Monthly Archives: August 2019

Aug 29

29 August 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Arguably, no one loves acronyms more than the Jews. The further you get into traditional Jewish texts (especially rabbinic ones) the more that the words dissolve into endless (and often, senseless) acronyms. I would imagine that I’m not alone among people who have spent time in a Beit Midrash in having devoted a majority of those hours to guessing at and looking up abbreviations and acronyms. For example, in the Talmud, the frequent acronym ע”כ can stand for: 1) up until now, 2) based on this, 3) therefore, or 4) perforce. In a text focussed on narrow technical and legal arguments, which one of those four is being used matters! As annoying as this can be, acronyms also allow us to play with language in ways that can be beautiful and helpful to the aim of good interpretation.

This Sunday is not only the first of September in the Gregorian calendar, but also the first of Elul in the Hebrew calendar (Rosh Ḥodesh). Elul is a special time of our spiritual year not due to its own merit, but due to the fact that it precedes Tishré (the first month of the year). Since Rosh Ḥodesh Tishré is also what we call Rosh haShanah, Elul becomes a preparatory time, one of increased devotion to reflection. We are meant to find in Elul an opportunity to look at the year that’s gone by and evaluate– so that when Tishré arrives, and ten days later, Yom Kippur, we are able to articulate what went well and what didn’t.

That process of being able to identify our successes and failures can’t simply be done on the spot. If we don’t think at all to contemplate our lives before Yom Kippur arrives, the heaviness of the day will be lost on us. Like anything of value, the process of self-examination requires some preparation. Thus, this period of Elul which we’re about to begin is that time– to go slow, reflect, consider, contemplate– and to begin to formulate a plan for what we want the next year to be. If we have done this intellectual work before we ever recite the words of the Maḥzor, then the High Holy Days will be considerably more meaningful to us.

So– what acronym is Elul (אלול)? The Sages were quick to connect it to a famous verse from Song of Songs: אני לדודי ודודי לי – which may look familiar from your ketubah or wedding ring. It means, ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,’ and if you look carefully you’ll notice that the first letters of each word spell א-ל-ו-ל, Elul.

To see this critical month we are about to begin as an acronym for a poetic statement of love and companionship is important. To the Sages, the High Holy Days were not a time of dread or misery. It was not meant to be about obligatory attendance at shul, exaggerated prayer services, or even, necessarily, about Teshuvah. This season was meant to be– and still can be– about intimacy– intimacy with ourselves, and with God (often not so different).

Being open with ourselves, honest about our failings, and using that to develop an intimacy with divinity– is a tall order. That’s precisely why we need to begin now, as Elul begins– so that in five weeks when the High Holy Days are in full swing, we can take full advantage of the acronymic association of this month of reflection with a statement of love and connection.

Shabbat Shalom (and Ḥodesh Tov),

R’ Adam

*PS. Naturally there’s a lot going on at SAMS during Elul– special classes for the HHD, the resumption of Hebrew classes and Adult Ed, social events, and everything in-between. If you’re looking to re-commit and want to know what might suit you, check the weekly emails– or get in touch*

Aug 19

15 August 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

This is a weird week in the Jewish calendar. On Sunday we commemorated Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), the day on which the ancient Temple was destroyed and numerous other calamities befell our people. It ties with Yom Kippur as the saddest day of the Jewish year (and shares many ritual similarities as well). Yet, less than a week later, we reach an entirely different sort of holiday.

Tu b’Av (the 15th of Av) is tomorrow– and it is only a minor holiday, one that’s largely fallen out of fashion in contemporary Judaism. The Talmud tell us that Tu b’Av was a day when women went out in borrowed white clothing to dance in the field and to choose partners from among the men who came to dance with them. They wore borrowed clothing so as not to shame any woman who did not have fine white clothing to wear. They would sing to their potential lovers, telling them to choose goodness and integrity rather than good looks. In rabbinic tradition, Tu b’Av also marks a number of miraculous events relating to marriage, union, and rebirth—particularly, that this was the day on which the Israelites were redeemed from wandering in the wilderness and allowed to enter the land of Israel.

In modern Israel, Tu b’Av has become a sort of Valentine’s Day, a Chag haAhavah (festival of love). Whether in its original significance or its modern one, there’s something to be said for reviving the tradition of Tu b’Av. To acknowledge a holiday celebrating love and rebirth less than a week after we’ve been weeping over death and destruction is a powerful moment.

Even in our saddest hours and our darkest days, perhaps love and light and playful dancing in summer fields is not far away at all. The contrast between Tisha and Tu b’Av acknowledges how often life swings dramatically between joy and misery, sometimes so fast it feels simultaneous. This week, as we move from loss to love, we’d do well to learn a bit more about Tu b’Av- and maybe even take a few minutes to go out and dance in the fields (weather-permitting).

To learn more:

My Jewish Learning, Celebrating Romantic Love

Tablet, On Tu b’Av, Embrace Thy Neighbor

Tel Shemesh, Tu b’Av – the Fruit

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Aug 02

1 August 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Back when I was a young, doe-eyed, proto-rabbi– there was one thing above all else that I felt the need to hide from my classmates and teachers. It was an opinion which was very much not in vogue (#unpopularopinion) and I thought it best to not be too eager to share it. Basically, I thought that interfaith work was a vastly-over hyped and meaningless concept.

This wasn’t out of any xenophobia or distaste for other religions. Quite the contrary– I’d always felt that it was the job of clergy of any faith to learn about every faith. Rather, my distaste for interfaith programmes and meetings was that it seemed utterly pointless. Most of the one’s I’d been to were the same, small, well-meaning, group of people– talking, and talking, and talking.

Indeed, there is quite a common phenomena of superficial interfaith work– efforts to engage in ‘dialogue’ which mostly result in several monologues, but recited collectively. It took a while for me to realise that what bothered me so much wasn’t the interfaith premise itself (that’s critical, actually), but rather the way in which I’d mostly seen it done.

You see– I think the project of learning and sharing our faiths with those of different faith(s) (or none) is most effective not when we’re talking about ourselves and our faiths, but when we’re doing something. I realised this first when I started doing social action projects which brought together people of different faiths, and I’ve continued to see it be true in the rabbinate. Actually getting together to do something, rather than talk about doing something is far more effective.

Indeed, it is better to do anything- even unlikely things. Getting a church group and a mosque group to go bowling together is far better than having a meeting where each side talk about their views of faith. I think this is partially because, as a rabbi and a Jew, I find the whole project of proselytising religion so distasteful. Since our aim is not to convert our fellow Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans (you name it) to Judaism– why do we need to demonstrate the merit of Jewish doctrine to them. Quite simply– what does it matter what we believe or they believe?

To me, what matters far more, is that we learn to see each other as fellow humans and fellow seekers. My appreciation of people of a different religion shouldn’t be based on the contents of their faith’s dogmas– it should be based on the meta-goal of ensuring that people of different religions spend time with each other and see each other as subjects, not objects.

Because so much of history has been informed by religions misunderstanding each other, I can relate to the need to explain our faiths. But today, the bigger problem is not misunderstanding, but dehumanisation. Extremist groups disregard people of other faiths as less-than-human. The best antidote to that is not sharing our views, but sharing our time.

Thus, I’m supremely proud of the work we’ve done at SAMS to build meaningful relationships with our other faith communities by doing stuff together. Interfaith projects on Mitzvah Day and throughout the year have been immensely successful. Working, sharing, living, acting, and playing together all help to break down those barriers and counteract the ‘othering’ impulse of all faiths.

It really doesn’t matter what we do in building those bonds– but it does help if it’s something fun. Which is why I’d like to invite you all to come and watch an afternoon of cricket, this Sunday (4 Aug) at 1.30pm at the cricket pitches in Verulamium Park. There’s a team from SAMS (whoop whoop!), one from the Islamic Centre on Hatfield Road, and two put together by St. Paul’s. I’m really looking forward to embarrassing myself horribly– and I hope you’ll come to watch– because I sincerely believe that we learn more from each other when we do something and not just say something.

Shabbat Shalom,