Monthly Archives: November 2020

Nov 27

26 November 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

There’s a great accidental pun that occurs for American Jews who celebrate Thanksgiving (which is today), centred around Psalm 136, which many will cite as a double entendre: hodu l’adonai ki tov. It can be translated (as it usually is) as: ‘Give thanks to God, for [God is] good.’ But it can also be read as ‘Turkey for God for it is good.’ To that rare subset of people who find this funny– it is hilarious.

The reason this happens is because of yet another misunderstanding – about the bird which we call turkey. When European colonisers encountered turkey in the ‘New World’ they didn’t know what it was, and believed that it was the same as the bird which they knew as a ‘Turkish Chicken’ (actually a guinea fowl). However, in Hebrew the bird (Meleagris gallopavo) was called ‘hodu‘ – this time not a reference to Turkey (which guinea fowl weren’t from, but rather from Africa but reached Europe via Portuguese traders and North African ports), but instead to India.

In Hebrew, India is called Hodu – and Hebrew inherited the bias of Russian, French, Polish and Yiddish who call the bird which English calls ‘turkey’, ‘india’ instead. This came from a similar misunderstanding (that the Caribbean was the ‘West Indies’ and the people the same as those in the Indian subcontinent). Perhaps most amusing is that in Turkey, turkey (bird) is called ‘hindi’ (India).

The result of all this avian confusion is that we get the amusing fact of ‘hodu’ in Hebrew meaning three things: ‘Give thanks’, ‘India (country)’, and ‘turkey’ (bird). For Hebrew-literate American Jews, the refrain of Psalm 136 is thus a wonderful pun; giving thanks and turkey are related not just by American custom but by Hebrew grammar (however dubious the origins).

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or don’t (I don’t)– we are all due to remember the importance of gratitude, and of giving thanks. Perhaps this jumbled history of birds, countries and verbs can serve as a mnemonic– reminding us to make each day one in which we find ways to give thanks– for it is good.

Shabbat Shalom,
R. Adam
PS. for more background on this, see here

Nov 18

12 November 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,
One of the questions I’m often asked is whether meditation is described by the Torah. The answer is largely, no– excepting one verse, part of this week’s parashah Hayyé Sarah. Genesis 24:63 seems like an unlikely candidate for the basis of Jewish meditation– as our narration turns back to Yitshak who is about to meet Rivkah for the first time (a rare and beautiful scene of romance in the Torah). In describing Yitshak at this key moment, the Torah says: “And Yitshak went out lasu’ah in the field around evening…”. Most translations have lasu’ah as ‘walking around’ or ‘wandering’. It’s related to the word for converse (as in a conversation), but it’s quite ambiguous. However, to the mystical tradition of Judaism it has always been clear what this little verse is referencing– Isaac is meditating.
Meditation is nothing other than conscious thought. Most of our thinking occurs by accident– thoughts invade our minds unbidden or we jump from one to another unthinkingly, responding to external stimuli. To consciously direct one’s thoughts is harder than it sounds– and the practice of meditation is entirely about finding ways to gain insight over one’s mind and to do so with intention. Like many things, meditation is simple in theory but complex in practise– and there are many practices.
Yitshak’s meditation in the field when he met Rivkah may have been the first mention of something we might call meditation, but it certainly isn’t the only place in Jewish tradition where conscious, intentional, practised thought takes centre-stage. Our tradition is rich with meditative techniques– some quite simple and easy, some very bizarre and difficult. Yet, by and large, in contemporary Judaism (1789-today), this aspect of our tradition has been ignored, if not actively repressed. That has led to a bit of a crisis.
With the explorations of the 1960s and the new age movement that grew from it, Jews began to seek more ‘spiritual’ practices in their own faith. Many were disappointed by what they found. As a result, masses of Jews left Judaism to become Buddhists, Sufis, Hindus, Christian monks, and more yet. Fun fact: a significant portion of Western-born teachers of Buddhism are Jews. In response to this, many Jewish organisations sprung up which attempted to blend Vedic traditions and westernised versions of meditation practices with Jewish traditions.
The most prominent result of this today is the prevalence of ‘mindfulness’. I have some problems with mindfulness, a few of which are discussed well by this article, a great quote from which sums it up:
“In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself. It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place.”

What really troubles me about the state of Jewish meditation today is that there are plenty of Jews meditating, but very few who are practicing meditation within a traditionally-developed Jewish framework. Yitshak meditating in a field and the numerous traditions and cultures which developed within Jewish life are deserving of rehabilitation. There is nothing wrong with Buddhist, Sufi, Hindu or any other meditative approach, but before we appropriate other cultures’ traditions or dilute metaphysically-problematic notions into quick-fix self-help mumbo jumbo, we need to be willing to look at our own faith and recover that which was lost. 

A huge initial effort towards this goal has already been made by R. Aryeh Kaplan (z”l) whose books, Meditation in the BibleJewish Meditation, and Meditation and Kabbalah have done an amazing job of bringing authentic Jewish meditative traditions to new readership and accessible for new practitioners. In the new year, I’ll be leading a meditation group as part of our adult education programme, where we’ll explore some of these and try a few out. 
Whether or not meditation is for you, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this important facet of spiritual life is far from absent in Jewish tradition. Rather there is a rich heritage, which is simply understudied and underdeveloped, which we can revisit, if we are so inclined– and in doing so follow in the steps of our forefather Yitshak, going out to the field at evening to meditate. 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Adam
Nov 05

5 November 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,
I keep having to remind myself that it is Thursday, as it seems like it has been a week since Tuesday night at 11pm. That was when I began obsessively following the counting of votes in the American election, and however many hours later, I haven’t stopped. Waiting is hard– and finding accurate information isn’t easy, but as the hours pass, I’m increasingly feeling like the major issue here is not who has won, but the fact that who has won is the operative question at all. 
By all accounts– polls, journalists, psephologists– this should have been a landslide. The ambitious predictions of America’s pollster-prophets anticipated that Tuesday would be a day of judgement in inverse proportion to Reagan’s landslide win in 1980, a ‘blue wave’. Alas, the wave has not arrived– and it isn’t because the tide is simply out. 
The reality of America is what is on display right now, as handfuls of ballots are tabulated and uploaded and shift the few remaining states by fractions of percentages. The reality of America is the distance between 48.9 and 48.7. The reality of America is that there is a division that runs so deep that for the first time in a century and a half, everyone is talking about another civil war as though it is an inevitable outcome. 
It very well may be, but as the last days have demonstrated, it would be foolish to try and predict anything. The prognosis is a mystery– my question is different: what is the prescription? What needs to be done to shift America away from a confrontational 50/50 split which makes every contest heated and every discussion fraught? Obviously I don’t know (if I did, I could make an incredible career as an election consultant). However, I do think that our Jewish tradition has some wisdom (as usual) to offer. 
In the early memory of our rabbinic tradition, there is a civil war of a different sort, that between two leading figures and their schools, Hillel and Shammai. For a time, this divide threatened to tear rabbinic Judaism apart. As we read in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b): 
For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halakha is like us,’ and the other said, ‘The halakha is like us.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “These and these are the words of the living God, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel.” A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai.
There’s a really important concept here (several, really): both sides have merit (both these and these are the words of God), but one side ultimately has to win. We, by and large (there are 18 listed exceptions), follow the House of Hillel, not Shammai. The reason is not because Hillel was right and Shammai wrong. There were good arguments on both sides– and they were motivated by different and legitimate considerations. 
Shammai wanted war with the Romans (and got it) and partnered with the Zealots to encourage people to violence. In the aftermath of that war– the war that cost us our homeland– Hillel was victorious. In the end, the fact that the school of Hillel behaved better won the day. Not at first, and never completely– but ultimately Hillel won in a way that he could not have expected- as we, two millenia later, still structure Judaism almost exclusively around his teachings. 
The division of America, cloven in half, will not stop when the election results are finally announced. It will not stop due to any election– nor will it stop due to a civil war. Yet, in the long run, it will be the side that stands for integrity, honesty, compassion, love, and kindness which will be victorious. In the meantime, perhaps we should accept the view of the Talmud, that while both may be (at least in part) correct, one side is better
I am under no illusions about Joe Biden or the Democrats. They have failed to respond to real issues, they have failed to understand rural America, they have failed to push for reform and instead enriched themselves as a political establishment class. That is why half the country is willing (and some eager to) vote for Trump. It is not because they are dumb, nor uneducated, nor deceived easily by Trump’s gimmicks (although some are). Lives are at stake, and lives will be lost, and Americans, as usual, are behaving as though elections are a sporting event, rooting for their team. 
When the dust settles (whether this week, this year, or this century), we may look back and say that both sides had merit– perhaps even that ‘both these and these are words of God’, but it will be unquestionably clear which side will be victorious, which side is kind and gracious, and which side will go on to shape the America of the future. If the Democrats want to do more than squeak through a win (and they should), then they should be like the House of Hillel, modeling what it means to lead with integrity, justice, righteousness, and kindness. 
I believe they can do that, and ultimately will. The anger that motivates Trump voters is similar to the anger that drove people to the Zealots and to back Shammai. There is a legitimacy in that rage that is unquestionable. But it isn’t enough. Eventually, Hillel wins – maybe not on election night, maybe not even within our lifetimes, but the longer the trend line, the more it favours decency and kindness. That’s something that no amount of refreshing my phone will show me, but which I think is reason for hope nonetheless. 
Shabbat Shalom,R. Adam