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Reflections on the Meaning of Life

4 June 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

There is a story told of a German soldier who paid a visit to Picasso’s art studio as he was completing one of his largest murals called Guernica, a panoramic, frightening interpretation of a German aerial assault on Spain in 1937. Looking at the mural, the German soldier said to Picasso, “Did you do that?” To which Picasso responded, “No, you did.”

When asked to explain the elements in Guernica, Picasso said, “this bull is a bull, and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. Ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”

Today, Picasso’s Guernica hangs in the entry way of the UN Security Council chamber. We can only hope that it inspires deep reflection and honesty by those who pass beneath it.

Our stories, objects and events have a natural need to be filled with meaning. It gives us inspiration and aspiration in life. Like Picasso’s Guernica, the explanation we give to our stories often differs from the original intention. Ultimately, we become authors of our lives. Sometimes we cannot change facts and events, but we can work on the way we interpret them and the meaning we fill them with.

This week’s Torah portion has a famous story of Twelve Spies. Moses sends 12 spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Despite the positive report from Joshua and Caleb, people listened to the other 10 spies’ negative report and they were frightened. This episode is a good example of how interpreting the story in a negative way can set people off the path of development and turn progress backwards.

As a result of this, people are punished. God told Moses that their generation will not enter the Promised Land. However, immediately after this, God introduces a series of instructions rewarding the Land of Israel: "When you arrive in the Land of your dwelling place, which I am giving you […]" (Numbers 15:2)

It seems misleading and cruel to instruct people to do something that they will never be able to experience themselves. Torah commentators suggest that at that moment God is helping them to focus beyond their setback. Rashi explains that God informed them that they would enter the Land, meaning that they are being assured that it will happen eventually for the Israelites as a people, if not for them individually. Ramban claims God has shifted God's audience and is speaking to the next generation, assuring them of their destiny.

The lack of vision for a better future sends us wandering in the desert. But the hope for a better future can help us to return to the right path. This week’s parashah is a gentle reminder, that we are the authors of our lives and commentators of our stories.

Shabbat Shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Shabbat Korach

11 June 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

‘Of making many books there is no end’ (Kohelet 12:12).

It seems an age since I was invited to join an Advisory Group of seven people, acting as a sounding board for the preparation of an exhibition of Hebrew Manuscripts at the British Library. The Library had just completed a massive project, digitising their collection of Hebrew Manuscripts and the exhibition was planned as the culmination of that work.

Ilana Tahan, lead curator of Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies at the British Library and in charge of a vast collection of Hebrew, Armenian, Coptic and Syriac printed books, gathered us all together (before the lockdowns) to show us a power point preview of each of the manuscripts that would be on display from March 2020.

As March came and went, there was no access to the exhibition and it was forced to remain in darkness and unvisited for much of the year, opening and closing when allowed. A few weeks ago, as museums and libraries re-opened, the exhibition was open to the public, but then finally closed to make room for other displays, on June 6th.

Last Friday, I was invited with a few people, to lead an ‘interfaith Kiddush’ to mark the end of the exhibition and see the manuscripts. Ilana had invited me to arrive early before the guests and she took me down, together with the appropriately named Dr Xerxes Mazda, Head of Collections and Curation, who had just joined the Library six weeks earlier.

We have been in the space of the synagogue over the past few weeks and have got used to the emptiness and silence during our services, but being in the public space of the Library, also empty of people, its fourteen million books closed to the public for so long, exhibitions unvisited, was a poignant and moving experience.

Down in the dark room of the exhibition, the first display cabinet showed a huge 17th century scroll from Kaifeng in China, its elegant Persian Hebrew script a contrast with the thicker script we are used to in our Ashkenazi scrolls. Its parchment had scarcely suffered any discolouration in the four hundred years since it was made, the edges were pristine and we reflected on how anyone would manage to roll it from week to week, let alone from the end of Deuteronomy back to the beginning of Genesis at Simchat Torah.

Although the small books full of magic spells and amulets were fascinating (especially the spell for escaping from prison which included drawing a sketch of a boat!), the two items that moved me most were a Bible, known as the First Gaster Bible from 10th century Egypt and the well-known Harley Catalan Bible from fourteenth century Spain with its exquisite gold-leaf illuminated illustration of the menorah and Temple appurtenances.

These were impressive and beautiful, but one might have overlooked what looked like a small framed handwritten scrap from twelfth century Egypt. Preserved in the genizah in Fostat (old Cairo) for nearly a thousand years, a teacher had made an oath to instruct a group of girls who had made his life particularly difficult by alleging that he had mistreated them. He had written to the great philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) to ask whether he could retract his oath and cease teaching them. Maimonides’ three-line response, written below the question is in his own handwriting and signed – Moshe: ‘If the teacher has repented, he shall declare his change of mind before three Israelites who shall release him of carrying out his oath.’

We have lost so much over the past year; but seeing these manuscripts in the exhibition ‘Journeys of the Written Word’ made me more acutely aware, not only of our religious heritage, but of the rich cultural interaction of Jews in the world. Alchemy, art, astronomy, finance and trade, literature and art, medicine, music and poetry, mysticism, philosophy and every discipline you can imagine, are covered in this fine collection of manuscripts – just the tip of an iceberg that reveals the breadth and depth of Jewish life in the diaspora and Israel.

If you would like to see some of the collection of Hebrew manuscripts, we have a standing invitation from Ilana Tahan and I would be glad to arrange a small group to visit the British Library over the summer.

In the meantime, I wish you a gentle and peaceful Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright


Crime and Punishment

18 June 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

Crime and Punishment is a novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. The book focuses on the moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished university graduate in Saint Petersburg, who develops a plan to get rich by killing a moneylender. Raskolnikov believes that he can liberate himself from poverty and go on to perform great deeds. However, after the crime is committed, he finds himself depressed and confused. He struggles with guilt and horror and confronts the consequences of his deed.

Alienation is one of the main themes of Crime and Punishment. At first, Raskolnikov’s poverty and pride separates him from society. He sees himself as better than all other people. According to his philosophy, he sees other people as tools and uses them for his own needs. Repeatedly, Raskolnikov pushes away those who are trying to help him. Only in the end, he realises the total alienation that he has brought upon himself and finds it intolerable.

This week’s Torah portion, 'Chukkat', contains a story about the punishment of Moses and Aaron. In the wilderness of Zin, the Israelites found themselves without any source of drinking water. Not surprisingly, they complained against Moses and Aaron. After hearing this, the leaders fell on their faces at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of God appeared to them. God told Moses that he and Aaron should take the rod and order the rock to give water. Moses took the rod, assembled the congregation in front of the rock, then he struck the rock twice with his rod, and water came out. One may think that the outcome of this story is positive as Moses provided people with what they needed. But instead of praise, God told Moses and Aaron: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them."  (Numbers 20:12)

This story puzzled many Rabbis and Torah scholars. What did Jewish leaders do wrong? What was their crime and why did they receive this punishment? In his work 'Biur Bamidbar', Moses Mendelssohn expresses strong critique of Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Rather than facing the nation and dealing with the crisis, they escaped it and sought refuge in the Tent of Meeting. According to Mendelssohn, this reflected fear of the nation and an inability to lead and take initiative. In a time of crisis, the natural response for many people is to separate themselves from the community and look after themselves. This week’s Torah portion serves as a reminder that this individualistic approach to crisis ultimately leads to the loss of the Promised Land, to inability to achieve the long-term dream. The best way is to be together and support each other no matter what.

Shabbat Shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Shabbat Balak

25 June 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

When I was a student rabbi, I was invited to sit on a panel with an orthodox rabbi. It was a pretty fiery affair in the days when orthodoxy rejected unreservedly progressive Judaism and mocked women rabbis. We were gimmicks and it wasn’t unusual to turn up at a house to lead a shiva, or somewhere else, and be insulted, simply for being a woman and being a rabbi.

Some years later, I attended a family stone setting and the same rabbi was officiating. ‘There’ll be orthodox women rabbis before long, mark my words,’ he said to me – much to my surprise.

And he was right. Yeshivat Maharat is an orthodox Jewish rabbinical training seminary for women based in New York. Founded in 2009, its first Rabbi, Sara Hurwitz, was ordained by Rabbis Avi Weiss and Daniel Sperber. Since then, it has ordained 43 women, now serving in synagogues, schools, hospitals, universities and Jewish communal institutions. Orthodox rabbis are also ordaining women in Israel.

A few months ago, I began working with one of Maharat’s graduates, Rabbi Eryn London, an American orthodox Rabbi who lives here in the UK. She is currently creating a programme that will offer pastoral training to volunteers in Liberal and Reform communities. She has built a curriculum that draws on her pastoral experience as a hospital chaplain, on her spirituality and her training in reading and interpreting Jewish texts.

This month, the first British graduate was ordained by Maharat. Rabba (an alternative title to Rabbi) Lindsay Taylor-Guthartz, the daughter of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, grew up in Cornwall and didn’t know she was Jewish until the age of seven. She read archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and it was here that she began studying Judaism and observing the mitzvot. As a research fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), an orthodox college which falls under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, her teaching and wide-ranging knowledge are well-known and inspirational.

Now that she has received semikhah, the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has told her she is no longer able to teach at the LSJS and has removed her research fellowship. ‘I am so sad at this denial of the opportunity to take my teaching to new heights and to expand access to Torah learning for my beloved students at LSJS,’ Rabba Lindsay told The Times of Israel.

‘I find it tragically ironic that, having spent three years studying halachah [Jewish law] I cannot share this knowledge in the institution that I have served for so long. The decision is regrettable, but I am determined to continue to teach Torah across the community to everyone who is eager to learn.’

Why are women’s learning and ordination so threatening to the orthodox establishment? What was it about my position thirty-five years ago, that made some people ridicule the title and condemn my position as rabbi?

And what was it that allowed change eventually to take place within progressive communities and now among many modern orthodox people who are outraged by her banishment from LSJS.

I am always slightly bemused by the way that Balaam, the Moabite prophet, begins his journey in this week’s parashah, with the intention of cursing the Israelites who are encamped along the border of Moab. Their presence has alarmed the king, Balak, who fears that ‘the horde will lick clean all that is about him, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’ Balaam wavers – Balak urging him to cast his evil spells on them; God telling him he is not to go.

The catalyst for Balaam’s change of mind is a talking donkey, an angel and God. When the scales are removed from his eyes, he is filled with humility, confesses his error and acknowledges the goodness of Israel’s dwelling places with the famous words, sung at the beginning of our services:

                Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov,
                Mishkenotecha Yisrael.

               ‘How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
               Your dwelling places, O Israel’ (Numbers 24.5)

It was Albert Einstein who said, ‘The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.’ Dismissing Rabba Lindsay Taylor-Guthartz from the institution and the students she has served faithfully for many years is short-sighted. What a travesty of our desire to create a more learned and Jewishly literate community in the UK.

Change does not always come quickly, unless there is a pandemic. It comes slowly and those of us of a certain age frequently have to push ourselves forward to become explorers, to keep moving and to remain on the liminal boundaries from where we can cross into new territory. Yes, it is frightening and often threatening, but more terrifying is a world that does not change.

If we are to embody the Jewish values of justice and compassion, then we need to grow and prevent ourselves from hurting and diminishing each other. ‘The world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect,’ Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in 1967. ‘The world is too great for anything but responsibility for one another.’

I hope that the Chief Rabbi can confess his error, accept responsibility to acknowledge and respect the ordination of Rabba Lindsay Taylor-Guthartz, reinstate her at LSJS and, like Balaam, invoke God’s blessing on what she has achieved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright


Tue, 28 November 2023 15 Kislev 5784