Monthly Archives: November 2019

Nov 29

28 November 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,
As an American, there’s lots about British culture that I’ve had the pleasure of picking up these last few years. Unique words, different turns of phrase, some unnecessarily complicated spellings, and also whole cultural phenomena which are new to me. One which falls into the last category is the ‘hustings.’ 
A word which I can’t imagine has ever once been uttered upon the Atlantic’s other shores, ‘hustings’, (as I learned thanks to the OED) is a conjunction of the Old Norse words hùs (house) and thing (assembly). Its use to refer to a grilling of parliamentary candidates derives from the fact that it was the name of the place where candidates stood in the medieval assemblies of the City of London once they had been nominated. 
The hustings which we hosted last night were certainly quite a bit different from my experiences, but nonetheless, deeply fascinating. A few observations from a curious non-voter here: 
1. All the candidates were women. Perhaps that’s not a headline-worthy statement here (which is the best part), but I can think of very few examples of American political offices where all of the candidates were female and it wasn’t tokenised or turned into a gimmick. Last night, listening to Rebecca Lury, Daisy Cooper, and Anne Main debate with eachother (and the audience) I was struck by how different the discussion would be Stateside. The fact of their femininity would have been far more central, with probing questions about how they intended to hold office while raising a family or subtle jabs calling into question the legitimacy of their credentials. None of that even subtly arose – if people challenged these three candidates it was on their policies and not their gender, and I think that’s fabulous. 
2. The Jewish community matters. This is one where actually I have the reverse surprise. In the States, Jewish political power is more significant because the population is so much larger than the UK (roughly 7 million in the US versus 300 thousand here). In the States, politicians frequently pander to the ‘Jewish vote’ usually by making noises about their support of Israel. It is an unstated rule that presidential candidates are expected to speak at the AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference the year of their election to show that they’re giving time to the Jewish and Zionist cause. Clearly– that dynamic is absent in the UK, as I expected. However, I was pleasantly surprised that even though foreign policy was not raised once last night (and Israel never mentioned), the Jewish community is seen as significant enough to garner an evening of the candidates’ time in the midst of potentially the busiest few weeks of their lives. I think that’s a universal good – because whether we agree or not with them, at least we can say that the candidates see us as worthy of talking to. 
3. The red-shift. By this I mean that the Tories here sound like more conservative, southern-state Democrats, the Lib Dems sound like left-centre mainstream Democrats, and Labour sounds like the progressive left-edge of the Democrats. If you were to map the UK political spectrum onto the US one, there would be a distinct red-shift/left-shift. They’re all Democrats  Absent altogether from the discussion last night was the sort of hard-right, ultranationalist, evangelical Reublicanism which is so keen on seeming to be past-looking that ‘paleo’-conservative is a compliment. I realise those strains do exist in some parties here, but thankfully they are so marginal, especially compared to the acceptability of horrible ideas in contemporary America. It used to be that some of the ideas which are now ‘normal’ were unacceptable. Seeing that the UK has held that line – that all of the parties, regardless of their differences, avoid falling off the right-hand cliff, is a relief. 
I’m no political commentator, and as I said – I’m also not a UK voter (yet, perhaps)– but I was deeply impressed with the candidates, their preparedness, and the tenor or the conversation which we held between them and us. I really applaud all of those people who helped organise the event, and I hope that all of you are registered to vote and intend to do so on 12 December. No matter how much we may despair over the state of politics, ceasing to vote will gain nothing and only further cede ground to extreme views. 
I’m attaching here a prayer written for an American context but nonetheless quite relevant – expressing the importance and sanctity of voting in a Jewish framework – a prayer before voting.
Shabbat Shalom,
R’ Adam 
Nov 21

21 November 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,
“We are part of something greater: a vast web of existence constantly expanding and evolving. When we gaze at the nighttime sky, we can ponder that we are made of elements forged within stars, out of particles born in the big bang […] Beyond any star or galaxy we will ever identify lies the horizon of space-time, fourteen billion light years away. But neither God nor the big bang is that far away. The big bang didn’t happen somewhere out there, outside of us. Rather, we began inside the big bang; we now embody its primordial energy. The big bang has never stopped.” 

This beautiful theological credo comes from one of my absolute favourite books, Daniel Matt’s God and the Big Bang. Professor Matt is one of my heroes– he is a passionate advocate for the Kabbalah as a theology while rejecting the pseudo-magical self-help tendencies of some that claim the title. Instead, he is thoughtful, modern, focussed on myth, and incredibly well-spoken. Matt spent the better part of the last twenty years translating the Zohar into English and, as those of you who have learned Zohar with me will know, that’s no mean feat. 

Yet above and beyond his monumental work on the Zohar, his take on articulating a mystical but modern theology in God and the Big Bang has been immensely influential for me. I’m really happy to see that now, 23 years after it was originally published in English, אלוקים והמפץ הגדול is available in Hebrew. I think this is essential– as any Jewish theology that isn’t in Hebrew won’t survive long term. I hope that the translation brings Prof. Matt’s ideas and erudition to Israeli audiences. and I look forward to picking up the new version when I’m next in Israel. 
The first sentence above is: We are part of something greater: a vast web of existence constantly expanding and evolving. That may seem like a lovely, if metaphorical, sentiment– but actually the last few weeks have seen scientific discoveries which may lead us to realise that Prof. Matt is a lot closer to reality here than conventional scientific models. 
I was struck reading about recent research into what is mildly called ‘Large Scale Structures.’ What this underwhelming name denotes is the fact that scientists have observed that galaxies which are separated by humungous distances are moving in conjunction with one another. As if connected by some invisible string, two apparently-unrelated galaxies often move in sync! This discovery, published in October, (for the nerds: here) means that our basic notion about how the Universe is structured is flawed. 
All of those galaxies, galaxy-clusters, etc.– all of the objects we normally think about being ‘really big’ are, it turns out, actually part of even bigger constructs. Yet again we are reminded that our vantage point is infinitesimal compared to the immensity of the universe. Realising that there are structures which exist but are unseen, which connect apparently-disparate things, should remind us that a spiritual orientation to the world is not foolish, ‘illlogical’ or unreasonable. Rather, as we increasingly discover how little we know, we may find, as Prof. Matt suggests, that ‘neither God nor the big bang is that far away’. 
Shabbat Shalom,
R’ Adam
If you want to read more about Large Scale Structures, there’s a great non-expert long form article on Vice. 
Nov 08

7 November 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,
This week in the Torah, as we zoom in post-Flood onto Abraham and his family, we get a story that, to its first listeners, would have been remarkably strange. Our ancestors who first recorded and told the tales of the Torah were well acquainted with mythological epics about heroes encountering the gods. The people from whom Abraham fled last week, the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim, where Abraham was born– would have been well versed in the tales of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king whose revolt against gods and kings was memorialised in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In Abraham’s own time (18th century BCE), the Gilgamesh story was repurposed to tell the heroic tales of Atrahasis in Akkadian– Atrahasis, the wise hero who saved humanity from a divine Flood and the monstrous gods who tried to destroy humanity. 
In the Torah, the story is notably different. While surely playing on the ancient near-eastern parallels, the Flood is destructive, but God is filled with pathos and regret. The hero of the flood story, No’ach, turns out to be a complex character, mostly undone by his own actions. Then, this week we meet a new hero, the unassuming Abraham who receives the divine call in this week’s parashah, Lekh L’kha. The poetry of the Hebrew is hard to capture, as usual, but the literal translation of Everett Fox does a pretty good job: 

God said to Avram:
From your land,
From your kindred,
From your father’s house,
To the land that I will let you see.

Genesis 12:1-3

This call- ‘go-you-forth’ as Fox has it here– is not atypical for these heroic stories of the ancient Middle East. What’s unusual is, as Fox points out in his commentary, that, “the classic mythological motif of the journey, where the hero meets such dangers as monsters and giants, has here been avoided.” Abraham doesn’t have any monsters to face– nor does he have to deal with capricious and vindictive deities out to get him as Atrahasis did (though surely the scene of Sodom and Gomorrah is an echo of that). Instead, the foes that Abraham has to face are mostly internal, psychological. Rather than tame wild beasts, he has to learn to tame himself. Rather than try and pass a Sphinx’s riddles, he has to pass God’s test. 

Genesis is a brilliant bit of literature– it plays with and adapts the ancient near-eastern Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian literature which preceded and was contemporary with it in clever and unexpected ways. To its first audience, the inversion of expected stories probably had a good deal of shock value. To us, it is so familiar, we often miss what the stories are trying to tell us. 
In the case of Abraham and Lekh-Lekha, the story of the hero is not the one we might expect. Our protagonist undertakes a quest, but the monsters he faces are of his own mind, and the antagonist is not a malicious divine force, but his own anger and doubt. All of us are on a journey of some kind, all of us are the hero/ine in our own story– and we too would do well to remember that the monsters of myth are often metaphors, and that the quests we undertake are probably a lot more like Abraham’s than Atrahasis’s. 
Shabbat Shalom