Welcome to my Blog!

Follow this Blog by registering and you can earn mitzvah points.
(Mitzvah points cannot be redeemed at the moment but may be redeemable in the World to Come - check with your provider).

Friday, 25 December 2020

Living in Two Cultures - a Christmas Sermon 2020

My predecessor in Bournemouth, Rabbi David Soetendrop, once told me a story. A relative of a congregant had died and Rabbi David went round one night around this time to lead the shivah prayers. As he walked up to the house, he noticed in the windowsill of the lounge, in full view of anyone who walked past or up to the house, was a small Christmas tree. He knocked on the door and there was a very loud whisper from the house. “It’s the Rabbi,” someone said from inside, “close the curtains before he sees the Christmas tree!” They obviously hadn’t realised that he could see through the glass as he walked up to the house!

Jews have almost always lived in two cultures – the culture of our heritage and the culture of the country in which we happen to be living. There have in the last few thousand years been very few times and places when the culture of our heritage and of our home have been the same, so Jewish life has, almost always, been a balancing act between differing cultures. Sometimes the two cultures complement each other, sometimes they clash. An example of how they can complement each other can be found in the habits of so many American Jews, apparently especially New York Jews, on December 25th. Since those Jews aren’t at work and since restaurants and movie theatres are usually empty at that time (for non-COVID reasons), such Jews invariably go out for a meal, usually Chinese. So, it becomes almost an American Jewish custom to go out for Chinese food and a movie on December 25th. This year, it seems to be take-out and Netflix or Disney +. This isn’t a religious custom at all, even though it's based on the same day as an important Christian holiday. Jews who take part in such a custom aren’t participating in anything Christian, they’re just helping local businesses stay afloat where possible at a time when local Christians wouldn’t be for a day.


A second way that Jews have lived in other cultures is by bringing secular customs into the religious life of the Jewish community. The most famous and obvious example of this is the seder service, which is filled with Hellenic eating customs, such as leaning to the left, starting a meal with herbs and with salt water, and ending the meal with dessert, known in Greek as afikomen. Although we note the Hellenic origins of these customs, they are unquestionably Jewish because they were removed from their original secular context and “made Jewish.” Yes, the Romans may have added salt water at the start of their meal, but we do it to remember the Exodus from Egypt.


The third way that Jews have lived in other cultures is by taking the religious customs of other communities and then rendering them Jewish. This hasn’t happened for a long time but is a part of ancient Jewish ritual. Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur receive only brief mentions in Torah, it is interesting how important they became in Rabbinic Judaism later. Particularly important are a series of ten days in which human destiny is set, connection with the creation of the world, the enthronement of God during this time, a sacrifice for atonement to carry away people’s sins. This is important because these were all Babylonian customs and it seems very possible - perhaps one could go so far as to say likely - that the Jewish community picked up these customs during the Babylonian Exile and thus transformed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


We have so far seen three differing ways that Jews have lived in non-Jewish culture. The first is by simply observing secular customs around the same time as the non-Jewish community celebrated religious customs. The second is by assimilating secular customs into the religious life of the Jewish community, and the third is by assimilating non-Jewish religious customs into the religious life of the Jewish community. All of these were acceptable at the time because they were brought into Jewish life as opposed to existing alongside it. This third way is the most controversial so far, though, because of what might be called religious misappropriation. Bringing in religious rituals from another faith community into your own is a way of denying the meaning behind them and imposing on that ritual differing meaning. So, for example, when some churches hold a seder around Pesach to learn about the Last Supper, they engage in theological violence to the seder (as well as historical violence since it wasn’t even created yet by that time!). We wouldn’t want other communities to take out rituals and bring them into their own religion, so we really shouldn’t be doing the same. We excuse the theological borrowing from the Babylonians since they are no longer around to complain about it, although that’s probably not a very good defence and we’re best to move on from that quickly.


The Enlightenment brought a fourth way of coexisting which has profoundly challenged the Jewish community over the last two hundred years. Once religious authority was replaced by secular authority, and once Jews began mixing socially with non-Jews, a new coexistence formed. Suddenly, Jews were invited to Christmas parties. Jews started marrying Christians and the assumption of a fully Jewish household was no longer valid – indeed, something like one-third of the children in our Religious School come from mixed-faith parents. In such homes, a form of celebration of both Jewish and Christian festivals is common and I would even say appropriate, although it is interesting that in such households the celebration of Christian festivals is usually not accompanied by religious rituals (such as attending Mass) but by religious symbols.


When I was a child, we celebrated Christmas, despite having two Jewish parents. There’s a photo of me at six years old stirring the mix for the Christmas cake, which we used to decorate with a wintry scene every year. We used to hang up stockings, have a tree, the whole works. There was nothing Christian about it in our minds, despite the name, and certainly nothing religious for us – my parents explained that it was something all the other kids at school were doing so they didn’t want us to feel left out. As I grew up, though, I told my family that I no longer wanted to celebrate Christmas because it didn’t seem right to me – we were Jewish and 60% of the kids at my school were Jewish – and I didn’t really want to celebrate a festival that wasn’t my own. I realize now that we weren’t celebrating a festival, but we were taking a faith observance from another religious community, stripping it of all its essential faith aspects, and turning it into a secular celebration of capitalism and of community. Now that I interact with faith leaders from many traditions, I see how painful it is to some of them that people have taken their festival and stripped it of the religious aspects upon which that celebration was founded.


So, where does that leave us in the Jewish community today? For some Jews, their family dynamic is such that celebrating Christmas is an act of love. That celebration might be religious, for example, by attending mass at their partner’s or parent’s church just as they might hope that their non-Jewish family member might come with them to Temple for Rosh Hashanah. That observance might not be religious, though, it may be a less religious acknowledgement of something that resonates strongly with that Christian family member. In many Jewish households, today is a day when the Christian majority celebrate their festival and so Jews who have time off work gather together, either for Chinese and a movie, or for other food and company. For many Jews, Christmas is no longer a Christian festival but is a day of presents and companionship. It’s this form of celebration which is probably most influenced by the consumer culture in which we now live, a culture which seeks to commercialize every aspect of people’s lives, even those which are sacred to some people.


At this time, many prominent Jews ring alarm bells and cry from the rooftops about assimilation and the end of Judaism. But there’s no need for that to be the case. After all, this little boy with the Christmas cake ended up being a Rabbi.

Instead, I believe that we should ask ourselves what it means to authentically live in two civilizations today. I believe that that means not seizing another faith tradition’s customs, desacralizing them and making them our own. I also believe that means showing respect and love to Christians friends, neighbors and family members. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for Jews on Christmas, although I will say is that any Jew who attends Shabbat services on Christmas gains extra mitzvah points!!


So, may today be the example we set to our children and to others in which we demonstrate our living in two cultures, not by abandoning our own culture or by desacralizing and commercializing another. May we all use today to appropriately honor another religious tradition while also honoring our own. May we extend our love to our Christian friends and family as they celebrate their festival, and this Shabbat, as we also celebrate our own. May our observance of Shabbat today be the model of tolerance, love and friendship that helps us continue to live in two cultures. And let us say, Amen.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Mikketz 2020 - Why Am I Doing This?

 This week, we are faced with a story of incredible emotion and power. Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, is visited by his brothers. He recognises them, but they do not recognise him. He immediately sets upon them, accusing them of being spies, and they plead their innocence. He puts his own brothers in jail for a few days and then commands them to get Benjamin, the youngest surviving brother as far as they are concerned, from home. They start to regret what they did to Joseph, because they feel they are being punished for what they did to him. Joseph orders that their bags are filled with the money that they had previously paid for their rations, and the brother are terrified. When they return to Jacob, he tells them that as honest men they should return the money. Moreover, he sends them back with Benjamin, despite the pain that it causes him. The brothers immediately admit that there must have been a financial mistake, and they offer to repay the money that was erroneously returned to them. Seeing his brothers all together again clearly upsets Joseph terribly, but he nonetheless offers them food. When they leave in the morning, Joseph’s cup has been placed in Benjamin’s sack without him knowing. When his guards catch up with the brothers they protest – why would innocent men who returned money that was not theirs then go and steal a goblet? They lower their bags, Benjamin’s bag has the goblet inside, and the brothers are distraught. The brothers throw themselves on the ground before Joseph and beg for mercy for Benjamin.


There is a tremendous amount of pain apparent in the story, most of it created by Joseph’s bizarre plots. So why does he do it? Why cause so much pain to his brothers, to his father, and to himself? Why not just tell his brothers straight away that he is the brother they thought was dead? There are a number of possible answers. The medieval commentator Radak says that he causes pain to his brothers because he wants to punish them for what they did to him. While that would be a very human response, Abravanel and other commentators point out that such a response would not justify the pain caused to his aging father. Other commentators suggest that the pain caused to his father by tearing Benjamin away from him was necessary because he was afraid the brothers might have killed Benjamin too, and he needed to see him alive before revealing himself. Some commentaries suggest that Joseph creates these painful situations in order to have the dream of his brothers bowing to him to be fulfilled, although that seems particularly cruel to me. The most common commentary is that he wanted to give them the opportunity to truly repent of what they did to him, so that he could then trust them and engage in a relationship with them again.


Rabbi Ismar Shorsch, Principal Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, holds that Joseph’s scheme is designed to ensure true repentance in his brothers (http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/archives/5764/mikketz.shtml). He quotes Maimonides who asks, “What is complete repentance? When we are confronted with a situation in which we previously sinned and could do so again, but this time we desist not out of fear or weakness but because we have repented. An example: a man has relations with a woman in violation of the Torah. Sometime later he finds himself alone with her again in the same place with ardor and virility undiminished. However, this time he departs without the slightest impropriety. Such a person has attained the level of complete repentance (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1; My translation).” In other words, Maimonides holds that a person has fully repented when they could repeat the error but do not – in his example, same time, same place, same lovely lady.


According to Shorsch, Joseph completely recreates a situation where the brothers could get rid of their youngest brother and get away with it. Clearly, Benjamin had been caught red-handed. The brothers could have left him as an eternal slave to Joseph and they would have been completely in the right to so do. Why might they have done such a thing? Because now Benjamin was the favoured son, just as Joseph was before him. So to Shorsch, Joseph sets up the system to see if the brothers would do to Benjamin what they did to him – resent the favour their father showed, and take it out on the brother, effectively barring him from ever returning to the family.


But they don’t. And they don’t because, according to Shorsch, to Samson Raphael Hirsch and others, the brothers have completely atoned of their sin against Joseph. But is that really why the brothers don’t leave Benjamin behind? At the risk of criticising the view of a scholar significantly more learned than myself, Shorsch seems to neglect two important elements. The first is that the brothers have sworn to return Benjamin to Jacob and regardless of whether or not his arrest were justifiable, they would suffer consequences for not returning him. Secondly, Shorsch neglects complex human emotions. As Rabbi Jonathan Kraus suggests (http://ma002.urj.net/dtmikketz96.html), Joseph is probably awash with an array of complex emotions. Part of him probably does want to get back at his brothers and cause them pain, simply because it re-establishes power in Joseph’s mind. Part of him probably is very scared that they brothers might have killed Benjamin. And part of him probably does want to see reconciliation, but knows that can only happen when he’s sure his brothers regret throwing him into a pit.


And it is the complex array of emotions that rush through Joseph that speaks to us all, because we’re often faced with situations where emotion gets the better of us, where we find ourselves unsure why we’re doing what we’re doing. Times when we think we’re acting for one reason, but in fact later realise we were deluding ourselves, and had an entirely different motivation. I think the power of this story is its inherent humanity, its ability to strip us bare as complex individuals with many motives and motivations. And I think reading the story, we’re compelled to search ourselves. Instead of merely asking why Joseph subjects his family to so much tzuras, we have to ask ourselves how we might have behaved. How do we behave in our daily lives? In fact, it probably asks us one of the most probing questions of all, “Why am I doing this?” I think this is the question we need to take with us during the week, posed to us by the Joseph narrative. Not to obsess, but to occasionally reflect on whatever it is we’re doing, and ask, “Why am I doing this?” That is the question that grounds us in reality, that asks us what we’re doing and where we’re going, and makes us much more present with the world, and that can only be good. So this week, may it be that we all find time to stop and ask ourselves the question that perhaps Joseph should have been asking of himself, “Why am I doing this?” and let it be that the answers are good ones. Amen.

Friday, 11 December 2020

How to light the Lamps

 A story from Chabad: R. Joseph Isaac Schneerson once recalled a thought-provoking conversation between his father and predecessor, R. Sholom Dov-Ber, and a chassid, a righteous Jew.

The Chassid asked: "Rebbe, what is a Chassid?"

R. Sholom Dov-Ber answered: "A Chassid is a street-lamp-lighter. A street-lamp-lighter has a pole with fire. He knows that the fire is not his own, and he goes around lighting all lamps on his route."

The Chassid asked: "But what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness?"

The Rebbe answered: "Then, too, one must light it. Let it be noted that there is a wilderness, and let the wilderness feel ashamed before the light."

"But what if the lamp is in the midst of a sea?"

"Then one must take off the clothes, jump into the water and light it there!"

"And that is a Chassid?"

The Rebbe thought for a long moment and then said: "Yes, *that* is a Chassid."

The Chassid continued:"Rebbe, I see no lamps!"

"That is because you are not a street-lamp-lighter."

"How does one become such?"

The Rebbe replied: "One must avoid evil. When beginning with oneself, cleansing oneself, becoming more refined, then one sees the lamp of the other. When, Heaven forbid, one is crude, then one sees but crudeness; but when himself noble, one sees nobility."

When the his son recounted this conversation, his son added: The lamps are there, but they need to be lit. It is written, "The soul of man is a lamp of God" (Proverbs 20:27), and it is also written, "A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light" (Proverbs 6:23). A Chassid is someone who puts their personal affairs aside and goes around lighting up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvot. Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit. Sometimes they are around the corner. Sometimes they are in a wilderness or at sea. But there must be someone who disregards personal comforts and conveniences and goes out to put a light to these lamps. That is the function of a true Chassid.”


The darkness of winter need not be terrifying, it can be an exciting opportunity. Where there is spiritual darkness, we can bring light. Where there is despair, we can bring hope. Where there is fear, we can bring courage. The sacred task of the Jew is to be a lamplighter, an igniter of souls.


But, are we really meant to disregard personal comfort and convenience in order to go round igniting the souls of others? To many of us who live comfortable lives, that doesn’t sound very appealing. More than that, if the sacred task of the righteous Jew is to go round igniting the souls of others, does that mean that if we don’t do that, or can’t do that, then we’re not very good Jews?


I suspect that many people today feel like their light isn’t worth shining to the rest of the world. Perhaps they feel fragile, like a delicate little candle ready to be extinguished at any moment by the lightest breeze, so we keep a flame burning within, but are afraid to show it for fear of being accused of zealotry or for fear of it being extinguished. But while the message of this story is very powerful, I think it misses an essential element, which is that of community. We’re not a lone candle, we’re a Chanukiah of candles. It’s not just the case that a little light dispels a lot of darkness, although that it obviously true. In fact, a lot of light, shining together, radiating warmth, dispels even more darkness. So, where is may have once been true that the chassid needed to forgo everything and rush off alone into the wilderness to ignite souls, we do things differently. Instead of lone lamplighters, we aim to become a community of lamplighters. We turn within before we turn without. We add candles to the Chanukiah just as we try to add people to a warm, loving community. We ignite each other’s souls, we help those around us burn as bright as they can, before scurrying through the dark. As a community, we shine with a warmth and a radiance that could never be matched by one of us alone, and then together we go out into the world and light the souls of others.


May God help ignite our own souls as individuals and as a community so that we may burn ever brighter each and every day, and let us say, Amen.