Monthly Archives: May 2018

May 24

24 May 2018

By Editor | Blogs

24 May 2018

One of my missions in life is to dispel misconceptions about Judaism- it more or less comes with the territory. Whether it’s assuring people that the ‘sheet with a hole in it’ thing is just an urban legend or trying to demonstrate that not all Jews are white, I enjoy the effort to try and show people a side of our amazing faith they may not have seen before.

Perhaps the most common misconception I encounter is the idea that Judaism doesn’t have any tradition of asceticism. Ascetic practices are all those things that involve avoiding, abstaining, and permanently swearing off the pleasures of the world. Many faiths are defined be these aspects of their practice: Saddhu monks who meditate for weeks without food or water, Sufis who fast far beyond the normal expectations of Shari’a, or the familiar image of Christian monks self-flagellating, wearing hair shirts, or sleeping on wooden pallets.
Certainly Judaism doesn’t have much of a tradition of self-harm, and I’m glad for it! There were the occasional group or solitary rabbi who encouraged extraordinary fasting, or in one case, rolling naked in the snow as penance. (Ouch!) Yet, to say there’s no spirit of self-restriction or ascetic piety also isn’t true. Our parashah in fact, Naso, devotes a considerable amount of time introducing us to the best example of a Jewish ascetic practice in the Bible: the Nazir.
The Nazir is described as a model of piety: a man or woman who swears a solemn vow to observe three primary restrictions for a set period of time. The Nazir had to abstain from all grape products (chief among them wine), could not cut their hair, and could never come in contact with death, via a corpse or a cemetery. Our parashah records the method which one would use to undertake such a vow, and in the rest of the Tanakh we hear stories of famous Nazirim, such as the tragic hero Samson.
So what happened to this biblical category? How come we don’t still have a special religious order of people who accept the vows and restrictions of the Nazir? Ultimately, it fell out of favour. Partially this was because if the Nazir accidently broke one of the vows they had to bring a sacrifice, shave their head, and start again. In the absence of the Temple, a Nazir whose vows needed to be renewed wouldn’t have a way to do so.
Despite the apparent impossibility of being a modern Nazir, there has been a huge renewal of interest in the practice. Many rabbis have encouraged abstinence from alcohol and a vegetarian diet as a modern way of observing the vow. Rav Kook’s primary student, Rabbi David Cohen, was known as ‘the Nazir,’ and encouraged the revitalisation of the practice for modern Jews.
Why be a 21st century Nazir? Although Judaism generally encourages us to take advantage of the world’s pleasures, our own era may be the time in history in which we need that exhortation the least. For our ancestors, living in a (especially Christian) society which encouraged asceticism in every aspect of life, Judaism’s affirmation of the world and its pleasures was a welcome antidote. However, it may be that in our day the pendulum has swung to the other side completely. Our world is one which indulges and encourages every pleasure imaginable. Perhaps the mild asceticism and ethical piety of the Nazir should be a part of modern religious practice and maybe it can yet be a happy reminder that Judaism is rarely as simple as it seems.
May 18

17 May 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

In the unlikely event that you have had the blissful pleasure of being totally ignorant of the internet for the last 72 hours, I’m want to point your attention to an argument which has raged across cyberspace, tearing apart families, causing marital strife, and leading to thousands-long comment chains of people yelling at one another: Yanny or Laurel.

On Monday, this post went viral on Twitter. In it, there is a 4 second audio clip of a computerised voice saying a single word over and over. Here’s the tricky part: it appears that half of humanity believes the recording says ‘Yanny’ and the other half hears ‘Laurel.’ Obviously these are two very different sounding names, so what’s going on here?

Wired has the full history of this mysterious debate, which, unbelievably includes an obscure subReddit and one of the original cast members of the Broadway musical, ‘CATS.’ In effect, it seems that the clip is an ‘auditory illusion,’ like the ever-present Rubin’s Vase, but for your ears. The science behind the clip has also been puzzled out, and the Atlantic does its best to academically explain the confusing clip.

Despite all of that information, and the fact that when manipulated, the clip can be made to sound like either name to any person– the simple fact remains that some people hear one word and some hear another. If you have listened to it (and you really should, just click here), you either heard Yanny or Laurel. I heard ‘Yanny.’ I can’t, no matter how hard I strain my ear, hear ‘Laurel.’

Now, this may seem pretty ridiculous (more ridiculous even is the fact that this will likely make it into some future history textbook on the development of the internet alongside 2015’s The Dress debacle (it’s obviously blue/black)) but it actually matters a huge amount.

In a week in which politics has proved that people are often unable to really hear one another, that we so rarely can break out of seeing what we expect to see, Yanny/Laurel is a good reminder that our perceptions are different. When we disagree, about current events or about a bizarre audio clip, we should remember that just because we hear one thing, doesn’t mean another person hears the same. Some of us hear Yanny, some of us hear Laurel– and we’re both right. Let’s hope as time goes on we can realise that such a phenomenon applies to a lot more than internet audio illusions and learn, above all else, how to hear each other.


May 10

10 May 2018

By Editor | Blogs

A little over three years ago now I spent a weekend at a Washington D.C. conference centre filled with 20,000 people– all there to lobby their senators and congress people to support defence and diplomatic ties between America and Israel. It was March 2015 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as ‘The Iran Deal’) was the hot topic of the day. As a collection of people committed to peace and stability in the Middle East, there were many strong views on the JCPOA, and more or less the entire conference was consumed by debate on the question.

When AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), the hosts of the conference, made a statement that they opposed the deal, I was furious. I was there to provide a progressive voice to pro-Israel advocacy, and to not at least try to curb Iran’s ambitions through diplomacy seemed a mistake. At the time, their decision made me really sour on AIPAC and the work they were doing.

How strange I find it then, that here three years later, we find the deal that was agreed being abandoned by the United States. President Trump clearly is acting out of self-interest (abandoning the deal being a token campaign promise of his), and the fact remains unquestionably obvious that he is utterly unfit to lead. Yet, despite that, I’m not terribly surprised that the deal which I once was so in favour of has fallen apart.

What I think many people in the West get wrong about the Middle East is that they try too hard to identify a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy.’ There is no protagonist whom we can root for unquestionably– and I say this as a firm supporter of Israel. The reality of the Middle East today is not about morality at all, it is about history.

There are three major powers in play, all of whom have the same objective (stated or not): to restore their past imperial glory. The first of course is Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Their aim is to build a new khalifah (Caliphate) as it once was– centred on the Hejaz and extending across the Middle East and North Africa. To this end, they have supported all sorts of oppressive regimes as well as, until recently, being the primary sponsor of Salafi violence (Al-Qaeda being a notable example.)

The second player is Turkey, who while fairly democratic and secular until recently, has in the past few years slipped into an autocratic dictatorship under President Erdogan, whose sole aim appears to be a restoration of the Ottoman Empire, with himself as Sultan. To this end, Turkey has oppressed any ethnic minority that threatens its borders or its narrative of Ottoman unity (Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, etc.) They likely have also had a big hand in fuelling and arming the Islamic State.

Third of course is Iran, who have combined the sort of revolution-spreading fervour of the Soviets with an extreme Shi’a doctrine. In the past decade they have instigated and supported violence in Gaza (via Hamas), Lebanon (via Hezbollah), and Yemen (via the Houthis), in addition to supporting Assad’s bloody crackdown on rebellion which has become the decade-long Syrian Civil War.

Caught in between them all is Israel, who, perhaps cynically, often plays one against the other. What matters to me, and what matters to us, is not that we support the ‘good guy.’ There is no ‘axis of evil,’ (or at least, not *only* one) and there is no axis of good. If we’re to make any progress in stemming the tide of violence in the Middle East, deal or no deal, we must understand who and what is at play in the situation.

The biggest problem in the Middle East is not one country or one leader but the fact that the three most powerful coalitions all are looking at the past. Their aim is to recreate a glorious history– and that, above all else, should be our primary concern. We must promote a forward-looking vision in order to solve these issues. Until the countries who are affected and their leadership look towards tomorrow rather than yesterday we can’t make much progress.

This week has seen yet another escalation in violence and danger for the average citizen of many Middle Eastern countries– it concerns me and I know it concerns many of you as well. Partially that is due to President Trump’s foolhardy and impulsive decision-making, but the much bigger and much more significant factor, which we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from is that no one is looking towards a better tomorrow.

My prayer for us and for all those millions who have no stake in the political battles at hand and simply want to live a better life is this: keep looking toward tomorrow, thinking about the next generation, hoping for a better future– and maybe that will filter up to the rash leaders who doom millions to violence, both in the Middle East and in the West.

May 03

4 May 2018

By Editor | Blogs

During this period of the Omer (between Pesach and Shavu’ot) many people observe certain customs of mourning: not shaving, not celebrating weddings, not buying new clothes, and not listening to instrumental music. Strangely enough, this custom arose as a way of marking a mysterious plague of the ancient world. ‘What plague?’ you may ask. For that, we need to back to Rabbi Akiva and the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) relates the story that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, all of whom died in a plague that ran rampant between Pesach and Shavu’ot one year. The Talmud attempts to justify their deaths saying that they were killed, ‘because they did not treat each other with respect.’ Yet, even in the language the text uses, it makes clear that there’s more to the story.

The ‘plague’ under discussion is actually a euphemism. Rabbi Akiva’s students didn’t die from disease, they died because they were killed fighting in the revolt against Rome led by Shim’on bar Kokhvah. Akiva was a supporter of bar Kokhvah and his students presumably either joined him in rebelling against Roman rule or if not, were suspected of doing so by Roman authorities.

Roman historian Cassius Dio relates that during the years of the rebellion (132-136 CE) 580,000 Jews were killed, 50 fortified towns destroyed, and 985 villages razed. Although bar Kokhva did achieve many victories, Roman forces eventually overwhelmed the rebels, famously cornering the remainder at the fortress of Beitar at the end of the war.

After the war was over, the Romans went on a campaign that can only be called genocidal– annihilating Jewish communities in any place they could find. In addition, they took 8 leaders of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Akiva included, and arrested, tortured, and killed them. This marked the final bloody end of 150 years of conflict between Rome and Jerusalem and the beginning of nearly 2000 years of exile for our people.

Despite this history, which is well attested by both Jewish and non-Jewish archaeological sources, our Sages who came later clearly were uncomfortable with promoting the narrative of Rabbi Akiva’s students as warriors felled by the Romans. When the story is told in the Talmud, it is a ‘plague’ which kills them. Perhaps they meant to suggest that the marrying of religious devotion and radical violence that inspired bar Kokhva was itself the plague. Perhaps they merely wanted to ignore the ignominious history of the rebellion (which is rarely mentioned  in Rabbinic sources.)

Either way, there is some merit to the mourning customs of the Omer, whether as an opportunity to recall those 24,000 students who perished– to remember their heroism and their devotion, or to carefully caution ourselves against the same.

May 01

26 April 2018

By Editor | Blogs

A catholic priest, a buddhist, and a Jewish-Quaker walk in to a room.

While this sounds like the beginning of an (admittedly bad) joke, it’s actually just the setting for an interfaith event which took place last night sponsored by the Cathedral’s programme: ‘Interfaith St. Albans.’ The subject of the evening, in line with Sustainable St. Albans Week, was ‘Faith- Friend or Foe of the Environment?’
It left me thinking a bit about how Judaism relates to the environment, and in fact, the natural world as a whole. In particular, one of the mishnayot from Pirkei Avot’s third chapter, which we read this week, seems especially relevant:

“Rabbi Shimon says: One who is walking on the way and repeating their studies, and interrupts their studies and says, ‘How lovely is this tree! And how lovely is this newly plowed field!’ – Scripture considers them as if they are liable for [forfeiture of] their life.” (3.8)

This one always struck me as a bit upsetting. I think it’s absurd to suggest that the Torah would apply capital punishment because someone commented on how beautiful nature can be! Many commentators have understood it exactly that way though, and have devoted themselves to trying to come up with absurd rationalizations for why we mustn’t ever appreciate the beauty of nature.
None of them make any sense– especially when the Torah itself routinely discusses the power of nature and the ways in which nature contains symbols of God’s power and love. The good news is, there’s another way to read that quote, and it’s way in which I think it was probably meant.
Most who read it emphasise the natural world part, seeing the crime being described as a sort of abstract paganism, effected simply by commentating on a tree. Perhaps instead the part that’s meant to be emphasised is the ‘interrupts.’ If that’s the case, the meaning is quite different.
One is liable for their life if they interrupt their Torah study and their appreciation of nature. To think that religion and nature are two entirely separate domains is the actual crime here. The problem is not in appreciating the beauty and majesty of nature, but in thinking that it should dwell in a domain separate from Torah study.
In fact, our study of the Torah and our faith in it, should be placed hand-in-hand with our study and appreciation of the natural world. We should study Creation and learn cosmology, observe kashrut while caring for the animal kingdom, and bless God’s gifts from the Earth while acknowledging our dependence on it.
The true warning of that mishnah is that we mustn’t think faith is a foe of the environment. If we are to observe our faith correctly, then it, and we, must be friends to the environment.