Monthly Archives: March 2019

Mar 29

28 March 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

There’s a lot of things I love doing being a rabbi– but perhaps chief among them is helping to make new Jews through teaching and facilitating conversions. This past Tuesday was a milestone for me in this regard, as I had the pleasure to sit, for the first time, on a Beit Din for students whom I had also taught. About a year ago, R’ Chaim Weiner (our Av Beit Din, or ‘President’) asked me to assess and work with two young people, brother and sister, who lived in rural Romania and wanted to convert. Maria and Sam had grown up in a family haunted by the supposed Jewish past of their grandfather, but without much knowledge of rabbinic Judaism. Rather, their unusual religious upbringing involved dedicated study of the Torah and observance of the festivals written therein, but without the context, or community, of Judaism.

As they and their siblings grew up, they all decided they wanted to convert to Judaism and affirm and solidify this connection with which they had been raised. Their two older siblings both moved to America and underwent conversions there, but they, for a variety of reasons, remained in their small town in rural Transylvania. Being fairly isolated, they have been studying on their own for years, and only got in touch with us through the European Masorti Beit Din a year or two ago. I had the pleasure of working with them via Skype over the last year to help prepare them for the final step of appearing before the Beit Din here in London and immersing in the Mikveh.

This past Tuesday was finally that day for Maria and Sam– the culmination of many years of study and persistence. As always, I was inspired and moved by the passion for Judaism of the people I meet when presiding over conversions, but it was especially poignant to have personally helped tutor Maria and Sam to reach this day. In addition to working via Skype, we also have a robust little group of 5-8 people who are studying with me here at SAMS, some of whom you may meet at services or events at the shul.

Few things bring me greater joy than being able to help people who have chosen to adopt Judaism into their life and who have elected to be adopted into the Jewish people. I am, due largely to my own background, a firm believer in the notion that a Jewish life which is consciously and actively chosen (whether through conversion or simply a process of learning and an attitude of self-empowerment) is stronger and better than a Jewish identity which is simply a side effect of one’s parentage.

One of the (many) things I love about SAMS is that we are a community of individuals who have all chosen to make Judaism part of our lives. It is certainly not a guarantee– no one moves to St. Albans because they want a robust Jewish life, kosher restaurants, and a culturally-Jewish milieu. Rather, because of the predicament in which we find ourselves, Jewish life is a choice.

When thinking about the importance of conversion, of choice, of self-election and self-empowerment, I often come back to a letter written by Maimonides to a man named Ovadia. Thanks to the Cairo Genizah and other such formats, many personal letters have been preserved, and in this one, Ovadia wrote to Maimonides to explain that he was a convert, and was worried that it would be ‘inappropriate’ for him to say ‘God of my ancestors’ during the Amidah. Maimonides wrote back a powerful letter which reassures him that:

[…] everyone who converts until the end of all the generations—and everyone who unifies the name of the Holy Blessed One as it is written in the Torah—are students of, and members of the household of, our father Abraham; all of whom he turned back to the good [way]. Just as he caused the people of his [own] generation to turn back [to the good] through his mouth and his teaching, so did he cause everyone who would convert in the future to turn back [to the good way] through his command to his sons and the members of his household. Consequently our father Abraham is the father of his students, […] who are all those that convert.

We would do well to remember that the story of our people is about not only being chosen, but choosing– with each and every generation making the conscious and active choice to commit to our shared history, values, culture, language, and faith. The ties that bind us together are not those of blood, but of values.

Shabbat Shalom,

Mar 22

21 March 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Forgive the short dispatch today! As it is Purim, I have had the immense pleasure of spending most of the day delivering the Mishlo’ach Manot bags made by Cheder to a variety of you. This particular activity is immensely fun– an experience I can only guess compares to that of Santa’s theoretical elves. Yet, it isn’t just a fun thing to do– delivering food and gifts to one another– it’s actually one of the four commandments which we’re obligated to do, today, on Purim. Along with hearing the Megillah read, enjoying a festive meal, and giving charity to the poor– sending food (mishlo’ach manot) is an obligation incumbent on us as Jews. What a telling representation of Jewish celebration that we commemorate a bloody, complex, slightly-inappropriate holiday by delivering food to one another.

In his book on Megillat Esther (Manot haLevi), Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz writes:

“[The goal of Mishlo’ach Manot] is to increase peace and friendship. This is the opposite of what the enemy (Haman) assumed, for he said that we are a scattered and fragmented nation. He meant that instead of being a unified nation the Jews are scattered and fragmented by argument. The Sages therefore decreed that we should send presents to each other.”

What a fitting message for our own time. In the face of societal conversations which pitch Jews against one another, and then which rely on the fact that we can’t even agree among ourselves to justify abuse, there is no better rebuke than to extend a hand and give each other gifts. In a society riven by debates which affect our community deeply, Leave/Remain, JVL/JLM, Labour/Tory, Urban/Rural, etc etc– we should embrace the opportunity to demonstrate to our enemies, and ourselves, that friendship comes first.

Chag Purim Same’ach,

Mar 15

14 March 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

As you surely know, Purim is nearly upon us! Many find it hard to believe that Purim is a legitimate Jewish holiday– as it seems to be so much at odds with the somber, historicised, self-flagellating tone which many ascribe to Jewish holiday observance. In contrast, Purim is all about inversion: the weak become powerful and the powerful weak, things revealed become concealed, and things concealed revealed. In this sense, it shares a remarkable degree of similarity with the Christian festival which occurs around this same time of year: Carnival.

Across the Christian world, Carnival is a celebration of inversion– from the masks of Venice’s traditional street fair to the pancake consumption of Mardi Gras, from Rio’s legendary parade of floats, to carnal parades of over-sexualised puppets– European traditions of Carnival have much of the same components as Purim. The Purim story is raunchy (Hebrew sexual euphemisms are particularly obtuse), campy, ridiculous, and ultimately– about the upturning of expectations. The powerful lose, and two protagonists from a despised minority save the day. Everything is topsy-turvy, concealed, mythologically-coded, and ultimately serves to be a controlled explosion of all those natural human impulses sublimated by religious tradition (as too is Carnival).

The similarities are profound, and this similarity (or potential syncretism) has provoked a variety of responses among rabbis. Earlier today I taught a learning session for the Noam staff where we looked at a teshuvah (legal responsum) by R’ Yosef Messas, who was working as a community rabbi in early 20th century Morocco. Someone asked him about the custom of wearing masks on costumes on Purim, and, suffice it to say, he is not a fan:

” […] anyone who has it in their power to erase this custom and to erase it from future observance, spilling no more ink discussing it, so it should be! We should speak to the people and the leaders of our communities who are lazily comfortable with it, and with God’s help, hopefully our words will bear fruit!”

Why was he so bothered by costumes and masks on Purim? It is precisely because he claims that these customs have just been borrowed from Christian Carnival. Yet, in North Africa, he likely would have had almost no exposure to the Christian custom of Carnival. Meanwhile, 500 years earlier, a rabbi who led the community of Padua, Italy (then part of the Venetian Republic) said exactly the opposite: “… there’s no prohibition on this, because no one intends by it anything other than typical rejoicing and happiness. There are those who say it is prohibited, but it is an established practice.”

What gives? The rabbi who lived in the centre of the original Carnival celebration (Venice) is completely calm about Jews dressing up on Purim, while a rabbi living 500 years later who never witnessed Carnival is stoking a moral panic about the danger of masks?! Actually, there’s something both unexpected and totally reasonable about this. Like anyone else, rabbis have often been afraid of things which they didn’t understand. Jews living in Christian countries thought Muslims were idolaters and Jews living in Muslim countries thought Christians were idolaters! Everyone is comfortable with what is familiar, and more willing to accept that there are many aspects of local, familiar religious practice which are shared across different religions and cultures.

Perhaps the most interesting component is where Purim and Carnival differ. Whereas Carnival is about the last burst of indulgence before the penitential season of Lent, Purim is relatively unmoored from the calendar around it. It has no obvious link to Pesach, nor to the months that precede it. In some ways, Purim is a stand-alone story, as part of a stand-alone book. Yet it serves many of the same purposes– for one day, we invert the narrative (nahafokh hu), celebrating the victory of the powerless, the power of hiddenness, and the absurd campy celebration of reading the Megillah.

Perhaps there is some syncretism between Purim and Carnival- but in true Purim fashion, does that matter? In the words of R’ Adin Steinsaltz, a contemporary sage with a very different approach:

“While there may have been outside influences, the masks seem to grow out of the very essence of the festival. The Purim story, then, is a kind of game; in the beginning one sees a frowning face, but eventually one sees that it is nothing but a mask. The terrifying threat not only vanishes, it turns into joy and salvation. Since Purim is a festival of the hiding of the Face, it ought to be celebrated by wearing costumes and masks. In this way we express the essence of Purim as a festival marked, from beginning to end, by concealing and revelation.”

Thus I hope you’ll join us, masked and costumed, for a celebration of inversion and a silly exercise in fantasy. We’re very excited to feature a Purim Shpiel called Green Eggs and SAMS, which will help tell the story alongside the Megillah (with a plentitude of puns, naturally), along with food, fun, and the festive foolishness of our own little carnival.

Shabbat Shalom (and Purim Same’ach),

 

Mar 07

7 March 2019

By Editor | Blogs

A manual wheelchair, a motorised wheelchair, and a set of each with a man or a woman seated in them. A probing cane used by the blind, along with a set with a man and a woman each using it. An ear with a hearing aid. A person (generic), or a woman, or a man, each of which is making the sign for ‘deaf’ in sign language. A prosthetic mechanical arm and leg. A service dog, a guide dog.

These are just some of the 230 new emojis being released this month. Emoji, for those not in the know, are pictographs (the Japanese word is a combination of ‘picture’ and ‘character’) that are standardised as part of the Unicode Consortium’s management of text-based software in millions of platforms and devices. What that means is that, in 2019, you can send a message via SMS or whatever other method, which uses pictures instead of words.

Before the Unicode Consortium stepped in, us cave-people were forced to make faces to each other on the internet using characters of the Roman alphabet, AKA emoticons: :);    ;:( ;   ;P. Now, just as our distant ancestors painting on the walls of prehistoric caves with animal blood, we can share our thoughts using pictograms. Perhaps a shocked face 😱 to show our feeling, or the juvenile poop emoji💩, or, (May God save us all), the inexplicably inappropriate eggplant: 🍆.

Yet, in a few weeks, the library of emojis we all have access to will be increasing dramatically. (You can find a full brief on the new ones here). Notably, a huge percentage of these new emojis relate to disability. Finally, we can use images of men and women in wheelchairs (electric and not), using probing canes, ears with hearing aids and hearing-impaired people. This may seem like an insignificant victory for disability visibility (after all, we’re talking emojis), but actually it’s tremendous.

In an era in which we express ourselves visually more than linguistically, to be inclusive of disability means having images of disability. A mechanical prosthetic or a service dog shouldn’t be something outside of the vocabulary of our daily lived experience, even if– for better or worse– that lived experience happens within the context of our smartphones.

A few weeks ago, the world lost Carrie Ann Lucas, a lawyer and advocate for disability inclusion and policy. She died, at 47, because her health-insurer denied a routine drug to her that would have saved her life. The absurdity of this is monumental, and the tragedy even more so. If you didn’t know about her work, read this tribute in Forbes, appropriately titled: Carrie Ann Lucas Dies At 47. You Probably Haven’t Heard Of Her, And That’s A Problem. 

It’s fabulous that disability inclusion has reached the realm of the emoji– but clearly we have a long way to go yet. As silly as it may seem, I think that our soon-to-be ability to express ourselves using the visual language of disability and different-ability is a small, but significant, step towards the sort of society that Lucas worked, and died, for. In her memory, and in honour of the rich tapestry of ability that includes each of us, I hope these new emojis help us to repair and restore our conception of what it means to include those of all levels of ability in our lives, families, and our society.

Shabbat Shalom,

🕍

Mar 01

28 February 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Shabbat is such a pillar of Jewish life, that when we talk about those who are ‘religious’ or ‘observant’ (both complex and problematic terms themselves) we tend to rely on the Hebrew descriptor of Shomrei Shabbat– those who guard Shabbat. Clearly that instruction is embedded from the very root of our tradition in the Tanakh, where repeated appeals to the observance of Shabbat can be found in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings alike.

Yet for many of us, Shabbat may feel more like a burden than a gift. The prospect of meticulously keeping the intricate halakhot around Shabbat mean that it is often a daunting prospect for the vast majority of Jews. Thus, it is imperative that we try and make Shabbat accessible; try and make it a practice and a custom to which the barriers to entry are low and limited.

In that spirit, it is eminently appropriate that Shabbat UK should be this week, coinciding with parashat Vayakhel– a week in which we begin our parashah with a firm and unquestionable endorsement of Shabbat. Moreover, the project of Shabbat UK, the project of making Shabbat accessible to more Jews, is not one unique to the Orthodox world. I suspect that many non-Orthodox communities shy away from Shabbat UK, yet it would be a shame to ignore this central aspect of our shared religious value– this communal calendrical wonder which has bound together all Jews historically and binds us all together today.

I have learned a great deal from the writings of R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel (z”l), but none more than the intergenerational, interdenominational power of Shabbat. He compared Shabbat to our version of a cathedral– an edifice of holiness built in time rather than in space:

“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. . . . Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.”

May this Shabbat UK and every one after, enable all of us– orthodox and not, engaged and not, current guardians of Shabbat and future ones– the opportunity to experience the solace and sanctuary of a sanctified Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,