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The role of religion and synagogue

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

04 Feb 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Many rabbis have tried to understand why God would need an earthly dwelling place. We know that God is not an object limited in space. God is not something you can put in a Temple and make it stay there. God is timeless, limitless and beyond human understanding.

Maimonides suggested the following explanation in the Guide for the Perplexed (Part 3 32:2). He started his argument by saying that it is ‘impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other… In those days, the custom which was general among all people, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted of sacrificing animals in those temples that contained certain images, bowing down to those images, and burning incense before them… God did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service, for to obey such order it would have been contrary to the nature of humanity, who generally cleave to that to which they are used.’

Change takes time. People get used to their routines, and a sudden shift in their lives will inevitably trigger strong resistance and misunderstanding. Maimonides illustrated his view in this way:
‘it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in God’s name, that we should not pray, not fast, not seek God’s help in time of trouble; that we should serve God in thought, and not by any action.’

He tried to imagine what would happen if modern Jews were told to stop going to synagogues for prayer. By saying this, Maimonides argues that God did not want, but allowed Jews to make sacrifices because they were not ready for a higher level of worship. Therefore, building the Tabernacle was not a commandment to establish a sacrificial ritual for Jewish people, but to limit it. Only Levites could make sacrifices, only at certain times, only in one place on Earth. God did not need sacrifices, but people could not imagine their lives without it.

In my view, in his commentary, Maimonides hides another message. He subtly hints that prayer might not be the highest level of worship. Let us develop this idea further. In a letter written in 1926, Franz Rosenzweig, the German Jewish philosopher, reflected on the same questions and argued that the commandment to build the Tabernacle ‘looks toward the original model of the “Dwelling” created on Sinai in the six days of cloudy darkness, to behold which Moses is called up into the clouds on the seventh day, and which is then completed by the people as a human replica of the divine act of creation.’ 

Rosenzweig saw a parallel between the building of the Temple and the creation of the world. By doing so, he suggested a beautiful idea. Temples are not built for God but as a sign for people. Religious institutions should become ‘a human replica’ for the creation of the world and a reminder that people are God’s partners in it. Therefore, the role of religion is not only to follow the tradition but to act as a model of the ideal world. The role of a Jewish community is not to repeat the same actions time and time again, but to model the change and evolution of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,
Igor Zinkov

Shabbat T'tzavveh

11 Feb 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

 I am standing next to the sculptor Ian Rank-Broadley outside the public library on Jewry Street in the city of Winchester.  We are awaiting the arrival of HRH Prince Charles to unveil a statue of the 13th century Jewish businesswoman, Licoricia of Winchester, and the stewards have arranged us in small groups – clergy, local dignitaries, historians and patrons, all those involved in bringing this hitherto unknown Jewish woman to life.  A small group of Year 7 children stand around the plinth of the statue, holding on to the blue covering which, for the time being conceals her figure. 

‘How long have you lived with Licoricia?’ I ask the sculptor as we wait for our special guest. ‘Two years,’ he answers, ‘perhaps longer, as we had to wait for the funds to be raised.’  ‘And where do you start to conceive of what she might have looked like?’  ‘Imagination,’ he replies, and goes on to explain that his wife is Jewish and that his daughter was the model for Licoricia’s face and figure.

There is anticipation and excitement, the children standing in their school blazers trying not to shiver with cold, the stewards attempting to keep us in our groups in readiness to be presented to the Prince. Then the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire steps up to the lectern to announce that the Prince of Wales has unfortunately tested positive for Covid and will not be able to join us.  

Of course, there is disappointment, but as he finishes his speech and LJS member Maggie Carver speaks of the inspiration and value that Licoricia will have in promoting diversity, increasing tolerance and understanding, and the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis associates Licoricia with a blessing in bringing harmony and friendship into the world, the children pull gently on the covering, and I find myself surprisingly moved by her appearance.  

She is cast in bronze, tall and dignified, dressed in the garments of a woman of wealth and holding her young son, Asher by the hand, who is looking over his left shoulder and has a dreidl in his other hand.

And it seems to me that she is a like ship that has been raised up from the ocean floor, in all her magnificence – hidden away for more than seven centuries, buried in the annals of history.  Here she is once again, walking purposefully towards her home in Jewry Street, a figure resurrected by the dedication of her researchers, those who are telling the story of her life – and death – for she was murdered just two years after her marriage to David of Oxford, a few years before Edward I expelled the Jews from England.

This statue comes with a message, not about white, male power, victory in war, colonialism or slavery, but about a Jewish woman, part of a minority in 13th century England, against whom there was often prejudice, injustice and discrimination, but who, at the same time, contributed to the heritage of this country. Jews were taxed and fined by the king and the money taken from Licoricia went towards the building of Westminster Abbey.

She is there to provide an inspiration for women and children and all minorities in this country.  She is part of the heritage of Winchester, and children in schools all over Hampshire, and further afield, will benefit from her inclusion in the curriculum and in seeing this remarkable sculpture and the inscription at her feet: V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha – ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). 

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

All Jewish people are guarantors for one another

18 Feb 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses follows God’s command to take a census of the Israelites and collects a half-shekel from all males above the age of twenty (Exodus 30:11-16).

The Torah text proceeds to record details of each tribe and the nation as a whole. However, it does not explain the need for this census. Jewish commentators tried to understand its purpose and why it was limited to a specific gender and age.

According to Chizkuni - Hezekiah ben Manoah, a French Rabbi and Torah commentator of the 13th century - the count was necessary since the nation was soon to go to war. Therefore, it was essential to know precisely how many men could become soldiers.

Personally, I prefer a different view articulated by Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki – French Rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and Torah of the 11th century. According to him, there was no practical need for the census. God repeatedly counts the Israelites out of extraordinary love for them, much like good shepherds continuously monitor the size of their flock.

Following Rashi’s interpretation, an important lesson is hidden in this week’s Torah portion. When you value something, you need to understand and look after it. All the tribes were separate from one other; each had its leader and organisational structure. However, the numbers and details of the census were announced to all. This was done to emphasise the unity of all Israelites.

In a big community, there is a danger of becoming self-centred and ignoring the needs of other communities. The Talmudic Rabbis had a powerful discussion on this topic. They observed that sometimes, the mistakes and wrongdoings we make are not just the responsibility of one person. There are cases when the transgression results from societal or the world’s problems. The Talmud passage concludes with the Aramaic phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה), meaning all of Israel is responsible for each other. The exact translation of the phrase is ‘all Israel are guarantors for one another.’ When one of us suffers, we need to help. When one of us wins, we all gain.

Two important events are coming this weekend. In light of tension at the Ukrainian border, a special Solidarity Kabbalat Shabbat is taking place at the LJS. Julia Gris, Rabbi of Shirat Ha-Yam, the progressive Jewish community of Odessa, will be our guest speaker at the Friday evening service. She will be speaking to us via Zoom from Ukraine and will update us about the situation there. This Friday Night service will an expression of solidarity with the Ukrainian Jewish community.

On Shabbat morning, we welcome 25 Liberal Judaism communities into our Sanctuary and online to celebrate 120 years since the founding of Liberal Judaism, or the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, as it was before 2002.

Please come to both events in person or online and put an important Jewish principle into practice - Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Igor


Shabbat Vayakheil

25 Feb 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

What words are there to add to the columns and commentary, the continuous feeding of news of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? There is a danger, wrote Rabbi Colin Eimer, in a sermon about another war and international crisis, of religious leaders playing at being political commentators. ‘It is impossible to escape the crisis,’ he says, but we have to address it in a very particular way.

There is a sad irony that just as we are beginning to regain our confidence, stepping out of our homes to meet each other and enjoy a coffee or meal together, without the rules that have kept us isolated and apart for the past two years, we are hit by another crisis with profound and fearful consequences.

This evening, I respond to a call from a student who is doing an MA in Holocaust Studies at Royal Holloway University. ‘This won’t take long,’ she says. She is writing an essay entitled, ‘Where was God in the Holocaust?’

'Where was God in the Holocaust?’ she asks me. No introduction, no context, no small talk to break the ice. We are on Zoom and although I cannot see them, I have the impression that there are books piled up on her desk in front of her – Rubenstein, Yitz Greenberg, Berkowitz, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and many others. I am silenced for a few moments, by the abruptness of the question, not knowing how to answer her.

‘Is that the right question?’ I ask her gently. Is it not, ‘Where was man in the Holocaust?’ Where was humanity, where was our humaneness? Shouldn’t we turn the question round and put it in the mouth of God. I think of the first question asked in the Torah, after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and hidden themselves among the trees in the Garden of Eden. ‘Ayekka?’ asks God. ‘Where are you?’ Isn’t that the question that should have been asked of the perpetrators and bystanders of the Shoah? Where were you? Where was your humanity? Where your human decency?

And is that the question that God addresses to every greedy, resentful autocrat for whom enough will never be enough, and who is willing to sacrifice the lives of his young soldiers and the lives of his victims on the altar of imperialistic greed and expansionism?

The very last paragraph of the entire Mishnah, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi’s great code of halakhah, is probably a later addition, a way of bringing the work to an end with a kind of epilogue. It has nothing to do with what has been discussed before it, but is about peace:

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said: The Holy One, Blessed be God’s Name, found no vessel that could contain blessing for Israel save that of peace, as it is written: ‘The Eternal One will give strength to His people, the Eternal One will bless His people with peace’ (Psalm 29:11).

Like the Amidah, our daily prayer, the conclusion of the entire Mishnah is about peace. Shalom – peace, well-being, wholeness – brings blessing into the world. Perhaps coming at the end of a work that presents so many conflicting points of view when it comes to halakhah, its editor recognised that peace is more than the absence of conflict. It is, in the words of Rabbi John Rayner (z’l) ‘sacrifice, moderation, compromise and reconciliation.’ And it has to be worked for.

To those who trouble the equilibrium and peace of the world, let us never stop asking the question ‘Ayekka’ – ‘Where are you?’ Where is your shame, your sense of justice, your compassion, your willingness to sacrifice your own ego for the greater good of peace in the world?

Shabbat Shalom – may our Sabbaths be oases of tranquility and peace,

Alexandra Wright

Please click here to read the European Union for Progressive Judaism Rabbinic Assembly's statement on the situation in Ukraine.

Ukraine Crisis Fund
The World Union for Progressive Judaism has launched a crisis fund to support the Ukranian Jewish Community in light of President Putin's attack on Ukraine. Please click here to donate and to find out more. 

Wed, 17 July 2024 11 Tammuz 5784