A collection of Rabbi Silverman’s sermons following the theme of the A to Z of Jewish Values.

A for Atmosphere

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Everyone should have an ‘ology according to Maureen Lipman. To get on in life, you have to have some ‘ology or other as your speciality.

I want to start 2005 with an ‘ology which you may or may not have heard of: Axiology. Axiology means the study of values. And I want to introduce to you Jewish Axiology and more particularly, Reform Jewish Axiology. Let me explain.

There is a great need to define where we stand as Reform Jews on all important issues. To explain – to ourselves and to others, what makes us Reform. Reform is all too often defined negatively – in terms of what we don’t believe and don’t do. This creates a negative image. Values – what we value, what we consider good or bad – what principles we maintain – if we could set these out in a way we can all remember and absorb and repeat – this would give us a positive self-definition as Reform Jews.

This was given to me as a project a couple of years ago, by the AOR, when this booklet: ‘What is Reform Judaism’ was launched. It’s very good, it’s a handy introduction. What it needs is a philosophy behind it. It has been sent to every member some months ago, just in case you did not receive one, we’ve given some out with weekly notices. There is also Faith and Practice by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain; it covers a wide range of subjects and explains the differences between Reform and Orthodox on them all.

If our form of Judaism is to be successful we need to be well informed. It’s not easy to uphold a religious position. It takes a lot of knowledge and thought, even if you’ve been involved in it for many years.

I’ve set myself a project. To define Reform Jewish values from A-Z (probably also from Alef-Tav) I would like to invite all of you to be involved in this project too. And I want to find every conceivable way of getting the message out there, beyond the walls of this schule.

So where shall we begin? A is for so many things:

Action, (not just belief but action) the opposite of which is apathy;

Another A: acculturation- to what extent is it good or bad to assimilate our Judaism to the ways of our surrounding English culture;

Abstinence (should we give up things); atonement is a value to which this might apply;

Aesthetics – the value of making Judaism beautiful, art;

Autonomy & Authority: these are big issues which we must address: who decides what I should do as a Reform Jew?

These and others can be dealt with under the heading of other letters of the Alphabet, (like R for rabbis and D for Democracy).

Whilst we’re in the A’s: shouldn’t we also look at agnosticism, even atheism?

Please give me your responses. What I’m asking you is for you to give me your questions and your responses; your suggestions for topics; and ways of discussing them. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be using my weekly message, the Torah and Haftarah Commentaries, and the Study passage. I’d also like you to join me in dialogue through study sessions, and the columns of Hadashot, our Shul magazine. And I want to find ways of reaching the Jewish press and radio.

I want to focus on one word beginning with A – and deal with others another time.

The word is simply AIR. Maybe it’s not strictly a value, though we can’t do without it.

Air – or if you prefer ‘atmosphere’. The Hebrew word for it begins with an Aleph: Avirah.

As Reform Jews we place a high value on the atmosphere, the ambience we create. It is extremely important, it’s enough to decide whether one keeps up an association with a shul community or not. Issues of aesthetics and art are associated with it.

The opposite of creating atmosphere is acting automatically. Mouthing prayers mechanically.

And there’s Accessibility – being able to follow. Announcement – of page numbers, and so on…

It would be wrong to claim that Atmosphere is a particularly Reform thing. Orthodox shuls set great store by the Chazzan the cantor. Our booklet states:

‘the musical tradition of the British Reform is largely a choral one though there is a renewed interest in some communities in cantorial music, hazanut.’

This updates what Rabbi Romain writes in Faith and Practice (p.102) where it says “The demise of the chazzan has not been a deliberate policy….

There will undoubtedly be varying views concerning values. It would be pointless if all we were to do is list a load of things which we can agree to like love and motherhood. There will be conflicting values.

There are some values we could give more weight to, for example: we all agree that children’s education is a Good Thing.

But the alphabet begins with A and A is for adult, and children’s commitment follows that of the adults they admire. Children are the future of course, and the future begins now with the present and the present is Us.

In a plane you are told that if the air pressure suddenly drops, don’t worry, oxygen masks will come down to every passenger. If there is a child travelling with you, who should receive the mask first? Not the child. The adult. Place the mask over your face first and then attend to the child. If you can’t breathe you can’t help the child. That’s the rule. Similarly, make Torah teaching like the air you breathe and then pass it on to the next generation.

What makes for a Reform atmosphere? Togetherness. Boys and girls, men and women together. Not just sitting together. Saying and singing the prayers together.

It actually goes further. A is for affection. There is a strict prohibition against kissing in schule (in front of the Ark) – and that goes for brides and grooms under the chuppah and adults kissing children. The reason is precisely to do with axiology, with values.

Torah is a higher value than family – so you mustn’t put family above Torah.

You kiss the Mezuzah, you kiss the Torah, you kiss the fringes of your tallit during the 3rd paragraph of the Shemah (all of these I would endorse though some Reformers think it’s all excessive outward show of religiosity.) But if you’re truly orthodox you don’t kiss loved ones in schule (or at least not in the same room as the Aron Kodesh the Ark.)

[With regard to the wedding service the reasoning is that marriage is strongly associated with the continuity of the people of Israel. Associated with that is the land and the Temple. In the Shevah Berochos and the breaking of the glass this is remembered and the key verse is ‘Im eshkachech Yerushalayim tishkach yemini’ – ‘if I forget you O Jerurasalem, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth – if I set not Jerusalem above my chief joy’. It’s higher even than your loved one – so you don’t kiss, or at least you can be told that you shouldn’t.]

Here’s an example of where Reform clashes with Orthodox. Do we place a higher value on Affection in the family than on Attachment to the Torah?

I would say emphatically no!

We place an equally high value on both! Affection for each other and Attachment to the Torah should be intertwined. For us the two values should go together and one leads to the other.

So that when you hear at the end of the service, a buzz of male and female voices intermingled: Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom, kiss kiss kiss, you know you’re in a Reform shul.

Maybe this is an overstatement because perhaps the Orthodox rule is more honoured in the breach thereof. And, to be fair, we Reform are generally not aware of the rule either! The majority of Jews are Reform in everything but name.

To put it in a nutshell, the Reform starting point for values is different from the Orthodox. We start from the People and Orthodox start from the Book. The values of laws and beliefs stems from our human situation in Reform; the human situation has to be adapted to go by the book in Orthodox. Putting it another way our values are anthropocentric and theirs are bibliocentric. Or we start from A and they start from B. Or if you prefer the Hebrew alphabet we start from ‘Adam’ and they start from ‘Torah’. We go from Aleph to Tav and they go from Tav to Aleph. And hopefully we meet in the middle.

B for Belief

Written by Rabbi Silverman

“God is angry. The world is being punished for wrongdoing – be it people’s needless hatred of each other, lack of charity, moral turpitude… The tsunami is an expression of God’s anger with the world and we must pray more and beg for mercy.”

These were the words of Shelomo Amar the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel.

It is a point of view which does not agree with the outlook of Reform Jews. It has been expressed before in other contexts: the Holocaust has been viewed by the exponents of this opinion as a punishment – Reform Judaism itself has indeed been cited as a cause of this punishment. You may recall some years ago a bus accident in Israel in which a number of children lost their lives, was seen as a divine punishment. On that occasion the Israeli Chief Rabbi even went to the extent of blaming it on the fact that people did not have their mezuzahs checked regularly.

Not only is this not the position of Reform, but neither is it the position of Modern Orthodoxy as represented by the Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks.

He stated, regarding the tsunami that “Natural disasters are an intrinsic element of the physical world and the meaningful question for the religious believer is not ‘why did this happen’ but rather what can we do to help those who suffered.” This I’m sure you would agree is what we would say too.

My message for today is on the subject of Belief. What, if anything, can we say is the value we place upon beliefs as Reform Jews?

In this series I have started week by week which I call the A-Z of Reform Jewish Values the aim is to identify what is important for us as Reform Jews, to make it into a positive statement of our own.

Let me refer you back to the passage I read earlier from the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel on faith. Heschel was not a Reform Jew. He was the philosopher of the American Conservative Movement. They are different from us (the differences I’ll leave for another time) but they have more in common with us than does Orthodoxy. And it’s most unlikely that Heschel would be quoted positively, if at all, in an Orthodox Shul.

Heschel said ‘Faith does not detach man from thinking.’ Thinking, in a certain rationalistic way is a hallmark of Progressive Judaism. Let me give you a beautiful illustration of this from the children of our own cheder.

Last Sunday I was asked to visit a younger class than the one I usually teach, to answer questions raised by the Tsunami. Much of it was about God. One of the boys asked why does God not talk to people today like God talked to Moses? After some discussion, a ten year old girl said: perhaps God speaks to us through what we learn in science. Apart from that being a very profound and mature statement from a young lady her age, it would be a Reform position. It can be traced back to the 17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza (who was ostracised by the orthodoxy of his time as a freethinker) and it became a Reform viewpoint in the early 19th century.

For many of us this approach works in trying to understand the miracles, like the 10 plagues in our Torah reading today. For example the Plague of Darkness it has been suggested, could be explained by the eruption of the volcano on the island of Santorini, the volcanic ash from which blotted out the sun’s light over a wide area though not over all Egypt so that in Goshen the Israelites could have had light. These rationalistic explanations only serve to satisfy our common sense; they fail, however, to do justice to the finer points of the story, that God, Nature and People are all bound up as one and interact. Reform would be less interested in the Power of God here, than in the fact that it wasn’t just Pharaoh the tyrant who suffered but the whole society who were complicit in the evil. And the sentence ‘it was so dark one man could not see his neighbour’ has a spiritual meaning too.

So, does that justify the Israeli Chief Rabbi’s statement about the Tsunami? No – there is a world of difference between a narrative such as the Exodus – which bears spiritual lessons (even if the Exodus did not take place as described in the Torah) and an individual professing to read the mind of God.

What other values do we have in respect of belief?

As I have said – my aim is not to pontificate but to invite responses. On Friday evenings we are having weekly discussions on this A-Z project.

And we’re up to B for Belief. Last week a young lady in her 20’s said Belonging is more important for me than Belief. She meant that there might be a diversity of beliefs around her but what brings her to schule is a sense of belonging. There was disagreement, another member said: I like to know what the beliefs are which the group I belong to subscribes to.

UJIA has just produced this little booklet called Beyond Belonging. As you might expect the statistics it quotes show that belonging rates a lot higher with British Jews than beliefs. Among the case studies it gives there is one of a Reform Jew. It says: Aaron and his wife are members of a large Reform synagogue. He is a proud and partisan Reform Jews. However his denominational affiliation has less to do with strictly theological considerations than a bad family experience with an orthodox synagogue. (p.41) In his interview it reads as follows (p.43) Q ‘Where does God come in, anywhere? A: ‘I was wondering when we were going to get to that… the answer is I don’t disbelieve, but I don’t believe in the concept of some supernatural being…I don’t see any reason why there should not be a superior or higher force within the universe that has some guiding principles. Whether that is an intelligent force, in the sense that it actually guides deliberately, I’m not clear about that one’

I think this is a fairly typical point of view. The question is: is it positive enough as a reflection of Reform Judaism?

However important is belonging – our starting point is Jewish beliefs.

And Reform teaching has tended to follow Martin Buber’s famous I-Thou philosophy. Buber says that with every Jewish belief as with every mitzvah the deciding factor is how I relate to the Eternal Thou through it.

What makes it an authentic belief is not that it is Jewish and that I make an effort to accept it even if my experience and thinking and knowledge are at odds with it. What makes it authentic is that it flows from my experience and thinking and knowledge.

Buber also said that: faith varies, like love. Remember that wonderful inscription found on the walls of the cellar of a synagogue in Cologne where Jews hid from the Nazis : “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining; I believe in love even when feeling it not. I believe in God even when God is silent.”

Reform demands honesty. It also demands personal independence rather than believing because it is demanded by other in high authority in spite of oneself.

One again what I am dealing with are not the beliefs themselves but with the values behind them. The value here is Autonomy – which you may remember is the concept I was trying to bring across to the Bar Mitzvah last Shabbat.

It is a human value, you might say even a humanist value. We have only human experience and reasoning to go by. And I suppose that’s why there’s a natural tendency to ascribe to God human thoughts and feelings. But if we do that we have to be aware that we are projecting ourselves on to God – creating God in our own image as again one member of our congregation put it to me before the service last week.

Psychologically, those who say that in a natural disaster God has let us down or God is punishing us, are importing an idea of parenthood into their religious belief (which may arise from their own childhood experience of abandonment or heavy-handedness from a parent).

Of course our prayers use human images of God, parental images, (eg. Avinu Malkenu, our Father our King). Maimonides, who says we cannot possibly ascribe human emotions to God (like anger or pleasure), explains the human forms of address in the prayers as metaphors. They are like poetry. We address God as if God were a person.

New Reform translations of the Siddur by the way, which use expressions like The Eternal, are not just trying to be egalitarian and politically correct in not addressing God as a man, but being more philosophically correct in not addressing God as a person in the sky. The value here is philosophical integrity, consistency between what we say religiously, with what we actually think.

There is also a readiness to admit that we don’t have all the answers. The booklet ‘What is Reform Judaism’ contains this statement: “We prize our Jewish tradition of questioning. We understand doubt and unbelief. We know that answers are often provisional, fragmentary, glimpses on a journey towards a living truth and reality that is always before us.”

When a person converts to Judaism through Reform they are issued with a certificate in which the Beth Din states that the person coming before them has accepted upon him/herself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. And that he/she makes a commitment to fulfil to the best of his/her ability the sacred obligations which devolve upon all members of the house of Israel

Where we belong religiously is expressed both by what we believe and what we practice.

If you have a computer and you use the web: search out a website called beliefnet.com. There you can enjoy yourself answering 20 questions which they promise you even if you don’t know what faith you are, beliefnet can tell you. And they have a high success rate among the long list of faiths and denominations.

It challenges you to state what kind of concept of God you hold, a personal God or a supreme force or spirit or none, or not sure or it doesn’t matter. What do you believe about the origins of life, or does that not matter. What happens after death if that’s important to you. Why is there so much suffering in the world.

You don’t have to think – you’re given multiple choice answers by beliefnet.com and you just tick what closest represents your belief and then rate your answer high low or medium strength. Then you’re asked about worship – how much it matters to you

I have found something interesting by the way: a number of our members who would not confess to having any strong beliefs feel extremely strongly about the form of our services!

Beliefnet.com asks you about the importance for you of doing good works, where you stand on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, roles of men and women, marriage and divorce. How fundamental are social betterment programmes in your belief system? How fundamental is revering nature?

Especially in the latter, the areas of action Reform Judaism places strong value. We believe that our role in the world is of the highest importance. Some might place an even higher value on it than theological belief.

[The Kotzker Rabbi said that God supports atheism. He quoted the line ‘if only they would forget me and keep my commandments! Meaning: if you see a poor man assume there is no God to help him. You help him.]

If you would like to try the test but can’t find it, I can give you a printout.

I think it’s worth us all trying it – to know where we stand. One word of caution. We don’t have to define our Judaism according to Beliefnet.com

If you come out as a Humanist or a Buddhist or a Quaker, come and talk to me before your resign your shul membership.

I suppose you’d like to know how I scored. 100% Reform Jewish I’m relieved to say.

C for Commandments

Written by Rabbi Silverman

The first Hebrew words you learn to say – as a child – or whenever you begin learning is a berachah, a blessing.

One of the first berachot you learn is Hamotzi. Blessed are you, Eternal our God Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth – haMotzi lechem min haAretz.

Simple enough – and quite beautiful to express thanks and appreciation in this way for food – the berachah covers a whole meal, but since it is specifically for bread, it’s customary to have bread before a meal, so that you can say the berachah.

But that’s not all… if you say the berachah before a meal, it’s the done thing to do the bensching, the Grace after Meals afterwards. And also if you say haMotzi, there’s something to be done before haMotzi – and that’s wash your hands, and as you wash your hands you say a berachah: al netilat yadayim, meaning ‘for pouring over the hands’, you pour the water over each hand, front and back beginning with the right hand 3 times each hand in succession.

And – this is the difficult bit – you don’t talk in between the blessings – because they constitute one action – you keep shtum until you have said hamotzi, and if there is a long line of people keeping these mitzvoth – you have something very rare amongst Jews, a room of completely quiet people!

The beracha you say for washing the hands, is a different formula from Hamotzi. It contains the words: asher kideshanu bemitzvotav… ‘who has made us holy through his commandments’.

Commandments! What a difficult concept! And what a confusing one! Most people have little or no trouble with the 10 Commandments. “I’m not religious – but I do keep the 10 Commandments”. “I see- You keep the 4th do you? Remember the Sabbath Day ?” – “OK 9 commandments then.”

But when we get down to a commandment for washing the hands… Hmm, difficult to see how that’s a commandment. Even though we also say asher kideshanu bemitzvotav for another little action also done with the hands – lighting candles.

As Reform Jews we search for rational explanations. Washing hands? -Hygiene! During the Black Plague hundreds of thousands of Europeans died. Whole Jewish communities survived the plague only to fall victim to anti-Semitic massacres. ‘Jews poisoned the water wells’ was the accusation. Historians surmise that it was because of the regular washing of the hands before meals. Whether or not that is so – and it’s doubtful that this would protect against bubonic plague – it’s clear that the original meaning of the mitzvah wasn’t hygiene but holiness. Eating is sanctified with prayer and prayer required purification.

And it’s done because it’s commanded.

The key question is: do we as Reform Jews value commandments per se? Do we act because we feel a sense of imperative?

How do we know which commandments are God-made and which are man-made? Are the ethical ones – like the 10 Commandments – God-made and the rest man-made? But not all the 10 are ethical – there’s Shabbat, plus the first 3 about the relationship with God.

These are Reform preoccupations. And the question I am putting to you is how can we uphold and affirm as a Reform value – The Commandments, with a Capital C ?

The short answer is by means of another word beginning with C – Commitment.

We uphold them because we are committed to them. There are many things in life which we may not be able to subscribe to 100%. We may not like our job but we’re committed – we’ve signed a contract; we may not agree with everything the State of Israel does but we stand to Israel in the same relationship as to our family and to the Jewish people as a whole. And it is a commitment. It does not have to be an uncritical commitment. But we cannot opt out without denying who we are.

I put it to you, the same is true of the Commandments. We may not be able to subscribe to them all, but we are committed to the concept of Commandments, mitzvoth, simply by virtue of being Reform Jews.

But what if we are sceptical about whether they are God-made or man-made? This whole question of Torah min Hashamayim – Torah from Heaven. Is there anything more contentious among the religious divisions of Judaism today than this? No.

The issue, I believe is not one of truth, but of meaning. Not whether it’s true or not that God gave the commandments – but rather what does it mean? What does it mean God gave the commandments ? My teacher, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who wrote the famous book We Have Reason To Believe would say: this expression Torah min Hashamayim, Torah from Heaven, it all depends what you mean by Torah, and it all depends what you mean by Shamayim. And come to that it all depends what you mean by ‘min’!

Hamotzi lechem min Ha’aretz… who brings forth bread from the earth. Who does? God? God needs hands to do that. But God has hands. We are God’s hands. With our hands we till the soil, plant the seed, water it, harvest the grain, thresh it, sift the flour, add the yeast, knead the dough, let it rise, bake it, then break it and say ‘Praised are You, Eternal God, sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth’. The same human hands which make the bread, make the Torah.

And yet, as there is meaning in acknowledging the creative force which is behind the bread, so there is meaning in acknowledging the creative force behind Torah.

Commandments are human. They express a relationship of commitment to the divine. There are hundreds of commandments – 613 is the notional figure which tradition gives us. 614, if you follow the modern Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim. The 614th which he added is ‘Thou shalt survive’. This is the commandment which he says we hear coming after the Shoah, the Holocaust – indeed out of the Shoah: the divine command – you shall survive. Or to put the negative side of the coin. You shall not give the evildoers a posthumous victory. (Fackenheim, who was a Shoah survivor, says: thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories. To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler’s work for him.

It means, says Fackenheim, we’re under a sacred obligation not to submit to cynicism or abdicate responsibility for the world and deliver the world into the hands of Auschwitz. It means being commanded not to despair of redemption, not to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish. Is it the God who saves us physically? No it’s the God who commands justice and righteousness.

There is a saving presence of God in History, and for Fackenheim the State of Israel is evidence of the saving presence. And again through Israel, the voice of God is not a voice which says ‘see I saved you, that means you are good people and whatever you do I’m behind you’. It is the commanding voice which says: you’re living in an imperfect world and I command you to perfect it.

No matter how many times you hear about the Shoah, the shock effect is not lessened it only grows.

The world and all human values were turned upside down. Rabbi Hugo Gryn used to make the point that the Nazis systematically broke every single one of the Ten Commandments: They destroyed the entire human and moral framework of civilized life.

A survivor on one of the TV programmes this week reported about a relative had been shot dead for stealing a piece of bread.

Man does not live by bread alone, but by all that proceeds from the mouth of the eternal.

Fackenheim’s 614th commandment is not merely to survive but to survive as Jews. This of course is to survive with the purpose of keeping alive what our Judaism stands for. It is to work for peace and justice in our world. It is this commitment which makes the Commandments a prime value for Reform Jews.

C for Community

Written by Rabbi Silverman

The theme of this service has been Community. As those of you who are regulars will be aware (but for the benefit of our visitors today) we have 6 themes to our services, and today it’s community.

Community is a large group of people with shared experience, and/or history and usually values.

It’s a key topic these days. The Chief Schools Inspector raised a lot of discussion this week when he said that Faith Schools should be doing more to encourage diversity by promoting tolerance of other cultures.

There are better words than tolerance (which means suffering differences): respect, understanding. It’s a privilege for us, if I may say so to our visitors that you pay us the honour of coming all the way from Aberystwyth to be with us and experience our way of Judaism at first hand.

The faith schools issue, whilst it stems from fear of extremism being taught in schools, is about open-mindedness instead of narrow-mindedness.

In the 19th century when Reform Judaism began in Germany, its founders were very keen on integrating into the general society, and believed that Judaism had a great contribution to make to their own society and to the world. They wanted to be as little different from their Christian neighbours as possible. That’s why they brought the vernacular into their services (German as well as Hebrew), introduced the choir and the organ, and reading the prayers altogether instead of being led by a cantor and breaking off into everyone saying the prayers in an unorganised way.

They believed that the Jewish message, the message of the prophets, was a powerful influence for world peace and justice, and that the Jewish people had a mission in general society.

That vision of course was shattered by the Holocaust. German Jews were the first to suffer complete disillusionment. Jews everywhere were targeted for systematic annihilation as has been depicted in the current TV series about Auschwitz.

The message still has to be taught, and commemorated as by the National Holocaust Day this Thursday, because there is still an active neo-Nazi party, the BNP, which is to be taken seriously, and because a young member of the Royal family could think that to wear a Nazi armband at a party was a good joke. And because it’s hard to find a country in the world today that doesn’t either collude with the oppression of minorities or believe that violence is an answer.

Over the past half century or so there has been a change in thinking. The belief that we should all aim to be one world community, the brotherhood of man, is still a noble ideal. But there is a stronger tendency to value particular traditions, national heritage, faith schools, learning to speak Hebrew – or Welsh come to that – and so on: To be proud of your own specific identity.

The balance is very much up to the individual; for example how you give to charity – what proportion to Jewish charities and what proportion for global causes like the Tsunami.

Or to zoom-in a bit more, what you give to your local faith community, as against the general – how much you believe charity begins at home.

Reform Judaism has been involved in this paradigm shift which is part of what is called Postmodernism. It’s not quite the same as Multiculturalism, which would encourage e.g. schools allowing Muslim girls to wear veils and Jewish boys, yarmulkis. It’s doing your own thing. We now have several Reform Jewish Day Schools in the south of England and their working on a secondary school.

There’s a reluctance to want to subsume our identity under wider headings. For example we’re not keen on the expression Judeo-Christianity. Judaism is Judaism and Christianity is Christianity. They have much in common, but they don’t merge.

Anti-Semitism is a sub-set of Racism. To combat anti-Semitism without combating racism would be myopic. But we have a particular responsibility to be concerned about Anti-Semitism, and to discourage the attitude: ‘why worry about attacks on us, when the problem is global.’

When Reform Judaism started out, religious beliefs were studied and taught in the light of history, science and philosophical rationalism: in other words seen through the lens of the human intellectual inheritance. You were a human being first and a Jew second.

What’s happened is that we’re finding that that doesn’t work in keeping our cultural heritage going.

Parents, for example who say, we’re not going to have our children indoctrinated in a faith – we’re going to let them make up their own minds. There’s enough evidence to show that this does not work. As we grow we make up their own minds eventually, anyway, but if we are not shown a definite way of life at home, we will have no example to choose from, and it will be much more likely that we will simply go with the flow of the people we mix with. If parents are unable or unwilling to provide a distinct cultural or religious background at home, then maybe, in a supportive way, grandparents can do so.

Finally, Community is a force for development. Decisions for Reform Jews are not made by rabbis consulting books – (though that might be taken into account). But by communities being canvassed, looking at what people actually think and do and how we can build on the social reality around us.

A very good example of this is the Family Service we have here every 6 weeks or so. It’s quite an innovation to have children of all ages leading the service. It hasn’t happened before in Jewish history. It’s a reflection of the high value we place upon community as an extension of the family.

And just as community and the family mutually support and strengthen each other, so –

With pride in one’s cultural ID and respect and understanding for others various different communities can give each other support and strength.

D for Devotion and Decorum

Written by Rabbi Silverman

It’s Friday afternoon in Broughton Park. Mrs. Rochel Rabinowitz looks out of her window. It’s quite a clear sky for February. The sun has descended to the treetops.

Time’s up: Shabbes has to be brought in. Babies are crying, the phone is ringing, but the clock dictates that Rochel has to drop everything she’s doing, ignore the phone and make Shabbes. And so she does, lighting the candles on her own – her husband and sons are at schule and they will come home to find the table laid with a white tablecloth and best cutlery and the candles alight in the silver candlesticks.

Her next door neighbour…Ernest Goodman, is home early from work –His wife Verity, is still at work. It was his turn to pick up their daughter from school – he waves at Rochel through the window, though they’re on different sides of the Jewish fence, they’re good friends. Verity is very involved in Jackson’s Row. After work she’ll go to the 6 o’clock service – before that she’ll meet with her friends and the Rabbi at Starbucks for a coffee and a chat….

There’s a lot for Ernest to do. Some housework, phone-calls…. When his wife gets back, it’s 7.30. They’re almost ready but they can’t start yet. A son has to be picked up from Karate lessons at 8 o’clock. Ernest jumps into the car, whilst Verity heats up the food and puts the finishing touches to the chopped liver and the dessert.

Next door the Rabinowitz’s finished dinner an hour ago, but they’re still at the table singing Zemiros with great gusto.

Ernest gets back at 8.15. they make phone calls to parents to wish them good Shabbas and at 8.30 they get started. The whole family is gathered round the table. Candles are lit, Kiddush is made.

Both families are devoted to their tradition. The difference between them, as far as Shabbat is concerned is that the key principle for the Rabinowitz’s is the exact timing of Shabbat as defined by Halachah; even if only one person is home it has to start at the correct time. For the Goodman’s it is when all the family are together.

It’s not laid down as any rule, though it can be found in books and pamphlets produced by the Reform movement; it is how most Reform Jews – indeed most Jews behave.

As one member of my cheder class put it when we were discussing this – if you start Shabbat late I think it’s all right as long as you keep a full 24 hours, and then she corrected herself, 25 hours, there’s that extra hour to show keenness.

The Rabinowitz’s are frum – religious.

The Goodman’s take their religion seriously.

The difference between them is an age-old difference between what’s called Keva and Kavanah.

Keva means fixed. Kavanah means dedicated. Both keva and kavanah are necessary one is not superior to the other. To do a mitzvah according to kevah is to do it right. To do it with Kavvanah is to do it with your heart and soul in it.

Another illustration of Keva and Kavanah is in services. (Here timing doesn’t always seem to matter so much). The morning service may have started quite a while before Mr Rabinowitz arrives. And people drift in. But there are certain standard prayers, particularly the Amidah that have to be said, no matter what time you arrive. So wherever those on the Bimah are up to, you would stand even if everyone else is sitting face the Ark and – well you’ll probably have to rattle through it at quite a pace to catch up.

In the Goodman’s schule, everyone starts together at a set time, and they all read together….

The operative value is kavanah rather than kevah.

It’s part of what Reform call decorum. Although the real value from any Jewish point of view is another word beginning with D – devotion.

Kevah and Kavanah, Decorum and Devotion. Devotion is preferable to Decorum, because Decorum can be just as rule-bound, just as fixed and rigid, just as empty of content as Kevah. (Kevah says start on time….) Decorum start from rules; Devotion starts from you and I and the spirit we bring to it.

We take time over the words of prayer and care to pronounce them clearly and distinctly. And the Reform way is for most of it to be said by everyone together. And we say the prayers with reference to the meaning. Some things are left out of the service: and it’s not always only to save time.

A good example is the Aleinu prayer we’ll be saying next. One line is omitted. This is unacceptable to the Orthodox because of keva – the prayers are fixed and not to be altered in any way.

In the Singer’s prayer book the Aleinu begins:

“It is our duty to praise the Lord of all things, to ascribe greatness to him who formed the world in the beginning”

Next come the words we leave out:

“since he has not made us like the nations of other lands and not placed us as like the other families of the earth, since he has not assigned a portion to us as to them nor a lot as to all their multitude.”

The Sephardi Aleinu goes even further and adds; for they worship vain and worthless things and pray to a god that does not save’.

We edited that out. We praise the universal God, and to make distinctions like this in our prayers seems to go against the grain.

Kavanah demands that we pray what we believe.

Kavanah demands that we understand what we say – and that we’re prepared to act on it.

With the Sharm el Sheikh Summit beginning this week the Aleinu has a ring of urgency about it: ‘ we put our hope in you…soon let us witness when the wicked of the earth shall turn to you…when all shall meet in understanding… so that your reign of goodness shall come soon and last forever.”

Everyone shall accept the duty of the building of your kingdom – we say – and if we mean what we say, if there’s real kavanah there – we’ll put it into action. Our values, our attitudes, in everyday life will reflect it. Our Shabbat will really be a Shabbat, for the benefit of our families our communities, others whom we welcome in. Our work will be sanctified for higher purposes by the weekly day not just of rest but of re-charging spiritual batteries. Our observance of tradition will be one of content as well as of form, of decorum and devotion.

E for Enthusiasm

Written by Rabbi Silverman

It’s the countdown to Pesach- or Passover: the Feast of History, the Feast of Freedom, the Family Festival

So many aspects to it-

Chag haMatzot, (the Torah also calls it) – the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Most of us associate it with food. For some it’s for fressing. For sure also for refraining, restricting your diet quite drastically. And some would say, it’s the Jewish Grocer’s Bonanza season.

For the spiritual among us – it’s z’man cherutenu, period of our liberation, inner freedom, rejoicing in one’s Jewish religious identity

For others it can be quite secular – I have a Kibbutz Haggadah which celebrates the festival of Spring (Aviv) with no mention of God at all.

It’s an occasion for a great community celebration; or a warm family get together.

And the home atmosphere is special, following the spring cleaning and the change-over to new Pesach utensils – a special air of freshness.

All these values are aspects of Pesach:

Family, Feasting, Fressing, Food-restrictions, Festivity, Freshness, Freedom…

And -Fair Trade- our national youth movement RSY Netzer has made Pesach this year into the Festival of Fair Trade. Actually it isn’t only our youth movement. This is a joint project between RSY-Netzer, LJY-Netzer, Noam (Masorti) and- wait for it- Bnei Akiva. (the Orthodox Youth Movement). The aim is to educate all synagogues in the UK in the hope that they will all become fair-trade. They are saying that the simple move of agreeing to buy Fairtrade tea and coffee is a great thing for a synagogue to do, and reflects Reform Jewish values. If as a spin-off, it creates co-operation amongst budding junior community leaders of the different wings of Judaism, that can’t be bad.

On this issue, I have always upheld buying Kosher lePesach products. And I have also maintained that there is no such thing as kosher lePesach Tea. Coffee without additives I would argue the same for. My authority for this is Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

To be kosher lePesach in the sense of being true to the Festival of Freedom I would say the best Kosher le-Peasch label is the Fair Trade one.

This is the statement of the youth movements:

Fair Trade goods include products like Café Direct, Tea Direct and Traidcraft brands, where the producer is guaranteed a fair and stable price, and any surplus is invested back in the developing world producer communities. Fair Trade is helping tens of thousands of small farmers in poor countries to build a better life for themselves, their families and communities, and helping build links of friendship and solidarity across the world.

The Fairtrade mark independently guarantees:

Decent wages

Minimum health and safety standards

A fair minimum price and benefits for the community

A longer term trading relationship

A commitment to better environmental standards and working towards sustainable production

And supporting the right for workers to join trade unions.

Synagogues and individuals have been backing this campaign around the country. Pesach is but a focal point for a year round concern.

Supporting the Government’s Make Poverty History Campaign is part of it too, with it’s plans of trade justice debt relief and more aid to suffering countries.

Such campaigns have been going long enough and strong enough for supermarkets to take notice. (It involves other products like fruit and vegetables too of course).

There’s a famous story of a congregant who came to his Rabbi and said: “Rabbi- every week you talk about things like Human Rights, Social Justice, Ethics, Environment, Spirituality.” “Yes,” said the Rabbi, “so what’s on your mind, what would you like me to talk about?” “Well,” he said, “don’t think me presumptuous, Rabbi, it’s just that I’m used to hearing Rabbis talk about Judaism!”

In the coming weeks I will be addressing some of the internal Jewish issues surrounding Pesach from a Reform point of view – in particular how do we keep true to tradition taking into account our varying degrees of belief and observance.

What is essential for us is that we don’t lose sight of the wider human values of all that we do. All the aspects of Pesach are valid and worth promoting. Even those sceptical about the Exodus – you may have seen the documentary on TV this week- Archeologists like Finklestein and Silbermann (no relation) say that evidence shows that the whole of Sinai was so heavily surveyed by Egyptian fortifications there’s no way 600,000 could get through. Moreover in the 13th century BCE Canaan was under Egyptian control. They would have been going from Egypt to Egypt.

My response is: that even if it was a myth developed centuries later Pesach still has ethical value. It is the story which has sustained through years of exile and real slavery- and it’s lessons are for all humanity.

The Pesach lesson of fair trade and ethical business is nothing new. There was the case of the Salanter Rebbe, founder of the Musar Movement.

When asked to inspect a Matzah-making factory, he was asked to:

look through the check list of tasks –

ingredients yes, supervison, yes, machinery checked,yes, clothing yes, – no extraneous foodstuffs brought in, yes

baking procedure yes, timing 18 minutes baking time no more, no less – yes.

OK – what’s missing? No-one could answer him.

Make sure the staff are paid a decent wage for the job, he said, or you’ll lose your Kosher le-Pesah certificate!

E for Ethics and F for Free Trade

Written by Rabbi Silverman

It’s the countdown to Pesach- or Passover: the Feast of History, the Feast of Freedom, the Family Festival

So many aspects to it-

Chag haMatzot, (the Torah also calls it) – the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Most of us associate it with food. For some it’s for fressing. For sure also for refraining, restricting your diet quite drastically. And some would say, it’s the Jewish Grocer’s Bonanza season.

For the spiritual among us – it’s z’man cherutenu, period of our liberation, inner freedom, rejoicing in one’s Jewish religious identity

For others it can be quite secular – I have a Kibbutz Haggadah which celebrates the festival of Spring (Aviv) with no mention of God at all.

It’s an occasion for a great community celebration; or a warm family get together.

And the home atmosphere is special, following the spring cleaning and the change-over to new Pesach utensils – a special air of freshness.

All these values are aspects of Pesach:

Family, Feasting, Fressing, Food-restrictions, Festivity, Freshness, Freedom…

And -Fair Trade- our national youth movement RSY Netzer has made Pesach this year into the Festival of Fair Trade. Actually it isn’t only our youth movement. This is a joint project between RSY-Netzer, LJY-Netzer, Noam (Masorti) and- wait for it- Bnei Akiva. (the Orthodox Youth Movement). The aim is to educate all synagogues in the UK in the hope that they will all become fair-trade. They are saying that the simple move of agreeing to buy Fairtrade tea and coffee is a great thing for a synagogue to do, and reflects Reform Jewish values. If as a spin-off, it creates co-operation amongst budding junior community leaders of the different wings of Judaism, that can’t be bad.

On this issue, I have always upheld buying Kosher lePesach products. And I have also maintained that there is no such thing as kosher lePesach Tea. Coffee without additives I would argue the same for. My authority for this is Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

To be kosher lePesach in the sense of being true to the Festival of Freedom I would say the best Kosher le-Peasch label is the Fair Trade one.

This is the statement of the youth movements:

Fair Trade goods include products like Café Direct, Tea Direct and Traidcraft brands, where the producer is guaranteed a fair and stable price, and any surplus is invested back in the developing world producer communities. Fair Trade is helping tens of thousands of small farmers in poor countries to build a better life for themselves, their families and communities, and helping build links of friendship and solidarity across the world.

The Fairtrade mark independently guarantees:

Decent wages

Minimum health and safety standards

A fair minimum price and benefits for the community

A longer term trading relationship

A commitment to better environmental standards and working towards sustainable production

And supporting the right for workers to join trade unions.

Synagogues and individuals have been backing this campaign around the country. Pesach is but a focal point for a year round concern.

Supporting the Government’s Make Poverty History Campaign is part of it too, with it’s plans of trade justice debt relief and more aid to suffering countries.

Such campaigns have been going long enough and strong enough for supermarkets to take notice. (It involves other products like fruit and vegetables too of course).

There’s a famous story of a congregant who came to his Rabbi and said: “Rabbi- every week you talk about things like Human Rights, Social Justice, Ethics, Environment, Spirituality.” “Yes,” said the Rabbi, “so what’s on your mind, what would you like me to talk about?” “Well,” he said, “don’t think me presumptuous, Rabbi, it’s just that I’m used to hearing Rabbis talk about Judaism!”

In the coming weeks I will be addressing some of the internal Jewish issues surrounding Pesach from a Reform point of view – in particular how do we keep true to tradition taking into account our varying degrees of belief and observance.

What is essential for us is that we don’t lose sight of the wider human values of all that we do. All the aspects of Pesach are valid and worth promoting. Even those sceptical about the Exodus – you may have seen the documentary on TV this week- Archeologists like Finklestein and Silbermann (no relation) say that evidence shows that the whole of Sinai was so heavily surveyed by Egyptian fortifications there’s no way 600,000 could get through. Moreover in the 13th century BCE Canaan was under Egyptian control. They would have been going from Egypt to Egypt.

My response is: that even if it was a myth developed centuries later Pesach still has ethical value. It is the story which has sustained through years of exile and real slavery- and it’s lessons are for all humanity.

The Pesach lesson of fair trade and ethical business is nothing new. There was the case of the Salanter Rebbe, founder of the Musar Movement.

When asked to inspect a Matzah-making factory, he was asked to:

look through the check list of tasks –

ingredients yes, supervison, yes, machinery checked,yes, clothing yes, – no extraneous foodstuffs brought in, yes

baking procedure yes, timing 18 minutes baking time no more, no less – yes.

OK – what’s missing? No-one could answer him.

Make sure the staff are paid a decent wage for the job, he said, or you’ll lose your Kosher le-Pesah certificate!

F for Flexibility

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Of all the festivals, Pesach is the most challenging to the modern Jew. It is the one which makes the most demands of our personal observance.

I suppose if there is one word that sums up the Reform approach to observance it is ‘Flexibility’. You might actually say that Flexibility is a value of Reform Judaism.

There is indeed much flexibility in Judaism per se.

Let me illustrate this for you with one very practical example: the removal of leaven from our homes before Pesach.

It stems from the verse which reads – no leaven shall be seen with you, within where you live for 7 days.” (Deut 16:4) No leaven shall be seen with you (or in another place it says ‘be found with you’) – what does that mean?

You could take it very strictly to mean your home shall be a leaven-free zone.

That’s not actually how rabbinic law interprets it! Halachah takes it to mean ‘not in your possession’. That allows for some flexibility.

Now this is where the Reform approach comes in.

Rabbinic law allows you the flexibility of keeping leaven on your premises whilst technically renouncing possession of it. How does it do that? By means of a legal fiction.

A legal document is drawn up allowing for the ‘sale’ of the leaven to a non- Jew with the condition that it is sold back after the festival, allowing you to keep the leaven on your premises – all you have to ensure is that it is suitably locked away. It ceases then to be leaven seen ‘with you’. It’s no longer with you, it’s with someone else. It’s called a shtar mechirah, and you actually don’t have to do anything except sign your name to the document and make a minimum down payment which is later returned – and a Rabbi deals with it all on paper. (You may have seen the form for this in the local Jewish newspaper).

If you have a relative living at home who observes the sale of leaven you, as the householder, may have to go through this formality for them even though you yourself do not observe it. And it costs little or nothing and only takes as long as you need to write your name.

Despite the fact that it is flexibility, it makes things easy – it is a convenience (something which Reform is frequently accused of promoting) nevertheless – we don’t encourage it, or we discourage it.

Flexibility yes, fictional legalism no.

There’s nothing wrong with legal fictions as such; no legal system can survive without them. The inventiveness of the rabbis of ancient times helped them keep their legal system within humane dimensions. Their flexibility enabled Judaism survive. (Even helped Jews survive – there’s the Torah prohibition against lending money on interest – a legal document circumventing this, enabled Jews to engage in banking.

Our flexibility is not a case of finding legal ways around the law. Neither can our flexibility be just a case of habit or convenience. Our flexibility takes other values into account.

One such value is the value of history or historical awareness.

Louis Jacobs observes that the origin of the sale of leaven was that many Polish Jews at one time were innkeepers and it was physically and economically impossible to clear all the leaven off their premises. So they invoked and implemented this ancient legal loophole,

It was arguably unnecessary, (for this reason). There is a declaration made when leaven is symbolically burnt before Pesach to the effect that ‘any leaven which is still in my possession – let it be as the dust of the earth’.

The night before Pesach you do the search for leaven – this year because first night Pesach is Saturday night you do it on Thursday night (and if you have small children is a bit of traditional fun to hide chunks of bread – usually 10 – around the house – and have them hunt for it – traditionally with a candle and a feather to scoop it up.) It’s all then burnt together with the feather on Friday morning when the declaration is made.

This year again because of Shabbat some people keep a small amount of chametz for Kiddush on Friday night and Shabbat, although since that can cause difficulties, Matzah may be eaten at kiddush – though egg matzah to distinguish it from the matzah to be eaten for the first time at Seder.

So what solutions do we have available for the leaven question? Keeping it locked away is one. (Pet food is an issue here. Some people move it to the garage – which is still your premises – but out of sight out of mind? You still have to feed them).

By far the best solution from a Reform point of view would be to give away as much as you can – especially to the homeless.

This moves us beyond the pragmatic field of flexibility into the domain of the stronger value, especially for a festival like Pesach, so full of moral meaning, the value of caring for our fellow human beings.

G for Generativity (Shabbat HaGadol)

Written by Rabbi Silverman


To get a promotion to the top job at age 70-something is quite remarkable! Popes, like good wine, it seems, improve with age. When I met the last Pope in Manchester 23 years ago he had been in office only about 5 years and was already over 60.

Some religions are Patriarchal. Which means that the elders have complete authority. You might get that kind of feel about the Seder. Grandpa at the top of the table. But that’s not the whole picture. There is supposed to be a strong involvement of everyone present.

The Chief Rabbi (who you might think of as a kind of patriarch, though he isn’t) made an interesting point in his Thought for the Day this week He said ‘we can’t begin telling the story until a child, or the youngest person present, asks a question. He added ‘My earliest memories go back to those evenings when we sat around the table in my grandparents house and it was my turn to ask Mah nishtanah, Why is this night different? For that moment, though I was only three or four at the time, all eyes turned to me.

What a gift that was: of memory and identity, the gift of knowing that you are a part of a story that goes back to the mists of time. It was as if someone had given me a book with a hundred chapters, each in a different handwriting, and said: each of those chapters was written by one of your ancestors and soon the time will come when you will write your own’.

So (although Jonathan Sacks did not say this it means) the direction of the seder is not top down, but potentially, the reverse.

Kiddush is usually led by what some old haggadot call the ‘celebrant’. In Reform households dinging kiddush together sets the scene for most of the Haggadah to be shared rather than whole thing to be done by one senior person and God forbid, rattled through in Hebrew, rather than some of it in English.

Full involvement is of the essence. Doesn’t it say ‘ bechol dor vador… in every generation everyone should look upon himself as if he or she personally had been brought out of Egypt’ ?

Remember this year, since it is Saturday night, after the kiddush we add the Havdalah prayer for the conclusion of Shabbat, which is said over the Yom Tov candles instead of the weekly twisted candle. Now here’s something interesting.

Havdalah unfortunately lapsed in most Jewish households, even quite traditional ones. It has been brought back mostly by the members of our youth groups (like RSY) who learn it at camps. That’s a complete reversal of patriarchal Judaism. The same might go for many of the songs.

The celebrant –on his own- washes his hands, but the karpas, the green vegetable which comes next is one of those things which has been given multiple meanings, Spring, the hyssop used to daub the blood over the lintels for the Angel of Death to pass over, an hors d’oeuvres which in Roman times only the free people would have, not slaves. The more explanations the more scope for discussion – and again the curiosity of the young is stimulated.

The breaking of the Matzah- half is kept to be eaten, half is hidden to be searched for by young children, and if found, ransomed for a gift. It’s the larger half that is hidden for the Afikoman. The Afikoman coming at the end of the Seder represents the future, as do the children – they have the larger part of their lives to look forward to.

When we come to the main section of the Haggadah, the telling of the story, here’s scope for the widest possible involvement.

In the Haggadah itself there is a lively discussion across the generations. Rabbis differ between themselves over the number of miracles at the Red Sea. The Haggadah is a conversation stretching over many centuries. No one dictates to another. We can add to it. Our own and our family stories.

There’s a famous passage where Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says behold I am like a man of 70 years; he was in fact only 18 when he was elected head of the academy. It is said that when he looked in the mirror that morning 18 strands of his beard had turned white overnight. So he said ‘behold I am like a man of 70…’

He took over from Rabban Gamliel who was deposed because he became too dictatorial. Every other candidate for the leadership had something against him. One was too wealthy another had too noble a family pedigree… To save any suggestion of powers Elazar won the day. Can you imagine a Pope or a Chief Rabbi in his late teens? Can you imagine anyone in their teens wanting the job?

Pesach is the family festival. Not just for being together, but for celebrating continuity from one generation to the next. It would be nice to think that the festival creates unity in the family. When it comes to family tensions, I doubt that you could find an occasion more likely to increase friction between people. The inbuilt stressor factors in Pesach, from the frenetic preparations to the mere fact that everyone is thrown together by high expectations of family solidarity is hardly a calming influence.

But that’s of the nature of it – that is reflected too in the Haggadah with the 4 sons/ better –four children.

Nevertheless this Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol, upholds the ideal:

Our Haftarah: I will turn the heart of the fathers/parents to the children and the heart of the children to the fathers…..

A great deal of emphasis is placed on the participation of youth. And it’s important to have all generations present.

The value I’m describing, of passing on values has been given a name: Generativity.

It was called that by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, the guru of lifecycle psychology.

Interesting name he had. Erik Erikson’s biological father, who was Danish, had left his wife before Erikson was born. His mother re-married a Jew. He was adopted by his Jewish stepfather, and was given the name Erik Homberger. But because of his blond-and-blue-eyed Nordic look, Erikson was rejected by his Jewish acquaintances. At school, on the other hand, he was teased for being Jewish! He felt, not unnaturally, that he did not fit in he didn’t belong with either culture. And so Erikson’s identity crises began at an early age. He called himself Erik Erikson. Erik son of Erik, to show he was his own person.

Generativity – the need to pass something on, he observed, is typical of middle adulthood. I like how he defines middle adulthood.It begins somewhere between the late 20s to early 40s and continues until about age 50 to 65. It’s not an age but a stage.

Every life –cycle stage characteristic has its opposite with which it is in conflict. The opposite of Generativity is what Erikson calls stagnation (or self-absorption).

Generativity is an adult’s ability to look outside themselves and care for others. It is a concern for the next generation.

If you don’t think you are at this stage you might be interested to know that the previous stage, young adulthood is typified by the characteristic of intimacy as against isolation, It is or seeking to find and express love, and Generativity is an extension of that.

And if you think you are past the middle adult stage (I was careful not to say past it) the next stage, mature age is typified by integrity versus despair.

That means coming to accept one’s whole life and reflecting on it in a positive manner, fully accepting yourself without fear of the future. It flows out of generativity – being content with what you’ve passed on – whether it is accepted or not is immaterial.

This is the point. It is being said that the new Pope’s policy is highly orthodox because he and the type of people who elected him believe that is the answer to secularism and the decline the Church is suffering in Europe especially. So never mind AIDS in Africa, or women anywhere or homosexuals who crave spirituality and acceptance. Pull up the drawbridge!

A young-minded leader – and there is no reason to believe a 71 year old shouldn’t be young minded, who is still in the Generativity stage, or even an old-minded one who never lost it – would be concerned with giving care to others.

He/she might not agree with what others are doing; it may go against their values – but will be accepting and ready to see change for the sake of progress.

The opposite of Generativity is stagnation, and self-absorption. Our chevrah here shows great signs of Generativity. We are generating new fresh ideas and carrying them out. The Living Judaism initiative is one; children’s services like today’s downstairs, family services – we like to see all ages taking part in here, rather like at the Seder. It works in quite a unique way.

We’ve now got a small post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah discussion group for the first time in 3 decades. ( I’m pleased that the class is here now and taking part in the Aliyot) Your teacher rightly gives all credit to you.

I want everyone to know that a few weeks ago our post barmitzvah group asked if the age of synagogue membership could be lowered to 14 so that they could vote in the next EGM (now fixed for 2 weeks tomorrow May 8th ), for women to carry the Torah scrolls, that’s to say not just their mothers but the girls themselves once they are batmitzvah. You don’t unfortunately have a vote so I want to offer you my support.

I believe our Executive are right in agreeing with you and proposing we change our rule. We’ve had stagnation for too long on this.

At the Seder we celebrate the passing on of our values. We celebrate the moving on through history with all the development that has brought in Judaism. Let’s pay heed to the rallying cry of the Prophet Malachi in the Haftarah of Shabbat Hagadol, that the heart of the parents be turned to the children and the heart of the children to the parents, so that we all go forward into the future with one common resolve to strengthen the Jewish lives of everyone around us.

H for Historical Awareness (Pesach)

Written by Rabbi Silverman


If I were to tell you the Exodus never happened, I wonder what would be your reaction?

Shock, horror. Is the Rabbi out of his mind? Is he going to be out of a job!?

I don’t know if you watched a documentary on TV recently on this subject in which eminent Israeli archaeologists maintained precisely that the Torah’s account of the Exodus is not rooted in fact. This kind of thing doesn’t shock me. I am prepared to believe that the Exodus never happened.

What were the main facts leading to this conclusion?

1. That the whole of Sinai at the time the Exodus was supposed to have taken place in the 13th century BCE was policed by Egyptian fortresses. It would have been impossible for 600,000 Israelite men plus women and children – that is 2 million altogether, to get through in one month let alone 40 years. Quite apart from whether the Sinai desert could not support so many nomads, the powerful Egyptian state kept tight security over the whole area. The Crossing of the Red Sea (or Reed Sea) story would simply be irrelevant.

2. Who ruled Canaan at the time? The Egyptians were in military control. So in effect, Moses would have been leading them from Egypt to Egypt!

3. What’s more, there’s long been evidence that Joshua’s conquest of Jericho never occurred. A few weeks ago I visited Jericho. That city, the oldest in the world, has been excavated in great detail to reveal that it was abandoned during the 13th and 14th centuries BCE. It wouldn’t have existed at the time of Joshua! –though it did later when the story was put into writing.

I’m only telling you what archaeology has been teaching since the 1990’s. It can’t be ignored; it’s got to be faced. Why? – because Reform Judaism has always valued historical awareness –critical historical awareness at that.

The prevailing theory in Israel today is that our people probably emerged out of Canaan. They took on a new identity as Israelites, and were perhaps joined or led by a small group of kinfolk from Egypt – so there might be a kernel of truth according to some scholars.

In a book published this year, called “The Bible Unearthed,” the Israeli archaeologist Israel Finklestein of Tel Aviv University and the archaeological journalist Neil Asher Silberman (no relation) raised similar doubts and offered a new theory about the roots of the Exodus story. They argue that it was written during the time of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century BCE, 600 years after the Exodus.

I don’t find any of this problematic. Much as I would like to believe the Exodus story as recorded in the Torah, it might sound surprising, but I don’t believe that Pesah depends on the factuality of it for its powerful message and influence on liberation movements worldwide and on individuals like you and I, many of us from families who experienced our own Egypts and escaped persecution – and we carry on their faith.

There are, it’s true, some scholars who still hold that the Exodus story has a basis in fact.

They say that the evidence falls into place if the story is dated much earlier to 1450 BCE, the time of Pharaoh Amenhotep, a great builder and slave driver, instead as is gene of as is generally believed Ramases II. This is not accepted among historians. Its puts all chronology out.

Some point to the existence of Egyptian Semitic looking slaves on Egyptian artefacts who could have been Israelites, and say that you would not expect evidence of their wanderings because they were nomads and would not have left records.

There is also evidence that, what we know from the Torah as slaves in Egypt, were in fact indentured workers.

Anyone who preaches on this theme is bound to come in for a barrage of criticism. Indeed the revisionist archaeologists have been the subject of a public outcry in Israel.

Since the excavations of Finklestein and others over the past 30 years have discredited the view that the Exodus generation established the first Israelite settlements in what are now the West Bank territories, they’ve come under vehement attack for their theories and been accused of having pro-Palestinian political agendas.

Among scholars who are Orthodox Jews, there’s at least one who accepts the main theses of the archaeologists. Dr Lawrence Schiffman, Prof. of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University who believes you have to be a “bit crazy” to accept the number of Israelites involved in the Exodus But he still maintains that a significant number of Israelite slaves fled Egypt for Canaan, And Schiffman says that the account in Joshua of a swift military campaign is less credible than the account in the Book of Judges of a gradual takeover of Canaan.

The scholarly consensus seems to be that the story is a glorious mixture of myth, memories and nuggets of historical truth. What may happened was that a small group of Semitic people who escaped from Egypt became the nucleus of a new nation with the name of Israel, perhaps joining others who had remained in the land.

Whenever you tell a good story to children they commonly ask: Is it true?

Is the Exodus story true? No – not in the sense of historical facts.

But then, our ancestors were not writing history. They wrote and rewrote, of their experience of the highest Power in the Universe, the Creator for whom they could not even find a name so they used several.

And with brilliant artistry they wove folk myths and poetry, songs, dreams, visions, and the ancient ritual of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (which may be even older than the Exodus) into a wonderful narrative – but not a fairy tale. Far from it. Rather a paradigm of freedom and social justice.

Whatever the facts of the story, those values have endured and inspired the world over the millennia–and that is the point.

There is no such thing as history which is just facts. History is the way we tell our story – it is a reflection of our values. The myths are also part of the history, and reflect our values.

What has always fascinated me about the Haggadah is this: Haggadah means narration, telling the story. Does it? Haggadah goes out of its way not to tell the story! At least not in a straightforward way, rather through midrashim bearing message of a historical and spiritual nature.

In the section called Maggid (meaning ‘narrating) we have an assortment of midrashim, believed to date from the Jewish Diaspora in Alexandria in the 1st century CE. It focuses on the effect that Egypt had on the Jews. It’s purpose seems to be to teach lessons like– don’t stay in Exile in Egypt, make Aliyah! Another section says a Syrian oppressed my ancestor. This probably dates from the time of the Maccabees.

After the 10 plagues there are 3 extra: ‘dam vaesh vetimrot ashan’: blood fire and pillars of smoke. That’s a reference to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.

Dayenu – expresses gratitude for all the good times despite the bad. We can all relate to this. Historically it is not limited to the Exodus it goes up to the Temple (bet habechirah) and modern versions have taken it up to the present day.

Haggadah isn’t a history lesson. It’s a sacred story, conveying spiritual experience and teachings from all the periods of exile and oppression we’ve endured.

Ha Lachma – we say in the Aramaic of the Persian Period, ‘this is the bread of affliction… let all who are hungry come in and eat with us’….

Bechol dor vador –in every generation men rise up against us to destroy us… but the Eternal one delivers us… – there have been not one but many many Exoduses, and we have been liberated so many times even within living memory.

Haggadah ritualizes family relationships from the eldest to the youngest, encourages questioning, even introduces the critical doubter – the ‘rasha’ the wicked son. He doesn’t say the Exodus never happened. He says ‘what does all this service mean to you?- in a cynical tone. The service has a significance which goes way beyond the story.

And what do you reply to the doubter –

It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I came forth from Egypt.

For me – ultimately it is the Egypt that you and I, your family and my family have to be liberated from – which makes Pesach the Festival of Freedom full of meaning in our lives.

I for Identity, Israel & Independence

Written by Rabbi Silverman


Over the weeks, as you’ve been attending services you may recall that I have been talking about Jewish values from a Reform perspective, listing those values alphabetically, for convenience and comprehensiveness, placing each new value under a letter of the alphabet. And I have reached the letter I.

I is for Identity. I is for Israel. I is for Independence.

Bat Mitzvah is a great celebration of Identity.

Identification with Israel becomes more of a realisable opportunity as time goes on.

Through youth organisations you can go on Israel tour, you can spend a gap year on Shnat… And there’s Taglit- the birthright Israel scheme which offers you a 10 day, educational trip free of charge to Israel from age 18 to 26.

Israel represents the living reality of the Jewish people as a complete culture. In Israel your Jewish identity is expressed in the language and in the landscape itself. In the history that is all around you, and history that is being made day by day. It is a phenomenal blending of cultures from 4 continents, you make friends from all over the world, all gathered together under the parasol of Jewish identity. It is the world in microcosm. And of course the challenge of living with others of different identities, (which we face wherever we live on the surface of the globe) are intensified too….

I hope that when the opportunity comes to you to go to Israel, you’ll grab it eagerly

Let me tell you something which probably few people know.

If you were living in Israel now, and you were having your bat mitzvah at a Shul in, say Tel Aviv or Haifa, you would be given the choice of a service on Shabbat morning, afternoon or evening. And you would most probably have to share the event with another girl, or a boy. At each Reform shul in those cities they have 2-300 bar/bat mitzvahs per year, that’s 4 or 5 per week every week of the year!

But only 10% of those will be girls. Only 20-30.

To be a bat mitzvah in Israel takes courage. This might surprise you. Since before the beginning of the state women have played a full part in the building up of the nation. Both sexes are called up into the army. And they’ve had a woman Prime Minister Golda Meir. But it is not all that common for a young Israeli girl to have a bat mitzvah.

The reason I was given on my recent visit is that Israeli boys and girls face a lot of pressure from parents and peers. Parents will just say ‘mah pitom, zeh lo chashuv’ it’s just not done. Friends will say ‘you’re trying to do something like boys and you’re letting the girls down, you’re betraying them.’

I was told it’s just not on the girls radars. When they hear that it’s possible, most are astonished. The majority of Israelis are secular. They don’t belong to any shul.

Your parents don’t have to belong to a shul for you to have Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The great majority of those 2-300 aren’t members; they just pay a fee, book the event, the morning, the afternoon or the evening service. In Tel Aviv’s Bet Daniel shul you have a choice of a man Rabbi or a one of two women rabbis to officiate.

To do it, usually it means you come from a family who are committed to Reform. They are only members if they choose to be.

It takes the courage of identification to be bat mitzvah. Here too, where not every girl goes for it, but much much more so in Israel. It takes courage. The passionate conviction that it is as important for young women to be as fully involved as young men. That this way forward lies the strengthening of Judaism.

Israel’s Independence is what we are celebrating in conjunction with your Bat Mitzvah.

Independent is actually a negative word, though we may use it in a positive sense. Independent just means, ‘not dependent’ – often when we talk about so-and-so being independent, there’s a hidden wish that they weren’t quite so…

Independence in Hebrew is Atzmaut. Yom Ha’Atzmaut is translated as Independence Day. Atzmaut is very positive. It means literally Selfness. Atzmaut means you define yourself, you’re not dependent on others to do it for you.

Your Bat Mitzvah is a strong statement. It says: I identify!

And our response has to be, as Israelis say: Kol hakavod lach – all credit to you, and thank you – because the more there are like you, the greater the chance that our highest hopes for the future may find fulfilment.

I for Inclusivity & Involvement (Pesach, 7th day)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Ask anybody what the main differences between an Orthodox and a Reform synagogue service are and they will tell you: the service is shorter, it’s partly in English and men and women sit together. We take this for granted, though it would have shocked and still does shock some people who are not used to it all.

If I were to ask you what value links those three elements together – shorter services, partly in English and men and women together, what would you reply? The word I would go for is Inclusivity.

Inclusivity is total involvement.

No-one need be left out because the service is too long and hence has to be read at such a fast pace that not everyone can follow.

No-one need feel left out because they can’t read let alone understand the Hebrew. (Ideally when the Hebrew is read there’s a chance to follow the translation).

No-one need be left out because they are female.

In our congregation a woman may lead the service or read from the Torah. Women are encouraged to be called amongst the Aliyot. Women rabbis may officiate and have done. Our constitution, however doesn’t permit a female to take out carry and elevate a Torah scroll, but it is nevertheless denying someone the right to participate in a way that is meaningful to them. It goes against the grain of other positive values we uphold.

What possible objections can there be? Over the years I have been asked to give a halachic view. And having given it, those who oppose women carrying the scroll have said well- I’m not objecting on halachic grounds. I’m objecting because it is ‘minhag hamakom’ the custom of the place. Well the customs of this kehilla have changed over the past 150 years, not to mention the past 50. Quite considerably. And there is a strong principle – not to impose a minhag on a community the majority of which cannot accept it. And ‘majority’ means the greater number of people.

The majority at our meetings have voted over the years to alter the constitution. We have reached a two-thirds majority. but it requires a 75% majority of all those members present. So an abstention is effectively a vote against change. I am urging you to take the opportunity a week tomorrow to vote in favour of our Executive’s resolution, for complete inclusivity. Let EGM be an abbreviation for Egalitarianism.

Another point that is raised is that we don’t like to see it and we would not want our Orthodox friends who visit our schule to see it. Why so? If it’s that their not used to it, there will be plenty that they’re not used to seeing- or hearing, women’s voices in the choir, or a woman reading the Torah. If it is that they think it’s against the din, then they are mistaken. It’s not, and as I shall show you to claim so is to support a position of ignorance.

We are, in any case Reform we do not need to look over our shoulders at what is Orthodox practice. I promise you, there cannot even be any orthodox objection to women having contact with a scroll. I recently came across an article by the renowned Israeli Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin familiar to many readers of the Manchester Jewish Telegraph for his regular column of commentaries. He also writes for the Jerusalem Post. Let me quote from a column he wrote on last week’s Sidra Aharei Mot.

It was on the verse found there ‘Do not come near a woman during her period of impurity’ (Lev 18:19)

This (says Riskin) leads to one of the most controversial questions that a modern Orthodox rabbi must deal with – whether Jewish law permits women to touch, carry and dance with Torah scrolls.

“Even in the most traditional synagogues, there are some women who would like to have the Torah passed to them within their own women’s section.

Rarely does a religious question engender such heavy emotional involvement – on both sides. For many, excluding women from the privilege of holding a Torah scroll is tantamount to excluding them from Torah altogether.

For others, breaking from the time-honored custom that only men may carry Torah scrolls threatens to undermine the very infrastructure of our tradition and faith”.

Riskin then quotes from authoritative sources of Jewish law:

He says that: The philosopher Maimonides wrote that in the Talmud : “Anyone who is ritually impure, even a menstruating woman, is permitted to hold on to a Torah scroll and read from it, because the Torah can not receive ritual impurity.”

Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch he states, supported this view. Riskin concludes that ‘in our generation we should show singular sensitivity to women’.

Obviously it would be a nonsense for us who do not adhere to the Orthodox strictures against women’s ritual impurity, to appear to support them, and it is also arguably a case of hypocrisy even to appear to do so.

We cite tradition as our watchword. There’s a journal called ‘Tradition’ subtitled A Journal of Orthodox Thought. It’s not the place we would turn to for guidance as Reform Jews. But there too the key article on the subject supports the halachic view which permits a woman to carry, written by Rabbi Avraham Weiss of Yeshivah University, New York in 1982. I have copies for anyone who wants to read this very scholarly article.

He too cites Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch as follows ‘All who are tameh, (impure) even niddot, menstruating women, may hold the scroll of the Torah and read from it.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Karo’s Ashekenazi counterpart appears to disagree with him over this in one place but does not object the second time he states it. Weiss concludes because Karo adds a proviso the second time: provided their hands are not unclean or dirty. That makes sense: Torah cannot contract ritual impurity but must be treated with decent respect.

This is Weiss’s concluding paragraph, which is inspiring:

“Prayer is a dialogue, a rendezvous with God. It is a song, a tear, a meditative though, a joyful smile which helps bridge the tremendous chasm that exists between the mortal human and the infinite God. The distance is not easily spanned. every fibre of intellectual concentration and emotional strength is needed to achieve that instant when we feel the spark of God and breathe that spirituality into our being. For many the moment becomes more possible, the experience more intense when carrying, holding, touching, kissing, the deepest expression of God’s love- the Torah

It would be a great disservice to our communities if we would deny men or women the right to have contact with the Sefer Torah, a contact which for so many enhances the prayer experience, and a contact that has its clear basis in the Halachah”.

At today’s story of the Crossing of the Red Sea Miriam, the sister of Moses, leads the women with timbrels and dances in singing the Song of Triumph and Joy, a model for the leadership of women forever afterwards.

If we were to remove the one remaining obstacle to full inclusivity and full involvement in our services, we would have effectively crossed a Red Sea of our own and effected a great leap forward in the history of our schule-community.

J for Jerusalem

Written by Rabbi Silverman


It was a peaceful Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem. We were there last week visiting our son who has just made Aliyah. We were there overlooking the old city Mt Scopus the Mt of Olives, Abu Tor and the surrounding hills and valleys when suddenly the atmosphere changes. The peaceful calm is interrupted. The tranquillity is shattered. Traffic had been diverted on the road past the Mt Zion hotel where were staying. No cars had been allowed down the stretch of road leading past the walls of the Old City, since the morning of that day for security reasons. Now we knew why. The gardens below had been taken over by a rock concert. Church bells in the late afternoon could not be heard above the din. Muezzins from the mosques, usually audible everywhere were drowned out.

It was nice beat music I have to say. But intrusive in that setting. I wondered how far away could it be heard. The sages say that when the Shofar was blown in Zion it could be heard as far away as Jericho.

Later that night, as we said our goodbyes to our son I understood something more. His last words were ‘Bye-bye. Yom Yerushalayim tov’. Then the penny dropped. So that was it – this was a Yom Yerushalayim celebration. I had lost track of time. Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) celebrates the unification of the old and new cities in June 1967. The following day our taxi driver – an Israeli Arab, told us that he had so much trouble getting through the Jerusalem streets that he just had to stop work that afternoon and evening and go home. Most of the Jerusalem taxi drivers that day would have faced the same problem. And anyone wanting to attend a place of worship in peace, or simply to enjoy the tranquillity of the eternal city would at the very least require earplugs.

Jerusalem! City of contrasts and contradictions! Where else in the world is there a city that has been so much the focal point prayers from so many faiths and over which so much blood has been spilt? Now is not the time to go into the fraught question of how on earth the rival claims could be settled in any peace solution. But in a spiritual context – What is the value of Jerusalem for us (as Reform Jews)? Yom Yerushalayim doesn’t figure on our calendars. OK – it marks a political event. But Jerusalem is so much a point of orientation – people symbolically face Jerusalem in prayer. We say Leshanah haba’ah biYerushalayim at Seder and again on Yom Kippur. The Hebrew name of Jackson’s Row, which appears on our letterheads, is Sha’ar Zion, the Gate of Zion, a name which we share with the first Reform synagogue in this country, West London Synagogue. Hopefully when our new Shul is built we will use the beautiful white Jerusalem stone for the interior.

Jerusalem, the City of David was always the nucleus of Jewish spiritual aspirations. In exile we yearned to return. It was not so much the city as the Temple at its heart which held our hopes. 3 fasts a year commemorate its destruction. Reform only observes one of them, Tisha B’Av and only because it marks other tragedies besides the destruction of the Temple. We do not regard ourselves as being in mourning for the Temple until such time as it is rebuilt. At every Jewish wedding we break a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple too. That one we do observe (we are not completely consistent) – and it can be given other meanings relevant to the precariousness of human life.

Jerusalem holds great value – for Reform Judaism. There has been a change. It was significant when in the 1970’s the World Union for Progressive Judaism moved its HQ from New York to Jerusalem. We have a rabbinical college there and our students are encouraged to spend a year in Jerusalem. Shnat Netzer the gap year between school and university which our youth movement runs includes a 4 month option in Jerusalem. It is very central for us. But it wasn’t so from the beginning.

With the beginnings of Reform many references to it were expunged from the Siddur. And over recent years have made reappearances. This has left its mark. For example, why do the choir sing those words which are not in the Siddur ‘tivneh homot Yerushalayim’? (Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem?) – Because it’s in the music we use, composed for other prayer books. Other examples exist aplenty. Especially in the Birkat hamazon (Grace after meals). There we have compromises. Reform versions omit mentions of the Temple but keep the references to Jerusalem.

Why the differences between Reform and Orthodox in this matter? In the prayers, “Jerusalem” refers to the future city–and its Temple–rebuilt when the Mashiach comes. Most traditional Jews feel quite comfortable expressing this as at the end of each Shabbat at Havdalah singing the hope that Eliyahu Hanavi should come accompanying the Messiah “speedily in our days.” And Israelis say “next year in Jerusalem, the rebuilt” implying a rebuilt Temple.

But many Reform Jews do not accept the idea of the Messiah and the return to a Temple-based Judaism focused on Jerusalem. The phrase “next year in Jerusalem,” however, can be interpreted in many different ways. These words convey a web of meaning from concrete to abstract, and from earthly to holy.

Jerusalem, as well as being the site of the two Temples, was regarded as the centre of the ancient world. The Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies within the Temple was the physical space where human and divine would meet, once a year, at Yom Kippur. The Cohen Gadol would approach the inner altar to ask forgiveness for Israel’s sins from God’s Shekhinah, the indwelling Presence of the divine. (Some say the Shekhinah still dwells near the broken Western Wall of the Temple).

I can never look at that enormous square in front of the Kotel where people mass in prayer without comparing it with the scene I saw just over a week following the 6 Day War in 1967. It was a very much smaller space then. Arab homes had to be bulldozed to make room for the public square. Do you need bulldozers to make room for the Shechinah?

Regardless of where we stand on issues of politics and how to solve Jerusalem’s problems, we look to the Land of Israel with sorrow at the ongoing bloodshed and hatred there. Is there a way to reconcile the extremes so that all Jews can look to “next year in Jerusalem” with hope and not despair?

midrash gives one possible response. Yerushalayim’s name is seen as a combination of yerushah, or inheritance, and the dual plural ending, ayim, suggesting a “double” inheritance. Add to this, a midrash which creatively interprets Psalm 122, “Jerusalem built up, a city knit (connected) together,” (Yerushalayim habenuyah, iyr shechubra lah yachdav).This was taken to mean there are two Jerusalems. Yerushalayim Shel Matah – the earthly Jerusalem, which may be the object of our ambivalence but is also the source of Torah, and Yerushalayim Shel Maalah, the upper Jerusalem–a heavenly version relieved of the contradictions of human life.

Jewish teaching is that the two Jerusalems have to be brought together before the reign of peace can begin. In our Torah service we have the famous passage found in two prophets Isaiah and Micah about nations beating ‘swords into ploughshares’. (I call it the ironmongery). You only find this in British Reform Siddurim. It’s a vision of all nations flocking to Zion, to Jerusalem to serve the one God. Reform put it in out of a universalist tendency – that’s to say the urge to emphasize values shared by all peoples rather than restrict ourselves to what concerns Jews to the exclusion of all others.

As we are approaching Shavuot, it’s appropriate to quote in this context the midrashic observation that the Torah was not given on Mt Zion, but on Mt Sinai- why? Because if it had been given in Israel people would think its teaching were only for the Jewish people. It was given in the desert, in no-man’s territory indicating that its message was to be universal.

You can’t come away from Jerusalem today without a sense of the universality of the city. The new Yad Vashem Holocaust Centre (only a few weeks old now) which is a harrowing experience, leaves you with one ray of light at the end – the righteous of other nations who risked their own lives to save Jews and others who were victimized.

I used to think that Jerusalem could be a model for co-operation between a multiplicity of peoples. The more you get to know the place, however, the more you realize how strong is the tendency for each grouping, including amongst the Jewish community, to keep itself to itself- and this goes back deep into history. There are deep divisions.

But if there can’t always be co-operation, one can at least aim for peaceful co-existence.

And that is the model for life as a whole. Jerusalem is the world in microcosm. It is us, having to live with people of sometimes widely differing views. It is metaphorically the place we have to build in England’s green and pleasant land –

And here too in Jackson’s Row, Sha’ar Zion the Gate of Zion, rediscovering tradition, accepting and respecting our differences aiming for peaceful co-existence, to bring the heavenly closer to the earthly and the earthly to the heavenly.

K for Kashrut

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Once upon a time there was a donkey. A very intelligent donkey. In fact the most rational donkey that ever lived. But he was not a happy donkey. He was forever hungry. You see, this creature belonged to a philosopher. A French philosopher and physicist of the 14th century called Jean Buridan. After every long day of work his master used to keep him tied up to a post. And being a bit of an obsessive character he was always tethered him to the same place. Buridan’s ass was kept tethered between 2 bales of hay each exactly equidistant from where the animal stood. And the bales of hay were of exactly the same size. The poor old ass had a perpetual problem. Which bale of hay to eat. You see he had this principle that he would only ever perform an action if there was sufficient reason for so doing.

So, there was one bale of hay which we shall call for the sake of argument A and he was near enough to reach it and eat it. But as soon as he thought of so doing there was the other bale which we shall call B. As long as the ass was aware of bale B he couldn’t find sufficient reason for eating Hay A and vice versa. He had no good reason to move to one lot of food rather than the other. So he stood where he was and got hungrier and hungrier probably eventually starved.

Reform Judaism sometimes appears to be like Buridan’s ass. We know where we stand but it doesn’t always allow for a great deal of commitment to one course of action rather than another. A great deal is made of the importance of choice and of reason. The trouble is that if you have as your criteria for action having sufficient reason for everything you are liable to get stuck.

This might be the case over Kashrut. The Dietary laws. We advocate, as in most things religious, the free exercise of individual choice – as to what degree of Kashrut to keep. We also advocate faithfulness to tradition. So faced with the choice of a king-size Macdonald’s cheeseburger – or not, what’s the Reform answer?

Reform often holds that reasons for observances are all important. Explanations can be given as to why certain animals are eaten and others not, or why they should be killed according to the laws of shechita or why we are not to consume blood or separate milk and meat, but to expect these explanations to provide sufficient reason for following kashrut is to expect too much.

Animals which chew the cud and have a cloven hoof are the Kosher ones. In general that rules out the most aggressive, clawing creatures – which seems to hold an ethical message (especially for ancient communities where it was believed you are what you eat). For us though, this is really a historical message.

A bird (and this isn’t sufficiently well-known) is kosher as long as it has an extra toe in addition to its three front ones and not the clawing talons of a raptor. It must also have a craw or crop (a pouch like enlargement of the gullet) and a removable part of the gizzard. So quails are OK. Though because of the complications some authorities only permit chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pigeons and in some places, pheasant.

Only the eggs of kosher birds are permitted. The trouble really with the reasoning that birds of prey are ruled out to avoid eating aggressive creatures is that many permitted birds prey on small creatures, if only insects.

Insects of course are treif not kosher. Nobody knows why certain kinds of locusts were permitted. They seem to be extinct. Maybe because too many Jews were eating them!

Sea creatures have to have fins and removable scales. Again by and large rules out the most aggressive fish. But I believe there are exceptions. So the reason isn’t all that clear.

Shechita – kosher slaughter is for the purpose of as near an instantaneous death as possible and total removal of blood which is the symbol of life. The process is not always kind to the animal. For one thing it has to be tilted to let out all the blood and this is distressing to the animal. The blood of fish incidentally is permitted.

There is no sufficiently good reason why on grounds of kindness to animals the kosher laws should be preferable to vegetarianism. Quite the opposite in fact.

The separation of meat and milk derives from the law; you shall not boil a kid in its mothers milk. Archaeology has shown that this was a Canaanite fertility practice. The rule was generalised to include meat that was not from a baby goat, even chicken (although not amongst all Sephardim). Some say it’s to symbolise kindness to animals. This is not for certain.

Health is not the reason given for the kashrut laws. It’s not health but holiness. The animals permitted to be eaten were the ones permitted to be sacrificed. Shechita is carried out prayerfully. Most of us would like to believe it’s health because it’s easier to accept than holiness. It stands to reason.

The solution, as for Buridan’s ass would be to give up the principle of having to have sufficient reason for everything.

If so, what other principles could there be for keeping kosher? Faith perhaps, though that’s difficult. Obedience – a hard one! Faith is akin to love, obedience is dependent on fear (it’s the carrot and the stick, to put it in donkey terms).

Reform tends to prefer the carrot. We keep our Judaism out of commitment which is a form of love. As a movement we encourage kashrut. All our public events are required to be kosher.

When discussing our values last Friday night ‘Identity’ came up as the main reason why we do things. People thought that it was identity which motivated us more than a sense of duty to obey commands.

By keeping kosher – and eating is all about survival, we are asserting who we are. There are certain values – in particular by and large our kashrut limits us to a rather restricted field of domesticated animals, so there are environmental benefits here – and there is within our dietary laws that human beings are in reality carnivores – omnivores, but that being so, that we are not the absolute masters of the world to consume indiscriminately and ruthlessly, but we apply an awareness of the sanctity of life, through the symbolism of our tradition.

L for Language

Written by Rabbi Silverman


Chaverim – friends – I’ve decided to address you as chaverim using the Hebrew word for friends because it makes more sense in this context. My theme today is language and the respective roles of Hebrew and English in our Jewish lives.

Chaverim is a profoundly expressive word. Most appropriate in this context because it has a double meaning: chaver (chaverah, feminine singular) also means member. Chaver Knesset is the Israeli equivalent of an MP.

Hebrew words are built up largely on 3 letter roots, and chaver comes from a root meaning to be bound together. Friends are linked with bonds of friendship, members with a common bond to achieve certain purposes.

So chaver is a friend, in Ashkenazi it’s pronounced chover, and it entered Australian English slang as kobber.

This isn’t a sermon; I prefer the word drashah. Derashah comes from the root darash, to dig out; digging out meaning, hence enquiry, learning. When a synagogue is used for learning purposes it’s called a beth midrash, or beis midrash sometimes pronounced medrash (I don’t know why) but it’s the same word and concept as the Muslim schools we’ve been hearing a lot about recently – medrasas.

Speaking personally I much prefer Hebrew titles for what goes on in schule. Shammas instead of beadle, Parnassim instead of Wardens. And instead of congregation – Kehillah

The name of ours is Sha’ar Zion, the Gate of Zion which in itself points towards the use of Hebrew. My predecessor Rabbi Tovia Ben Chorin who is an Israeli, tried to promote the use of Sha’ar Zion, but the English tradition of naming a schule after a street is so entrenched that it never caught on at Jacksons Row. It’s worth remembering that we are Sha’ar Zion however.

If you say we are the chaverim of kehillat Sha’ar Zion everyone will know what you mean.

I’m finding it more common within a Shul context that when new ventures start up people want to choose Hebrew names for them. There is Mapah our young adults group. Mapah has a double meaning: tablecloth – indicating social get-togethers, and also map – Mapah’s initials standing for Manchester Progressive Havurah certainly puts the group on the map.

And our new and very successful social group is called Revva. Revva means a quarter and the aim was to meet at least at quarterly intervals during the year.

Remember our Shul magazine too called Hadashot – meaning news. And it is good news, Chadashot tovot.

Language is a most important value in Reform Judaism because from its inception we have expanded the use of the vernacular in services. Kaddish of course has always been in the vernacular! Aramaic, a sister language of Hebrew was the lingua franca of the Middle East, and is the predominant language of the Talmud from which the kaddish stems.

Relatively recently, language has become a hot subject because of the need for greater inclusivity.

Controversy has arisen over whether to have transliterated texts (that means Hebrew in phonetics) in our new Siddur is one issue. It’s an issue of inclusivity, because the aim is to have as many people as possible involved and participating. Not everyone can read Hebrew. For the benefit of those who can’t, a text with the Hebrew words in English letters will be provided in italics alongside the Hebrew.

It isn’t an easy question. It has been hotly debated in the Siddur Editorial Committee on which I serve. Will it detract from the traditional text, will it be offputting, will it give people an excuse for not learning to read Hebrew? Or will it help, as it does so often in Kaddish.

The key principle is that you shouldn’t feel left out if you don’t know Hebrew. –

The Hassidim of old were wise to this when they introduced Niggunim – songs without words. The Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe doesn’t need words, but rather the whole heart. Better to sing la-la-la with feeling (kavvanah) than mouth words which are meaningless to you, they taught. Niggunim are coming back into services all over the world not just for this reason but because they have an enchantment of their own.

There’s also the question of gender inclusive language. We have had this for years now in our mahzorim for the Festivals. One of the reasons for having a new Siddur is to bring the language into conformity with the Machzor. The next stage in this process will be the High Holidays machzor. Or should I say the machzor for the Yom Tovim, or the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.

It’s still a controversial issue.

The theological point behind it is that God is neither male nor female. We do use human language to address God and speak about God but that it because we want to express a personal relationship with the divine.

Behind all these debates there is a fundamental divide. The divide is between those who see language as a Value, and those who regard it as a Vehicle.

There is a spectrum of opinion between these two poles. At the one extreme, those who see language as an Absolute Value will say that Hebrew is the sacred language of prayer; one should pray in Hebrew and not any other language – and whether you understand it or not is immaterial.

Some people who argue this do not understand much if any Hebrew themselves, but that does not matter because they would say that for them to say or hear the prayers in Hebrew is like a mantra. It can get you on to a real high. The same rationale is behind the niggun, the song without words.

The fact that there is provision for certain prayers being said in the vernacular within Halachah, Jewish Law (like kaddish) might cut no ice with those who are of this view because, they will bring forth the conservative arguments of ‘thin end of the wedge’ ‘slippery slope’ and ‘bridge too far’ – it will lead, they will say, to people giving up Hebrew altogether.

This kind of argument is being used by those who oppose transliteration/phonetics. It has always been used by our choir by the way – the alternative, syllables going backwards through the music is far too complicated.

At the other end of the spectrum is language seen as a Vehicle. Language is a carrier of meaning. Its sole purpose is communication. The extreme view here is that if you don’t understand it there is no point in using a foreign language. That was the position of Liberal Judaism at the turn of the last century, though it has now changed to using a fair amount of Hebrew. Between the pole of Language as vehicle and Language as value there is a whole spectrum of shades of opinion.

Given the balance of Hebrew and English in Reform services it would follow that we are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

The reason I am using the spectrum image is because I see language as both Value and Vehicle. The more one appreciates the value of Hebrew the more one will make efforts to learn it, understand it, use it as a vehicle for one’s personal Jewish expression. And by the way it’s never too late. (A lady came up to me yesterday and proudly announced she’d joined a Hebrew course. She is over 90).

The more one sees language as a vehicle, the more one becomes aware that it carries more meaning than a translation can ever bring across. So actually the English is inadequate I have to say! It always loses something in translation.

So Chaverim, and Chaverot, sof-kol-sof, my derashah to you is: more Ivrit would put more koach into our chayim, and give our kehillah more ruach!

Ken yehi ratzon, venomar Amen.

L for Law & Liberty

Written by Rabbi Silverman

I wanted to talk about Jewish Law this Shabbat. It’s dictated by the parashah we read earlier about the daughters of Zelophchad.

Then came the failed attempt at a repeat of the London bombing atrocity .

And I’m still keeping the subject of Law – Law and Liberty. Because the bombings have strengthened the governments resolve to have tougher laws against incitement to terrorism and in particular to religious incitement.

These are extraordinarily dangerous times calling for extraordinary action. We have been through IRA bombings in our cities over 30 years. This is different; we all sense that is so. It is an international problem.

There is a huge divide in our country over the advisability of the proposed new legislation. Outlawing actions directly aimed at encouraging terrorism – no problem, it’s already against the law. Outlawing indirect incitement – though there is wide agreement in all communities, including the Muslim, that speaking, teaching, preaching is very much behind the trouble, laws are a double-edged sword: while they may protect civil liberties, they may also threaten them.

Free speech is the mark of a liberal society. The cliché we’ve been hearing from our PM and the Queen ‘we must not let them destroy our way of life’ could be contradicted by proposed legislation against religious incitement. Undoubtedly intentions will matter. If it is blatant arousal to violence – then all such incitement should be illegal. If we broadly restrict freedom of religious teaching, ‘though, will that not be a step along the road which militant extremists of Sham Islam want to impose? One in which there is no such freedom?

Our form of Judaism is one in which laws are to serve people not people to serve laws.

It is opposed to those forms of Judaism and Islam which seek to establish a religious state in which everyone’s life will be regulated by religious law, and where all the freedoms we take for granted – publishing and reading, speaking in public, TV and cinema, would be severely curbed.

When the news started coming through of the attempted attacks in London, I was on my way to a meeting at the Greater Manchester Police HQ, a meeting of religious leaders Muslim, Jewish, Christian and others, with the assistant Chief Constable Rob Taylor. It’s to be an ongoing forum set up in the wake of the July 7th bombings for mutual support between us and the police and amongst ourselves. As Rob Taylor said ‘if we can work together it will be more difficult for the extremists to drive wedges between us.

The majority present were Muslim leaders and other Asians. It was a real eye-opener talking with them hearing their concerns at first-hand. Some of them did want curbs, especially of the press and media where they see themselves becoming demonised, all tarred with the same brush, too much coverage of the militants Al Mahajiun and Hizb-ut-Tahrir and not enough attention paid to their moderates.

Our Jewish concerns were voiced, by Louis Rapaport and myself over the proposed meeting in Manchester in a couple of weeks which was due to feature Sheik Karadawi, but owing to protests against his condoning of suicide bombers in Israel he declined.

This is a man who is supposed to be moderate – I had a long debate with two of the organisers of that meeting (one of them was the leader of the Ramadan Foundation who had appeared on the news arguing in favour of Karadawi’s appearance) – we never really got down to the key issue that a distinction is being made between such atrocities which some of them hail as freedom from oppression in Israel and the same indiscriminate acts committed here which everyone acknowledges as evil. But we are continuing the discussion .

Laws against extreme views being voiced at all would stifle discussion and get nowhere. They would just drive the radical extremists further underground. There was a strong feeling in the meeting against restrictive legislation in the religious sphere.

But the greatest concern above all was how to control their youth. Their problem is how do they ensure that they are not influenced by the wrong people. They despair that are not getting across to them- there is a cultural gap, they don’t speak the same language (they complained that in the mosques they should be addressed in English, not Urdu or Arabic) they’re not on the same wave length. And the police were asking what tactics can be used to reach out to the youth.

One Imam whom I am very friendly with, Habib ur-Rahman, who has visited us here a number of times over the years, mentioned the 15 year old boy who won his case against the government over the curfew law – on grounds that his human rights were infringed if he couldn’t be allowed to pop down to the supermarket or the cinema after 9pm without being arrested just because he was under 15.

What can the law do now that police are losing that power to protect us from young teenage hooligans, he was asking, but he added ‘hooligans that are goaded by adults’.

And this is the crux of the matter. It’s the responsibility of the whole community to ensure that peace prevails.

In the midst of the agonising about youth, my orthodox colleague Rabbi Rubin, who I was sitting with, rose to his feet. Rabbi Yitzchak Rubin or the ‘Bowdoner Rebbe’ is the Jewish Police Chaplain. He said I think I can help here (why is it we Jews are always giving everybody else advice?). He said in his broad New York accent I’ve been where Muslims are today, in the village of Brooklyn. 30 years ago I was involved with a community relations problem. Young people drifting away from their parents. Rabbis trying in vain to get them back into the synagogue.”

“One very charismatic rabbi actually succeeded, and the adults were saying ‘good, now they’ll be more religious, they’ll start eating Kosher again, they’ll observe the Sabbath and holydays…’ But this charismatic rabbi turned out to teach very extreme views.”

“There we were,” he said, “surrounded by blacks and Puerto Ricans, and there had been some anti-Semitic incidents, and this rabbi was had a slogan – he was saying ‘Every Jew is a .22’ (which means a gun) ‘Get tooled up’ he would say –‘go and get a gun’.”

“The police wouldn’t get involved,” said Rabbi Rubin, “to them we all looked alike – we all wore funny beards and funny hats. They couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. The police turned to us and said ‘you guys sort yourselves out.’

“So his community held a meeting, chaired by a eminent rabbi who said: ‘this maniac will destroy everything we value- we’ve come to this land of freedom, and he is going to wreck it for us – we must close off his oxygen.’

“‘Just do this,’ he said, ‘put a padlock on every synagogue in Brooklyn. I’ll pay for it.’

“So wherever the ‘charismatic’ rabbi went to speak, he found the door locked. And when he asked ‘how do I get in here?’ he was told, ‘speak to the Rav – he’s got the keys.’ So he left town.”

Rabbi Rubin added “I know what your pain is. I’ve been there. I’ve been picked on, and I’m not even a player in this game. You know who the players are. I just want you to know, that we understand where you’re coming from.”

We do need those tougher laws cracking down on anything directly and overtly inducing acts of terrorism and angerism: hate-mongering, let alone bomb-making. We also need to protect free speech and free press. The law needs to make clear that intentions are key.

Above all has to be a trans-communal marginalising of extremists. Cut off their oxygen.

For example, when the founder of the British National Party died this week, it was good that he wasn’t given too much coverage, and that the focus was on him having been about to stand trial.

There has to be an understanding of the inimical ideologies on all sides, a public will to encourage reasoned debate based on mutual trust, and an earnest desire all round to preserve our civil liberties.

L for Liberalism

Written by Rabbi Silverman


Lessons from London post- 7.7

In the wake of the terrible tragedies of London 7.7, the first suicide bombings in Britain, the distance between us and the Middle East has suddenly shrunk.

I can tell you also that the faith communities are coming closer together as a result. The Home Office is maintaining regular contact with the Reform Movement monitoring the building up of contact networks between us the churches and the Muslim communities.

We are all concerned with what lies behind these dreadful events: is it a religious conflict, secularism versus faith, is it a conflict of values- tolerance versus fundamentalism, is it a rejection of modernity by people who regard globalisation as threatening their culture and beliefs? Or is it a combination of all of these?

First of all, as is being made very clear in all parts of the country, the vast majority of Muslims in Britain are utterly opposed to terrorism. For this very reason any attack on reasonable law-abiding Muslims would be serving the aims of al-Qaeda. Racial conflict is the quagmire from which they breed. It wants more recruits, not inter-community peace and understanding.

As the search proceeds apace for the man and the movement behind the bombers, our minds search desperately for explanations. The simplest answer is to dismiss it all as madness. They are not to be seen as irrational. But rather as evil people with calculated aims and methods. It’s in our own best interests to regard them as a cunning enemy, not lunacy.

The history of suicide bombing from when it began in Russia when Czar Alexander II was assassinated in this way in St Petersburg in 1881 to the Kamikazis of Japan, shows that the perpetrators, far from being irrational are cool and calculating, often very well educated, and their aims are ideological.

The enemy is the ideology. And our aim should be know your enemy. But in order to achieve this another even greater maxim comes into play: Socrates’ saying Know thyself.

How can you oppose an ideology if you do not first know your own standpoint?

The other, and perhaps more important, point about knowing yourself in this context is the fact that extremism, the desire for dominance and if necessary to kill and die for it, is unfortunately not the prerogative of any one religion or culture; it is found in all.

The word that is most commonly used to describe the root of the problem is Fundamentalism. Opposed to Fundamentalism is Liberalism.

Our form of Judaism comes under the broad category of liberalism (not liberal Judaism but Jewish liberalism). Liberalism in the true sense of the meaning of the word liberal: (with a small ‘l’) free, free-thinking. ‘Laid-back’ if you like. Untrammelled by dogmatism.

Fundamentalism originally referred to Christians in America who opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution in favour of Creationism And still do…

So one thing about Liberalism is that it is open to scientific ways of thinking.

Science applied to the sacred scriptures too- archeology, literary and linguistic analysis. Such skills are the bread and butter of Reform Judaism. This implies an openness to the advances of the modern world, and an openness to influences from outside Judaism. In itself this view is nothing new. For example, Maimonides taught: ‘accept the truth from whichever direction it comes.’

Liberalism involves an openness to differences.

Liberalism does not compromise human dignity by treating minorities as second-class citizens. It opposes elitism, whether it’s power held by a superior class or by the more observant, or by one sex over the other.

Liberalism is open to democracy – informed by all these values I’ve so far mentioned, as against autocracy, the rule of the few over the many.

Liberalism is progressive – it moves with the times, does not remain hide-bound by what has gone before simply because it is sanctioned by the passage of years. What is well-seasoned by time, and traditional, has also to be recognized for its intrinsic value, and and above all not to harm anyone.

This is not to say that we – you and I – can change hearts and minds anywhere beyond our own chevreh.

It is to say that we have a responsibility to teach liberal values within our own chevreh – as has every other community in our society.

But then – you may already be sensing the paradox: – is it not self-contradictory for liberals to require everyone to be liberal. Would that not be tantamount to a dogma of dogma-lessness?

No – because all one is asking is that people be allowed to be free. And freedom is an absolute human value.

So, serving the cause of liberalism is the contribution which we as Reform Jews can make to the current world crisis.

By promoting it we are opposing fundamentalism and anti-liberalism in our own midst and in our society as a whole, helping to alter the climate away from one in which the ideology of evil seeks to feed on discord in order to recruit and grow.

It may seem surprising, it may not be what we expected, nor the among the reasons for why we joined the Shul, attend services and meetings, send our children to cheder, but seen against this background, what we are doing here is supporting some of the most necessary activity that our society requires for its own peace and well being.

L for Love & Loyalty (Shavuot)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Reyna Nasi & Ruth HaMoavi (Shavuot)

One of the themes of Shavuot is love and marriage. Israel is wedded to the Eternal, and Torah embodies the contractual agreement solemnising the bond.

The story of Ruth reflects several aspects of the festival including this one. Its message is that of Love and Loyalty. Loyalty to Ruth’s widowed mother-in-law. Love between her and Naomi’s kinsman Boaz, leading eventually to their marriage. And the Loving-kindness, which Boaz shows Ruth when she first appears on the scene as a widow herself, a destitute refugee, a stranger, a foreigner, by fulfilling the mitzvah of allowing her to glean the leftovers of the harvest of his field as the Torah commands should be done for those who live on the fringes of society.

There are fascinating comparisons and contrast between this story and a piece of Jewish history which has become very much neglected. It’s the life-story of one of the most powerful and influential Jewish women who ever lived. Doña Gracia Mendez Nasi and her daughter Reyna. Gracia Mendez was born of one of the Marrano families expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century. Like Naomi she was widowed. (Mendez was her husband’s name. Nasi meaning Prince was indicative of the fact that they had noble Jewish lineage going back to important leaders.). Her husband died aged 40 leaving her in charge of his business which combined trade in spices and jewellery. She went into partnership with her brother in law, a banker, who also died. Wealth and wisdom combined in her to make her a most capable businesswoman. She was also most loyal to Judaism, and wanted to use her powers to save her persecuted fellow Marranos, secret Jews. Not being in apposition to do that in Portugal where the Inquisition was strong she emigrated, first to London for a brief while then to Antwerp, centre of the diamond trade.

There she used her influences to rescue many Marranos.

But there too her daughter Reyna became the subject of amorous advances from a Spanish Catholic aristocrat called Francisco de Arragon. He used his connections with royalty (Charles V of Austria and Spain no less) to try to win her hand in marriage. Together they were offering 200,000 gold ducats for her. Quite a handsome transfer fee. Her mother was against the union. Still not daring to reveal her Jewish identity, she used as her pretext that the man was too old for her daughter. Her tactic was that her daughter was after all only 14 years of age, and he was 60! This did not wash with her suitor, or his royal protectors. One suspects that there was something other than love that motivated him. There was only one solution available and that was to pack up all they could and all that was of transportable value and leave, in secret.

They found their way to Italy – mother, daughter, sister and a nephew. They settled in Venice – outside the Ghetto, set up home, and the business. Gracia became an eminent Jewish woman Merchant of Venice.

Then trouble struck. Her sister fell out with her over a financial squabble, and had her denounced to the spies of the Inquisition. She was flung in jail and her assets were frozen – to the delight of her debtors– which included the King of France no less.

She was bailed out of jail by the Sultan of Turkey, none other the Suleiman the Magnificent (the very same who built the walls of Jerusalem). Suleiman valued his commercial investments with her. He was no friend of the Venetians but was a friend of the Jews. She left again first for Ferrara and then for Constantinople, finally free enough to throw off the cloak of Marranism and nail her colours to the mast as a proud daughter of Israel.

There she was able to help her people as never before. When the Pope had a 100 Jews condemned to the stake in Ancona she had the port boycotted and saved three-quarters of them.

She became not only an important champion of freedom for her people but also a patron (or matron) of Jewish scholarship. Jewish scholars dedicated their books to her. Her nephew, Joseph Nasi, also rose to favour at court. The Sultan made him a present of a handful of Greek Islands and appointed him Duke of Naxos. But his greatest gift of all was the hand of his cousin Reyna in marriage. Like Ruth haMoavi, Reyna Nasi married a relative. Like her she was a refugee made good. Ruth adopted the faith of her mother in law. Reyna returned to the faith of her mother. Ruth emigrated to Israel – Reyna’s husband wasn’t satisfied with Greek islands. Naxos was so near and yet so far from where he wanted to be. He asked the Turkish rulers for a settlement in Israel, and he was granted Tiberias.

When Jerusalem was desecrated and banned to Jews by the Romans, Tiberias took over. There the Palestinian Talmud was composed. It was there that the Massoretes had invented the system of vowels, chanting notes and punctuation to help with the reading of Hebrew. Joseph Nasi pioneered a settlement there for the first time in over 10 centuries. He planted mulberry trees to established a silk industry. Silk was the luxury textile of the period. His aunt-cum-mother-in-law had synagogues and yeshivahs instituted there. And Marranos were brought there by the shipload. (The family’s own ships.)

There is a wonderful museum in Tiberias which celebrates Gracia Mendez Nasi and her family which I discovered to my surprise the other week, having been teaching the story in Cheder. They have set out the place with rooms containing furniture from the countries Gracia lived in, very anachronistic about the furniture, but nevertheless creating a beautiful atmosphere, and telling the family story with the most exquisite doll models in glass cases.

[The building itself is interesting. It was originally part of a commercial district with shops and offices, called unimaginatively the Terminal Building, the investor in it lost a lot of money, and sold it to a family who decided to turn it into a hotel for Christian tourists on pilgrimage. They looked for a name and decided on Dona Gracia (the name of one of the streets) because it sounded Christian! As a result of the Intifada tourism plummeted as everywhere in Israel. An Iraqi Jew called Zvi Shayek who owned the largest tourism business in Israel decided to make something of it using the life history of the woman after whom it had been named. He went all over Europe and Turkey buying artefacts to tell her story]

Our knowledge of what happened to the family is a bit hazy, it fades out toward the end through the lack of documentary and concrete evidence. We know that the matriarch Gracia wanted to build a mansion in Tiberias by the hot springs there, which did not come to fruition. It is not known whether or not she ended her days there. Likewise the Duke and Duchess of Naxos. We know they had a daughter who died age 10.

The settlement in Tiberias too was ill-fated. The silk-industry never took off. A few Jewish families continued to live there. There was a synagogue called La Señora after Gracia Nasi. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a Jewish community became established there.

So many of the values we celebrate on Shavuot are embraced by this story.

Love and Loyalty – the refusal of a marriage into the aristocracy at a period when it was not uncommon for Jews to save their skins by such prestigious intermarriage. Dona Gracia’s refusal might be considered remarkable seen from the vantage point of our Hello Magazine culture. For Ruth it was conversion to the faith of Israel for the sake of family loyalty, for the Nasi family it was a return to Judaism.

The value of saving Jews for Judaism- the promotion of Torah learning culture, this is all what Shavuot stands for.

And the Exodus theme, being refugees from one country to another – in Ruth and Naomi’s case the escape from poverty and illness. And the lovingkindness shown to the widow, the poor and the stranger – Ruth was all three. For the Nasi family it was using your wealth to help your needy kinfolk.

Even the agricultural elements are in both stories, the barley harvest in Ruth, the mulberry bushes in Reyna Nasi.

And the down-to-earth truth that to keep Jewish life going there needs to be a good solid base of economics as well as a sound spirituality and faith.

As much as we learn from the Torah, so we learn from the heroic examples of the men and women of our history who gave their all to uphold it.

M for Memory and Motivation (Rosh Hashanah 5766)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

“Come ye not here to sleep or slumber” (Rosh Hashana 5766)

Arresting words, found, guess where, scrawled on the walls of a country toilet.

True here and now too – this is not a day to sleep or slumber.

This is a day, a season for looking backward and forward.

The Shofar bids us wake up and remember: Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Memory, was the original name for the day and in our Machzor it retains this name alongside Rosh Hashanah.

Yom Hazikaron: the Day of Memory – in Israel there’s another Yom Hazikaron in the calendar- the day for all the fallen in battle.

But today is not for memorialising the dead. It’s for the living, personal memory. To be sure, you can’t help but reflect on world events. If I do that, how does it all affect me, how am I influenced by the changing world? The Tsunami tidal wave, New Orleans, the genocide in Dafur, Sharm el Sheikh, (first the peace conference then the bomb) the July attack on London, Baghdad, Bali… the withdrawal from Gaza. How have all these events affected you and I?

Am I any more sensitive to the word around me? How has our country been affected? So much is changing so quickly you daren’t blink, let alone sleep or slumber.

We commemorated the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Have you been yet to the new Yad Vashem in Jerusalem? If not, it’s well worth a visit when you get the chance. There’s a sense of living memory. In the videos, in the visitors… After having spent the best part of a profoundly sad day there in the newly re-opened building this year, my final impression was of uplift. Uplift coming from the attention given to the righteous gentiles as they’re called. (Hassidei Umot haOlam) The stand taken by the Danes and the Dutch is well known. The heroic stand taken by the Bulgarians is less well known.

The lesson you come away with is not to discount the positive. A general lesson for life.

Recovering what has been forgotten in the next 10 days, brings the promise of Teshuvah and forgiveness, Old injuries to the soul can leave permanent scars, it’s true. New hope can overcome the scars. Or in Hebraic thinking, to cover them up – Kippur means to cover up wrongs. Impossible to forget perhaps; yet possible to forgive or at least achieve some sort of reconciliation.

This also a day for thinking about what we did right! In some households you have a pomegranate on the table (usually 2nd night Rosh Hashanah). Layers of symbolism in this: the sweet seeds are our good deeds, our wisdom, our productiveness. Try drawing up a balance sheet of what you are sorry for on the one side and what you are pleased and proud of having done on the other. Which list is easier to remember? The debit side or the credit? Do the minuses outnumber the plusses?

Let me tell you a story. It’s a true success story which began as a near disaster. And it’s all to do with memory.

There was a young boy, a Dutch boy, playing with his toys in the living room of his home. He had in his hands a model fire engine which sprayed water. He sprayed water in the living room, as little boys do, and at the best table lamp. Running around making the noise of a siren he bumped into the table lamp, which toppled off the table. The boy grabbed it. He never forgot what happened next. An uncontrollable shaking took over his entire body. He’d been electrocuted. Fortunately his mother understood electricity and did not touch him but instead pulled the plug from the socket. His hand was burned to the bone. The surgeon said amputate, his mother fought, and nineteen operations later and a year and a half of pain, he had a rebuilt hand. He had to exercise by moulding plasticine in his fist. And his mother gave him a dinky toy after every operation. What remained with him were traumatic memories tempered with a good mothering experience.

The boy’s name was Tim Smit. He went on to study archaeology at university, then became a pop musician, record impresario , and didn’t really settle in any of these areas.

What really made the man was his becoming involved in a gardening project – of extraordinary dimensions. It was Tim Smit who uncovered the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall and, in the process, discovered himself. Heligan was little more than a memory. He made it live again.

During the restoration of these vast Victorian forgotten gardens, including jungles where you could imagine yourself anywhere in the world except Cornwall, he developed skills of management and team-building which led on to an even more outstanding undertaking – the Eden Project. Called Eden because it’s a symbol of mankind in harmony with bounteous nature; and because, as he says, human beings were thrown out of Paradise for eating of the Tree of Knowledge, perhaps only now through the gathering of greater knowledge, can we return.

The Eden Project turned a derelict area of clay pits into a conservationist Paradise. The Eden Project is a ‘Living Theatre of the Natural World’. Its vast transparent bubble greenhouse domes (Biomes), and its vast outdoor gardens preserve flora from every conceivable habitat and climate.

When Tim Smit saw the clay pits in Cornwall it reminded him of the injured hand of his childhood. A very disturbing picture. But a memory associated with creativity. Just as his rebuilt hand could have become phenomenally supple and mobile to the point where he was able later to make his living as a piano player, could not something be made of the clay pit wasteland? – in itself a symbol of our ravaged and endangered global environment.

Fired by this belief, Tim Smit became the mastermind behind the Eden Project just as he had masterminded the recovery of the Lost Gardens of Heligan nearby. A restoration of a memory that was making it live again.

The gardens , created mainly in the 19th century but going back to the 16th, were among of the finest gardens in England, – 57 acres of planted gardens, – 100 acres of ornamental woodlands –peppered with follies and temples. The Tremayne family, noted botanists and horticulturists, created and planted the gardens and ornamental woodlands with their walks and rides. By 1900 they had amassed an outstanding collection of trees and shrubs from all over the globe.

When World War I started in 1914, the male staff all signed up with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, with whom they served in the mud and trenches of the Western Front. Only a handful of them survived and the gardens were sold and went into decline.

Heligan House was commandeered by the War Office and became a convalescent home for officers. In the gardeners’ toilet or “thunderbox room” a message had been scratched into the plaster on the day that World War I broke out, “Come ye not here to sleep or slumber” and underneath it all the garden staff had signed their names.

This was the discovery that led Tim Smit and hid team to turn the Lost Gardens from a mere memory into a living reality.

Sometimes our remembrance of experiences holds us back, prevents us progressing, sometimes they stimulate us to be creative. Tim Smit took part in one of the radio programmes in the Devout Skeptics series recently. (Did you hear it maybe?) It happened to come on the week of our holiday visits to Eden and Heligan. It’s an outstanding series; I know so many of our chevrah that might deserve the title devout sceptics. I believe I’m one myself. He said that his projects were planned with people he knew who were over 60, in semiretirement. He managed to convince them that their best days were not behind them as they had believed – and it came true. Their memories of how things had been for them were not allowed to get in their way. As far as the actual execution of the projects were concerned they gave all that to ‘youngsters’ in their twenties, even teens. Their rationale was these were people who had no experience or memories to rely on, and since they don’t know it can’t be done it gets done!

Memory is not always helpful; sometimes it’s a hindrance. As one small child I remember put it: I wish I had a good forgettery. Marcel Proust observed in his ‘Remembrance of Times Past’ (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu):

“Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them”.

Sometimes the past has to be forgotten for a new future to be born. To let bygones be bygones. This new Jewish year will include the 350th anniversary of the Resettlement of the Jewish community in England under Oliver Cromwell. There had been no Jewish community here since the expulsion by Edward I in 1290 (350 years earlier). If memory had held sway, if they had not been able to forget how they had been treated at the time of the Expulsion, the chances are, there would have been no return of a community of Jews to these shores. Fortunately the scars had healed.

These Yamim Noraim are opportunities for such healing. For reconciliation to take place between myself and others it has to take place first of all within myself. It’s being able to draw a line under what has gone before and move on. Not to let it fester:

“Come not here to sleep or slumber”

Not to forget it, only not to let it stand in the way.

As Jews we are keen conservers of memory. That is what tradition does. As Reform Jews were are selective conservers of memory. You only have to compare Yom Tov Machzorim to see that.

The Orthodox additional service which comes at this point on Rosh Hashanah can last over an hour (we should count ourselves lucky!) It contains pages of piyyutim, opportunities for the chazzan to demonstrate his prowess. They are artfully written and mostly require a good deal of scholarship to fathom their sophisticated allusiveness. The Reform criteria of comprehensibility and accessibility ruled them out of our services.

Much of the appeal that the chazzan exerts is pure nostalgia, for a Jewish world one hankers after, or even one which one wishes one had had.

Nostalgia, like any other ‘algia is a sickness. It actually means homesickness. Not being happy where you are.

I searched for something in the Orthodox musaph that could be relevant. I found one line:

‘Peney Elohim beyoshvey ganim’

Turn O God to those who sit in the gardens.

‘Kenenu shenit ki shikachnu mizikaron’

Receive us once again for we have lapsed from memory.’

Those who sit in the gardens – who are they ?– I looked it up– it means the gardens of Torah, these are the students, who keep Torah going. And ‘receive us because we have lapsed from memory’, this is the whole community, all of us. This piyyut bears the constant refrain, zikaron, zikaron, zikaron…(memory, memory, memory- a lament that for our sins we are being forgotten. But it’s balanced by the hope that learning can save us.

It’s a lament based on the belief that the ancients were far superior to every generation which followed them. Indeed, the deeply ingrained belief that Jewish history is one of intractable spiritual decline. That the past is always better than the present. That the rabbis and teachers of yore can never be surpassed. This kind of idealization is a very convenient defence. You can never match up to your parents and grandparents and so on, so it’s not your fault if you don’t succeed. So you make choices in school and in career and in relationships which are bound to get you nowhere- and you can’t be blamed if you fail, because you can never equal the greats that came before you.

We have bucked that trend. Reform comes under the heading of Progressive Judaism. The name itself says it all. We too venerate tradition and the greats of the past – why? – because to borrow the motto on the £2 coin, long before Oasis used it was quoted by Sir Isaac Newton: we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The value of memory for us is not nostalgia for a Golden Age or a perspective of history in which the further back tradition goes, the more authoritative it is. We’re in the business of recovering old traditions and endeavouring to breathe new life into them. Like gardeners pruning and pollarding, we investigate critically to try to disentangle from the overgrown accretions of the past to preserve what is meaningful, what speaks to us. That’s Reform Judaism, and how we balance tradition and change.

Memory sustains us all. Many of us have happy events to look back on over the past year. Looking back is so important. As we were nearing the end of the Hartington ramble this year, Adam said to me suddenly, turn round; look at the view.

It was a familiar landscape but in exquisite light the rolling hills bore a bucolic serenity which was refreshingly new. “We don’t do that often enough do we, he said, turn and look at where we’ve come from?”.

Our Shul history project is aimed at doing just that. We are painstakingly progressing with a project to produce an up to date history of our synagogue as part of our 150th celebrations. To leave a record, an example for others to follow. Hopefully it will come very much up to date and include the reflections of those who have joined us in the relatively recent past.

Its purposes: pride in our institution; so that the legacy of the past is carried on and appreciated. The process of producing it should be a reward in itself.

Then there is Shorashim (the Reform Movement’s ‘Roots’ Project). The youth of several of our shuls including our own Alex Cohen, researched family history (family trees if you like) and came up with fascinating results which have been set up as a travelling exhibition you can see it in the lobby and downstairs. It involves teenagers around the UK.

The Heritage Lottery funded the project. It was developed in order to enhance the young participants’ sense of Jewish identity; their commitment to their community and to a Reform Jewish way of life in Britain. It also brought into sharp focus issues around immigration and asylum.

They worked in a group spending a week touring Jewish sites around the UK including York, Manchester and London. There was also a cultural exchange with a Hindu temple and various social activities. They uncovered fascinating information about their forbears some they never knew they had.

Such a project is not merely for recording memories which sleep and slumber on a shelf but to build Jewish consciousness.

We are at a crossroads in our communal life. Our rebuilding project is still examining the best ways forward. Out in the general community there is an ever growing awareness of the urgent need to bring different faiths closer together for the sake of our very survival. Our role as a kehillah is to uphold religious liberalism in the face of fundamentalism.

Many faith groups, in Manchester, are getting involved in interfaith projects. The police are too, following 7/7. I shall remember the week of the London bombings as the week when the Manchester Jewish-Muslim Forum was founded involving Jewish Rep. Council leaders and our new Muslim Lord Mayor.

Among my personal memories I visited Israel and the Palestinian territories with other rabbis and an Imam of the Regents Park Mosque in London who was my roommate and with whom I’ve built up a friendship, he was among the first to condemn the July bombings on TV.

Rosh Hashanah bids us transport ourselves back to the beginning of time as portrayed by or ancients. Hayom Harat Olam – today recalls the birth of the world. From the very beginning according to our worldview we have been co-workers with the Creator in the work of Creation: meshutafim el Hakadosh Baruch Hu be’Ma’aseh Bereishit. Sometimes our very knowledge lets us down – this is the lesson of Eden. Sometimes our memories are too retentive, stifling our creativity.

“Come not here to sleep or slumber”

I personally believe that the only way we will thrive – you and I together is if we have a sense of purpose greater than ourselves. If we look back over the past year really try to grapple with the problems as a community.

-If we remember the Tsunami and New Orleans and support environmental campaigns.

-If we remember Dafur and join our movement’s contribution to the Make Poverty History Project.

-If we remember Gaza and act for Israel. There’s a plan to organise a shul Israel trip next year.

-If we encourage more of our youth to be involved in the Roots Project next time round. Before you leave the shul, look at the exhibition and see what a combined effort of Reform Synagogues can achieve with motivation of our children.

Let it generate enthusiasm in our own history project. And let our past generate enthusiasm in our present.

If we remember 7/7 and join one of the several initiatives in Manchester for inter-communal understanding.

If we look at how our services have changed and are changing and support our Living Judaism’s effort to move in more innovative directions, rediscovering traditions and imbuing them with new life.

If we do these kind of things, we will enhance our sense of purpose, and it will be the kind of community we’ll want to belong to – not only for the purpose of servicing our needs at certain times of our life, and no further, not only for the sake of saying prayers, even regularly, but for giving our whole sense of belonging and our prayers meaning – meaning beyond preserving memories. Meaning building upon memory to create renewed vitality.

M for Mistakes and N for Novelty

Written by Rabbi Silverman

In my alphabetical series on Jewish Values I have reached the letters M and N

Let me take N first. N for Novelty. The value of novelty of course especially important in Reform. Doing something in a new way is interesting and memorable. Once or twice, otherwise the novelty wears off. For example there’s no reason why a derashah always has to be done the same way.

Next M – well on this Shabbat of Repentance – how about M for mistakes?

What’s the value of mistakes? What would you say in 3 or 4 words, is the value of making mistakes? Something positive? Is there anything you can gain from mistakes?

You learn from them.

That’s a good theme to be thinking on for these High Holydays.

[End of derashah – that’s the Novelty!]

O for Openness (Yom Kippur)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Yom Kippur 5766, Shachrit

This is a true story about an embarrassing experience which actually happened to my wife and I many years ago when we were just married and living in London. I would not want to tell the story were it not for the fact that it is highly relevant to my message this Yom Kippur morning.

One evening there was a knock on our door. We opened it to a friendly looking well-dressed man who asked if this was the home of Rabbi Silverman. He said he had a problem. We invited him in. He apologised for the out-of- the-blue approach and explained that he had found our address in the Jewish Year Book. He was Jewish. He had a very hard luck story. He had no money, no job and nowhere to stay. He had rented a flat and had just been turned out on the street for failing to pay the rent. He was expecting some money to come through in the next few days from a relative, or some source or other, (I forget exactly), could he just stay the night?

I have to confess I was rather doubtful about him not to say suspicious. My father alav hashalom had a social work background in what was then the Jewish Board of Guardians and had taught me very early on to be circumspect, of people with hard luck stories that could not be corroborated, especially Jewish people! I asked the guy for credentials, I think he showed me some identification which looked reasonable, but he was unable to give much more. He had no family, his wife had left him. And – something which alarmed me – he said he had recently come out of prison, and he gave me a way of checking that if I wanted to. I forget what he had been in for, it didn’t seem relevant at the time.

I might have shown him the door there and then were it not for a Talmudic principle which I was reminded of, the principle of Hazakah. It means presumption. In essence it means that in a case where a person is claiming something which is difficult to believe because of insufficient evidence, if they make a statement that is enough to incriminate themselves, which they do not need to make, there is a strong presumption, a hazakah in their favour.

So we let him stay the night. In the morning he had breakfast and was on his way. We gave him some hospitality, bed and breakfast. We didn’t give him any money. He didn’t ask for any. There were no problems for us at all.

The embarrassment came later that week when we received a phone call from the Chairman of our Shul. It emerged that this visitor of ours had been in touch with him and told him that he had stayed with us. He had, moreover, managed to find out the addresses of every member of the shul Council and within a few days visited every one of them and persuaded them either to part with some money or promised him financial help. In all it amounted to quite a tidy sum. By the time he was getting to the last member of Council, others had got wise to his game, and they cornered him. When he got to the last house on his list he found they’d arranged a surprise reception committee for him.

On condition that he returned the money, they were kind to him and did not report him to the police. It later emerged in the Jewish Chronicle that he had done the rounds of several shuls and a warning was issued. Eventually he did end up serving another prison sentence – that part of his story had been true.

It was a learning experience which made one wary. In retrospect and with hindsight I don’t know how we could have been so naïve. I also think that it was a different world in the mid-70’s. The atmosphere today is much less free and trusting. In those days, far fewer homes and hardly any cars were alarmed. Closed-Circuit TV on so many public buildings would have been considered Orwelllian.

Today, even if there were no terrorist threat at all, it is taken for granted as part of our way of life,

I well remember the day in the 80’s when padlocks were placed on the inner doors of the shul. It was a turning point. Up to then anyone could come in at any time of the week and pray quietly (anyone still can, as they just have to ask for the shul to be unlocked first).

The problem can be extrapolated to apply to issues of asylum and immigration. I am not suggesting we can or should change it, or that our gates should be flung open to all and sundry. Just that it is a sad reflection on what has happened to us and our society, and how we can all be worn down by the unscrupulous. And being aware of how we are affected is important.

Against this background words of the Haftarah from Isaiah may seem hollow:

Is not this the fast I have chosen? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry

And that you bring the poor that are cast out into your house…

Yom Kippur is about Openness in other senses too. There are so many ways we can understand this value. Not merely being physically hospitable and generous. Let me widen out the issue.

Openness connotes honesty. Disclosure. And this requires letting down your guard. Laying yourself bare. Opening the doors of your heart.

It is order of the day on Yom Kippur. We can kid everybody but ourselves. And the One we call on this day ‘Bohen levavot’ – Examiner of the heart.

Openness in the sense of not being closed-minded. About change. Personal change. Open to new experiences. To new possibilities. Openness as opposed to dogmatism.

Here Reform Judaism has a different angle on what we are doing in services.

Mitzvah is such a strongly duty-orientated concept that to suggest its purpose might include self-improvement actually goes against the grain in much of Orthodox thinking. Even the liberal-minded great Israeli Orthodox scholar the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz upheld that there is no purpose to the mitzvoth other than to do the will of the Creator. To claim that we derive any benefit at all from it is tantamount to putting man in the place of God.

OK, you can say in an Orthodox context that it makes you a better Jew. But what does that mean? All it can mean is that you are a better servant of the God of Israel.

Reform takes the view that the mitzvoth are a gift to us to do us good, and to do the world good. Which implies that you perform them to the extent that they are helpful, valuable. The value of Openness encourages us not to be too quick to judge but to entertain the possibility that a given mitzvah might do us good if we try it out.

Openness is a big issue in our current world. What are the limits of openness? Open borders opening up risks. The Gaza issue is in there somewhere.

What are the answers?

I want to quote to you a former rabbi of this congregation, my immediate predecessor Rabbi Tovia ben Chorin, who is retiring this year as rabbi of Zurich. I met Tovia and Adina in London the other week and they send you their fond regards.

As is so characteristic of him, Tovia gave me a little derashah as we were standing in the entrance hall to the Sternberg Centre.

It was simple and categorical. He said the objective of religious leadership is trust-building. Understanding the Other [another big O!] – Openness to the Other. That is our world purpose, and something, said Tovia, which politicians don’t do. But it is our offering to politicians, for them to translate into action, to turn it into a contract. The solutions are not for us religious people to achieve. The trust building is.

I don’t know how you take to that: I am open to your views!

We can debate it as an issue, concerning the world out there. But that’s not the purpose of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is about the world in here. OK, and how our personal internal world, is affected by the external world.

And the Other, to whom my colleague refers can be any other in my life, and the chief issue is not what I don’t like about them but what it is within me that makes me not like them.

This is almost universally true, that the people we conflict with most are not those who are radically different from us but those with whom we have most in common, but with whom we cannot be open nor they with us.

This a day for discerning when are our grievances are justified.

And when we are making excuses for ourselves.

And whether we have the courage, without ignoring realities and indulging in unnecessary self-castigation, to be genuinely honest and open.

O for Outwardness (Yom Kippur)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Yom Kippur 5766, Neilah

Imagine looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope.

Imagine seeing a world the size of a small village of only 100 people (about the size of a Shabbat morning attendance on a reasonably good day!).

And these hundred people are representative of our whole world.

This microcosm is described on the wall of the entrance hall to the Eden Project which I spoke to you about on Rosh Hashanah. I was so impressed I copied down every word.

It reads as follows:

If we could shrink the world into a rainbow village of 100 people,

57 would be Asian

21 would be European

6 would be North American

8 would be African

8 would be South American

15 including 10 women would be illiterate

20 of the richest people would consume 90% of the wealth

20 would be of the poorest 1%, with 14 having no right to basic health services

17 would have no proper shelter

15 including 3 children would be undernourished

22 would have no access to drinking water

13 will die before the age of 40

33 will have no electricity

5 would have access to the Internet

24 would have a TV

(Then it goes on)

In a village of 100, some problems seem quite small but try this for size:

A girl born in Japan today may have a 50% chance of seeing the 22nd century.

A newborn in Afghanistan has a 1-in-4 chance of dying before the age of 5

18 thousand children under 5 starve to death every day.

And then the punch-line: There is enough food in the world to feed everyone, plus a further 3 billion people.

There are surely Yom Kippur messages here. We can’t possibly go through this day without thinking of the earthquake-torn places in South Asia, and what we can do to help relieve the misery there.

The broad challenge it raises which I would like to address, is the final one of my trilogy for these services all based on the letter O continuing my alphabetical series on Reform Jewish Values I began in January. On Kol Nidrey it was Ownership; Shachrit, Openness; and now the value I am going to call Outwardness.

For all its inwardness Yom Kippur holds lessons of outwardness.

It’s a paradox of Yom Kippur that is there is no festival which is so much concerned with the individual person’s inner life and yet no festival which succeeds so much in bringing so many of us together en masse.

As much as we are bidden to reflect on ourselves, so on this day, we cannot help being aware of others.

Outwardness in some ways is not a popular value traditionally. Spiritualists shun outwardness – Chitzoniyut, in Hebrew, the opposite of p’nimiyut – inwardness. Jewish moralists tend to regard outwardness as trivial, petty, and inwardness as the orientation worth cultivating.

Not only moralists. There’s a strong tendency especially in Reform, to deprecate outward show. Whether it’s the fashion show parade which takes place – in certain shuls, we know. Or whether it’s outward show of religiosity, payas down to your shoulders, tsitsis down to your ankles, sheitls, snoods….

All this is very much disliked by many of us.

There’s a little custom that when you say the al chet confession, or ashamnu,

For each sin, you knock yourself on your chest. Not too hard, just a tap, don’t overdo it. Well, not many of us go in for that. It might remind you in a small way of the Muslim Shi’ite’s beating themselves. It has value though, it’s to remind myself that this isn’t an academic exercise – it really is me who has done wrong. But still there is a tendency amongst us to look down on such outward displays of religiosity.

If we are going to be true to our inwardness, it’s worth asking ourselves why these extreme reactions of ours? Our reasons have got little or nothing to do with the people whose custom it is to live the way they choose, and everything to do with our attitudes. Everything we say on these sort of subjects is a boomerang. It’s a comment on ourselves.

Yom Kippur is a day of outward expression. Coming to Shul in large numbers is in itself an outward expression.

The taking out of all the scrolls on Kol Nidrey evening

The predominant colour – white – to me, it’s the promise of starting again with a clean sheet.

I’ve chosen to wear this special white yarmulke kindly given to me by one of you; I’m pleased to see another one amongst you too.

It reads ‘Make Poverty History’.

The Reform Movement have been deeply involved in the Make Poverty History Jewish Coalition this year – organising educational leaflets and packs (all available on their website), and taking a delegation to the Edinburgh rally on that theme.

Several of our shul communities are aiming to meet the requirements set by the Fairtrade Foundation (originally set up for churches) encouraging the purchase of fair-trade products.

RSY-Netzer introduced a Fairtrade policy last year. Our Youth Movement as a whole is very much involved in these campaigns. They represent a deep concern to apply Jewish values ‘out there’ in the world at large.

This yarmulke makes a statement: we’re no longer living in the ghetto, we all belong to one world; we’ve got to get out there.

If there’s one part of Yom Kippur which teaches this lesson most powerfully it’s the afternoon Haftarah: the Book of Jonah which we read earlier.

The story of Jonah, exemplifies perfectly the shift from inwardness to outwardness. Jonah was completely wrapped up in himself. His response to go and speak to that evil city Nineveh was consistently to retreat – not just to run away, but to withdraw into himself. Deep in the hold of the ship he hides, then tumbles into a profound sleep. As more than one commentator point out, Jonah cannot flee from the ubiquitous Creator of Heaven and Earth. Jonah is ultimately trying to escape from himself. Indeed, at the height of his crisis he wishes he had never been born. His penalty is to be thrown deeper than imaginable into the depths of the sea and then into the belly of a huge fish, only to be vomited out onto dry land.

Jonah has to face the world out there. There is no choice.

Jonah is of course no real personage, but representative of the human, and more specifically, the Jewish predicament.

Persecuted by the sailors who throw him overboard, chosen to pursue a mission which he never asked for, and which he sees as mission impossible, he is exiled and impelled to go and speak to Nineveh, the city which was the very embodiment of evil, having swallowed up the northern kingdom of Israel just like the fish swallowed Jonah. Nineveh’s city emblem was a fish.

And what happened? The Ninevites repented. An astonishing twist in the story this must have been for the original listeners. The arch enemy repents of its evil, and is forgiven. Jonah can’t believe it. He had been told to forecast their utter destruction within 3 days.

I don’t know which is more difficult to accept as a Yom Kippur lesson: the belief that we can change – we, you and I, the community we live in with all its faults, the Jewish people at large, or the belief that others can change.

I want to quote again Marcel Proust’s observation which I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah:

“Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them”.

If the world out there can change for the better, why can’t the world in here?

Let me tell you a joke. It’s an old joke I’m afraid; I first heard it in the early 60’s, told exactly this way, I haven’t altered it significantly.

The planet suffers a natural disaster of astronomical proportions. A brush with an asteroid, like a billiard ball being clipped, as a result of which the earth was tilted slightly off its axis. The north polar ice cap picks up too much solar heat and begins to melt. Scientists sent out a warning that the sea levels would rise to such an extent and so quickly, that every inhabitable place on earth would be wiped out by floods within three days. There was nothing that could be done to stem the tide.

Governments were desperate, so desperate that they handed it over to world religious leaders to address their populations.

The Pope comes on world wide TV – and calls upon the faithful: give charity, go to confession, say your Hail Mary’s and prepare to meet your Maker.

The Dalai Lama comes on and said: practice good deeds, meditate on the lotus flower and on the One in all, and wish each other a good incarnation in another world.

A Muslim leader next, says: read the Koran, act rightly, say your prayers 5 times a day in the direction of Mecca, or better still make a final pilgrimage there if you are able to and submit yourself to the will of Allah.

They have trouble finding a Rabbi to represent world Jewry. The phone lines are jammed with rabbis from all over the globe demanding to speak. Eventually one is chosen. This rabbi comes on and says: friends – you have 72 hours to learn how to live under water!

This somewhat triumphalist joke, suddenly isn’t so much of a fantasy as it was in the early 60’s. There haven’t been any brushes with asteroids but the polar ice caps are melting. I always thought it was only a joke.

Despite what the joke would imply, we are not the only faith which gives a pragmatic outward response to crises. Look at what Christian Aid does world-wide, for example. Nor, as the joke implies, is it characteristic of Judaism not to offer spiritual guidance.

But there is some grain of truth in it, to which I think you and I resonate. Adaptation to drastically changed external circumstances, typifies Judaism. The dynamism and at least from a Reform perspective, the flexibility of Halachah, has the capacity to achieve that. It is the belief that out of a near catastrophe we can, relying very much on our own efforts, save ourselves. This, of course, is exemplified by Israel.

Why I so often harp on the theme of Israel and the wider world outside Jackson’s Row is that I have a real anxiety that we are in danger of retreating inwardly. Like Jonah.

Inwardness was held up to be the great value of Reform Judaism in the early days. I want to quote to you Jeremy Leigh, who gave that wonderful teach-in here in Jan on what we can learn from Israeli film-making. He writes in Manna –

‘Historically, the Reform movement was always squeamish about Zionism since it made being Jewish just a little too ‘physical’. Judaism, it was argued, represented the moral idea, the spirit of Torah and the search for meaning.

And one should not express such a pure inner cause in the murky world of a state complete with politics, borders and armies.

Such a Reform Judaism looked askance at Zionism and Israel as being somehow vulgar or below the best aspirations of prophetic Judaism.

Officially the movement has been committed to Israel for many years now. But old antipathies are still alive and kicking.’

I don’t completely agree with him, since his article took as his evidence the missions that are sometimes organised to Israel which focus on visiting Palestinians on the West Bank shut out of harvesting their olive groves, the Separation Wall, rampant house demolitions which are nothing to do with terrorism and so on. I was on such a mission earlier this year.

We also saw the other side: the sterling work which our Reform communities are doing for families which had suffered from suicide bombings, what they were doing for migrant workers who flood the Tel Aviv area from all over the world and suffer all sorts of socio-economic problems, helping educate Arab-Israeli children in downtown Haifa to give them a better start in life, and supporting the numerous peace groups which organise social and cultural interaction between Israelis and Palestinians.

We took along with us a young Imam from the Regent’s Park Mosque in London with whom I’ve built up a personal friendship and who has remained a firm friend of Israel, and an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism as in a programme following the July London bombings.

Nevertheless Jeremy Leigh is right to draw attention to the lack of commitment to Israel – it’s apathy more than antipathy, in the category of what I would call de-concretization of Judaism. Making it cerebral, (all inside here) disconnected from the real world.

And I would add to what Jeremy says that it isn’t only Israel – there are many other examples of how we connect with the physical external world Jewishly that are either underemphasized, ignored or downplayed.

They are usually things which demand considerable effort from us. How we connect with other human beings in giving Tzedakah. Our President Mark Levy referred to this last night in his appeal. Giving of our time to others – being outgoing, offering hospitality.

It’s instructive that the activity immediately following Yom Kippur is an entirely physical, outward one – building the Succah. I nearly always mention this at Neilah time. This year there is greater urgency than we’ve got precious little time to build it before Monday night. The Succah is the very epitome of Outwardness. It is built outside – our shuls, our homes.

It is an outhouse that reminds us of being outcasts in society – not just the wandering in the wilderness of Sinai, but every wilderness existence. It is – optimally – the place we make our temporary home, at least tokenly so.

A Succah is a real Succah if guests are invited into it. I think it’s a Reform value, (although I would be happy to know that others do it,) to invite people of other faiths, as we have done here, enthusiastically over the years. Heaven knows, if there is one value that is of the utmost urgency these days it is Outwardness, building bridges between communities.

This will be the theme of our Northern Regional Weekend in Ilkley in a month’s time, called Faith to Faith. Let me tell you a little about it. Exactly 4 weeks today I will be conducting a Shabbat morning discussion at Ilkley called FAQ’s, frequently asked questions, which Jews have of Muslims and vice versa. And I will be joined in that session by Shamim Miah, who has lectured at Jackson’s Row on Islam (who also appeared on the TV programme I mentioned following 7/7), and who is an expert on the different national Islamic cultures of the Middle and Far East and how they regard and are regarded by people of Western Culture. There will be other subjects on related themes, with a keynote talk by Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet.

This is sounding like announcements now – and so it is.

As we draw quickly to the close of a long, arduous day in here together, I begin to look ahead, into the future, and to opportunities for strengthening all that we are here for and stand for.

Yom Kippur, if it is to be fulfilling for us, will lift us out of our preoccupations with ourselves, bearing us back into our daily lives, renewed and revitalised, taking us ever onward and outward.

O for Ownership (Kol Nidrei)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Everyone should have an ’ology according to Maureen Lipman. To get on in life, you have to have some ’ology or other as your speciality.

At the beginning of 2005 I began a series of pulpit addresses which I have kept going since then and posted up on our Shul website on an ’ology which is seldom studied, much less talked about: Axiology. Axiology means the study of values. And, since January, I have been steadily addressing Jewish Axiology and more particularly, Reform Jewish Axiology, Reform Values. The full texts have been posted on our website. As I explained in January:

There is a great need to define where we stand as Reform Jews on all important issues. To explain, to ourselves and to others, what makes us Reform. Reform is all too often defined negatively – in terms of what we don’t believe and don’t do. This creates a negative image. Values – what we value, what we consider good or bad – what principles we maintain – if we could set these out in a way we can all remember and absorb and repeat – this would give us a positive self-definition as Reform Jews.

In order to cover the subject as comprehensively as possible I have been presenting it alphabetically as an A-Z of Jewish Values as you’ll see when you visit our website . The letter of the alphabet I have now reached is ‘O’.

There is good reason to continue this exercise on Yom Kippur because on this day of days, our values, especially of the ethical kind, come prominently to the fore and challenge us to meet up to them. You might say that ‘O’ is for the ‘ology itself.

And the ‘O’ value I would like to examine with you tonight is Ownership.

Ownership not in the sense of the possessions we have, because this is ephemeral, we can easily give them up or transfer them to someone else. Ownership rather in the sense of our actions, our speech, our attitudes.

Try as we may to disown them or transfer them to others, they are ours.

Owning up is the order of the day on Yom Kippur.

But Ownership constitutes a wider value than accepting moral responsibility.

There is also owning the values themselves. Which Reform values are you and I prepared to own?

There are distinct differences here between us and that O which is not ours: Orthodoxy.

For Reform the individual is more central. To say that the Self reigns supreme, however, would not fit the reality. Anarchy would surely reign if Jewish practice were simply a matter of individual choice and no more than that. And most of us appreciate this problem. And yet we also appreciate that the individual is more central than in Orthodoxy – where all the decisions are made by authorities external to oneself, indeed in the overwhelming number of cases, by authorities of the remote past, as I noted when dealing with M for Memory on Rosh Hashanah.

This self-centredness is Reform’s legacy from the 18th century Enlightenment. Why we have more problems with making the individual central today isn’t clear to me, but it may have something to do with the experience of dictatorships in the 20th century.

A way out of the dilemma is suggested by the American Reform thinker Eugene Borowitz, in the conclusion to his book Renewing The Covenant.

In place of self as the arbiter, Borowitz places what he calls Israel-Self. It cannot be merely your personal predilections, or whims, which determine how you behave as a Jew. It has to be your Israel-Self, he says, your Jewish-Self, what identifies you with other Jews. Not necessarily all other Jews, or even the majority of Jews, but your community, its history, its teachings.

This understanding of ownership allows for what we call pluralism – but that would bring us on to ‘P’ which would be for another time!

The positive side to this approach is that it encourages us all to take responsibility for our Judaism. We don’t leave it to others. We don’t allow the ritual to belong to an elite to carry it out for us vicariously, be they rabbis, wardens, frummers, scholars, men – it is for us all to own.

The ethos of Yom Kippur supports this. When we recite the Ashamnu, or the ‘al chets’, in the Viddui, the confession, with its lists of sins, it is customary in all kinds of synagogues, for us all to stand and say it or sing it all together. The reason for this is so that no one should feel that they are the sinner surrounded by a crowd of goody-goodies.

And just in case we think that we are merely paying lip-service to a whole litany of wrongdoings which don’t apply to us, there is the fact that whilst the commission of so many of them may not apply to us, remember O for omission – sins of omission are very much more widely applicable.

It is my experience that people I know are much more worried, not to say ashamed about their sins of omission, in Jewish terms than their sins of commission. If there were a Jewish equivalent of the confessional, the Jewish father confessor would not hear such things as: I’ve eaten treif, or I’ve worked on Shabbat, but rather: I don’t come to shul enough or I’ve not done all I can to ensure that my children’s Jewish education is up to scratch.

And whilst we’re on the subject of ownership, the truth is we would be much stronger if all our children attended our cheder, which is where our Reform values are initially brought across, not to mention our excellent camps and national youth activities.

In terms of Teshuvah (repentance, or literally returning) the first step is owning the problem.

What is it that stands in the way of the next step, doing something about it?

If I ask myself that question my honest answer is that there is a false comfort about owning it. There is a feeling that by articulating it you are doing something good. You at least recognise where you’ve erred.

And so perhaps you deserve some forgiveness.

But you can’t pretend that that is satisfactory, because you don’t go on feeling good about it.

I can only speak from personal experience (which if it’s about ownership is all one can do) What blocks my motivation is a nagging internal voice which keeps saying you ‘should’ do such and such, or ‘you ought to’, ‘you must’.

I don’t believe that there’s any value in ought. What you ought comes to nought!

There’s a growing awareness in our society that such language doesn’t work. The general trend these days, – (and if you don’t believe me just listen to how people talk), – is to soften it by, instead of saying ‘you should’, to say ‘you need to’. Instead of issuing an imperative you appeal to a person’s needs. Often it’s a subtle way of issuing orders in disguise.

I’m not referring to external discourse, but internal. The voices of parents and other authority figures which we hear in our heads long after they’ve departed this life. And some times we honour them, out of affection and loyalty and sometimes they get in the way of our being motivated to do even that which is in our own best interests.

And then there’s bridging the gap between motivation and action. What inhibits the move from one to the other? I confess, it’s often my belief that it’s somebody else that’s stopping me, or something outside my control. How many times do I find out that the solution is within me and I’m really stopping myself and using others as an excuse?

There’s that wonderful Chassidic quotation in the meditative passages in one of our Shabbat morning services

‘There is no stumbling block one cannot push aside, for the stumbling block is only there for the sake of the will, and there are actually no stumbling blocks save in the spirit.’

Reform Judaism errs on the side of regarding as inadequate leaders and authorities including parents relying on the commanding of obedience as a motivating force. Anyone who has, or has had, teenage children knows, it mostly doesn’t work. You get a reaction – either then or later in life, or both.

So how do we answer the fact that Judaism is based on mitzvoth, commandments? I would suggest it is by a kind of lock and key theory. For the mitzvoth, the traditions, the laws, to work as the key to our Jewish lives, we have to be receptive, there has to be a lock that fits the key. And that lock is fashioned out of our love and commitment for Judaism. So for the whole system to work, I have to be able to find within myself something that I can own as my love and commitment.

Reform means ownership of your religious life; being self-motivated, not delegating to others.

It means, in Martin Buber’s words, starting from yourself, but not ending with yourself – acting in a way that is good for the total community and will enhance it and enable it to grow.

It means not wielding power and fear and guilt, but love and enjoyment.

We all want us to be stronger. Stronger as Jews and as Reform Jews. So I don’t say – you should, you ought to, you must or even you need to log on to Reform more, to read more about it, like say, our movement magazine Manna, or join in more with joint services and activities with Sha’arei Shalom and Menorah, or attend our Northern Congregations weekend in Ilkley in 3 weeks time – what I say is that if you do these things you’re going to find something you’ll like doing, and it could even become habit forming.

If this day is a day of reckoning then perhaps one can apply to it the rabbinic dictum that at the Day of Judgment every person will be called to account for every good thing they might have enjoyed and did not.

Since there is so much to enjoy in Judaism, and so little enjoyment of it, isn’t it time we owned up to what is getting in the way of our enjoyment, and take steps to put it right? And where are those steps to be taken? First and foremost, within our own selves.

The letter O is of course a vowel. A very expressive vowel which conveys feeling- Oh!!! –(In Israeli Hebrew you pronounce it ‘o’. If you’re a Litvak or a Galitziana it’s Oy, which as you know has multiple meanings; if you’re a Yekke it’s Ow as in leshono towvoh). But a good Anglo-Jew says Oh as in Yom Kippur.

In Hebrew the vowels are not strictly part of the alphabet. There is no O in the Aleph Bet. The vowel sounds, the vocalisation follow from one’s understanding of the words. The vowels were added by scholars in Tiberias in the 8th century to standardise the texts and no doubt to help people read whose Hebrew was weak at a time when knowledge of the language was in decline.

The consonants of the Hebrew alphabet are sometimes compared by commentators to the body and the vowels to the soul. (This point is made by Byron Sherwin in ‘The Nature of Jewish Theology’ quoted by Prof Ismar Schorsch:)

But the Sefer Torah is written without vowels. A scroll written with vowels is not fit for use. How can the Sefer Torah be without soul? The answer is – it only comes to be with soul when we read it. A person has to supply the vocalization to make it live in our ears, in our hearts and minds.

A Sefer Torah is a very beautiful thing – to look at – but appearances, how things look are only surface experiences. Without the personal engaging with Torah it becomes mute, and eventually, a dead letter.

And it gains life and gives life all around the more one engages with it and makes it ones own.

P for Prayer and Pluralism

Written by Rabbi Silverman

A few months ago the medical journal the Lancet produced a study on the effectiveness of prayer. To be more specific it was about whether healing practices, prayer and what’s called MIT Music Imagery and Touch can reduce pre-procedural distress and might affect outcomes in patients undergoing heart surgery.

It was of course carried out under the most rigorously controlled research conditions in the USA.

The results gave a thumbs down to prayer

Prayers by others did not affect patients’ recovery from coronary artery procedures, but bedside therapies using music and touch before surgery reduced stress and offered a slight advantage in survival.

Patients randomly were chosen to receive off-site prayer, bedside therapy, both treatments or none. Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist congregations were given patients’ names and prayed for them for five to 30 days. Survival rates did not differ among those who received prayer and those who did not, the study found.

The bedside therapy given to patients included listening to music, imagining favourite places, practicing so-called “yoga-like” breathing and being touched by practitioners of alternative medicine.

Researchers said the therapeutic benefit could have resulted simply from the presence of a caring individual that reduced patients’ pre-operative stress. Stress reduction could affect physiological processes and improve survival.

As a Rabbi I am occasionally asked to say prayers for people who are seriously ill.

I agree to it, there is a place for it in the daily Amidah prayers. I believe it might be of value if the patient or their relatives know that prayers are being said. That knowledge may bring them some comfort and or relive stress and anxiety.

On the whole our prayers are not what is called intercessionary, not petitions, not presenting God with a shopping list. There are notable exceptions such as the Avinu Malkenu on Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur which includes: shlach refuah shelemah lecholey amecha: send a complete healing to the sick of your people.

That’s what we wish someone who is ill – a refuah shelemah, a complete recovery. Maimonides says that when visiting a patient you should always say a prayer before leaving- and simply those two words – refuah shelemah could count as a prayer.

The question I want to ask is – what is the value of prayer overall for us Reform Jews.

We take a pluralistic approach to prayer. We recognize that in the Jewish world there are a plurality of prayer traditions – and always have been. Even after Amram Gaon produced the first standard Siddur, variations grew up, Ashkenazi differed from Sephardi, Western Sephardi differed from Eastern, and there were and still are regional variations such as the Yemenite and the Italian minhag Roma.

And there are many non-Orthodox liturgies, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist…

What unites all together are a basic structures: Shema and its preliminaries, Amidah, Torah Service, Aleinu, Kaddish.

What about how we pray? There’s a telling line in our Family Service which the children read out: “We do not even know how we are supposed to pray”

It reflects the magnitude of the change in Jewish life from a community where everything was cut and dried, prescribed and everyone knew what was required of them, in every aspect of Jewish life.

Pluralism has changed all that.

We don’t davven. At least if some of us do it’s not too obvious. Incidentally Sephardim do it differently from Ashkenazim, quietly, standing still, no swaying back and forth or side to side.

Let me tell you, we differ slightly from most other Reform synagogues in the amount of silence we have, particularly in the Amidah. Many Reform synagogues read the whole Amidah out loud. The Amidah actually is not supposed to be a case of reading by sight alone. Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying – it is to be read in a whisper. That’s why it begins Adonai sephatai tiphtach ufi yagid tehilatecha.

Whole chanted paragraphs are not very common. This, by the way, is Sephardi. Ashkenazim generally chant opening and closing lines, and let everyone go at their own pace in between.

If we have lost the art of prayer in a Jewish way it’s because we never developed a means of instruction to replace or supplement or adapt tradition to what we feel comfortable with and meaningful. But it shouldn’t take great efforts to create an atmosphere in which everyone collectively and individually is engaged.

If you’ve seen the film ‘Keeping the Faith’ which is funny and moving and controversial all rolled into one (it was showed at the Hartington Residential) – you’ll remember the rabbi with the hand-held microphone getting nowhere with his chevreh – only his mother is singing- having to resort to a surprise visit from a gospel choir, in bright gold and blue vestments, bursting through the doors and doing a happy-clappy rendition of Eyn Kelohenu.

Small changes might make big difference. Amen for example. It’s one small word, but it brings everyone together. Amen is to be said or chanted (it doesn’t matter which) at the end of every berachah, which is said aloud. That’s to say every line containing the standard baruch atah.

It’s not said by the person saying the berachah – but by the person hearing it, who thereby affirms it. Amen means it is so, it is true. If you don’t say ‘Amen’ you are dissociating yourself from it. And conversely if you say it, you are associating yourself. And the more that respond, the more associative the whole thing is.

Similarly the second line of barechu.

It’s my view that Anglo-Jewish shulgoers are naturally low-profile, undemonstrative, not to say private. The more assimilated, the more low-key. This is not a criticism, it just is the case. It goes against the grain to make a big show of it all.

I am coming round to thinking that the quieter and more contemplative and personal our services are the better it would suit us. We don’t actually have to read whole passages together – as Sir Thomas Beecham is reputed to have said about his orchestra, (tongue in cheek) as long as they start together and finish together, who cares what happens in between?!

Prayer is service of the heart Avodat Halev. And it is service, it’s Avodah, (meaning work) I takes working on. Lehitpalel to pray, is a reflexive verb meaning more literally to judge oneself. The words challenge you inwardly, spiritually. It cannot merely be lip-service; it is certainly not magic.

Thanks to our value of Pluralism, of honouring many different ways of doing it we don’t have to be bound by one way, whether modern or ancient. Over the years I’ve been very encouraged indeed by the reception of innovations in the way we say and sing and chant our prayers.

There is still a great wealth of possibilities waiting for us to explore together – the more they stir our hearts, give us uplift, influence us in our daily lives

the more there is some sense to the blessing which ends blessed are you, who hears prayer – Baruch atah Adonai Shemeah Tefillah.

Q for Questioning Quietism

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Que sera, sera – whatever will be will be – is a very popular philosophy. It has its equivalents in Judaism. In fact even stronger versions: gam zu letovah, was Rabbi Akiva’s favourite dictum, when anything bad befell him – this too is for the good. Or in another phrase kol d’avid rachmanah letav avid – Everything that the All-Merciful does, is done for the best.

Take note that ‘Que sera sera’ doesn’t say what will be will be for the best – it just will be and we have to accept it at that. It’s acceptance without regrets.

Now, having complete trust in the Creator come what may is a strong religious virtue. There’s a time for everything under the sun says Kohelet in our Haftarah for Succot: “A time to be born, a time to die, a time for war, a time for peace…” The Succah also represents the duality of life: it’s frailty and vulnerability open to the elements; and it’s celebration of the good harvest of life.

Kohelet says; to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. Everything is there for a purpose; ‘beshert’ as we say – beshert means decreed.

There was a Rabbi Yosi who took this view of marriage. He asked what has the Creator been doing since the 6 days of Creation? Answer: matching up couples for marriage. I’d better be careful what I say about since this coming week Isobel and I will be 30 years married.

Are marriages made in heaven? My answer is, if you want to believe that, well, you may believe that they are made in heaven – but they have to be maintained in the here and now by two down-to-earth-people with their feet firmly on the ground.

There’s a lovely old-fashioned term for this belief that we can leave everything to the Almighty to take care of. It’s called Quietism.

Jewish Quietism – sounds like a contradiction in terms. Quietists are people who believe in leaving everything to God to sort out. We shouldn’t interfere.

I want to suggest we question Quietism.

Modern Judaism, not only Reform, takes the view that, although much is not in our hands, free will is given to us. We take responsibility for our actions, we strive for a better world, we try to influence things for good.

Indeed the same Rabbi Akiva who said ‘everything is for the good’ says: “Everything is known to God, yet free will is given to man.” God knows what we will do and how things will work out, but it is still up to us, to arrange our own lives.

Isn’t this a bit of a puzzle? Let’s just take a peep at how the Talmud deals with this issue. [B. Berachot 60a, b].

There’s a rule: If you hear good news, there’s a berachah to say. For bad news, there’s also a berachah to say. For good news – Baruch… Hatov vehamaitiv we praise the One who does good and makes good. Over bad news Baruch Dayan ha’emet – Blessed be the true Judge. And it goes on to say: a person has to make a blessing over bad news as well as over good news. Chayav adam levareich al hara keshem shemevareich al tovah.

What does that mean ? The Talmud answers it with a little story:

Rabbi Akiva was once on a journey. He came to a town and he wanted a room. Everyone refused to give him a room. Quite the opposite of the Succot message of hospitality!

And what did Akiva say? Gam zu letovah. This too is for good.

So off goes Rabbi Akiva with his three prized possessions: a cockerel, an ass and a lamp. During the night, the wind came and blew out the lamp. A fox came and ate the cock. A lion came and ate the ass. So he wakes up and there is nothing there. Rabbi Akiva says: Gam zu letovah. This also is for good.

When he comes back into the town the next morning, Akiva discovers that some bandits had entered the town and taken all the inhabitants away captive.

So Rabbi Akivah says: you see! “Wasn’t I right to say gam zu letovah? All this is for the good. If I had got a room in the town, I would have been taken captive. If the light had been burning, they’d have caught me. If the cock had been there it would have crowed it would have given me away. If the ass had been there, it would have brayed and they would have known I was there. So, obviously, whatever the Almighty does is for good.

That’s the story.

The Talmud doesn’t ask what the inhabitants of the town thought about Rabbi Akiva’s optimism and nobody could ask the cockerel or the donkey. The fox and the lion were happy. However, think about this: if whatever God does is for the best, then what should you say over bad news? Baruch haShem Hatov vehamaitiv? (thank you God for doing good?)

No – that’s not the rule. The rule is that over good news one says hatov vehamaitiv; over bad news one says baruch Dayan emet – and there’s definitely a distinction between good news and bad.

So the rule, the Halachah, acknowledges the reality of evil whilst Rabbi Akiva’s story did not.

Now we’ve got a problem: how can this apparent contradiction be reconciled?

The answer seems to be by applying the distinction between past and future.

If we look back at the past, we can ask ‘Why did this happen?’ And with hindsight perhaps there will be, consoling reasons to show that actually it happened for the best. I didn’t get what I wanted – but in time I got something much more valuable to me, which I never would have had if I had been luckier first time round. So in retrospect the bad turns out to be good, (or at least relatively good) as in Akiva’s story.

But when we look towards the future, our Jewish tradition in the form of the berachot makes it clear that we are living in a world in which evil is real and not to be confused with good! If you make the positive berachah ‘hatov vehamaitiv’ (who does good and makes good) over bad news, even though one day it will turn out to be good, you have made a blessing in vain. You have broken the third commandment (taking God’s name in vain).

When we reflect on the past, as Akiva did, we can find consolation. When we look to the future, we must refuse to be consoled. You can rewrite the narrative of the past in the light of your present. You may have had an awful childhood, but you don’t have to live in it, if your present life is good.

But looking to the future on the basis of bad news at present, we are taught not to accept as a fait accompli a situation which there is a possibility of you changing it.

Because bad is bad and we’re not allowed to confuse it with good – even if , who knows, it will bring good in its wake.

If you can treat an illness, if you can protest against an injustice, right a wrong – there’s an imperative so to so.

Because to sit quietly at ease with it, is not on.

We can still say everything will turn out for the best as long as we’re prepared to help that process along !

R for Revelation (Yom HaShoah)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

This coming Friday will be National Holocaust Day. A chilling subject. Where was God during the Shoah? – is the tormented question.

One great teacher, Emil Fackenheim said that the aspect of the divine that can be heard through it all is the Commanding Voice. Hugo Gryn used to say that every one of the commandments was systematically broken. So the commanding voice resonated as never before.

Like the revelation which came to Moses at the Burning Bush –from the midst of the fire which burned yet did not consume the bush. So Revelation was present in the Shoah. It was aimed at the destruction not only of Jews but of Judaism in its entirety.

It began with the burning of books.

Not only religious books. Everything with Jewish connections was consigned to the flames. So much that had a contribution to make to healing the human spirit. Freud’s psychoanalysis was banned as being “Jewish Science”.

This week I gave a lecture at Manchester University on a little know but profoundly influential disciple and critic of Freud, the Italian psychotherapist Roberto Assagioli, founder of the therapy known as Psychosynthesis. What interests me especially is that he also founded the Italian Movement for Progressive Judaism, which he led in Florence until his death in 1974 at the age of 86. For me he is a personal revelation.

Assagioli came from a Jewish family in Venice, qualified as a doctor, in1910 studied Psychoanalysis in Switzerland where he became friendly with Carl Gustav Jung, returned to Italy and founded the Institute of Psychosynthesis in Rome. Psychosynthesis seeks to provide what is lacking in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is interested in what Freud called making the unconscious conscious. That was Assagioli’s work too. For him though, there was a Higher Unconscious in the human personality, as well as a Lower Unconscious.

If the Lower Unconscious is like a Recycle Bin into which we repress all that we can’t deal with consciously from childhood onward, shame, guilt, rage, fears but which percolates through in our everyday behaviour, our talk and our dreams, the Higher Unconscious contains all the potential for growth, our untapped creativity, our sense of beauty, of altruism, our unexpressed intellectual capacity – all the resources which we would love to access, but we repress it through lack of self-confidence or other defences which hold us back. Again think of the commanding voice to the self-doubting Moses.

It is the sublime, spiritual side of us, which we all have. It culminates in a Higher Self of which our ordinary everyday conscious self is but a reflection, like a mirror reflecting the sun. Our Higher Self moreover exists within what was called by Jung and Assagioli the Collective Unconscious, which is like a kind of mental gene pool. Just as the human body is a museum of natural history which tells the story of the whole of human evolution, so the personality contains within it the whole of human psychological development from the earliest prehistory. Our art, our literature, our dreams and fantasies contain a language of symbolism which is universal to every culture on earth since time immemorial.

Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis therapy works by empowering people, through counselling, through imaginative dialogue, meditation and guided imagery, to log on to aspects of the personality – or subpersonalities, to overcome inner conflicts, to achieve integration between the unconscious and the conscious both lower and higher. It is not only for times of crisis and pain. It is also for personal development, for growth towards a higher vision of yourself.

Unlike much of psychotherapy it includes your spiritual growth. There were other great Jewish figures who worked along these lines: Abraham Maslow, who pioneered work with healthy, self-actualizing people as he called them and with their peak experiences. Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist of the concentration camps who discovered through his Shoah experience that among our basic needs, along with food and water was the need for meaning and purpose in life; with it one could survive even without food and water, without it one simply could not survive. There were others like Erich Fromm the social psychologist, who described himself as an atheist mystic and Fritz Perls the founder of Gestalt Psychotherapy, who was estranged from religious Judaism.

Assagioli was unique. He found deep inspiration in his Judaism, and in Zen Buddhism, Sufi and Hindu mysticism, and believed in different faiths learning from each other, which one of the aims of his Italian Movement for Progressive Judaism. So his Judaism and his therapy of the human spirit went hand in hand.

Psychosynthesis, although it was born not long after psychoanalysis, did not take off for another almost half century. Assagioli’s work only became significant world-wide in the 1960’s.

So it is a success story which has taken a long time to unfold. And that is central to its teaching. Self-discovery is a life long process. Within every problem we have with life and with ourselves there is a solution. Within our conflicts there are strengths. The same is true of external challenges. One of Assagioli’s colleagues was Piero Ferucci. One day he got called up to do army service. You could defer for a few years which he was able to do on grounds that it interfered with his clinical work. But eventually it caught up with him and he was drafted. He was deeply despondent about it. Assagioli’s reaction surprised him. He said ‘great – this will be a revelation to you; now you will learn how to collaborate with the inevitable’. He was right. Ferucci reported that he learned how to meditate in a noisy dormitory, how to utilize the time between one chore and another to read and take notes, how to waste time without feeling guilty, and finally he said”that realizations of a higher consciousness are not tied to this or that situation but can occur at any place and at any time.

Never was this more true of Assagioli himself. His institute in Rome was closed by the fascist government which was critical of him being a Jew an Internationalist and a pacifist. His pacifism consisted in his helping people find peace within. He was imprisoned by Mussolini and spent long periods in solitary confinement.

He turned those periods into what he called a ‘spiritual retreat’ And he wrote that he found in it ‘ a sense of boundlessness, of no separation from all that is, a merging of the self with the whole, an overflowing or effusion in all directions, like an ever expanding sphere. A sense of universal love.’

That is how, in the worst possible times, there can come a personal revelation.

R for Revision (a retrospective review…)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

If I say the word ‘Revision’ to you, I wonder what it conjures up. Memories of schooldays I would guess, not particularly pleasant.

In later life we do it for university or professional exams; when you prepare for your driving test you have to swot up the Highway Code. In a Jewish context, if you are converting to Judaism you’ll have revising to do before your interview with the Beth Din.

Judaism depends a great deal on knowledge. Some argue that if you’re Reform there’s less to know. In fact the opposite can be argued, on grounds that if you find yourself having to justify your Jewish observance to others – or indeed, more importantly, to yourself- you’ve more to learn than if you just go with the traditional flow.

Over the past 12 months I’ve been presenting to you an alphabetical survey of Jewish values from a Reform point of view. This morning I’d just like to revise with you some main points.

Starting with A last January, I began with Atmosphere which is so important to us. And in comparing ourselves with orthodoxy I introduced the concept ‘anthropocentric’ – or person-centred. I said

“Our values are anthropocentric and theirs are bibliocentric (centred on the books). Or alternatively we start from A and they start from B. Or if you prefer the Hebrew alphabet, we start from ‘Adam’ and they start from ‘Torah’. We go from Aleph to Tav and they go from Tav to Aleph. And hopefully we meet in the middle.”

The following week, under the heading of Belief I addressed the question of how we speak of God. Revisions have and are taking place in our prayer books in this respect. By the way, the latest news is, our new Siddur will be launched in early July this year (put that in your diaries)

I said last year:

“New Reform translations of the Siddur… which use expressions for God like ‘The Eternal’, are not just trying to be egalitarian and politically correct in not addressing God as a man, but being more philosophically correct in not addressing God as a person in the sky. The value here is philosophical integrity, consistency between what we say religiously, with what we actually think.”

In my Cheder Class I asked for a value beginning with C and would you believe it, one lad came up with ‘Consistency’. Community is another. According to a Board of Deputies Report last year British Jews place a higher value on Belonging than on Belief. We value Community so much that we place Children in the forefront. To quote what I said on this:

“A very good example of this is the Family Service we have here every 6 weeks or so. It’s quite an innovation to have children of all ages leading the service. It hasn’t happened before in Jewish history. It’s a reflection of the high value we place upon community as an extension of the family”.

Next Decorum. Decorum and Devotion, or, in Hebrew, Kevah and Kavannah. Devotion (I said) is preferable to Decorum, because Decorum can be just as rule-bound, just as fixed and rigid, just as empty of content as Kevah….Decorum starts from rules; Devotion starts from you and I and the spirit we bring to it”.

Actually if you have Devotion you’ll have Decorum. You won’t talk whilst others are davvening– because your mind will be concentrating on the prayers yourself.

Enthusiasm, enjoyment: Quote:

“What do we enjoy most? I would say from observation: it would seem to be each other’s company. Our most popular events are (again) family services – though we have to work hard to keep up the momentum, the senior members’ lunch – hugely popular and successful as was the first meeting of our social group Reva. (we’ve had more since)

What we have to think very carefully about (I said) is the Jewish element in social events which we run here. We are a little bit afraid of the Jewish element- in case it puts people off.

But it’s the Jewish element that we’re here for…”

Next -Flexibility is a strong Reform Jewish value. I argued it is a strong Jewish value – but we don’t go along with legal fictions which exploit loopholes in our laws, like the sale of leaven on Pesach.

G for Generativity (quite a high scorer in Scrabble that one) -handing on to the next generation. Handing on Torah values from one generation to the next. Being sensitive to needs of the next generation and helping them to satisfy their spiritual needs.

Then History. I dared to suggest that the History of the Exodus is not born out by archaeology. I had some, but very little reaction against this. In an orthodox synagogue I would expect my job to be in jeopardy!

Reform has a different view of history. For us it’s not that the Torah was all written down by Moses, but that it is the product of many hands over generations.

To challenge a conventional view about history is called Revisionism. It’s usually a political stance. It surfaced in Israel in the 20’s with Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionism. His militant form of Zionism sought to “revise” the terms of the British Mandate, particularly to provide for the re-inclusion of Transjordan in Mandatory Palestine. (You might say that every view of history is a political one). Modern Israeli revisionist historians have argued that just as we demand that Palestinians revise the school text books which teach that Jews have no historical right to the land, so if we want honest understanding between us we should revise ours. For example, the denial that any Palestinians were pushed off their lands in 1948.

The criticisms I received for this were twofold when I said:

“Since the excavations of Finklestein and others over the past 30 years have discredited the view that the Exodus generation established the first Israelite settlements in what are now the West Bank territories, they’ve come under vehement attack for their theories and been accused of having pro-Palestinian political agendas”. The counter-views expressed to me were that

(a) Finkelstein is wrong: Jewish settlements have existed since the Exodus on what we now call the West Bank and

(b) Finkelstein is crazy.

I’m still waiting for the evidence to back up those statements, before I decide on revising my view of the issue.

I was for Israel, Identity and Independence.

“Independence (I said) in Hebrew is Atzmaut. Yom Ha’Atzmaut is translated as Independence Day. Atzmaut is very positive. It means literally Selfness. Atzmaut means you define yourself, you’re not dependent on others to do it for you”. That’s very much the spirit of Reform Judaism.

There is such a thing as Reform Zionism – but that’s for when we get to the end of the alphabet.

J for Jerusalem. Two Jerusalems – the earthly and the heavenly ideal. Classical Reform revised the Siddur by taking out all references to Zion because they called into question our universality.

Recent revisions have restored Jerusalem.

“And here .. in Jackson’s Row, (I said) where the Hebrew name of our Shul is Sha’ar Zion the Gate of Zion, we are rediscovering tradition, accepting and respecting our differences, aiming for peaceful co-existence, and aiming to bring the heavenly closer to the earthly and the earthly to the heavenly.”

K for Kashrut. Keeping Kosher.

It expresses our particular identity. It’s value is also universal I argued, as follows:

“By keeping kosher – we are asserting who we are. There are certain values – in particular, by and large, our kashrut limits us to a rather restricted field of domesticated animals, so there are environmental benefits here – and there is within our dietary laws the recognition that human beings are in reality carnivores – omnivores, but that being so, that we are not the absolute masters of the world to consume indiscriminately and ruthlessly, but we apply an awareness of the sanctity of life, through the symbolism of our tradition”.

I spoke 3 weeks running on the letter L. London was on our minds – the July bombings. My themes – Liberalism, Law and Liberty were all about our values as Reform Jews opposed to all forms of fanaticism. And the dilemmas involved of revising laws, which we do as Reform Jews and which our government was contemplating doing. The dilemmas of safeguarding life and limb without sacrificing liberty were and still are for us to wrestle with.

Memory on Rosh Hashanah (also called Yom Hazikaron- the Day of Memory). Revising the events of the past Jewish year, especially its catastrophe. Through collective memory I said:

“we enhance our sense of purpose, and it will be the kind of community we’ll want to belong to – not only for the purpose of servicing our needs at certain times of our life, and no further, not only for the sake of saying prayers, even regularly, but for giving our whole sense of belonging and our prayers meaning – meaning beyond preserving memories. Meaning building upon memory to create renewed vitality”.

I continued with M the following Shabbat. M for Mistakes plus N for Novelty. The novelty that Shabbat was that I was brief. I gave a 30 second derashah on this. What’s the value of Making Mistakes I asked. One or two of you quickly gave me the answer: “You learn from them”.

Ownership, Openness and Outwardness came on Yom Kippur. Reform begins with the Self, but does not end with the self.

Then Prayer. I got more positive feedback from this one than any other. It would seem that there is great feeling for coming here actually to pray. I focussed on how we do it. Quote:

“It’s my view that Anglo-Jewish shul-goers are naturally low-profile, undemonstrative, not to say private. The more assimilated, the more low-key. This is not a criticism, it just is the case. It goes against the grain to make a big show of it all. I am coming round to thinking that the quieter and more contemplative and personal our services are the better it would suit us”.

Q is for quiet. And there is a word Quietism. It means leaving everything quietly in the hands of God to take care of. Not a Jewish value I maintained. Questioning Quietism is the value. We believe in action for a better world.

So that’s a review of where we’re up to. And today is R for Revision and Review. And of course I haven’t covered all the subjects. In the coming weeks up to Pesach we’ll complete the alphabet, though of course I won’t exhaust the values.

All the talks I gave on these subjects are posted up on our synagogue website – you can find the internet address at the top of the notices, for you to review. I have had some interesting responses. Do please take the opportunity at Kiddush to suggest to me subjects of your interest.

(Co-incidentally, another Reform Synagogue, South West Essex, whose Rabbi Maurice Michaels is the current Chairman of the Assembly of Rabbis and a former Chairman of RSGB started his own A-Z and I hope to be working with him on it during my sabbatical).

I think that this work is important because the more forthright we can be about our positive values as Reform Jews, the more we know what we stand for, the greater our self-confidence in it.

It enhances our view of ourselves. In that sense too, a kind of ‘Re-vision’.

S for Shabbat

Written by Rabbi Silverman

On Fridays evenings during our services we have a little break for discussion on Jewish values. We’re currently discussing the Reform approach to Shabbat observance, using as a guideline a booklet produced by our movement 23 years ago now called ‘Remember the Sabbath Day’. So far we’ve talked about Friday night observance and the vexed question of riding on Shabbat.

I’d just like to spend a few minutes taking an overview of the whole subject.

Shabbat was called by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Palace in Time. To me that means that Shabbat gives us a special space where we can be at the end of a routine workaday week, to do things differently and experience life on a different plane.

I envisage it as one palace in time; not several, not an Orthodox one, a Reform one, a Conservative one, a Liberal one, but one great institution. And the Palace has many rooms – and you are free to move from one room to the other. Or choose your rooms.

There’s a lot of room for eating. Shalosh Seudot 3 good meals are prescribed for Shabbat, not including breakfast. There’s Kiddush Friday night with candles, wine and challah and at Shabbat Lunch, again with wine and challah. There’s the third meal – Seudah Shlishit – before Havdalah, the final ceremony before we leave the palace when 3 stars appear in the sky.

There’s a lot of room for singing Zemirot, table songs.

There’s a room for services of course, for Reading the Torah; that’s done in many places on Mondays and Thursday, traditional market days, too, but that’s only a preview, a foretaste of Shabbat. That day is no market day of course. There’s no shop in the Palace. Commercial activities don’t take place there. This is something we might discuss – whether in the name of Reform Judaism we would extend the boundaries of Shabbat to include spending money for pleasurable purposes, because pleasure, delight, Oneg is a key cornerstone of the Palace of Shabbat. If we can avoid spending money, say by paying in advance for tickets for a show, so much the better.

For a Reform Jew the honest truth is that it is the ‘don’ts’ more than the ‘dos’ that are hard to address. There’s not carrying on Shabbat from your home to another place or vice versa. It’s nothing to do with hard work. None of the Shabbat laws are to do with the hardness of the work only the type of work. How come you can shift heavy furniture in your home on Shabbat but not carry a handbag to Shul? It stems from the Torah itself when the people of Israel were given instructions for building the tabernacle, then all of a sudden it says the Children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat. ‘Aha!’ said the rabbis, by placing the two together, the Torah is trying to teach us not to carry from the private domain to the public or vice versa which they would have had to do for the work of the tabernacle.

Then there’s not cooking which usually involves not lighting a fire which the Torah explicitly prohibits on Shabbat. Not writing, and not riding which are rabbinical rules derived also from actions connected with building the tabernacle. Not touching implements or ‘mukseh’ as it’s called – that means not only not using by not even touching anything which you would ordinarily use as an implement.

It could be argued that the whole subject of the building of the tabernacle, and later the Temple holds little relevance for Reform Jews. We do not pray for, or look forward to a rebuilding of the Temple on Zion. So the prohibition against carrying holds no meaning for us.

The question of fire and cooking is more difficult. The Torah does not give any reason for the prohibition. The reason suggested is that it is to refrain from creativity. Anything which is metaken, improving or fixing is off limits on Shabbat. To take things apart not for the purpose of fixing is permitted. The Reform answer to this is that if the intention is to enhance our enjoyment of Shabbat then it the value of Shabbat for us outweighs the value of not doing creative work.

This argument has been applied to riding. If it enables us to keep Shabbat by going to shul or visiting family, this value supersedes the value of abstaining from riding. This principle is called a hierarchy of values. The main reason for not driving is to avoid making sparks which is fire. Making an electrical circuit is considered making fire by Orthodox scholars but not by Conservative or Masorti, and although we do not tend to go into the details the same would be true of Reform.

Not riding is also proscribed because of the danger of having to fix something that goes wrong such as for example a puncture.

There is the overarching value of not being creators on Shabbat, but reverting to being creatures, and enjoying creature comforts. There have to be bedrooms in the Shabbat Palace, by the way, and lounges where you can have the traditional Shabbat schluf. Another aspect of awareness of being creatures is the environment. On Shabbat once a week we do not interfere with nature. It’s debatable for a Reform Jew as to whether you do the garden. Digging is out traditionally since trenches were dug for the building of the tabernacle. But as a Reform Jew I might argue that it is pure pleasure and enhances my enjoyment of Shabbat.

Homework for school or college is definitely work. Writing is prohibited because of marking surfaces for the tabernacle. But you can study without writing. Say I am doing Jewish Studies, or say something like Music, Literature, Art, Science, Technology – say I enjoy my studies – one would have to make a personal choice as to how congruent it is with the spirit of Shabbat. There’s also something about making it a different day. The Shabbat Palace is not supposed to be a Prison. But neither is it to be an extension of your Office.

The traditional purpose of Shabbat is that it is to be a whole day for doing the will of God. For fulfilling commandments of the Torah – as interpreted by the Rabbis. To stick with just the Torah commandments just doesn’t work. One sect called the Karaites used to do that and refused to observe any mitzvoth or prohibitions of the Talmudic Rabbis. The classic example is fire. You shall not burn fire throughout your habitations on Shabbat says Exodus. The Rabbis said that means not to light it on Shabbat itself, it’s OK before, so you can bring in Shabbat with candles, light the havdalah candle from a pre-existing flame, indirectly these rabbis gave us a wonderful invention called cholent (a stew made before Shabbat and kept going all day).

The Karaites said, these are man-made laws, the Shabbat says no fire on Shabbat and that means no fire on Shabbat. Given that so many communities of Karaites lived in the Crimea, can you imagine what their winter was like?

Some 19th century Reform Jews argued similarly against Talmud law, and their position was called Biblicism. It was flawed because most of Judaism is Rabbinical not Biblical. Where does the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles come from? It’s not from the Torah; it’s nowhere in Tanach; it’s rabbinic; similarly Kiddush, reading from the Torah on Shabbat…

It’s definitely difficult for many of us to relate to that rationale of fulfilling the will of the Creator. If we can, well and good- so how do we interpret what is meant by the will of the Creator? If we can’t, what would we substitute for that? If I say a day for reconnecting with family community and people, for personal regeneration, how does that sound?

A day for doing things differently, for stepping back from it all.

A day to davven, or a moment to meditate. To expand one’s learning.

To celebrate events, to remember the departed.

To share bad news, and good.

To promote peace at home – to support peace in Israel and the world.

To curb the acquisitive tendency.

To give Tzedakah before Shabbat comes in.

Are we to serve Shabbat’s purposes or is Shabbat to serve ours? The challenge to Reform Judaism is that we make things convenient for ourselves. If it’s so convenient why is it so difficult? Why does it take so much effort for so many even to get out of bed and go to shul, however little time it takes to get there? Why is it so difficult to switch off from work? Why do we bother at all about what the laws mean, and have it translated to us in a way we can understand? Why do we bother about how are we going to get them across to the next generation and pass it on?

Isn’t it because we take it seriously, we are proud of what it stands for, and we love it?

Isn’t it because it does us good? Or the poet Hayyim Nachman Bialik said

‘More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel’

T for Tradition

Written by Rabbi Silverman

I want to thank those of you who gave me feedback last week for what I had to say about Shabbat. There is clearly a need to know where we stand on subjects such as this.

So I’m following up Shabbat with some general remarks on Tradition.

The first question is what is Tradition? The word means passing or handing on. Tradition is a kind of transmission. Our Hebrew word for it is Masorah – from which we get the name of the wing of Judaism called Masorati. Masorah the tradition – first and foremost applies to the text of the Torah. That is what essentially is called HaMesorah.

This is where it gets really interesting. It is not the text of the Sefer Torah that’s called Mesorah – it’s the text of the Chumash. The Sefer Torah text is called Mikrah – meaning that which is read.

How does Mesorah – what is handed down differ from Mikrah – what is read? What has a Chumash got that a Sefer Torah hasn’t got?

Vowels – for one thing. Punctuation for another. Singing notation marks. Chapters and Verses. Divisions into Sidrahs. Haftarot, readings from the Prophets based on common themes in the Sidrahs. Translation sometimes. Commentary. Notes on what to read for special occasions. In other words the Mesorah as found in the Chumash is the text of the Torah clothed in the garments of tradition.

But it’s more than that. Mesorah contains interpretation. Tradition contains interpretation.

The Torah text is without vowels. A word without vowels could be ambiguous, could be read in different ways depending which vowels you add. Likewise punctuation. Singing indicates which words you emphasize and so can also affect meaning.

Translation affects meaning enormously.

All the additions to the Hebrew text were originally added by a group of scholars who flourished from the 5th to the 8th centuries whom we call the Massoretes – literally the traditionalists. Their system of reading the Torah became standard and remains so to this day.

You can see from this that essentially tradition is about how you do things, but also how you are taught to understand things. And it always stems from a certain time and place in history. And there might well be variations on a theme. It is how we read our Judaism in our own situation against the background of what has been handed down to us.

And that varies. For one thing there is not complete agreement as to how to pronounce the Hebrew vowels! Or the letters come to that! There are varying traditions.

There are different systems of cantillation, Ashkenazi and Sephardi and variations within those. The manifold musical traditions within Judaism are richly diverse.

But what makes a given thing a tradition in Judaism is that it is that ultimately it stems from Torah. It doesn’t have to be of great antiquity or even old, but it is an offshoot of Torah. And that it is passed on.

All the laws of Judaism are rabbinical readings, interpretations of the Torah. I gave examples last week of the Shabbat laws against constructing and carrying which came the fact that the instructions for building the tabernacle were place side by side with the commandment to keep Shabbat, thus indicating to the rabbis a common context.

Reform Judaism is continuing this process. In most cases we base our decisions on precedent to be found in Talmud, the Responsa literature and the Codes of Jewish Law. But there are many instances of where we break new ground. Or where we say that certain practices need to change in order to meet the realities of Jewish life in our times.

I do not pretend that to do so is anything but a hugely bold step. On an official level it is not taken lightly. Not without considerable study and weighing up of pros and cons.

Let me give you a current example. A very crucial one. The tradition is that a child takes its Jewish identity from the mother. What’s the basis? It’s not in Torah. There are Biblical examples of what we call patrilineality. There were kings of Israel whose mothers were not Jewish. The basis for it was very practical: you could not always know who the father was. Especially in time of war or exile this became a problem so it was eventually decided that Jewish descent would be matrilineal.

How was it decided? It comes from the Talmud Tractate Kiddushin 68b. The ruling that Jewish identity is determined by the mother is found in the Mishnah in that part of the Talmud (Kid. 3:12) It states that the child of a gentile woman is ‘like her’ (i.e. follows her identity). The Talmud derives this from the passage in Devarim (Deut 7:3-4) which is about intermarriage with a Canaanite. It reads as follows:

“Do not intermarry with him , do not give your daughter to his son or take his daughter for your son, for he will turn your son from Me”:

This is interpreted as follows: A child born to your daughter (fathered by a non-Jew) is called “your son”, but a child born to your son (by a non-Jewish mother) is not called “your son”, but “her son”. The Talmud is assuming here that the “he” in Deut.7:4 is your gentile son-in-law, and that “your son” whom “he” will turn away from God is your grandson, born to him and to your daughter. The Torah calls that grandson “your son” because he is regarded as Jewish since he had a Jewish mother. In the other case, where a Jewish man marries a gentile woman, the Torah doesn’t speak about the woman’s influence on her children (i.e., it doesn’t say “for she will turn your son from me”), because her children are non-Jewish to begin with since their mother is non-Jewish.

Of course we have to bear in mind that in the time the Talmud passage was written, most non-Jews were idolators. Today they aren’t and it might therefore be argued that it is time the rule was changed.

As you probably know the American Reform Movement have sanctioned patrilineality. The British Liberal Movement recognize the child of one parent, whichever one, as Jewish only if brought up and educated Jewish.

The discussion that’s going on at present is about baby blessings. We have no problem about having a baby blessing for the child of a Jewish mother, non-Jewish father. That child is Jewish, so no problem. The case has recently been raised of where someone is asking for it in a case where it is the other way round. Jewish father, non-Jewish mother. They are not asking for it to take place in Shul, but at home.

And my colleagues are divided. Some say to allow it would be colluding with a situation where the child could become quite confused if say the parents decided to give the child 2 religious educations. Others say that it would at least keep the door open for a Jewish commitment. Close the door and that would be lost.

Some say it is just a variation on the mixed marriage blessing theme. If we wouldn’t perform a mixed marriage (and we don’t, why do this?)

The discussion is still going on. I know which side I am on. I’m on the side of not giving ambiguous signals. I would encourage, nay urge, unequivocal commitment to shul and Jewish education for the child, with our requirement that the mother undergoes a course of Jewish study even if she does not convert at the end of it. Remember that ‘mesorah’, tradition, whilst it is about what you receive is meaningless unless it is also about what you pass on. So the emphasis has to be put on creating a Jewish home creating a Jewish home more than on having a one-off Jewish ritual. To do otherwise would be to put the cart before the horse. But you may disagree.

In any case the interesting thing is that baby blessing the way we do it only began in the 20th century. It is a new tradition.

Discuss it, argue over it. This is a hot subject. It’s the theme of this year’s Reform Movement Conference entitled ‘Count Us All In’ – the subject is inclusivity. We’re an endangered species us Jews. How far do we go in trying to save ourselves? What do you think?

U for Universalism

Written by Rabbi Silverman

It is always a pleasure to welcome visitors of other faiths to our service. This morning once again we have students from the Northern Ordination Course sitting up there in the ‘gods’ and it’s a pleasure to welcome you once again – it’s become a tradition for you to visit us once a year, and on occasion I have had the pleasure of returning the compliment, visiting your College and taking part in your study programme.

If you come again, as you are most welcome to, in a couple of week’s time, on the festival of Purim, you will experience a very different kind of atmosphere. Like a pantomime atmosphere as we read the book of Esther and celebrate our miraculous rescue from a tyrannical regime in Persia in the 6th Century BCE which threatened to exterminate us all. On Purim, children are encouraged to wear fancy dress (some adults do too) and the custom is to boo the villain of the story (here we also cheer the heroes). It’s a fantasy story – we have faced real genocide, (whatever David Irving says) – it’s a way of opening our psychological safety valves. It’s the antidote to paranoia. Rather like the spirit in Britain during the 2nd World War: ‘When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you’, so in our trying times we need this kind of release.

The serious message of Purim, on the face of it, is a very specifically Jewish one. It also bears a universal message: the human right of self-determination. It is the message of universalism. Let me just say a little about this in the short time we have left.

Universalism was a 19th century Jewish concept which grew out of the Enlightenment. It became embedded in Reform Judaism. Today it is part of the liberal (with a small ‘l’) ethos of ‘live and let live’, affirming the values of multiculturalism, pluralism and any ‘ism which celebrates difference. But it’s under threat.

We are living in a polarised world: on the one hand there is a global epidemic of fundamentalist fanaticism, stimulated by the internet, by those who seek domination for their world-outlook, whether they are white supremacists, missionary cults within evangelical Christianity, or Islamists (I’m not sure that the word Islamist is gaining currency meaning those who seek the supremacy of Islam. I prefer to call it Sham-Islam).

On the other hand interfaith activity is proceeding apace with unprecedented intensiveness and urgency. Today’s universalism is sharing what we have in common and overcoming common problems of racism and disrespect.

Jewish people have a self-image of being apart from the globalization of religion. We are not a missionary faith; and it’s true we are not and mostly have never been.

The question that raises is: do we then not believe that our faith has anything of value to say to the world?

The Reform Movement in Judaism when it started out in Germany in the early nineteenth century and then later in the USA, actually did have a mission. It was more like what we would call today an ethos statement. It was, to put it in its broadest terms, that the Jewish people have a purpose in the world as bearers of the ethics of Torah and the prophets. And the objective was to bring nearer the Age of the Messiah. Reform did not hold a monopoly on this mission statement. Eminent Orthodox thinkers like Rav Kook the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine shared it.

For him sparks of the divine hide in every person and in every culture. It is our job individually and collectively to release the sparks and unite them with their Divine Source. Christians and Muslims have versions of the sparks which they inherited from Judaism. We all have to work on purifying and releasing the light. That’s our mission.

We don’t use this word mission today. It’s become archaic. I think people regard it as pretentious. Our Movement for Reform Judaism now speaks of Tikkun olam (repair of the world). That’s our current version of universalism. Whether it’s backing the Make Poverty History campaign, or Interfaith Work, or peace work for Israel – it all comes under the heading of Tikkun Olam. If our Reform Judaism is to be truly meaningful, and purposeful we have to work on that one, you and I. Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) requires Tikkun Am, repair of the people (so much the victim for so long) and that requires Tikkun Atzmo – repair of oneself (how can we resist being dragged down by despair?)

It’s a dangerous world we are living in. The splits within religions can be as horrific as those between as we saw this week with the bombing of the Shi’ite Temple in Iraq. At times like this people tend to turn inwards. We are justifiably concerned about the level of Anti-Semitism which in this country has reached its highest level in terms of violent incidents since the war.

The Purim story, whilst it gives occasion for traditional Jewish fun, is a reminder that evil forces which threaten people with differences from society’s norms are a universal phenomenon.

Next month we’ll be celebrating a landmark in English-Jewish history – the 350th anniversary of the readmission of the Jews into this country under Oliver Cromwell after another 350 years of being banned from these shores. It’s nothing to be proud of that England was the first country in Europe to expel its entire Jewish community in 1290. It is a history lesson which is at the very heart of identity as British Jews.

The lesson is to have a sensitive heart for the outsider, for we have been outsiders many times. A sensitive heart, publicly and personally.

Tikkun Olam – repair of the world, Tikkun Am, repair of the people, and prior to it all Tikkun Atzmo – repair of oneself.

V for Values

Written by Rabbi Silverman

V is for Victory – as everybody knows. We think of Churchill’s famous cigar and his V-sign which gave everyone a sense of hope and encouragement. Victory over a vicious tyranny. Pesach which will be with us in two weeks celebrates the same theme.

It was a victory for the tribes of Israel; a triumph for the right to one’s own identity not to be submerged in another culture.

When you read the Exodus story, though, you get the distinct impression that this was more the agenda of God and Moses than of the people. There was resistance to being freed. ‘The worst aspect of the slavery in Egypt,’ say the sages, ‘was that they had learned to endure it’. The first Seder was held in Egypt, before the departure. They needed to be rallied, to be unified, to be prepared for the Great Escape.

V is for Values. Whilst we all have values, most of which we are probably unaware of, for them to be a living reality for a whole community of people, there needs to be some encouragement if not coercion, they don’t come automatically.

Pesach is one of our greatest exemplars of values. What’s the greatest value of Pesach – ask anyone – what’s the first image that springs into your mind? People, isn’t it?. Family and friends. For any community to succeed, these values have to be strengthened. Friendliness. Welcoming people in. Sharing family seder tables with somebody new.

Pesach celebrates the values of history and tradition. We don’t just talk about it, we live it, we taste it. With special food – that’s a value in itself.

What about the food we don’t eat? All the restrictions that surround avoiding foods with leaven and thoroughly clearing your home of leaven. What’s the value of that? The traditional answer is that leaven symbolizes the inflation of the ego and we are to be aware of our humble origins. OK, but I suspect for most of us it is simply another expression of our Jewish identity.

It is a case among many of where we voluntarily submit ourselves to special boundaries. If you take Pesach seriously, you won’t buy a sandwich during the week – you’ll take a packed lunch to work which is Kosher lePesach. You won’t go to Café Nero or Starbucks at all during the seven days Pesach, and so on. It is more than a food boundary; it can also be a social boundary, which takes self-control and effort. And it’s a time boundary, when you are taking time out to be extra aware of your Judaism.

Just as the victory in Egypt was not being completely submerged in the surrounding culture, so it is for us today. I don’t think there’s another festival which gives quite as much opportunity to live the value of a day to day special way of life as Pesach does.

Freedom is a prime value of Pesach. The encouragement of questions at the seder table. Slaves are not free to question; they just do as they are told. As Reform Jews questioning critically is highly valued. For example: why if you are an Ashkenazi Jew are you not allowed to eat rice and grain foods like seeds and beans (kitniot) on Pesach but if you are a Sephardi you are – and we find the answer in history. There are 5 grains which class as hametz, leaven: which are wheat oats barley, rye and spelt. The ban against other grains was introduced in certain European communities where these foodstuffs were kept in open sacks where they could be come confused with the 5 grains or become mixed in with them. The ruling spread from those communities to others, but not as far as the Sephardi communities. If there is a value in this boundary, I would suggest it might be an awareness of the historical background you spring from, which in itself is a Pesach value, awareness of your roots and the roots of the community you belong to.

Pesach, by the volume of questions it raises, spontaneously encourages the value of knowledge, of study, of discovery.

There’s the value of creativity; for example adding to new ways of doing things to the Seder; using a Haggadah which has interesting commentaries; encouraging discussion around the table; talking about family history (many people will be making family history discoveries now from the new Jewish Chronicle archives.) Storytelling (Haggadah means narration) – real life stories retelling our family journeys. New songs and games can be found on the internet; quite popular with communal sedarim as well as family ones. Imaginative ways of dramatising the 12 plagues.

V is for Variety. And variety is the spice of life.

These are progressive values of course. The traditional way is to do it straight, although even there discussion and debate is very much encouraged. The prime value in the tradition is obedience to a command. But we do find the value of experiencing it is also emphasized. It does after all say in the Haggadah that you are obligated to regard yourself as if you personally had come out of Egypt.

And we do have our own Egypts, of being oppressed by circumstances beyond our control. The bitterness and the sweetness which intermingle in the eating on Pesach reflect life. Essentially the value here is one of optimism.

These are some Pesach values. What’s the value of values?

Why not just do it – why do we have to think about it?

I think the answer to why in the question itself – ‘why?’

Because the smallest child will ask ‘why’? And the teenager will ask ‘why’, and at every stage in our lives we will be motivated by the meanings our traditions have for us.

And so the more we are aware of the values we hold behind what we do, the stronger will be our motivation, our ability to keep it going, and to pass it on.

W for Wonder (Shabbat HaGadol)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

Have you watched David Attenborough’s TV Series ‘Planet Earth’ ? Wonderful isn’t it! It’s a wonder how creatures survive and flourish in the most inhospitable of environments – like deserts in the last Planet Earth broadcast.

This is a theme at the very heart of the Pesach festival. I wonder at our persistence through all the trials of history from Egypt onwards.

I wonder at the way we keep our traditions going; how we keep such a powerful observance such as the Seder going. It’s all the more amazing given the distractions of modern day life.

I wonder at the very existence of Jews and Judaism, and at the marvels of Israel despite all the problems.

Wonder is a most basic emotion, which every child has and which spurs a child on to awakening understanding about his environment. The great scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the key to spiritual understanding is wonder, or as he also called it ‘radical amazement’.

The news this week of the successful implantation of a laboratory grown human bladder fills us with radical amazement. It’s one of the wonders of Judaism, to my mind, that it endorses such advancements of science which improve the human condition. Far from taking the position as some religions do, that we are not to interfere with the work of the Creator, we affirm that human beings are co-workers with the Creator. As the Talmud puts it we are in such situations acting as the hands of the Creator in this world.

Whilst of course Judaism, Jewish Law (Halachah) is ever vigilant over ethical issues, such as where the intentions behind are exploitative, the adaptability of Judaism to human progress is a great wonder. There is a school of thought that it is not this wonder which drives us on. 20% of all Nobel Prize Winners have been Jews (we are .5% of the world’s population) yet the proportion who openly and proudly identify themselves as Jews is negligible.

“Would that a time would come when great Jews will be Jewishly great” Rav Kook once exclaimed. And some say that for most of us who do openly identify, the driving force is not wonder and admiration for Judaism.

It is persecution. You may have heard Rabbi Daniel Cohn-Sherbock this week on the Radio Programme ‘Start the Week’ with David Baddiel, introducing his new book about the paradox of persecution. He was arguing that what has held the Jewish people together more than anything else is Antisemitism. It’s not a new idea. The first prominent Jew who claimed that was the philosopher Spinoza. And there may be some truth about it. But it would be a sad truth if that’s all there is to it.

The truth is – wonder might initially drive us, but we soon lose it – a child as he/she grows up loses this sense of wonder.

You know that curious little passage in the Haggadah about the 4 sons (or the 4 children). I am struck by the 3rd of them, usually called the simple one. Tam in Hebrew – which can mean simple, or straightforward, or innocent or perfect! If you just take this character as simple – then there’s not a great deal of difference between him and the 4th one, the one who doesn’t know how to ask, – is there? That one doesn’t say anything of course, this one, the Tam says simply: Mah Zot (what is this? ) Not much of an advance on the 4th one, not much of a question.

You’ve got such a contrast between the first 2, the Wise and the Wicked, you’d expect more of a contrast between the last two. I think the Tam comes alive if you read what he says not as a question, but as an exclamation: Mah Zot – What is this!! In this way he expresses wonder – the wow factor. He can’t find any more words than that. He’s not got the erudition of the hacham (the wise) – or the critical faculty of the rasha (the contrary one) – is he lacking a question? It’s not a question of questions- it’s just wow, it’s just amazement!

If you read it this way, you are interpreting it as an appreciation of the powerful influence of Pesach. Some Haggadot follow this line with the 4 questions, taking them instead as 4 exclamations. Mah Nishtanah can be read (not as why is this night different?) but ‘How different is this night!” like Mah Tovu at the start of the service means “How good is this place!”

Modern Judaism requires the Wow Factor to thrive.

A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a wonderful occasion – it is a wonder, a real achievement. So it is when anyone discovers that they can do something they didn’t realise they had it in them to do. And in a Jewish context it’s wonderful because it helps us all grow.

Pesach is for looking back at how far we have come together, and looking forward. And I want to say how particularly pleasing it is to be sharing this service with Sidney Morley and his family and celebrating your very special birthday with you Sidney and your family is a joy for us all.

This Shabbat, the Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Haggadol – usually translated the Great Shabbat, but that’s ungrammatical – it’s really the Shabbat of the Great. The great what – the great day? – in your case Sidney it is a great day you have reached. Or if we translate it the great one? For us, Sidney, you amongst all our gedolim, are the one who has guided and sustained us in the most concrete and practical of ways over many many years and most of all we cherish fond memories of Ysabel by your side.But I know you would want the credit to go ultimately to the Great One above all – Ha’el Hagadol – the source of all life and strength. And indeed we would all join with you in saying sheheyanu for your great day.

Life itself is a wonder.

Jewish life is full of wonders. Sometimes eclipsed. Our sense of wonder at the advancements in Israel is eclipsed by the problems. Our wonder at the rise to prominence of Anglo-Jewry in the 350 years following the Resettlement in England is eclipsed by several things – the dramatic decline in our numbers over the past half century, from half-a million to 300,000 and dropping, the rise in Antisemitism, the rise in racism as a whole.

Our wonder at the progress made by the Manchester Jewish community if we look back to our forbears in Red Bank and Cheetham Hill and how far we’ve come since then, is tempered by similar misgivings.

Our wonder at the rise of Reform Judaism over the past – now fast approaching 150 years in Manchester, is limited by a regret that it has not expanded further.

We’ve got a lot to offer as Reform Jews. Many of us come to it afresh from different background finding new ideas, creativity, excitement, comprehensibility, an inclusivity, a friendliness, a facilitativeness, an openness, a you-name-it-ness which you don’t find elsewhere.

There are great strengths in our Judaism- if we can only hold on to them. We have enormous powers to adapt to adverse situations. They are the strengths of practicalities mixed with faith.

That’s a message of Pesach. That’s the wonder of it, the wow of it, the how different it is, Mah Nishtanah, Mah Tov helkenu, Mah naim goralenu, mah yafah yerushatenu…

How special, how good is our lot, how pleasant is our heritage!

X for the X Factor (Pesach)

Written by Rabbi Silverman

On my recent visit to New York I took a memorable trip to Ellis Island, beside the Statue of Liberty, the famous registration centre for thousands of immigrants fleeing from persecution in Europe, now a huge exhibition centre which preserves the atmosphere and the history of Jewish immigration particularly well. Many of them experienced problems with the registration procedures because they could not write English. They were not able to sign their name because their mother tongue, Yiddish, is written in Hebrew letters. So what they would do in most cases is sign their name with a circle.

Why a circle? Because that was the alternative to an X, a cross – they would not use a cross because so much persecution had been brought upon them over the ages in the name of the Cross. Leo Rosten in his books on Yiddish gives this as the explanation for why Jews were called in American slang ‘Kikes’. Kike, like all ethnic nicknames is not a pleasant word, but according to Rosten it originates from a Yiddish word for a circle: kikel.

This piece of history points to something that is quintessentially Jewish – doing things differently. Usually small things with symbolic meaning.

Another example is Jewish people not joining in with Hip Hip Hurrah – because that was the shout of the Crusaders when they massacred Jews and Muslims. Hip, Hip, (it was also pronounced Hep Hep) is believed to be originally a Latin abbreviation for Hierosolyma est Perdita – Jerusalem is lost or destroyed.

There is no X in the Hebrew Alphabet. Because the sound does not come in the language.

When I asked for contributions for a subject connected with Jewish Values beginning with X for my spiel on this letter today for my series on Jewish Values A-Z, I received a good number of responses.

Xylophone – somebody suggested – it actually yielded one Jewish connection: the shtroyfidl (straw fiddle) which is a vertically played xylophone used in some klezmer music. X for kisses is quite nice. And there’s XTC (text message language for ecstasy).

Xenophobia – the dislike of strangers is absolutely what the Pesach moral message is aimed at countering.

Also someone suggested I talk about the X factor which would give me carte blanche to bring in anything I like!

I thought I’d just stay with the example of the circle instead of the X .

Doing things differently is part of the Jewish psyche. And there are of course enormous tensions involved in it. The whole history of Jewish emancipation works in the opposite direction.

In the Pesach Haggadah there’s a short line which is germane to this subject. The line in the midrashim leading up to the plagues. Where it says: veyahu sham le’am – ‘they became there a people’. And the explanation given, the comment is, ‘melamed shehayu metzuyanim sham’ – this teaches that they became distinguished there (in Egypt).

Metzuyanim: In modern Hebrew means excellent. And what does excellent mean? Outstanding. (Many words starting with ex- (e-x) have something to do with out – since ‘ex’ in Latin and also in Greek means out or outside: so we have exit and Exodus, going out.

In Hebrew the way you express something excellent or extraordinary is by a little phrase which means literally ‘going out of the norm’ ‘yotze min haklal’. It can be used positively or negatively: the wicked son in the Haggadah ‘hotzi et atzmo min haklel’ – he took himself out of the norm.

The Israelites were outstanding- literally they stood out, they distinguished themselves in certain ways. In what kind of ways? Some haggadot – and most of us a have a selection of them around the table, quote midrashim which answer this question. The commonest answer quoted is that Israel distinguished themselves in 3 key ways:

1. They never changed their names

2. They never gave into immorality

3. They never changed their language.

What this all adds up to is a separateness from the host culture. This is where the tension comes in.

When the Exodus from Eastern Europe came here to England, to Manchester, the Jewish immigrants wanted to become as English as possible without losing their Jewish way of life. If you read Bill Williams’ histories you’ll see that the Jewish Workingmen’s Clubs, the Jewish Day Schools etc were all geared up to making Englishmen out of sons of immigrants, (daughters too no doubt) as quickly as possible. Language was changed, Yiddish was preserved in cultural societies and spoken at home (especially when you didn’t want children to understand – the best way of teaching them of course), and name changes occurred to some degree, (as for morality let’s skip that one!). Reform, there is no doubt, was in the vanguard of assimilation. Our services had to be such that our non-Jewish friends would feel comfortable in them.

A great deal has changed. There’s been a revival in tradition, a revival in what’s distinctively Jewish. Our new Siddur will reflect that. I would sum up the change in Reform as going from a centrifugal to a centripetal direction. Centrifugal – from the centre outwards, centripetal – from the perimeter inwards.

Reform has moved from concerns which are outward looking- Social Action, Interfaith work – all these activities are still valid and vital, but something else is even more vital – a growing concern with how do we attract our people in.

The buzz word is Inclusivity.

There is a great desire to work on the Ex-members (we don’t have a concept of ex-Jews); the lapsed, the disaffected. The marginalised; those living at the extremities. How do we regenerate enthusiasm?

What brought this new thinking about? A very significant factor was the 2001 census. In the last census 270,000 Jews declared themselves to be Jewish but up to a third of them have nothing to do with organised Jewish life at all. There are opportunities in this.

The redevelopment is on the horizon and before too long we’ll be making our Exodus out of here. And X will mark this spot for a new building.

Many shuls around the world have found that a redevelopment has become an opportunity for regeneration and revival. All you have to do to ensure that that happens in our case is…X

You fill in the x. You can use any letter of the alphabet this time. Everybody has their own idea for the x factor, for what would attract more interest in the Shul. Pop your idea in an envelope addressed to Living Judaism at Jackson’s Row and ask for your idea to be brought to the next meeting.

Y for Youth and You

Written by Rabbi Silverman

We’re coming to the end of the Alphabet in my alphabetical survey of Jewish values. We’re on Y. Y could be for Yiddishkeit – which is Judaism with an oldy-worldy sound about it. Or Y could be for Youth. Or Y could be for Yiches – which means literally relatedness, being proud of who you are related to on your family tree going back generations. And the forward looking counterpart of Yiches is Naches – being proud of your children and grandchildren.

One of my most interesting Seder experiences one year was when our table was arranged with the older generation at one end of the table and the younger at the other with me in the middle. When it came to the meal I could hear two separate conversations going on, and I could join in with whichever one I wanted to but I didn’t; I mostly listened – the contrast was so fascinating.

To my left the older generation were reminiscing on Seders in times past which led on to memories about family. To my right the younger generation were talking about what they were going to do in the summer and what their plans were for the next year. Not surprisingly the elders focused on the past whilst the youth focused on the future.

What is most gratifying is when youth and elders talk to each other. My mother told me this week that she had had trouble remembering her mobile phone password. She asked the phone company for help. We can’t tell you your password they said, for security reasons, but do you have a grandchild? I have 7 grandchildren she said. Well, tell us their names. She went through them one by one. When she got to number 7 they said ‘that’s it!’ That was the name of the one who bought her the phone. Do you get a lot of this ? Mum asked. All the time, they said.

Dialogue between the generations is a major theme of Pesach. Talking to each other achieves more than talking about each other.

That was the maxim of the great teacher of dialogue Martin Buber. His famous I-Thou philosophy is about real relationships between people, as against I-It where you are treating people as objects without really getting to know them. Buber talked to youth a great deal as well as about them. In a famous lecture of his given before the First World War, he said that ‘Youth is the time of total openness. With totally open senses it absorbs the world’s variegated abundance; with a totally open will it gives itself to life’s boundlessness.’

And in relation to religion he asks us to imagine the place the young person inhabits as an enormous circular building full of windows looking out on the world in all directions. He says ‘whoever imposes religion upon the young person closes all but one of the thousand windows of the circular building in which youth dwells, all but one of the thousand roads leading into the world’.

Buber like every good artist does not explain what he means. He leaves that to you and I.

It’s a very challenging image. Every generation wishes to pass on its values to the next. To value youth, suggests Buber, you need openness.

Why is the building circular? To me that suggests endlessness; no beginning, no end. What does the closing of all but one of the thousand windows mean? That suggests to me dogmatism. There’s only one view possible.

And the closing of all but one of the thousand roads? That fascinates me. That’s the road out of the house into the big wide world. When the young person is given only one permitted view with all others closed, there’s only one road back to the home base. And as a young person you can choose to come back – but only by that road. With openness – there are a multiplicity of options open, and a multiplicity of ways back to the home base. Many windows, and many doors are open.

Buber’s lecture title is instructive in itself. It’s called Herut: on Youth and Religion. Herut means freedom. Pesach is Z’man Herutenu, Season of our Freedom. Buber quotes the teaching from Pirke Avot about where the Torah refers to God’ s writing engraved on the Tablets of Stone. It says ‘do not read harut (engraved) but ‘herut’ (freedom).

How can there be freedom about what is set in stone? Answer: through interpretation, for every individual, for every generation to find their own way.

I want to share with you something produced recently by some of the pupils of our cheder. They produced a mini survey of their thoughts on being British Jews. The title page reads:

‘The Jews’ News’ – 2006 is the 350th anniversary of the re-settlement of Jews in England – This newsletter is a collection of lots of people’s thoughts from Jackson’s Row. Class Hey-2 made a survey and this newsletter is everybody’s answers….’

One of the questions in the survey asked people to write down their first 3 words you feel when thinking about being a Jew in England. Here are some of the results – from the children: Pride, Minority, Reform, Freedom, Good Food, Israel, Hebrew, Ivrit, Torah, Rabbi, Synagogue.

And from the adults’ answers: Freedom, Proud, Privilege, Community, Family, Integrated, Tradition, Lucky, Belonging, Individuality, Peaceful, Connected, Special, Different, Happy, Isolated.

That list speaks volumes. The children’s answers reflect the Shul environment more. Freedom of religious expression and Minority isolation are themes common to both children and adults.

Another question: what are your wishes for the next 50 years for Jewish life in Britain? Some answers to that question, from ages 11-14: Jews move to Israel. Peace in Israel. Less racism. More Jews in Britain. Less ignorance of Judaism.

And from the adults: Reduce religious hatred. That it maintains its identity. Peace. To live safely. Bigger community. Maintaining bigger sense of community. For Reform Judaism to be a vibrant, integrated part of Britain. The Jewish community should be involved in enjoyable activities with other communities.

Again they are talking much the same language.

Our smallness and isolation is coming across very strongly as a shared concern between the generations. It’s something we need to address.

It’s a happy co-incidence that the word ‘Youth’ begins with the word ‘You’. There are two lessons in that for me, as someone who is relatively young. One is to find the ‘You in the Youth’ – what do you want as a young person to serve your Jewish needs, or if you’re older – that the way toward understanding between the generations is to tune in to the young person inside you. Not just the way you were at that age, but to find that free child in you, ask it, what’s fun about being Jewish and how can we find ways of doing more of it.

The other lesson about Youth and You is – taking our cue from Buber to talk to – not about. It’s I-Thou not I-You because in German which was Buber’s mother’s tongue you distinguish between singular and plural when speaking to one person or a lot of people. Like in old English Thou, and you plural used to be Ye.

Buber for some reason is not interested in the relationship between one person and a whole lot of people. Real relationship is one-to-one. The Youth as a whole is constantly changing. By the way that’s true of the adult community too. In the years I’ve been here – it will be 30 next year, I have seen the group sitting here change 30 times. What is gratifying is the faithfuls that have remained constant, and most gratifying of all, those who have grown up here over all the years.

If there is to be a real meeting of hearts and minds and souls, that happens best when it is talking together, yes of course in groups, but listening one to one. Not speculating on what are our needs according to our different ages but asking: What is it that you need?

Returning to the mobile phone – and there are plenty of grandparents and I know at least one great-grandparent who maintain email and skype contact (that’s where you can talk endlessly with family and friends around the globe for free with your computer, microphone and see each other with the webcam mini-camera) – if you want to ensure good participation and attendances at anything in shul or community events, for all ages – there’s no substitute for a team of people engaged in direct one-to-one, personal communication.

And speaking personally: I want to say a few words to a very special young lady whose birthday it is today – Cynthia Zatman. We all want to wish you a very happy special birthday Cynthia. (You know that by today’s standards you are still a relative youngster) We can only imagine how hard it must have been for you this Pesach without Aubrey alav hashalom. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge all the time, energy work, and devotion you have put into the Friendship Club over the many years, which has been a service to the entire Manchester Jewish Community and for which you deserve a medal.

Pesach brings both ends of the age spectrum together. May the spirit of this Pesach spur us on to keep family and community bonds strong, to fill in gaps, mend fences where necessary, revive commitment and encourage new growth and renewed vitality

Z for Zionism

Written by Rabbi Silverman

We are off to see our son Yossi in Jerusalem.

Yossi was introduced to Israel by our youth movement RSY- Netzer (Netzer stands for Noar Reformi Zioni – Reform Zionist Youth). He is now an oleh chadash (new immigrant).

That speaks louder than words for our value of Zionism.

Pesach is not about arriving in Israel but about journeying to Israel. We haven’t arrived at the ideal Jerusalem, but we still say, even in Israel:

Leshanah haba’ah bi Yerushalayim – habenuyah

Next year in Jerusalem – rebuilt (along ideal lines)

(More about that another time!)