Monthly Archives: November 2018

Nov 23

22 November 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

I’ve been on leave this week and next as Mikayla’s parents have been visiting us from the States and we’ve been enjoying spending some time with them. I did want to share a few words about Chanukah and remind you of a few exciting things coming up. 

All too often, the revolutionaries of the world become exactly the thing they rebelled against. Offended by the tyranny of others, well meaning people have often been inspired to undertake desperate measures to depose them. Yet, it’s never so easy. Inevitably, a regime of cruelty and violence requires an equal dose of both to be defeated. Slowly, the ideologues who want things to change start using the same weapons, tactics, and rhetoric as their enemies. The revolutionaries become the reactionaries and the cycle starts over.

History is replete with examples of this phenomenon, from Cromwell to Napoleon and from Caesar to Stalin. For Jews, we have a potent example in the ancient Israelite dynasty of the Maccabees, whose founding we commemorate on Chanukah. Faced with the Hellenistic Seleucids persecuting Jewish worship and ruling through tyranny, a single family, who earned the moniker HaMakkabi (the Hammer) led a revolt that banished Greek-Persian control from Israel and restored a Jewish kingdom. Truly a miracle after so many years of oppression, the tables quickly turned. To stay in power, the Maccabees had to become just as cruel as the people they deposed. Within a century, the Hasmonean dynasty they created was just as corrupt, just as violent, and just as Hellenic as their predecessors.

Revolutions won through bloodshed rarely resolve in peace. Chanukah is an inspiration about the power of a small group of people to defeat tyranny, but it’s also a caution against, in the desperation to hold on to power, becoming the thing that you revolted against in the first place.

As we celebrate Chanukah, we would do well to remember the dual meaning of this important holiday. Here at SAMS, there are lots of things going on to help celebrate Chanukah:

First, is our First Annual Chanukah Craft Fair! This is an awesome opportunity to buy gifts, pick up Chanukah essentials (dreidels, candles, etc) and to join us for a lovely afternoon of food, music and fun. We’ll have community artists- ceramics, knitting, jewellery making, and many more- many of whom will be teaching some of the things they do in addition to selling some of their wares.

Then, join us for an interfaith learning session between SAMS and St. Saviour’s Church (on Sandpit Lane). I’ll be teaching together with Fr. Richard Watson about Chanukah and Advent, their similarities and differences, in this shared time of winter light.

There’s also, of course, all of our Chanukah parties!

Please join us for all these wonderful events and to share in this season of learning and light. For further information, please contact the office or telephone 01727 860642.

Shabbat Shalom, and an early Chag Urim Same’ach,

Nov 16

15 November 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

I’m sharing below words which will be published in the JC this weekend in honour of Mitzvah Day. You can also find my Sidrah column in this week’s JC. 

In 1940, the Jewish newspaper of the Warsaw and Krakow ghettos published an anonymous op-ed from an author who signed only, ‘Your Mother.’ In the piece, the author tried to rationalise, why, in the face of obvious hatred and persecution, Jews nonetheless possessed a holy and sacred mission. She writes: “This is your mission, your purpose on earth: you must go to work alongside people of other nations […] You may ask, ‘How does one speak to them?’ This is how: ‘Thou shalt not murder; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not covet; love thy neighbor as thyself…’ Do these things, and through their merit, my child, you will be victorious.”

In light of the past month’s events- what may in good time come to be known as the ‘Pittsburgh Pogrom,’ we may just as well feel the same question hanging over us despite the 78 year gulf between us and the anonymous author of that missive. Why bother with being ‘a light unto the nations’? Why persist in the pursuit of common good? In particular, as our communities approach one of the calendar highlights of the British-Jewish year, Mitzvah Day, we may find ourselves questioning the very premise of the project we’re meant to undertake.

So, what is our mission? What are we commanded, obligated, or suggested to do? One theological stream of thought in Judaism offers an apt answer for our age of uncertainty- namely, that we are literal partners of God, and that our task is nothing less than the continuation and completion of the Creation. If that sounds like a big ask, it is, but it is only when we manifest our mission among humanity that we can claim the mantle of being ‘a light unto the nations.’

This idea is most explicit in the Zohar, which, as usual, is willing to creatively re-read texts of the Tanakh. Jeremiah 30:3 contains the phrase, ‘And you shall say to Zion: You are my people.’ My people (ammi) has its vowels rearranged by the Zohar, suggesting instead that we should read it as immi, ‘with Me.’ A primary commentator on the Zohar, R’ Yehudah Ashlag (known as the Sulam) makes this radical statement even more explicit:  “The Zohar teaches that we should read it as immi (with me), that is, you are with me as partners. For the righteous are the literal partners of God. God has begun the Creation, but the righteous complete it.”

The literal partners of God. That’s no metaphorical panegyric to the power of the human spirit- it is a statement about what it means to be human, to be Jewish, and to be charged with the mission of performing mitzvot. This sort of thinking assumes that God has ceded quite a bit of responsibility to humanity. That is, it is not up to God to stop wicked people and to do good things. Quite the contrary, it’s up to us.

Hakham Solomon David Sassoon, whose contributions to Jewish-British culture in the twentieth century are incredibly underrated, gave this sentiment a beautiful form when imagining how God responded to Job. He writes that God would say: “I’m not your servant to go about cleansing the world of evil people so that you can relax – that’s not my job. I placed people like you in the world so that they would fight for justice and law. If you feel strongly about law, goodness and justice – then you need to go make it happen, and not sit around clasping your hands and crying out: Why don’t I [God] do something!”

God’s anger here is perhaps justified. According to this mystical understanding of our mission as humans, to neglect our responsibility to confront evil- to instead complain to God that wickedness prevails- is to totally miss the point. We have the power to change our communities, our countries and our societies. We have the power to increase goodness and kindness in the world. We have the power to, in partnership with God, continue the incomplete Creation, conquering the remaining chaos and defeating the darkness which threatens the world.

In the simplest sense, this understanding of our role on Earth can be reduced to Spiderman’s aphorism, coined by the late Stan Lee (z”l): ‘With great power, comes great responsibility.’ We must embrace our power and our responsibility. When we look at the mission which with we have been entrusted, the mitzvot which we perform in the community around us, we must be able to see that it is our hands, our minds, and our smiles which can change the world for the better. On Mitzvah Day, and on every day, let us not forget the sacred mission with which we have been charged- to serve, to repair, and to be a fitting partner to the Divine all around us.

Shabbat Shalom

Nov 01

1 November 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Being a rabbi- It’s generally my job to know what to say in difficult situations. This past week however, has been a significant challenge. I’m sure none of you are unaware that last Shabbat saw 11 people murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Words often fail to capture the weight of feeling on seeing, reading, and hearing about the carnage that took place there less than a week ago.

Sometimes silence is okay- but we also can’t forget that our tradition gives us lots of words to use when we grieve, and sadly, we’ve had to grieve in situations just like this many times before. In particular, I’m thinking of the Eleh Ezkerah (These I Remember…) section of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Inserted after the persecutions in Hadrianic times and elaborated on since with every pogrom and massacre- this section gives us words for how to talk about martyrdom.

Yet for many, including SAMS this past year, it seems so far from our contemporary experience as to be hard to understand, and is often skipped. This next year, we may want to reconsider that. Perhaps it is exactly the language of martyrdom, of Jews struck down in the midst of prayer, of holy and sacred souls sacrificed to the hatred of others- that we need most.

Yet some things are also different- after all, it’s 2018 now. For me, the Pittsburgh Pogrom seems to be primarily expressed in different words, namely hashtags such as: #NeverIsNow (an inversion of the phrase ‘Never Again’) or #PittsburghStrong or #JewishLivesMatter. Maybe these are the words that capture our experience of martyrdom. Maybe not.

I don’t know that I have the words, or that our tradition does, or that Twitter does- but I know that the search for a way to honour the lives of those killed for nothing other than being Jewish requires more than words- it requires actions as well. For now though, we need to grieve, to listen, to pray, and to support one another- with words or silence, liturgy or tweets, in whatever way helps.

May their memories be a blessing:

  • Joyce Fineberg, 75
  • Richard Gottfried, 65
  • Rose Mallinger, 97
  • Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
  • Cecil Rosenthal, 59
  • David Rosenthal, 54, (brother of Cecil)
  • Bernice Simon, 84
  • Sylvan Simon, 86, (husband of Bernice)
  • Daniel Stein, 71
  • Melvin Wax, 88
  • Irving Younger, 69

Shabbat Shalom