences and shaping a form of Judaisn deprived of these ‘particularistic’ practices which the general society could find problematic, such as matrilineality, kashrut, turning to Jerusalem in time of prayer and, these days, Zionism.

The ‘cohesion and integration’ savant, whose opinion BBC Radio 4 has chosen to air, is encouraging us Jews to follow that route. Worse, he is preaching to society that we Jews should follow that route. And he ignores — or worse he chooses to ignore - that we Jews have a fresh memory, a familiar memory, which is that downplaying the elements of our Jewish identity in the name of “cohesion” does not work.

It’s chilling to hear on Radio 4 that opening the community hub “is tantamount to building walls rather than building bridges to other communities”.

Did you get the not-so-subtle reference to the security which every Jewish building needs in England 2023? Did you get the reference to the wall of the ghettoes, built around the Jewish neighbourhood in Continental Europe in the Early Modern era? The learned and cultivated public of Radio 4 certainly did. They did not, however, ‘get’ that those walls were not a Jewish choice: they were imposed by the popes and other Catholic authorities (and the Jews had to pay for them). The gates were closed at night-from the outside- because when Jews go around too freely, then God knows what can happen: we Jews have, as you know, the power to turn the clock of history backwards.

Do the Radio 4 listeners know that those walls around the community centre are due to security needs? I would love not to need physical security out there, but as it happens, this place has been targeted since its foundation. And recently, somebody called Jeremy Corbyn told their comrades “to march on” this synagogue (even a not particularly Zionist politician like Lloyd Russell-Moyle was appalled.)

But no, despite the need for security, we are taught by a leading expert in community cohesion that we must build bridges; otherwise, we may be “subject to discrimination”.

Bridges and walls… Can I say that I am tired of this worn-out architectural imagery?

As a Jew, to me, the bridge — the narrow bridge - גשר צר מאוד gesher tzar meod - is the whole world -כל העולם כולו kol ha olam kulo. My entire life, as a Jew, is to walk on that narrow bridge. Probably Professor Cantle ignores this wonderful line, and I don’t think the learned public of BBC4 is familiar with the teaching of Nachman from Breslav. Their loss.

That is what a bridge means to us, the wandering people. It means the world. To us Jews, the bridges, the openings, are not the opposite of the boundaries of the walls. We need both. Life needs boundaries; that’s a fact.

The need for a space, for a Jewish space, is part of the Jewish religion (even from an agricultural point of view, there are different rules for the land of Israel and the rest of the land!). The need for a Jewish physical space is also a need for Jewish culture, which is why we Jews in Brighton are so thrilled for the new community space, regardless of affiliation and level of observance. Me included.

I look forward to the cheesecake, of course, for the sake of community cohesion.


25th March / 3rd Nisan


We begin this week by reading the Book of Leviticus, a book with a terrible reputation. The opening of this book, this week's Torah portion, consists of instructions for sacrifices. And we don't like animal sacrifices.

Later in the book, we find the to-do list for the Kohanim, the priest who worked in the Temple in Jerusalem. And we don't like to talk about the Temple in Jerusalem.

And then, there are chapters about ritual purity, menstruation, and nocturnal emissions. Very gross.

On the whole, it is hardly an inspiring reading - especially for us Reform, emancipated Jews, who believe in modern science and see the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem as a fantasy with dangerous political implications.

I remember a particularly Liberal teacher who openly stated, in front of us students, his support for the Romans' prohibition of the public reading of the Book of Leviticus. Like some radical American Reformers of two hundred years ago, he believed that those pages must be replaced by passages of Prophetic literature. Imagine that. On a Shabbat like today, no Torah reading, only Haftarah!

My purpose today is to demonstrate that this snobbery towards the Book of Leviticus is misplaced. The description of sacrifices performed in the Temple in Jerusalem can be inspiring and morally elevating, even for people like me (better to say it outright!) who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple nor aim to re-establish the practice of sacrifices (I hope I have spelled that out loud and clear!)

To begin with, what is a sacrifice? In the Ancient Middle East, e.g. for the Babylonians, sacrifices were meant to feed the gods. [1] Those civilisations were polytheistic; they had many gods, each ruling over one city and one city only. The centre of many Babylonian cities was indeed the Temple. To ensure the welfare of the town and to maintain the ruling class in power, gods needed to be periodically fed. A curtain was drawn before the table while the god "ate". Usually, the king shared in these sacrificial meals.

But those divinities had no power beyond the boundaries of their city. The land between one town and another, the wilderness, or the desert, was – literally - no god's land. No god ruled there.

The Jewish understanding of God is, obviously, different. God is everywhere. This is why the desert is so important in the stories of our Patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Because that family, for the first time in history, experienced a God that was everywhere, whose power was not restricted to the boundaries of a city.

And Jewish sacrifices were utterly different from Babylonians. Our God does not need to be fed.

For the Jewish religion, sacrifices were a means for human beings to express gratitude.

We associate sacrifices with the expiation of sins, which is partly accurate. Some sacrifices were indeed offered to expiate transgressions (after the damage had been repaid!).

Still, first and foremost, Jewish sacrifices were expressions of gratitude. They were offered to celebrate joyous moments such as after childbirth or to mark the end of a dispute and the restoration of peace, shalom, among human beings. Sacrifices were offered following the recovery from an illness, and when debtors and slaves have gained freedom.

Pesach is approaching, right? It's the festival of our liberation, true! But please remember that the sacrifice of a lamb is part of the Pesach narrative of liberation.

And now I hear you saying, "Fine, Rabbi. Thank you for the history lesson. But I still don't get why I should read all these rules about sacrifices every year. What's the point? I get that we are different from the pagans because of our relationship with God. But there are no pagans around anymore!"

And my answer is: Really? Are you entirely sure that in contemporary society, gratitude is a value? Do you think that everybody agrees with the Jewish moral teaching that the same law must be observed by all humanity, regardless of background or social class?

Because I see politicians who live as if they were entitled to a different lifestyle from ordinary citizens, with different values and more relaxed moral standards.

I see paedophiles who brand themselves "Minor Attracted Persons" and market themselves as another minority who demand recognition and claim to be marginalised. [2] A similar path is followed by the "polyamory" folk, for whom monogamy is a moral standard that does not apply [3].

I see on the media that attacks on Ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York are downplayed as ordinary crimes (if the criminal belongs to a Black or Latino gang [4]) and are prosecuted as they should be only when the perpetrators are white supremacists and Nazis.

It seems to me that the Jewish value of universal morality, of a moral law that should be observed everywhere by all human beings, is far from being universally acknowledged. It seems to me that we live again, or perhaps have reverted to, a sort of cultural paganism, and values such as morality, responsibility and gratitude are entirely out of fashion,

For this, I think it's worth studying Leviticus, as a way to familiarise ourselves with Jewish ethics, with the idea that there is a basic moral law to be observed by all human beings, regardless of provenance, background, social class, and identity,

I invite you to consider one detail in the text we have read, Lev 2:11: "No meal offering that you offer to the Eternal shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be offered to the Eternal". What's the problem with leaven and honey? Why were our ancestors forbidden to offer in sacrifice these two kinds of food? Did God care about the ingredients of the meal offering?

Abarbenel [ad loc.] explains that both honey and leaven are a symbol of self-indulgence.


11th March / 18th Adar


Like in every Jewish text, in the Torah, there is narrative - a plot, and normative - rules and norms.

Narrative. You can read the Torah to find the plot. This week's portion has much to offer: the episode of the Golden Calf. The narrative is as follows: while Moses is on the top of Mount Sinai and God gives him the Law, the Israelites are left alone. So they built an idol, the Golden Calf no less, and start a great party - as we have read – with dancing, eating, drinking and all the rest. As a result of this, God becomes upset and threatens to annihilate the Israelites and to make Moses the leader of another nation. But Moses manages to placate the Divine anger. Then he goes down to see with his eyes what is happening and loses his temper. This is the moment when Moses breaks the tablets of the law. (It's a moment portrayed by artists many times - Rembrandt, possibly, the most famous.) Then Moses climbs Mount Sinai again. There, he receives a second set of tablets.

That's the main plot of our Torah portion. There are other plots (Moses sees God, no less!). The narrative is excellent.

The normative in this Torah portion is, however, less attractive.

If you are a mitzvah-nerd, if you count the commandments in each Torah portion, you find -more or less - nine commandments (there is a bit of disagreement on this point between Maimonides and the rest of the world... but that's for another sermon).

There is also one of three occurrences of a commandment: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk". In the whole Torah, this commandment appears three times. The Rabbis explain that there cannot be repetition in the Torah, so there must be a reason why this particular commandment is repeated three times, each time using precisely the same words.

Somebody says that the commandment is repeated three times because: (one) you should not cook meat with milk; (two) you should not eat meat with milk; and (three) you should have separate dishes for meat and for milk.

Another interpretation is: (one) you should not cook meat with milk; (two) you should not eat meat with milk; (three) you should not profit by selling dairy and meaty foods combined together.

Then there is that joke about Moses, when he writes the commandments under Divine dictation:

Moses hears this commandment once, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk", and asks God to repeat it. God dictates the commandment for the second time, so Moses reluctantly engraves it into the tablets.

But he is perplexed. He tries to explain to God that this commandment will be problematic; without an explanation, it will engender thousands of discussions; you know how Jews are... Is this kind of meat allowed, or is it not? Lamb or goat? What about cow? And, sorry, chicken? Chicken's milk... does not exist! And which kind of milk are we talking about? Goat's milk or cow's milk, and is soya milk forbidden or not?

By listening to Moses going on about the Jewish love for discussions and distinctions, God grows even more angry. So He raises His voice and dictates the commandment for the third time, shouting. This is why Moses wrote: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk"- for the third time.

Jokes apart, Jewish Law is often mocked as obscure and illogical. We live in a Christian Country, and I am sure you are all familiar with the opposition: "Christianity, the religion of love vs Judaism, the religion of the Law".

A Law which - according to this view- is ossified, out of time, and in desperate need of an update. The intricacies and the strictness of the "abstruse Jewish law" are material for humour, often Jewish humour, sometimes good humour (like the joke above).

But you know what? It is all based on a misunderstanding.

Let's review the Torah portion of this week.

Moses ascends the mountain, and the Israelites - out of nostalgia - build an idol, a Golden Calf. It is an act of idolatry. It is a betrayal. Obviously, God is enraged. God threatens to destroy the Israelites and to make Moses the leader of another nation. It makes sense. After all, Moses is a bit of an outsider. He grew up at Pharaoh's court, never experienced slavery, and indeed his status as an outsider was known by the Israelites. Nonetheless, Moses refuses God's offer. He wants to stay with his people. So Moses reminds God of the covenant stipulated with Abraham, repeated to Itzak, reiterated to Jakov etc.

Do not underestimate this.

Religions are founded after a prophet accepts the Divine call. In ancient mythologies, the heroes do what the gods command them to, but not so in our religion. The foundational moment of Judaism, as a system of laws, is when a man – Moses - refuses an offer by God. God offers Moses the chance to lead another people, but Moses refuses to obey and persuades God to give the Jews a second chance. This is the moment when God gives the Law to the Jewish people.

And now, please, let's have a look at the calendar.

According to the Midrash, Moses ascends to Sinai for the second time on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Moses descends then with the second set of tablets after forty days. Which is Yom Kippur! On Yom Kippur (I know someone is starving already...) we expiate our transgressions, we amend, we try to forgive and be forgiven, and God gives us a second chance. Just as God gave to our ancestors on that first Yom Kippur, thanks to the pleading of Moses.

This is the great point missed by all the humour (Jewish or not) on the intricacies of Jewish law and by the theological nonsense about the unforgiving, vengeful "God of the Old Testament".

The Jewish Law, the Halacha, the Jewish way of life, has been given by God to the Jews as a sign of love, proof, and evidence that that horrible act of idolatry, the Golden Calf, has been forgiven. We Jews follow the Halacha not because we are a tribe of neurotics or because of fear of hell. The Halacha is not a burden. It is a sign of God's love for us, for his people.

And please let us not forget another essential point. The first pair of tablets materialised in the hands of Moses when he ascended Sinai for the first time. Then Moses descended, saw the people debasing themselves in front of the idol, and out of anger broke those tablets, the first gift of God. But the second set of tablets was the result of Moses's work - God dictated to Moses, or if you are Reform, God inspired Moses, to carve the law into the stones.

These tablets, the place from which the Torah literally originates, required the work of the human being from the very beginning. The Halacha needs the cooperation of human beings. It just does not come from above. It needs practice. It needs our acceptance. Like the way, in a family, love must be cultivated and kept alive.

I, as much as anyone, enjoy good Jewish humour about Jewish neurosis and about the Rabbis' talent in finding loopholes. But it's easy to recognise that theological mistake at the basis. While another stereotype, the ever-argumentative Jew, possibly originated in that act of rebellion by Moses.

And I love Moses' rebellion. Imagine this. God gives you an offer and you say "no thanks". That rebellion was so bold that even God was impressed and changed His mind.

All the mitzvot, the commandments, stem from that moment. Including that line "do not boil the kid in its mother's milk" - given to us so that we learn, practice and teach compassion towards the animals…

What did I just say? Learn, practice and teach.

Three verbs.

That must be the reason why the commandment appears three times!


4th March / 11th Adar


Today, Shabbat Zachor, we have read an extra bit of Torah besides the regular weekly Torah portion. It is the famous - or infamous - commandment to erase Amalek, the tribe of our enemies, so that not even their memory remains. Possibly the earliest recorded case of cancel culture.

Which poses an intriguing problem. How is it possible to put the commandment to remember your enemy in the same sentence as the commandment to erase his memory? Ibn Ezra has solved this paradox. He explains that the Israelites have to follow this commandment only when they live in the Land of Israel. Even by that point, the nation of Amalek won’t have stopped their attacks. Hence the commandment: cancel them — from your land. Keep them far from you.

But who is Amalek? According to the Torah, he is the grandson of Esau. The Amalekites, his descendants, have transmitted the grudge that their forefather held against Jacob and against the descendants of Jacob.

The origin of Amalek’s hatred for our people is a perceived injustice — you know, that old story of the lentil soup and the birthright. Over time, such a grudge has magnified, inflated, and now it has become a real obsession. The Amalekites bond with each other — for lack of a better word – through this racial hatred against the descendants of Jacob, all because of a misdeed committed generations ago.

The piece of Written Torah that we have read commands us to exterminate the descendants of Amalek. Shall we all start killing Amalekites once Shabbat is over? Obviously not. The Rabbis in the Oral Torah establish that there is no purity of lineage, so it is impossible to identify who the current Amalekites are. Unless they reveal themselves through their actions. One of those guys who obsessively hates the Jews and wants to exterminate us is: guess who? The evil minister in the story of the Megillah… Haman.

Haman is an Amalekite, so the Rabbis teach, and as we know, he does his best to prove it. We have read these few lines in Parashat Zakhor: “remember what Amalek did to you”, to give us a reason to drink and to make a noise on Purim, during the reading of the Megillah every time we hear the H-name (Haman).

Now, I have to admit I have a problem with this whole business of Amalek, of Parashat Zakhor, and all the rest - especially with the fact that it is an introduction to Purim.

My problem is that the Shabbat before Purim, today, Shabbat Zakhor, has become a time for unbearable sanctimoniousness. It’s the time of the year when self-appointed Jewish leaders of all denominations, from the more Orthodox to the more politically progressive, literally mount on the pulpit and give the most moralising, boring sermons ever.

Parashat Zakhor, the commandment to erase the memory of Amalek is, for the Far Left, a terrible commandment, an exhortation to genocide (and who cares if generations of Rabbis read it otherwise). To them, these few lines in our Holy Book are so upsetting. Being exposed to passages like this hurts their feelings. And of course, when they read it, they think (surprise, surprise!) about the crimes of the Israelis. For these people, ancient Israelites wishing bad on their enemies are wrong, while similar sermons from contemporary Muslim preachers leave them unperturbed.

The spectacle on the more traditional side of the Jewish spectrum is even more pathetic. For these people, identifying who Amalek is, is the main focus. Who is this bad guy we must erase from our midst? The answer is: everyone except them. Reform Jews are Amalek because they do not follow the Orthodox way of life. Secular Jews are Amalek because, well, because they are secular. Don’t ask. Whoever dares to ask questions is, above all, Amalek. Amalek is the male Jew who “marries out” and thus brings foreign blood into our midst. And an especially perverted kind of Amalek is the Jew who marries a non-Jewish person and then dares to Jewishly educate the offspring. Yes, you are Amalek for passing down the Jewish identity of your family to the next generation.

All of this, mind, happens on the Shabbat before Purim. Sometimes the sanctimoniousness even extends to Purim itself. So you have the Far Left moralising about the concluding part of the Megillah, when - like in a Quentin Tarantino movie - Jews take revenge on their enemies. The presence of this kind of fantasy in our tradition troubles them more than, for example, actual terrorists such as Shamina Begun, whom they would gladly like to welcome back to England.

In the same way, the most traditional (should I say bigoted) on the Right extend their sanctimoniousness by finding the most incredible excuses for Esther’s sexuality. Are we all adults here? OK, so we can say it. Esther makes use of her feminine beauty in order to persuade the Emperor to spare her people. And she succeeds! With an even more savant performance, she persuades the sovereign to get rid of Haman. But don’t tell the frummers. They will bring lots of stories and excuses to portray Esther as a modest, discrete, nice little Jewish girl. Possibly the only recorded case of a modest concubine in the world’s history. Why, oh why, such a need to coat Purim with moral posturing? Why do both Left and Right want us to enter Purim in this sanctimonious mood?

Of course, the Megillat Esther is problematic for Orthodox Jewish sensitivity. Of course, the Megillat Esther offends the devotees to the religion of Wokeness. There’s everything in the Megillah that both sides find upsetting. There is sex. There’s violence. There is an arrogant evil villain who, in the end, is impaled, the most humiliating form of the death penalty. There is an idiotic king, easily manipulable and actively manipulated. There is a beauty pageant, and the girls paraded in front of the king are scantily clad and probably minor. No one checked their age anyway. The conclusion is an orgy of violence. The opening scene is a banquet with damsels dancing naked. Heaven forbid, perhaps there is even mixed dancing!

Everything contrary to religion and morality is there in the Megillah. I actually wonder why it never comes with a trigger warning, such as: “Warning! Contains scenes that may be considered disturbing and cause occasional anxiety, such as a non-Jewish ruler who plans a genocide of his Jewish subjects. Here’s a list of resources besides your Rabbi. This book is not suitable for readers under the age of … etc”

Of course, the Megillat Esther is not suitable for minors. It’s not the bedside story I would read to my children. But who said that religion is only for children and children only?

Let’s state things how they are. Purim, the joyous, chaotic & cathartic public reading of the Megillah, has sustained the Jewish people through centuries of persecution and exile in situations and times when fantasies of revenge were totally understandable, even natural. Every oppressed minority nurtures this kind of fantasy. The difference is that despite reading a tale each year whose surprising conclusion is the massacre of the antisemites, our fantasies have never become a reality. No Gentiles were harmed in the production of this Megillah.

The most pious among us have used the Megillat Esther as a frame to understand the events and find God even when He or She is hidden. Much has been written about the absence of God in the Megillah. He or She is not even mentioned, and this is troubling for the religious. But all Jews are troubled by the absence of God in our life. Especially when we look for God and find nothing.

Throughout the Jewish world, there have been countless local Purim on various days of the year, when Jewish communities celebrate the rescue from threats and dangers. There are special prayers, mishlach manot and a lot of merriness. Purim-like, indeed.

In Istanbul, there was the Purim de Sargosa, with which the Jews from Saragosa, expelled from Spain in 1492 and resettled in Turkey, celebrated the anniversary of the cancellation of another threatened expulsion — from Istanbul this time. Because you know life for the Jews was not always easy under the benevolent rule of the Ottoman Emperor, and whoever says the opposite is lying. Jewish life is always precarious. There is even a Jewish version of the gunpowder plot, the powder Purim - commemoration of the explosion of a powder magazine at Vilna in 1804, when a local Jewish merchant miraculously survived. In Padua, they even have five extra Purim scattered throughout the year, the most recent one instituted in the 20s when the local Fascist mob tried to assault the synagogue and the entrance door almost burnt down.

Throughout the centuries, Purim has provided our people with a framework, if not to understand the ups and downs of our collective history, at least to give hope that hostile decrees can be reversed and that our enemies, as strong as they may seem, can in the end be vanquished. In a sense, Purim is a subversive holiday. It reminds us that no matter how powerful the powerful think they are, there is always someone above them, a Higher Authority, in charge of the ultimate decisions. And no one who’s in power is happy to be reminded of this.

I really don’t know why self-appointed spiritual leaders, just before Purim, make such a point of lavishing their audience with moral posturing…Perhaps they love order and discipline more than they love Judaism. Perhaps they feel so insecure that they need to assert their personal authority. Perhaps it’s just another example of inflated egos. Perhaps they just don’t like it when Jews are happy. But in the end, who cares. Today is Shabbat Zakhor - let’s erase the memory of Amalek, and on Monday, on Purim, we will deal in the proper way with his descendant, that evil guy: Haman (booooo!)


25th February / 4th Adar


I have good news. Good news from Israel.

But first, let me share a story with you. When Menachem Begin visited the States for the first time as Prime Minister in 1977, he spent one night in a hotel in New York. Unsurprisingly, a group of protesters gathered on the street beneath his window. They were anti-Israel folks of the ultra-Orthodox variety, those black-dressed lunatics whomaintain that Zionism is blasphemy and the Israeli Prime Ministers - all of them - are bloodthirsty criminals. It was a small clique but very noisy. Past 10.00 PM, the hoteliers and the security services offered to disperse the group so that the Prime Minister could have his night of rest. But Menachem Begin had no time for it. "Let them protest,” he said. “Let them make all the noise they want. Those people have waited two thousand years for a Jewish prime minister to protest against and the freedom to protest aloud. Don't you dare destroy the gift that they have finally received!"

Reading the news from Israel over the last weeks, I thought several times about this story.

The numbers are impressive. 250 thousand Israeli citizens, more than 2 per cent, regularly participate in demonstrations against the proposed judicial reform. To give you an idea of scale, think of more than 180,000 English citizens demonstrating. Or 8,000 citizens out of the whole population of Brighton. These are the biggest demonstrations in the history of the country, and they have been going on for weeks.

It used to be that every Israeli knew at least another Israeli who had died in war. Now every Israeli knows at least one Israeli citizen who has taken part in these demonstrations. These protesters belong to every stratum of Israeli society. They are farmers, social workers, students, and hi-tech entrepreneurs. Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachis. Religious and secular. There are Left-wing leaders, like our own Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a Labour MP, and Right-wing personalities, such as Tzipi Livni and Benny Begin. So many people and so diverse that they cannot even appoint an official spokesperson.

And now let me ask you, how often would you see something similar happening in England? I mean people ‘doing’ politics, things like demonstrations and rallies. I am talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Not that often, I suppose. These days, doing politics means writing two lines on Twitter, pushing the send button, and then waiting for someone to argue back. This is how politics is done here these days.

Some people still go canvassing; that's true. But remember when we organised a meeting with all the candidates for the political elections in 2019? The average age of the participants was so high; there were no young people. This is not good for the future: it means that young UK citizens are not interested in democracy.

The lack of participation in political life in this country is dramatic – and it is not only happening in the UK. It's a problem throughout the whole of the Western world. In Italy two weeks ago, people voted for the Governors of the two biggest regions, Lombardy and Lazio, that is, Milan and Rome: 40% of people did not bother to vote. These are the elections that decide who will govern the major cities and their regions, that is, the politicians who will take decisions for matters that affect their daily lives, such as public health, traffic, and transportation... But an increasing number of citizens simply do not care, do not trust the system or the politicians. They choose not to have a voice. And the problem is the same all over the Western world. There's a dramatic mistrust in democracy. This is the reason why populist political forces are growing everywhere: because distrust of democracy forms the basis of their agendas.

The result is that many people all over the world do not care for politics and do not trust democracy at all. And then there is a small Country where things are different. A Country - lest we forget - that is constantly targeted by terrorists, even now, even at this very moment. Israel is the only Country in the world that a coalition of other countries (led by Iran) has committed to erase from the face of the earth.

Nonetheless, despite being under threat of annihilation, the citizens of this Country, the Israelis, prove that they believe in democracy and mobilise themselves. In that Country, hundreds of thousands of citizens join public rallies in all the major cities, in every part of the Country, from the impoverished villages in the South to big cities such as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and even in some settlements in the West Bank.

It may be, as Menachem Begin said, that we Jews have waited for such a long time to have a government against which to protest that now we want to savour this opportunity. (Try to organise a Jewish demonstration against the Iranian Government in Tehran: good luck with that). It could also be that the high concentration of Jewish citizens in a Jewish State creates the conditions for highly participative and opinionated Jewish public life...

Whatever the reason for such mass participation, the important point is this, and I am quite impressed that no one has noticed: the Israelis are teaching the rest of the world that democracy matters.

I do not have a high opinion of the current Israeli Government. I think that Netanyahu is a cynical, albeit very talented, man who, at this point, should build a different coalition. To be honest, I am worried about the judicial reform, and I am worried about worse things to come - especially restrictions on Jewish immigration from Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, etc. That would be a betrayal of Zionism. Nonetheless, let me state it clearly. Our faith commands us to judge everybody for good.

Perhaps those who - even now - spend their time insulting Israel on social media (and call it "doing politics" and identify themselves as Jewish...) have never been in touch with this important teaching of our Tradition. It's not a secret that those critics-of-Israel know very little of Judaism, and even the very little they know, they get wrong (it's funny to see how the ultra-Orthodox are held in huge esteem for some anti-Zionist rant published before the 20s...). But who cares about their rant. We must judge Israel for good.

And so here is my opinion: How can you not admire the Israelis? How can you not be proud of being a Jew, of being a Zionist right now? Look at the passion and dedication to democracy that, over these past weeks, the Israelis are showing to the world. Precisely when people in the Western world have lost faith in democracy and the despot in the Kremlin smirks "I told you so, Western democracy is over".

Having faith in the power of democracy these days means being a light upon the nations, which is what Zionism is all about.

There is something in the Jewish culture which encourages us Jews to take part in public life. This week's Torah portion, for example, is all about God's instructions to make the Tabernacle and its furnishings: quite a trivial and, dare I say, boring topic. But commentators have read in these paragraphs important teachings regarding public life - even when the text is about a portable altar! For example, they compare the Tabernacle to a leader and, by extension, that political leaders must be gold (that is, pure) on the inside and outside.

In the opening of the Torah portion, God commands the Israelites to bring gifts with a well-disposed heart. But what exactly happens here? Asks the Sfas Emet. Are these spontaneous donations, or rather are people being asked to contribute? How can you command anyone to feel generous and hence to give generously? Are these taxations or donations? And the answer is - people are happy to give money to pay taxes if they feel a sense of belonging to society.

This is an extraordinary teaching by a Rabbi at a time when democracy as we know it, with universal suffrage, was yet to be invented. The Jewish tradition finds political meaning even in the description of the building of a portable altar!

Our tradition encourages us to be involved in politics. If you wonder why when the rest of the world does not trust democracy anymore, the Israelis are showing the opposite faith in democracy, and you suggest that the answer is in the Torah: that's fine for me. I am willing to concede that when the Israelis do something good, it is because they are inspired by the Torah. I am a Rabbi and helping Jews to find inspiration in the Torah is, after all, my job.

But the main point, and we should not be afraid to say it openly, is that the Israelis are doing something very good, something remarkable, something inspiring.

Kol ha Kavod, maximum respect and Yasher koach. May the force be with them.


11th February / 20th Shevat

Thank you Liz

You probably already know the story of the wise Italian Rabbi Eliahu Benamozzegh, who was walking

towards the synagogue one day when he bumped into an atheist. The atheist started teasing the Rabbi. "

Rabbi," he said, I have read the Holy Books of you Jews, the Bible. I have read it all.. but I still don't get

why you consider it holy. True to be told, I found in it only nonsense!"

"Of course -replied the Rabbi- You see, the Torah is Holy because there is everything in it. There is

poetry for the poets. There is philosophy for the philosophers. There is also, you know, a bit of that

raunchy stuff - for those who have that taste. And for idiots like you, there is plenty of nonsense..."

The Rabbi had a point. The Bible is a very diverse book. There is narrative. For example, in the portions

we read last week, there were the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the manna.... and this week,

we read the story of a wise man, Ythro, who gives Moses precious pieces of advice, like: learn to

delegate, my friend. You cannot spend all your time trying to solve the problems of everyone and

listening to all those grievances... That is narrative.

But besides the narrative, in the Bible, there is much else. There are rules, laws, and commandments.

Stuff like "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (three times) ", let the land rest every seven

years", and rules about sacrifices, holidays... plus this week, the ten commandments, or "asserei dibarot"

those ten sentences s engraved which you can see here. So this week's Torah portion has both narratives

and normative.

That is because the Israelites are in transition at this point of the narrative. The miracles that brought

them out of Egypt -the plagues, the Crossing of the Red Sea- are now a thing of the past. Now this group

of people must learn to organise themselves and follow the rules. That's the reason why from now on, the

Torah is more normative than narrative. Liberation has happened. It's time now to learn what to do with

this new situation of being free. It's the time to get tachlis, a Hebrew word that means, indeed tachlis.

And at this point, it would be very easy, too easy for me, to praise Liz for her extraordinary talent in

matter of tachlis indeed. She has run the practical side of synagogue's life, often by herself, and I mean

alone, with perfect efficiency: the admin stuff, the communication, the calendar., She has handled our

calendar in coordination with other important community organisations (Helping Hands) and what was

happening in this building (remember the Zumba?).

Because, you know, it is great to have the vision -a synagogue, which is Reform and traditional at the

same time, a place of prayer but also a kehilla, a community- but then you have to deal with the

practicalities, the services, the calendar... So let me be clear. If you have received a card on your birthday

from our synagogue, this is thanks to Liz. If the Bar/Bat mitzvah of your son or daughter ran smoothly:

Grandpa found the parking, seats were reserved, we started in time and ended in time, this is not Rabbi's

zehut, merit. Rabbi is indeed a pretty unorganised person (ask his wife). This is all merit of Liz. I am so

grateful to Liz, and I regret the many times I did not say thank you. For giving us the strength to turn our

vision and our values into a real community.

But that's easy, as I said. You already know this. Perhaps you don't have the full idea of how hard Liz's

work is, But I reckon that for many of us, it's not new.


There is something else in this Torah portion that makes me think of Liz. The Torah portion of this

week teaches that a vision needs organisation. But it also narrates how a group of individuals became

a people, a community. The common experiences have implanted in the souls of the Israelites a deep

sense of belonging. And if in this room, there is someone who, deeps in her soul, knows what being

Jewish really means, that person is Liz Shaw. I am revealing a secret right now. Liz has helped me

enormously to know better each of you. As someone who grew up here, who has been present in the

life of so many here, Liz always helped me to find the proper way, or the proper words to say, the

proper time to reach out, or just to make a call.

Over the last few years, our community, like every Jewish community, has had its ups and downs. We

remember the relief following the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, the anxiety surrounding COVID, the

excitement for new developments, and the celebration of the significant anniversary of this building.

We have gone through a lot, and Liz was always there to get things going and to offer support in

difficult moments, to offer a helping hand (that was easy) and to rejoice, or to put it better to organise

the party. Truly she has been close to the soul of so many in our community. Making a real difference

for so many of us. And remember, every time my sermon made a bit of sense, that was because of

Liz's editing.

So, Liz, I will miss you, and I know (and you know) I am not the only one. As I have the privilege of

being your Rabbi, I have particular memories of you, of your 50s birthday party as well as the first

time you wore the tallis. I will miss the Habonim girl to tease with my Likud-oriented quips, and I

will miss funny stories such as the first time you drove a car in your life (it was the Rolls Royce of

Lee Panto's husband, zikhrono livrakha). I will try to be attentive and empathic as you show me to be,

especially with people who are alone.

The only thing I can say, as a Rabbi, is that I hope to see you in shul because it's a proven fact that

when you come to shul, the Albion wins the match, especially against Crystal Palace. And because

when you are not here, something is missing in our souls.

Liz Shaw, Sara bat Abraham, you have made such a difference in the life of so many Jews here in

Hove (actually). And you also set an example.

For this, everybody who is here is deeply, deeply grateful.

Rabbi’s Sermon (cont.)


4th February / 13th Shevet


A Holocaust survivor dies and goes to heaven. Because he has been such a saintly and pious Jew, they bring him in front of God. The survivor is terribly nervous - as you can imagine, a religious person standing literally in front of God. So he tries to break the ice with a Holocaust joke. God does not laugh nor smile; He is not amused and perhaps even upset. So the survivor asks: “What’s wrong, O Eternal One?”. God replies that the joke was crass, offensive, racist…. nothing funny about it at all. So the survivor replies: “well, dear God, I guess You just had to be there”.

As per the best tradition of Jewish humour, this joke is not only a joke. It is theology in two lines.

Where indeed was God at Auschwitz? At that most horrible place in history, where human beings were committing the worst, unredeemable, systematic acts of violence against other human beings, where was God? This is a very compelling question if you accept the traditional Jewish theology, which is exposed in this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s Torah portion is B’shalach. It narrates the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the provision of manna, and everything in between. In last week’s Torah portion, we read that Pharaoh, hit in his dominions by the plagues, eventually let the Israelites go. This week Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after the Israelite people with his army, trapping them at the Sea of Reeds. God commands Moses to split the sea, allowing the Israelites to pass. Then God closes the sea back over the Egyptian army. This is the final punishment for the Egyptian enslavers and oppressors. And it is the biggest miracle narrated, actually sung, in the Torah. Then the Israelites are fed with manna and given pure water to drink and clean with. In the last paragraph, the nation of Amalek attacks, and the Israelite people are victorious.

In short, this is the Torah portion where the evildoers, such as the Egyptians and Pharaoh, are punished, and the Israelites are rewarded with miracles never before seen. It is also the Torah portion which tells us of the victory of the Israelites over the Amalekites, a tribe who hate the Jews just because they are Jews (and, well, because somehow they occupy their land). And the Israelites defeat them.

Parashat B’shalach tells us about a God who punishes evildoers and protects the Jews from their enemies. The faith in such a God sustained the millions of people starving in ghettoes, enslaved by the Nazis, tortured and used as objects for so-called medical experiments. But despite the faith of His people, God did not help. God was not at Auschwitz.

And here’s the problem we face because of the coincidence of Holocaust Memorial Day and the Torah portions we read these days. Where was God?

Somebody finds the answer in ideology. God was not in Auschwitz, they say. But evil was there; they do not believe in God, but they identify who is evil: the Nazis. And then, they build a whole ideology based on opposing Nazism. It is what Vladimir Putin is doing. For him and for his followers, Nazis are the Eastern European Countries who refuse to become Russian colonies. Following this logic, all the people who inhabit Eastern Europe and are not Russians, are Nazis. The Ukrainians are Nazis, the Lithuanians are Nazis, the Polish are Nazis., the Germans are Nazis (when they help the Ukrainians), and of course the British and Americans are Nazis too.

Nazism is this monster that one century ago was born in some beerhouse in Munich and has then conquered Europe. Russia is the only nation that followed its duty to fight against the Nazis. It is not only propaganda; there are people, although we cannot know how many, who really believe this nonsense. Not only in Russia, by the way.

Obviously, this is nonsense. There are Far Right, nationalists and Nazi sympathisers in more or less every European Country and beyond. But it does not mean that they are in power. And even when they came close to power, immediately after the end of Communism (think of Croatia, for example), they later became a tiny minority.

Another example of nonsensical ideology goes as follows. God was not in Auschwitz. God was not there. God probably does not exist. But evil exists. What is evil? Nazism is evil. Nazism was a form of nationalism. Hence every form of nationalism is evil because nationalism is the root cause of every evil; wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide. All these plagues are fueled by nationalism. And as nationalism for these people is evil; of course, Jewish nationalism is, well, perhaps the worst. And there you have it: Nazism and Zionism are, for those ideologists, precisely the same thing - an illness of the soul, symptoms of the same disease. If you have noticed, these people spend more time and energy fighting against (Zionist) Jews than against (Nazi) antisemites.

This is a nonsensical ideology, precisely like the Putinista’s. They both begin with an attempt to answer the question “Where was God in Auschwitz?” or “Why does God not punish the evildoers?” And they believe they have found the answer in the realm of ideology. And look at the pathetic outcomes. People who believe in these ideologies end up worshipping Vladimir Putin or some Palestinian terrorist, as if they could offer genuine protection of the Jewish people.

But I know that now you want answers. Why did God punish Pharaoh and not the Nazis? Why did God protect our ancestors against the Amalekites when they were wandering in the desert, and not when they were in the shtetl and in the ghettoes?

And I have no answer. These are answers that every Jew must search for, in our textual and interpretative tradition, the Talmud and the Rabbinic literature. You wonder where God was in Auschwitz; my answer is: I don’t know; keep looking - in our sources, in our commentaries, in the Talmud, in every written effort to make the Torah the centre of Jewish life.

Judaism is not only the reason why certain people hate us. Judaism is a spiritual path based on texts which contain amazing insights and have the potential to give meaning to our lives. It may not give you all the answers you search for, but it definitely teaches you to ask questions.

So now let me share with you a particularly deep passage by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (yes, he of Religious Zionism; I know there will be one of you amongst my readers who at this point is already starting to shout “and-what-about-the-Occupation?”. Here’s my answer: “Thank you for reading this far; you can go reading elsewhere now”).

And so, back to Soloveitchik. He asks the following:

Why did the Israelites sing after the drawing of the chariots and the split of the Sea of Reeds? Why do they not even thank God for the previous series of miracles, the plagues? Some plagues affect only the Egyptians, such as the boils, the lice, and the killing of the firstborns.,. all these makkot hit only the Egyptians. At the same time, the Israelites are saved. No boils. No flies. Even the darkness that fell upon all of Egypt did not disrupt the Israelite’s lives; the Israelites could get along with their lives while a thick dark, oppressive atmosphere paralysed the Egyptians, who could not move from their houses; they could not even get out of their beds… These were impressive miracles, signs and wonders. Yet, the Israelites did not even say thank you to God; only with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, did they sing out of gratitude. It is a solemn, inspiring wonderful song (which, like every year, I have butchered with my voice). But why do the Israelites sing only here, only at this point?

Because, says Soloveitchik, in Egypt, the Israelites were still spiritually enslaved. They could see the Divine punishment falling upon their taskmaster and not upon themselves. But they had internalised slavery. Their minds, attitudes, and hearts were still those of enslaved people. Only by physically getting outside of Egypt, could the Israelites understand that their slavery was not a given nor a perennial condition. At the time of the plagues, the Israelites did not even dare to think that their lives could be better or free.

The move from slavery to freedom is an enormous step, and it is not only a physical step; it is also, or mainly, a spiritual process. To replace the mindset of an enslaved person with the one of a free human being is an enormous effort. But once the oppressed have experienced freedom, there is no way back. The Ukrainian people have experienced freedom and are now fighting hard to avoid a return to life under Russian rule. The Iranian women experience the possibility of walking around bareheaded for the first time in their lives. As much as the Islamist police attack and torture them, they have experienced freedom. Their wonderful souls are not willing to return to slavery and oppression.

I have opened this sermon with a tragic question, where was God at Auschwitz? And I am not afraid to admit I do not have an answer. I can only warn you against the ideologues who believe that they - and only they - know how to defeat Evil. Don’t trust them; they think they have the kind of wisdom that only God can have. For even if I cannot give you the answers you are looking for, and in a slightly cheeky way, I say that you have to find the answers for yourselves, there is one thing that I know for sure. God is on the side of freedom. And by defending the Iranian women and the Ukrainian people, we help God to do His job. Because God, wherever He is, desperately needs our help.

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