Monthly Archives: May 2019

May 30

30 May 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Often, when I talk to people who tell me they’re an atheist, I can be a bit dismissive. This isn’t because I have any issue with questioning faith or with the idea that one might struggle to connect with God. Rather, it is because I have met very few people who were genuinely atheistic. Most replace a faith in a transcendent Divine being with a different faith: in humanity, in ‘progress’, in certain political or economic identities, etc. Many who claim an identity as an atheist fall into this category– subscribing to all of the tenets of monotheism, but while believing they could simply cut God out of the picture.

However, the claims of progress and enlightenment, the belief in humanity’s inevitable advancement– those are claims which are based in the idea of a God who facilitates a gradual improvement in the human condition over time. Often people talk as though the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and academic Humanism are all counter-religious forces– whereas in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The thinkers of the Enlightenment used all the planks of religious faith, they simply replaced what used to be called God with the amorphous being we call ‘humanity.’

Who is ‘humanity’? What does ‘humanity’ decide? Of course no such cooperation between every member of the species is even conceivable, much less realistic. At best, ‘humanity’ is a loose collection of individual human beings who often have vastly different goals and purposes in life, and frequently, use their lives to contest with one another rather than proclaim a grand vision of ‘humanity’.

A true atheism would have to throw off all the categories of religious belief– including the idea that human beings are important, holy, and working towards positive ends. Instead, almost all of the contemporary ‘atheist’ thinkers do precisely that: advocate for human knowledge, human scientific endeavours, and human significance as a theoretical antidote to Divinity. Well, it doesn’t really work. Most atheists today are very religious– except the deity they worship is an imagined ‘Humanity’ rather than a transcendent Divinity.

I’ve struggled to articulate this difficult distinction for many years– and it doesn’t help that most religious people don’t understand what it means to be religious any more than atheists understands what it means to reject religion– but I’ve really been struck by the strength of the argument in John Gray’s newest book, Seven Types of Atheism. If you’re into this sort of thing, I’d encourage you to read it. I’m not sure it’s exactly a summer holiday beach read, but, you never know.

In the meantime, I think it’s really critical that we don’t accept a simple dichotomy of religion vs. atheism. A lot of ‘religious’ people are proper atheists, and a lot of ‘atheist’ people are surprisingly religious! As usual, it’s more complicated than it seems. When we look a bit beyond the labels we give ourselves and consider what our beliefs really are we may be surprised that we don’t know quite as much about ourselves, our species, or our God, as we originally thought.

Shabbat Shalom,

May 24

23 May 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Today is Lag Ba’Omer, a very uncreatively-named Jewish holiday (Lag or ל״ג is simply the way to write 33 in Hebrew), which falls on the 33rd day of the Omer– the time that bridges the divide between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Whereas many Jews observe a variety of mourning customs during the Omer (no music, no shaving, etc) Lag Ba’Omer has a very different vibe: children in the streets shooting bows and arrows, people giving each other haircuts on mountaintops, and large and ubiquitous bonfires. It’s quite a sharp dissonance, especially in Israeli communities where Lag Ba’Omer is a raucous, wild holiday. And where does this special madness of the otherwise-insignificant 33rd day of the Omer come from? Well, like many great inventions, it comes from a mistake.

The festivities we celebrate are meant to be in honour of the Yom Hillula (AKA ‘yahrzeit’) of R’ Shimon bar Yochai, a 2nd century rabbi and key figure in the creation of Judaism as we know it. However, he didn’t actually die today (or at least, probably not). In the original, handwritten document that describes the custom of R’ Isaac Luria (16th c.) to visit R’ Shimon’s grave, it says Lag Ba’Omer was “יום שמחת רשב”י” — the day of happiness of R’ Shimon Bar Yochai (for being saved from the ‘plague’ – or more likely, the Romans). The scribe copied it down as the abbreviated יום שמ’ רשב”י” which further was modified by the publishers to יום שמת רשב”י”, the day R’ Shimon Bar Yochai died. So, R’ Shimon Bar Yochai was saved on Lag BaOmer from the ‘plague’ (meaning he wasn’t killed that day), but there isn’t any historical record that he died on Lag BaOmer.

Regardless of the potentially mistaken origin of the holiday– Lag Ba’Omer is still an awful lot of fun. And even if R’ Shimon didn’t die today, there’s still a lot from his life to celebrate. One of my favourite stories of R’ Shimon bar Yochai is the origin of the tradition that he authored the Zohar (which he didn’t).

According to the story, R’ Shimon got himself in trouble because he mocked the Romans and their occupation of Judea. The Talmud tells that he was walking with two other rabbis, Yehudah ben Ilai and Yose ben Chalafta. Yehudah praised the Romans– acclaiming how they constructed bridges, aqueducts, and bridges. Yose said nothing, but Shimon mocked these engineering marvels, claiming the Romans only made them for their own self-interest. To quote the famous Life of Brian sketch, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?!’

The Talmud tells us that the Romans overhead this conversation and as a result, promoted Yehudah and exiled Shimon. To escape the death penalty, he and his son hid in a cave for 13 years! All good heroes have a cave in their origin story, after all. When, after 13 years, the Roman governor died and he was free to leave, R’ Shimon emerged having gained enlightenment– becoming a famous pupil of R’ Akiva and a teacher in his own right, and being held by our tradition to be the founder of Jewish mysticism and the author of the Zohar.

In typical fashion, the life (and death) of R’ Shimon bar Yochai is shrouded in mystery, confusion, and a fair amount of manuscript errors. Yet there’s something special that has emerged from all this to become Lag Ba’Omer. The original text seems to imply that today is the day that the ‘plague’ of Shimon’s arrest warrant was ended, and he emerged from the cave. If that’s so– then the practices (bonfires, archery, celebration) make a lot more sense than if today is the day of this sage’s death.

I for one am very happy to joyfully commemorate the end of that plague, and others too– the plagues of foreign oppression, of unjust laws, of religious persecution. The years of R’ Shimon’s life following his experience in the cave have given us many central tenets of our Jewish faith, and that is certainly worth celebrating.

Lag Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,

May 16

16 May 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

It may have escaped your attention with all the (other) horrible news these days, but one of the strangest recent developments is that Steve Bannon, former advisor and key strategist of the Trump campaign, has recently taken up residence in a remote Italian monastery. This is not, unfortunately, a result of him seeing the error of his ways and seeking penitence, but instead part of a broad strategy to empower and enthuse European ultran-ationalists across the continent. The monastery is leased by a Catholic organisation which lobbies against abortion legislation and is working with Bannon’s pompously-titled group, “The Movement,” to create an academy at said monastery where burgeoning political leaders in alt-right and ultra-nationalist parties can come to get trained and to meet one another.

The fact that ultra-nationalist politicians are engaging in international cooperation is itself rather strange, but even stranger is that Bannon and co. routinely utilise the same rhetoric in defining what it is they’re doing in this remote mountain sanctuary: defending Judeo-Christian values. Right– so what are those?

I’ve written before about what a troublesome category ‘Judeo-Christian’ is, but perhaps nothing underlines so powerful the danger of such a phrase than it being evoked by Bannon’s monastic disciples. We have to be especially careful that Judaism is not co-opted by culture warriors who want to try and sell some romanticised vision of ‘the West.’ After all, this is the same West which has defined its entire two-millenia long cultural history as being based on anti-Judaism (with the occasional bonus of anti-Semitism as well).

Jewish values are Jewish values– not for anyone else to use or expropriate. Yet, even if they were to be hyphenated, the far more accurate description of values would be to conflate Judaism and Islam rather than Judaism and Christianity. Because Judaism and Islam operate the same way (halakhah/sharia) and describe God the same way (elo’ah/allah)– they more often share the same values. In addition, Judaism and Islam both share cultural components shaped heavily by the Middle-East, whereas Western Christianity (Catholic and Protestant alike) has made every effort to strip itself of ‘Eastern’ influences.

We have to be careful that we too don’t fall into the trap set by those like Bannon, who wish to conflate Jewish texts and values with their extremist vision of Christianity and Christian identity. One way we can counter-act that is to claim and speak for our own values, and another is to show how much we share with Islam. Especially because Bannon’s worldview is one that is trying to pitch Jews and Christians against a Muslim enemy– we can balance the scales by spending some time learning and sharing, our cultures and our foods, with our Muslim neighbours and friends.

To that end, I wanted to extend an invitation to you, to our entire community, from the Muslim community here in St. Albans to join them for an Iftar meal and celebration this Saturday evening. Though it is still Shabbat for us, this event is free, open to the public, and just around the corner from SAMS– so I hope that, if you’re able, you’ll join us to share and learn about Jewish and Muslim values together.

Shabbat Shalom,

May 09

9 May 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

I’m sure many of you will agree: there are many confusing and often jarring aspects of contemporary Israeli society and culture. Yet, personally, I think none is stranger than the extreme switch between the two chief days of the secular calendar: Yom haZikaron and Yom haAtzma’ut. Today (Wed night-Thur night) is Yom haAtzma’ut and immediately before it was Yom haZikaron (Tue night-Wed night). One flows immediately into the other– with the crepuscular darkness that descended last night also came a tremendous change in mood: from somber to celebratory, from serious to silly.

Yom haZikaron (Day of Memory) is the designated day to observe the memorialisation of all those lost in combat on behalf of the State of Israel. During yesterday’s ceremonies the new tally was announced: 23,741. Officially, the day is called Yom HaZikaron LeHalalei Ma’arakhot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot HaEivah (The Day of Remembrance for the Casualties of Israel’s Battles and for those Fallen by Acts of Hatred.) It’s rather a mouthful– but it conveys well the way in which offensive military operations are interlinked with defense and counterterrorism in the Israeli mindset. On Yom haZikaron, all shopping and entertainment are closed by law, and for 24 hours, the TV simply shows lists of scrolling names next to an image of a Yahrzeit candle. Flags around the country are lowered to half-staff, and thousands flock to Mt. Herzl’s military cemetery to pay their respects. Then, as the sun goes down again– everything changes.

After such a day of solemnity, it is surprising to suddenly see the sky illuminated by fireworks, raucous music fill the streets, and the flags which have returned to full-staff now mirrored by people carrying, waving, and draped in flags in public squares around the country. As Yom haAtzma’ut (Day of Independence) begins with sunset, many revelers spend all night singing and dancing in the streets, with huge ceremonies taking place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The next day (today), Israelis go out en masse to barbecue in public parks, the Air Force does cinematic fly-bys around the country, military bases are often open to the public, and several notable events take place; among them the International Bible Contest (Chidon haTanakh) and the ceremony for the Israel Prize.

I remember when we lived in Jerusalem for the year, being quite taken aback at the whiplash of going from the sad commemoration of Yom haZikaron to the festive ferocity of Yom haAtzma’ut. Emotionally, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster. Yet, it’s all very purposeful– and there’s a few factors which have contributed. Of course, a big part is narrative: independence is achieved through sacrifice and through war, and the switch from sadness to joy is a potent reminder of how much is lost and what the costs are of liberty and self-determination. However, I suspect it also goes far deeper.

The polarity between despair and joy is critical to a certain Hebrew mindset– it’s riddled throughout the Tanakh and throughout the rabbinic system built from it. Consider the Psalm we sing to introduce Birkat haMazon on happy occasions (Ps. 129) and it’s famous line: ‘Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.’ Consider the mixing of sadness into the joy of a wedding (in the breaking of the glass) or the addition of a bit of joy to the sadness of a funeral (in the stories told and laughs shared over Shiva). We’re most comfortable in Judaism when we are radically oscillating between these emotional states– perhaps recognising the codependence they have on one another. Our joys are all the more joyful because of the sadness that is intermixed in them, and our memories are all the more heartbreaking because we remember the joy first and foremost.

I think there’s a certain theatrical, romantic, definitely religious beauty to the purposeful mashup of great sadness and great joy. The open expression and deep embrace of this severe switch from Yom haZikaron to Yom haAtzma’ut is a beautiful thing, and one that I think characterises Israeli, and Jewish society, fairly well. In this very strange ‘two day chag,’ may the memory of those fallen to provide the freedom we so cherish be a blessing, and may we celebrate our independence without ignoring the sacrifices that have allowed us to reach such a day.

Chag haAtzma’ut Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,

May 03

2 May 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

This week marks the first anniversary of “A Thought for Thursday”. I can’t believe it’s been a year already! As always, I welcome any feedback, questions, reviews, or suggestions for topics! Thanks for your support and for the many people who have come up to me and written to me to share that they read this little column and enjoy it. Thank you. 

Today is Yom haShoah, and I’m always moved by seeing the kaleidoscope of candles lit by our community and posted across Facebook and social media. The Yellow Candle project is a really brilliant idea, especially because as living survivors gradually disappear, we’re left considering what the best way is to communicate the horrors of the Holocaust to a new generation. There’s several really interesting projects that have started recently which I’d like to share with you. All of them, like the Yellow Candle Project, are controversially trying to undertake the massive task of making the Shoah relevant to our contemporary world.

  1. Zikaron baSalon – meaning “Memorial in the Living Room”, is a social initiative in Israel which organises informal parlour-meeting type gatherings in people’s living rooms around the country. The project believes that the future of Holocaust education lies in intimate, personal conversations and connections – and it has seen great success in getting Israelis together to discuss, debate and commemorate the Shoah. For more info on Zikaron baSalon, click here.
  1. Holocaust Holography – is a series of projects to meant to enablefuture generations to hear first-hand testimony from Holocaust survivors. Or, at the very least from an algorithmically-generated mobile hologram of survivors. Called New Dimensions in Testimony, the primary project in this type of holography has used bleeding edge technology to capture hundreds of hours of survivors narrating their lives and answering stock questions. All this is compressed and recorded into a live virtual simulation which can then respond to people like Siri or Alexa. The idea being, that someday in the future, school children can go to a museum and interrogate a survivor’s holographic presence, hearing their story first hand and interacting with them in a way that transcends the simple written word. You can see more about this here.
  1. @eva.stories – is a series of Instagram stories, posted over the last 24 hours, creating a tapestry of short films, showing the last days of a young girl and her family in Hungary up until their deaths in Auschwitz. Produced like a major Hollywood movie, and with nearly a million followers in 48 hours, Eva.Stories has found a way to tell the tale of real life Shoah victim, Eva Heyman in a modern idiom. I found it incredibly moving- to imagine what Eva’s diary would look like with emojis, filters, and hashtags reminds us that her experience is not so different from teenagers today and the Holocaust is not as far removed as it may seem. If you’re on Instagram, check it out.You can also read more about the project here.

Through these interesting initiatives and innumerable others, it’s good to know that no effort is being spared in the preservation of memory beyond the generation of the Holocaust itself. Already, within the lives of many survivors, we are seeing doubt, distrust, and denial. Thus it’s as critical as ever that we continue to find new ways to bring the stories of its victims to life and ensure that the experience of it remains a virtual one, an exercise in memory alone.

May the memories of all those who were murdered by man and machine be a blessing and an instruction for us and for the future.

Shabbat Shalom,