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Shabbat Naso/Shavuot

3 June 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

When my children were very little and at Nursery School, they would come home on the day before Shavuot wearing flower crowns – fresh carnations, alstroemeria and gypsophila threaded on a thick wire. The flowers were a reminder of the legend that on the night the Torah was given, the mountain was suddenly covered with fresh blooms. Flowers and cheesecake – these are joyous and accessible elements of a festival that, more than any other holiday, confronts us with the challenge of the myths and symbols of Judaism. Pesach teaches us about slavery and freedom, Sukkot about homelessness and refugees, but Shavuot is about how God’s word is revealed to us.

On Shavuot we will read the narrative that tells us how Israel entered the wilderness of Sinai three months after leaving Egypt; how they encamped by the mountain and were left by Moses as he ascended to God to receive the commandments. As morning breaks on the third day of their encampment, there is thunder and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain and the people hear a very loud blast on the shofar. They tremble in fear.

This is how Israel perceives revelation – a noisy, turbulent and frightening experience – which is followed by Moses declaring to them the words of the Decalogue: ‘I am the Eternal One your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ (Exodus 20:1).

God speaks to Moses and to Israel through verbal communication, a deafening and piercing experience, somewhere out in the desert, in a place where there is little water and no food, no vegetation, Israel standing at the foot of the mountain, under a threatening sky.

But how does God speak to us today? The era of prophecy is long past, when one by one the prophets were seized by a God who, through words and visions, uttered words of anger and cursing, blessing and comfort in an attempt to coax His people to submit to the commandments, to the rule of morality.

Philosophers of the 20th century offered different ways of answering this question. Abraham Joshua Heschel explained God’s revelation in terms of personal experience – the ability to apprehend God’s ‘moral grandeur’. The prophets’ intimate involvement with a God who responds to suffering, to goodness and evil, may be too literal or anthropomorphic for Liberal Jews, but we cannot ignore the ethical imperative that forms the basis of our Judaism.

For others, the basis for understanding God was through reason – science, ethics and aesthetics. Rational philosophy was matched with a religion of rationality. But how does God speak through such ideas? For Hermann Cohen, at the end of the 19th century, revelation was the human mind reaching for its best through ethics in thought and action. Some understood Cohen’s theory of revelation to mean what our conscience requires of us.

Rabbi Leo Baeck believed that faith began with our sense of mystery about human origins and destiny. There is more than intellect and ethics – prayer and ritual, intuition and religious consciousness must be balanced with rationality.

Arthur Green in his book ‘Radical Judaism’ focuses, among other things, on the Torah as ‘a gateway to the oneness of Being’. Torah can raise our spiritual awareness and guide us into mysterious aspects of existence.

Today’s interpreters of Torah are finding new portals of interpretation – the changes in society have made us more aware of those who are marginalised, or live their lives in less ‘conventional’ ways.

‘Turn it and turn it for everything is in it,’ says the oddly named Ben Bag-Bag in the Mishnah (Avot 5:22). The Torah is not simply an ancient text, it lives for us and through us. It provides many challenges through the antiquity of its ideas, but turn it around, delve into it deeply enough, and you will find new revelations that open up wider vistas of understanding. In this way, God speaks to us through the richness of Torah, through its myths and symbols that deepen our personal and collective faith as Jews.

I hope you will join us for all or part of our celebrations of Shavuot this weekend on Saturday night and Sunday morning to search for an answer to the question – what is Torah? What can it teach us and how can we hear God’s voice through its texts?

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

Alexandra Wright



When leaders are criticised

10 June 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

What do leaders do when their colleagues criticise them?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Miriam and Aaron questioned Moses’ integrity, spoke against Moses marrying a “Cushite woman” and against Moses putting himself higher than others (Numbers 12:1-2). Some Torah scholars suggest that the word ‘Cushite’ could be understood as ‘dark-skinned’.

On the one hand, this story reminds us that xenophobia and intolerance are not new to our society. This story becomes about intolerance towards people who look different from the majority and our inability to look beyond physical appearance.

On the other hand, it is important to look at the ending of this story. Immediately after Miriam and Aaron's criticisms, she was stricken with a skin disease ‘metzorah’. Medieval Torah commentators suggest that this was her punishment for spreading gossip against Moses. What is important in this story for me is that even though Miriam was very critical of Moses and spoke badly of him about his private life and his leadership choices, Moses still prayed for her and said: ‘O God, I pray, heal her!’ (Numbers 12:13)

There must be a limit to how far we should go when we disagree with each other. There is a limit to how severe you need to punish people who criticise you in public. However much we dislike the positions of others, there is a limit to what you should do to teach them a lesson. Most likely, Moses felt attacked when his own siblings criticised him in public, but nevertheless, at the time of need he still said: ‘O God, I pray, heal her!’

Nelson Mandela once said: ‘No-one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’

Shabbat Shalom

Igor

 

Shabbat Sh'lach L'cha

17 June 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Two bereavements have occurred in recent days: that of Bruce Kent, formerly a Catholic Priest and tireless campaigner against nuclear weapons – he was vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; and A.B. Yehoshua, the towering Israeli novelist, playwright and essayist who, like his contemporary, Amos Oz, advocated reconciliation with Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian State, although changed his mind about a two-state solution in his later years.

As a child, I grew up in the house next door to Bruce Kent’s parents, whose offspring had long flown the parental nest.  It was only much later that I met Bruce, after he had left the priesthood and married his wife Valerie Flessati who shared his great passion for nuclear disarmament.  It was through Bruce that I was invited fifteen years ago to address St Mellitus Justice and Peace Group, at St Mellitus Catholic Church in Finsbury Park on what Judaism would have to say on the renewal of Britain’s strategic nuclear defence. 

War is certainly a prominent feature of biblical literature, but underpinning Jewish ethics is the rigorous call for peace: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, never again shall they train for war’ (Isaiah 2:4); ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ (Psalm 34:15) – a verse that turns the pursuit of peace into a positive and urgent mitzvah. And in rabbinic literature, ‘The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice and on peace’ (m. Avot 1:18). 
Parliament did vote to renew Trident, but there was at the same time and in the years following, some momentum that led to the reduction of nuclear weapons, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, of which CND is a part, subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

A.B. Yehoshua was born in Jerusalem, a Sephardi Jew, whose novels explore the worlds of Arabs and Jews, among many other themes.  In the opening scene of ‘A Liberated Bride’, the protagonist, a Jewish professor, attends the wedding of one of his MA students, a young Arab woman.  Arabs and Jews mingle in the little village of Mansura, high up in the Galilee, near the Lebanese border, where the music, aromas and language evoke a contradictory response in the morose academic, whose wife mingles freely and joyously with the guests.  Through his characters, Yehoshua was an acute observer of human emotion and the contradictory responses felt to the events of their lives – however small.

It seems appropriate to recall the memory of these two influential men – both campaigners in different ways for peace – on this Shabbat, as we read the story of the spies’ expedition and report of the Promised Land. At the heart of this turbulent story lie the fear and ambivalence of ten of the twelve spies: ‘We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey…However, the people who inhabit this country are powerful and the cities fortified and very large…’ (Numbers 13:27-28).

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asks, what was the sin of the spies who went into the land – saw its beauty and abundance, but were fearful of the indigenous people and their power?  Were they really lying?  Did they not speak the truth when they spoke of what they had seen before them? Can we call this a lie?  The Kotzker Rebbe, born in 1787, argues that not everyone who avoids lying is a person of truth.  Truth isn’t what we see in front of us; truth must come from the depths of one’s heart, of one’s faith.  Truth and faith are interconnected; they are profound, they come from one source.  The spies lacked this strength of understanding, this passion for truth, for integrity – their faith was weak.  It was this, says Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, that was their sin.  What we see before us is limited, it is influenced only by our own concerns – that is the deception. Truth demands more from us, something forensic, fervent and free from prejudice.

Both Bruce Kent and A.B Yehoshua were driven by that passion for truth in different ways and by a vision of a world that would be free from war, free from conflict and from the deception and lies that constrain human relations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

 


Shabbat Korach

24 June 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Caught in the traffic on Tuesday going to work (yes – I should have cycled on the day of the rail strike!), I happened to listen to Claudia Hammond’s ‘All in the Mind’ on Radio 4 and her interview with Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford.  Dunbar’s recently published book How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, examines the universality of religion and the reasons people are drawn to religious communities.

‘People don’t join a religion because of some theological beliefs,’ argues Professor Dunbar, ‘but because of emotions.’  They want to be part of a community.  He compares ‘joining a religion’ to falling in love with someone.   The same processes are involved, he says: ‘Commitment, deep seated emotions.’  Religion is universal, it has emerged in every society because it is a very good way of bonding, of keeping social groups together.

And he highlights laughter, singing, dancing, feasting, storytelling and the rituals of religion as those elements that help to bond us as a group. All of these depend on psychological processes – ‘music plays such an important role in religious services, singing draws up deep emotion.’  And these experiences can affect the endorphin systems of the brain, they lift your spirit and make you feel happier and more contented.  In some cases, he told Claudia Hammond, they even seek the immune system find and destroy viruses and cancerous cells.
Of course, we know that religion doesn’t provide immunity from sadness or illness, but I think it is true to say that giving value to our religious communities and being part of them can provide some comfort and strength through those bonds of friendship and through religious and moral values that are more important than the ethnic or other kinds of divisions that can often cause conflict.

When I think of some of our most beautiful rituals and when I practise them, I do sense something uplifting: lighting the candles, waving the lulav, going into my Sukkah on a fresh Autumn morning with a cup of tea, listening to the music of the Hallel (the psalms of praise we sing at festivals), seeing members and guests enjoying a kiddush with good food, talking to each other after a service, and the peace and tranquillity that Shabbat brings – all of these and so many more allow me to feel more at peace with myself, at home, as it were.

On Wednesday evening at the LJS’s AGM, I mentioned the name of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanov, an early teacher of the Haskalah movement and Musar who, in 1812, wrote a text entitled Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh (Moral Accounting) in which he outlined eighteen qualities that should, guide us in how to live an ethical life.

 
These qualities include, among others, equanimity, tolerance, orderliness, humility, righteousness, economic stability, silence, calmness, truth, modesty, trust and generosity.

Liberal Judaism is underpinned by an emphasis on these personal and moral attributes. It is, perhaps, why that bonding experience within our communities can be so fulfilling and promote greater happiness.  When there is trust between people, when there is space for people to be listened to and to express their own thoughts and feelings, when there is the regularity of Shabbat and the cycle of the festivals and the motivation to look outwards and create a better society for everyone, we find stability and tranquillity of spirit.

People who belong to religious communities live longer, says Professor Dunbar. But perhaps more than length of days, is the quality of our lives and Liberal Judaism and the LJS help us to find ways that promote a good and healthy life.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov for the new month of Tammuz which begins next week.

Alexandra Wright

Mon, 4 July 2022 5 Tammuz 5782