Friday, November 20, 2015

Of Jews and Xmas Trees

The term ‘Cheder’ can conjure (sometimes negative) memories of a Sunday morning ritual of religious classes. While post-bar/bat Mitzvah siblings sleep-in; everything is calm at home, younger members of the family are whisked off at 9:45am as three - precious hours of Sunday morning are spent sitting with a Rabbi (or some other teacher) who is full of energy talking about Jewish stuff; while the children think about very different matters.

It was not always so. Pre-World War two, attending Jewish studies was a daily custom after school. Not just Sundays.

Dr Helena Miller[1] explains that the number of hours for supplementary education reduced dramatically in the post war years, with most children no longer receiving Jewish education for three or four evenings a week, but for only two or three hours on a Sunday morning.

What is more interesting, however, is the reason for the transition to Sunday: “Mirroring the Sunday school pattern of the Christian churches”.

Talking of taking cue from Christians,[2] a 2013 Pew Survey found nearly one out of three Jewish Americans —32% — said they had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

In comparison, only 22% said they kept kosher at home.

Numbers in the in the UK[3] are not far behind. In 1996 the Institute for Jewish Policy Research survey suggested that around one-in-four community members put up seasonal decorations in their homes.

In today’s Torah portion we read an interesting story, after twenty years in the home of Laban, Jacob’s father in law:

Jacob[4] set out ..He led away all his livestock, together with all the possessions that he had amassed.. to go to his father Isaac in Canaan…Meanwhile, Laban had gone off to shear his sheep, Rachel stole the Terfaim, idols that belonged to her father.

Four days later Laban catches up:

Laban said to Jacob, "What have you done? You duped me and led my daughters away like prisoners of war! Why did you flee surreptitiously, deceiving me and telling me nothing? Lama Ganavtem Elohai, why did you steal my gods?"

There are different reasons proposed as to why Rachel stole the Terafim. Some[5] suggest they had fortune telling capabilities, and this would delay Laban’s awareness as to the family’s whereabouts. Others [6] suggest that it was a necessary tactic to enable G-d to appear to Laban in a dream. Whatever the reason, Rachel eventually suffers as a result of this action. She sadly dies at the birth of Benjamin.

Of note however is the Zohar[7], which suggests that although Rachel was doing a noble act. She did cause her father to suffer, so when Laban charges: Lama Genavtem Elohai, why did you steal my Gods he is actually saying: You have taken the little support that I have.
Today the question might be asked in reverse, Jews living in a welcoming and secular society, can now ask themselves: Lama Ganevetem Elohai; What gods have we taken from everyone else at the expense of our own? Is it a Christmas tree? Chanukah is now on-par? Are we withholding parts of the wonderful Torah from our children, depriving them of their G-d[8]?

It is a charge to the Rabbinate, teachers and educators: Have you limited our relationship to G-d as an imitation of other faiths? Have you downgraded our deep and necessary connection with Hashem to an expression it finds on an interfaith platform?

This is why Saatchi’s – Mimi Dwek Hebrew School (we took out the word Cheder) – is on Tuesday evenings and is learner-centred. Ensuring that informal Jewish Education is a fun activity, one that is full of positive elements and observed as part of a continued journey; not a religious, dogmatic ritual.

This is also why (inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s message) we will have a large Chanukah booth and lighting on the first evening of Chanukah (6th December) at the very-well-Jewish-attended Holiday Fayre on St John’s Wood High Street. We will have Kosher food and all Chanukah supplies will be available.

Let’s enjoy our G-d.

[1] Supplementary Jewish Education in Britain: Facts and Issues of the Cheder system, Dr. Helena Miller, May 2008

[4] Gensis, 31, 17-30
[5] Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Abarbenel
[6] Meshech Chachmah
[7] Zohar 1, 164b
[8] Rabbi Norman Lamm, 1967

Friday, October 30, 2015

When an angel knocks on your door

Angels come up quite often in our lives. The Talmud 1 ‫speaks of two angels that accompany us every Friday Evening, hence we sing: Shalom Aleichem, peace upon you, o ministering angels.

Ethics of the fathers 2 teachers that each mitzvah we do creates “an angel” that is always there to protect us and advocate on our behalf 3.

And at every Passover Seder table the young open the door to let in Elijah. No doubt he could let himself in through the keyhole or window?

This week the Torah 4 describes a fascinating tale about an angel that brings a message of a blessing.
The recount goes as follows.

Angel: Where is Sara your wife?
Abraham: She is in her tent.
Angel: I have come to deliver a message, that this time next year Sara, your wife, will have a son.
Sara, was listening at the entrance of her tent. Now Abraham and Sara were old. Sara laughed to herself and looks at herself.

Sara: Now that I am withered shall my skin become smooth? Shall my womb carry a child 5?

Then God (joins) and says to Abraham: Why did Sara laugh? And say “Will I give birth, though I am old?” “Hayipale MeHashem Davar? Is there anything too wondrous for God?”
Hearing Gods accusation Sara denies it.
Sara: “I did not laugh, for she was afraid”.
God 6 said: No, you did laugh.

The sages discuss the many nuances that are going on here. I would like to focus on one.
The challenge that Sara laughed, and the denial; and why does God join in?

Nachmondies 7 wonders, Sara simply overhears a conversation. She has not seen who the bearer of the news is? Or that it is the voice of angels, who look like men. Why should she believe this?

Social Psychologists 8 write of those that prefer their needy condition to the available alternatives, in other words it is not always simple to accept blessings that are given to us. “It is more blessed to give then receive”.

As unnatural as it may sound for a 90 year old to become a mother, it is equally as difficult to accept the gift with open arms.

Hidden in this story, then is an important message.
The story of an Angel that brings a message, the gift of life. The angels do not know the feelings of the recipient 9. That she laughs inside. Perhaps unsure how to accept the blessing or sceptical if it can be realised?

Was her laugh from utter surprise and disbelief? Is it a hidden joy and excitement 10? Is it easier to deny oneself the positive thought?

The angels do their job in giving the gift of the blessing. But God the source of all good the giver of all gifts, of life itself, the knower of all thought and feelings can respond: you did laugh, and it is OK. Don’t forget that laugh 11. The happiness is beautiful, the positive feelings is exactly how it should be.

Perhaps Elijah can make his way through the keyhole. But the important thing is the act of opening the door. The ability to open up so the blessings can come in.

Hayipale mehashem davar? Nothing is too wondrous for our loving and giving G-d.

1. Shabbat, 119b
2. Chapter 4, Mishna 11
3. Zohar Vol 3, 307b; Sota 3b
4. Genesis 18, 1-15
5. Rashi 18, 12
6. According to midrash rabba, 48, 20; Yerushalmi sota 7;1. (Others disagree, suggesting it was Abraham or the Angel).
7. Ramban, 18,15
8. Social Psychology 2nd Ed, 1986, ‪K.J. Gergen‪, M.M. Gergen (pp 217-219)
9. Sechel tov Toras Shlomo Vol 3.1 Page 762
10. See Ohr Hachayim
11. The Hirsch Chumash, Vol 1 Page 415

Thursday, October 22, 2015

When religion gets in the way of relationships

“Rabbi, my daughter is becoming too religious for me.” “My friend is so frum he won’t come on my stag”. “Rabbi, should I move to Golders Green?” Move out from my un-kosher family home?”

While these challenges are as old as the outreach movement, these concerns should not be taken lightly. And are still being asked today.
Can the Torah shed light on this?

While Chabad can boast as the pioneering outreach movement of the modern era. Abraham was doing a similar task in ancient Babylon.

When G-d asks him to leave his homeland indeed “Abram took his wife and his nephew Lot.. and the souls that they had made, the followers that had accepted monotheism[1]”

At one point however, Abraham must bid farewell to Lot[2]: “please separate from me: If you go left then I will go right, and if you go right then I will go left.”

“Lot moves toward Sodom, and Abraham dwelled in Canaan”.

Not long later, a war breaks out and Lot is taken captive. “(Abraham) armed, and his 318 attendants, and set out in pursuit[3]”.

The sages[4] are intrigued by this story, R Yehudah and R Nechemah debate Abraham’s attitude toward his nephew.

R Yehuda suggests that G-d was displeased, and charged Abraham: “To everyone he clings, bringing them close to G-d, but to his own kinsman he sends him away? And to Sodom, where he will only decline further spiritually”.

R Nechemia says the reverse. G-d was angry that Lot was tagging along on the journey, despite Abraham being told to ‘leave his family[5]’ he was schlepping Lot with him.

Is R Yehuda suggesting Abraham gave up on Lot?

Is R Nechemia recommending leaving family where they are?

Certainly not, indeed when the kings kidnap Lot, his family and possessions, uncle Abraham, 75 years old, risks his very life and the life of his men to save the family. And prophetically he saw that the Messiah (King David) would descend from Lot[6].

What message might these two great Rabbi be teaching us?

One of the biggest challenges facing individuals[7], who have taken on the journey of more religious practice, is their relationships with friends and family from their ‘previous life’. And vice versa.

R’ Nechemia is reminding us that journeys are important and sacred, friends or family should not dissuade you from perusing a more meaningful Jewish experience. However, he is stimulating us with a more important thought: You cannot schlepp them along. It is a personal journey of your own. They have theirs. Respect for each other, yes, judging each other; expectations of each other, no.

R Yehudah however challenges us: what kind of a journey are you on that you are alienating your own friends and family?

You should be an inspiration and role model of what it means to be a mench, more masterful at relationships then you were before. If you can cling to strangers in Hendon, you should certainly be able to cling to friends and family in St John’s Wood.

Most importantly everyone must remember: family, is family, whether they are on the journey with us or not, and family only looks out for the best and will always be there to protect each other from harm.

Lech Lecha, journey on and be blessed.

[1] Genesis, 12, 5 Rashi Ibid
[2] Genesis 13 5-11
[3] Genesis 14, 14-16
[4] Midrash Rabba 41, 8 (Rashi, Eitz Yosef)
[5] The call of the Torah, (Munk p168)
[6] Zohar 44b.
[7] Baal teshuvah Survival Guide, Lakin (part 3, parents and siblings).

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What young Jews in the USA & UK can learn from fertile Israelis.

After Noah leaves the Ark we see a strange sequence of events. First he offers sacrifices to G-d. G-d, pleased by the scent, in turn commands him to repopulate the world. G-d continues the conversation and enters a covenant with Noah and his descendants never to flood humanity again. Then Noah plants a vineyard.

“G-d blesses Noah and his children and said to them: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth[1]”.
God continues and “says to Noah and his sons with him: I myself am making a covenant with you and with your offspring after you….all life will never be cut short by the waters of a flood. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth”.
A few verses later Noah is found working the land: “Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard…” He gets drunk, Cham gets into trouble and the world continues.
Two sages in the midrash[2] have very differing sentiments toward the great Noah. One is positive and complimentary, the other negative and disconcerted. Both of which have great implications for the times we live in, and the challenges facing young Jews.

Rebbi Yehudah is mortified, Noah was commanded peru urevu, be fruitful and multiply, and his insecurities and anxieties prevent him from obeying G-d’s wishes and repopulating a world that may again be destroyed by flood.

G-d calms his fears: never again will I bring a flood. Do not worry.

Rebbi Nachman disagrees. He added to the command and the holy mission, Noah abstained from the act of multiplying and instead busied himself with the important matters of yishuv haolam, preparing a better and settled world. So he, and his children too, were rewarded, with an additional revelation and covenant from G-d himself.

The same story; very different reactions.

Should one be busy working the land and preparing an environment for future generations, like R’ Nachman suggests? If yes, why is R’ Yehudah critical?
Or should we be busying ourselves with the command be fruitful and multiply?

The 2013 Pew research Portrait of Jewish Americans, revealed that: “For all of (Jewish) child-centeredness, many Jews seem either unable to find partners with whom to have children or are not all that interested in having children in the first place… Fertility level of about 1.7 children for non-orthodox Jews, well below the replacement level of 2.1 children[3]”.

The UK is not doing much better[4]: 2.31 is the average number of people per (non-charedi) Jewish household. With the UK average[5] 1.7 children per family. This (birthrate) is in line with the UK’s general long-term fertility trends which, even though birth rates have been steadily increasing over the last decade, are still below ‘replacement level’ (around 2.1 children per female)[6].

Contrast that with fertile Israel where demographer Sergio DellaPergola[7] found that women bear 3 children each on average. This is the main drive for population growth, well above western standards.

Are young people too consumed with their careers and not having enough babies? Or, worse, not getting married at all?
Harvard Business Review[8] published research suggesting that for many women, the brutal demands of ambitious careers, the asymmetries of male-female relationships, and the difficulties of bearing children later in life conspire to crowd out the possibility of having children. Young men also find it difficult to juggle demanding jobs with making time to date.

So we can have it both ways.

R’ Nachman is teaching us: yes, work the land, earn a living and prepare for future generations, it is a mitzvah, indeed, one that is worthy of a G-dly revelation. So long as it remains just that, a means to such an end.

However, if it becomes all-consuming, supporting and enabling our insecurities and anxieties of a flooding world, where we always ask: is it enough? Can I swim through it? Will we afford it? Then as R' Yehudah contests, it has gone too far.

Kene hora, at The Saatchi Synagogue we continue to repopulate, with many weddings and babies, may it continue, with G-d's blessing.

We must remember the ultimate source of our sustenance and blessing comes from G-d. When a son or daughter is born, along with the child their livelihood is born[9]. Each child that we bring in to this world in blessing for his or her family and the entire Jewish people.

[1] Genesis, 9,1-20
[2] Midrash Rabba, Noach 35, 1, and Eitz Yosef commentary
[9] The Lubavitcher Rebbe

Friday, June 26, 2015

Come to My garden, My sister, My bride

Is BDS anti-Semitic? How do we protest Nazis in our midst? Today the queen lay a wreath at Bergen Belsen. Next week, Neo-Nazis will gather in Golders Green. The irony of exile: The queen of our country pays respect as her citizens continue their hate. Last week it was the BDS movement, next week it's others. Somehow we continue our lives as all this fuss gets made of us, a small nation wanting to live in peace. Some question the compartmentalising of our lives, accusing us of ignoring the signs; others will go out and fight; some will counter demonstrate. What is the correct reaction? In this week's Torah portion after peace-lover Aaron has passed away, there is a verse that has significant meaning. Here it is interpolated with the classic commentator Rashi and my assessment of the times in which we live. Torah: “The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the south, heard” Mendel: What did he hear? Rashi: He heard that Aaron had died and that the [protecting] clouds of glory had departed. Amalek was always a chastising whip for Israel, ready at any time to mete out punishment. Mendel: Yes, there are always haters, those that at any time will attempt to strike us. Aaron united the Jews that were not getting along; in his merit all were protected. They saw and attempted to seize vulnerability.
However, this needs clarification - the verse uses the term “Canaanites” when did the “Amalekites” arrive? Rashi: This refers to Amalek, as it says, “The Amalekites dwell in the south land”. They changed their language to speak in the language of Canaan so that the Israelites would pray to the Holy One, blessed is He, to deliver the Canaanites into their hands, and [since] they were not Canaanites [their prayers would have no effect]. But Israel saw that they were dressed like Amalekites though they spoke in a Canaanite tongue. So they said, “We will pray generally [for success],” as it says, “If You deliver his people into my hand….” Mendel: Sounds like the BDS, Hamas and Nazis parading through Golders Green. They all dress up in different attire, bothered by our very existence, and challenged by a spiritual element of our existence. They speak a different language but it is the same tone. What was the Jewish peoples response? To do exactly what they haters did not want. No they did not demonstrate, they did not make more noise they did not go to PR agencies and organise publicity through their newspapers. They prayed. A general prayer. A pure prayer. They united, not in fear of the hate, but for the blessing of Hashem. The police do their bit and of course the necessary Jewish bodies must do their bit, behind the scenes. But what is our front? What is the role of the everyday Jew? We must unite, we must Pray to the Holy one blessed is He. And we must remember: Torah: that Israel had come by the route of the spies (toward Israel), and he (the Amalekite) waged war against Israel and took from them a captive. Mendel: How many Jews did they take captive? Rashi: (Not even one) only a single maidservant. (The Israelites had captured from Amalek in their earlier encounter with them). Mendel: As always disproportion is about how one looks at the numbers and the effect. How many out of 64 million British people are gathering, how many of us will go? It is often a numbers game, and we must never fall for their fancy dress parties to try and outnumber them, We are less, but we are united, and we have a spiritual energy in the form of prayer, and the love as embodied by Aaron that unites us to our loving Father in heaven, that never leaves His flock may His cloud of glory protect us and redeem us.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Your Spiritual Space

On a recent trip to my childhood home in Leeds, my mother asked me to clear out my books that were collecting dust on shelves and in boxes in coveted spaces. I took them to London, and I noticed one of them, a small blue book. I was quite stunned when I looked inside. But first, in 1978 the Lubavitcher Rebbe began a campaign to print an edition of the Tanya, - the first Chassidic book, written by the first Chabad Rebbe, R’ Shneur Zalman - in every city in the world. His directive was based on a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, that Moshiach would come when “the wellsprings” of Chassidic teachings would spread worldwide. ‘A spring is a source of living water. Printing the Tanya in every location would transform that place into a source and bastion of Spiritual teachings’. The numbers go consecutively from #1 printed in 1796 in Slavita, Ukraine, to today, when the number is over 6,600 and still growing. Here in the UK Mr. Avram Weiss traveled up and down the country in a caravan with a printer assembled inside.
In 1986, when I was four years old, n umber 2861 was printed in St. John’s Wood in that caravan, here on Grove End Road. Late Chief Rabbi Lord Jacobovitz was given a copy, and others were sent around. My brother got one from Wimbledon. Mine was from St. Johns Wood. The little blue book, was that Tanya. It is 21 years, this Shabbat, since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and almost 30 years since that Tanya was printed. We may wonder what brings us to a place, and what our job in that place is. This was a reminder to me. That the Rebbe saw the Shlichut,
sphere of influence role in each one of us, where ever we are, to carry the light of spirituality and goodness and share it wherever we can. Until we have reached the goal, that cannot be too far away now: Aimatai Kati mar, Lichsheyafutzu maynotecha chutza, the master, Mashiach can indeed arrive, as the wellsprings have outpoured and lit up the world.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Untraditional in a traditional age

While Masoret - tradition from Moses (as he heard it from God) passed through each generation - was the fabric of our faith, tradition took on a different expression narrated in Fiddler on the Roof and experienced through the practice of ‘traditional’ Judaism in today’s modern world. For the last centuries Jewish philosophers and Rabbis have addressed this dilemma of Judaism vs modernity.

I began writing this article a few months ago but it has new meaning with the incredible report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

For the first time ‘Jewish identity’ can be studied and analyzed, no doubt further comments will fill newspaper pages. As pulpit Rabbi of The Saatchi Shul, a Shul that does outreach as well as tradition, this report is most inspiring, but not surprising.

My average week consists of a flurry of questions: Rabbi, I took my boys to Shul each week, why don’t they do Friday Night with their families? Rabbi, can my non-Jewish fiancĂ© and I come meet with you? Rabbi, my husband is becoming too religious for me!

This article should speak to the many, and there are many, who consider themselves ‘traditional’ and middle of the road. You see after all we are in the middle of the road. I write to parents with children who will have a bar/bat mitzvah, seniors whose sons and daughters are married, and to the ‘seculars’ who believe that being an upright British citizen is equal to, or more important than, being Jewish.

The world around is free. Yet, technology has ever more control of what we want, when we want it, and how we communicate it. The advertisers know where we check in, what we have liked and who we follow. The life that we lead is well determined too: education, friends, holidays and careers. Of course we have choice. But democracy has become the age of the common denominator. We do not ask: How honest ought a man be, but: how honest are most men? Not: what books are the best, but: what books do most people read? In other words: The world as we know is Traditional.

Judaism was never meant to be traditional. Tradition means doing something because someone else did it at some other time. This has left us with Passover, Kosher and some high holyday participation. We must be totally untraditional we must live each step of Judaism like no one ever lived it before. Bechol yom veyam cahyav adam lirot et atzmo kelu yatza mimittzarayim. In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt. And Judaism means something different at each step.

Your son’s Bar Mitzvah, should be like the very first that ever was. What importance would that mean to him? The Shabbat dinner like the very first Shabbat that ever was. What is its significance to you? Why are you doing it?

Torah and Mitzvot are not to restrict us, or drive us left or right. Rather to liberate us and guide us as we journey through the middle of the road, of life. Meaning, purpose, spirit and support in the ritual and traditional life we find ourselves in.

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter help you communicate with others. The Torah and Mitzvot are there, to help you communicate with yourself. Be the best you, and then be the best to everyone else that needs you.

The Kotzker Rebbe used to tell followers, who would come to the city of Kotzk to study with him: "Remember: you may think you came to Kotzk to find God. But why would you think you need to find God? We know where God is! God is everywhere! If you want to find God, you might as well stay at home. You may think you came to Kotzk to learn Torah. But there are other places to learn Torah. The real reason why you came to Kotzk is -- to find yourself -- to gain a glimmering of God’s plan for your life --to figure out your character, your dreams, your destiny. That is why you came to Kotzk.”

We live in a traditional time and the Torah has timeless untraditional perspectives. Click here for the report