Monday, 31 January 2011

The Rabbi's Speech

Here is my sermon from last Shabbat- enjoy!

I went to see a film last week.

Usually I would not share this trivial piece of information with you- What does your Rabbi do in his spare time? (apart from writing blogs) you are thinking- but The King’s Speech is really a wonderful film.

Have you seen it yet?

If you haven’t- go and see it.

It’s a true story about a Prince-known as Bertie whose brother Edward was King and forced to abdicate the throne. Bertie was then thrust into the position of becoming the King, something he and his wife Elisabeth had never expected.

Of course this was particularly problematic because he had a really bad speech impediment.

He stammered.

He found it very difficult to get his words out and to communicate.

In the past he had tried to deliver speeches but had failed miserably.

The film explores his relationship with his speech therapist Lionel Logue who uses very modern and controversial methods for the time to help Bertie or King George VI as he is later known.

But George doesn’t really want the position- It’s just a matter of circumstance

I just want to share with you one very powerful scene before the coronation. They’re in Westminster Abbey in preparation and all of a sudden Logue sits on the throne.

George is furious at him and tells him: “you can’t sit there!-it’s a place reserved for K-K k k kings and you are but a commoner.”

To which Logue responds “Why not?- you don’t want to be the king – you said so yourself”

King George responds to him “But I have a voice!!”

That was a turning point in his life and King George finds his voice and leads his country throughout the war years.

It’s a powerful, emotive and wonderful film.

I can relate to the predicament of King George- it’s never been an easy thing for me to speak publicly. It doesn’t come naturally. It might look easy but it takes hours upon hours of preparation which can be blown in a very short time.

I remember speaking to my father ZL-Rev Sidney Black, who was a very learned and experienced speaker- who told me that still at an advanced age whenever he got up to speak he was quite nervous.

“If you’re not nervous- you’re not going to succeed.” he told me…

I thought about this film and I realised that the greatest of our leaders, Moshe suffered from exactly the same problem:

In the initial conversation he has with Hashem he declares time and time again:

“I am not a man of words. For I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.”

And our commentators explain that Moshe the greatest of our leaders had a speech impediment. He found it difficult to speak and communicate.

I don’t want to delve into the Medrashic account of how he came to have a speech problem

However, G-d responds that Aharon would act as the spokesman for Moshe and as the communicator with Israel and with Pharaoh

Later, during the ten plagues Moshe again declares to Hashem, “Behold I am of uncircumcised lips therefore how could you expect Pharaoh to listen to my words?”

Yet it would be Moshe Rabbeinu- who would be the true shepherd of his people. He led them out of Egypt across the Red Sea. He led them in the war against the Amalekites, and he was the one who gave them the instruction throughout, and it was Moshe about whom we read in this sedra who went up the Mountain alone to receive the Torah. Moshe was the judge, the shepherd, and he was Rabbeinu, our teacher par excellence.

So how comes he had a speech impediment?

Why should the greatest leader that we ever had- about whom it is written – “there never arose and never will arise in Israel a prophet of the stature of Moshe”. The only one of our leaders who spoke to G-d face to face-about whom it is also written that he was the most humble of all men- yet he had a speech impediment? He had problems with communication?

Why should that be? I hope you understand the question and that I have communicated this properly to you.

First- that the Torah comes from G-d and is Emet- the truth. It wasn’t the might of Moshe Rabbeinu’s oratorical skills that made the difference, it wasn’t his smooth persuasive tongue that brought everybody around to his way of thinking. It was just the fact that the Torah comes from Hashem and is His word that meant that it didn’t need any embellishment. And they had all witnessed first hand as a people the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna from heaven and the words of Hashem at Sinai. So therefore Moshe did not need to have that skill of speaking because when you are transmitting the truth you don’t need to package it.

Second, that even though Moshe suffered from the outset with a confidence problem with his speech and seemed to be unable to communicate, yet later on Moshe Rabbeinu communicated the word of Hashem direct to the people. He acted as a direct intercessor between G-d and the B’nei Yisrael. The Book of Devarim is a book comprising the speeches that Moshe delivered to Israel

Could it be possible that Moshe found his voice?

My friends: I think the message is important. Today we have more than just the conventional modes of communication to deliver the values and the messages of Judsaism.

There is more than just speaking the ten minute drasha on the Shabbat morning or the traditional shiur structure.

Today we can reach a wider audience. There is the internet, facebook, there are websites – video logs and blogs.

We’ve found our voice.

We’ve got to use it!!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Middle of the roadism 2

Here is a photo of a dear friend and colleague; Rabbi David Mason, the dynamic community rabbi of Muswell Hill synagogue. He recently read my blog: "Is there such a thing as Middle of the road Judaism?" and he sent me his thoughts on this subject.

I thought it would be a good idea to invite the Rabbi to be a guest blogger over here on my blog. and share his excellent ideas with us. So here he is:

Please note my comments at the end...

United Synagogue, Centrist Orthodoxy and ‘the Middle Ground

It is great to see more and more of my colleagues blogging and expressing their opinions on important issues. This is healthy for the Rabbinate and for our organisation. In this vein, I noted an article by my colleague Rabbi Yehudah Black on the concept of the ‘middle ground’ and his seemingly unsuccessful search for its definition. In fact the reader would be easily left with a negative conclusion about applying this motif to our organisation. I feel that this is a fundamental debate and I would like to contribute my thoughts.

Rabbi Black defined ‘middle of the road’ in a sort of arithmetical manner. In other words this definition of the United Synagogue puts it half way between one extreme and the other, right in the middle point. This of course would be an extremely parve definition empty of any dynamics and emotion and quite rightly Rabbi Black was critical of this approach. It is also simply not backed up by the diversity of engagement with Judaism expressed by our membership.

But I think that the wrong definition of ‘middle of the road’ was chosen and I would like to use as my source, an article written 1989/1990 edition of the Yearbook of Religious Zionism by Rabbi Norman Lamm who was until recently the Dean of Yeshiva University. His article was entitled ‘Centrist Orthodoxy and Moderationism’.

Rabbi Lamm begins by clearly distancing ‘centrist Orthodoxy’ from the definition that puts it arithmetically in the middle between two points. In fact he is quite vocal on this point:

“It is no compliment to our intelligence to imagine that in the name of centrism we advocate walking about the religious terrain with a yard-stick, callipers and a pocket calculator measuring the exact distance between Neturei Karta and Humanistic Judaism in order to locate the exact middle or centre. We are not and do not aspire to be ideological geographers or spiritual surveyors who search out the exact point between right and wrong, religious and non-religious, mitzvah and aveirah and settle upon that centre as our religious goal.”

Strong words. So how does Rabbi Lamm define ‘middle of the road’ if not an attempt to find a point that is mathematically in the middle of the ‘road’? Well he uses Rambam’s theory of the mean, which was derived itself from the Aristotelian theory of the Golden Mean. This theory as Maimonides applies it begs us in most cases to aim towards a central point between two extremes. So one should not for example be overly greedy or overly extravagant with money but find a position in the middle. On the face of it, this theory also looks too arithmetical and according to Rabbi Lamm. ‘bloodlessly parev…emotionally inhibiting, passionless and uninspiring’ However Rabbi Lamm explains to us an idea which he had received from his Rav, the great Rav Yosef Soloveitchik. Maimonides adds to his recipe for the mean this statement:

“our earliest Sages instructed us that a man ought always weigh his dispositions and measure them and direct them to the middle way”

According to Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Lamm, what Maimonides is telling us is that the result of being on the mean, the midpoint is not the be all and end all. The process of getting there is also important and possible more so. In Rabbi Lamm’s words:

“In other words, the process of arriving at the determination of one’s own life and character is more important than the results. It is the dynamic quality of rationally weighing and assessing and then out of freedom deciding and choosing…that qualifies this activity as the way of God”

This is crucial. We are asked here to firstly be aware of where we are on the spectrum of characteristics. Then we should direct them to the ‘middle’ point, but we do this by being aware of all the points on the spectrum. In fact we may take up different valid points on any spectrum as long as they are expressive of the mean, the average. Rabbi Lamm has transformed the theory of the mean from a cold, mathematical decision making process to one which engages all options and then involves a decision which takes heed of these options. In fact a decision based in moderationism will actual engage both extremes, whereas an extremist will not veer from one side of the argument. I will give you an example from my approach to the issues facing our beloved Israel. I sometimes find myself sympathetic with a more right wing and entrenched view of how Israel should relate to the Palestinian leadership and people. But not always. I often find myself sympathising with a more left wing and dovish approach. Is this because I am indecisive? Maybe. I am more worried about the trap of extremism which blocks one from considering any other valid point of view. But I am not frightened of listening and engaging with diametrically opposed views.

So ‘centrist orthodoxy’ or ‘moderate orthodoxy’ is careful and moderate in the process of making a decision. But when a decision is made it is made with clarity, passion and strength. This approach can equally apply to the realm of halacha. A posek, or halachic decisor will also need to relate in his decision to a multiplicity of opinions before he makes his decision. And this decision will not always be strict and not always be lenient. The Rav who is a posek may look therefore inconsistent in his approach. He is not. He is carefully weighing up each situation before deciding according to the specific conditions. Here is how Rabbi Lamm puts it:

“A posek is not a computer in human form who accesses his halachic data-base for the relevant and dominant halachic opinions and offers them ‘as is’ without considering minority views and without insight into the unique human situation of the one who posed the questions”.

One small example. In my Synagogue there is a custom, as with many, that milk and milk products should be supervised. I stick by this as I feel that the standards of kashrut in a Synagogue kitchen should be high. But that does not mean to say that I have toyed with the alternative approach. Some have said to me that if one does not allow chocolates from the kashrut guide, one gives the message that they are not kosher enough. Possibly, yes. I do not reject this view, but after weighing things up another view is taken.

I remember in my time at Kingston Synagogue as Rabbi, that someone criticised me for being ‘middle of the road’ and not strong minded enough as I had allowed a woman to speak to the community (from her side of the mechitza) on Shabbat morning. I was told that in the middle of the road one would get run over. My reply was that I may only seem to be in the middle of the road as a leader because I need to hold the community to together, and to do so I would need to have my arms symbolically around each side of the community on each issue. My decisions would rarely be middle decisions – rather I would be constantly getting off the fence – but I would share these jumps off the fence with both sides of the community. Of course each decision needs to be made with reference tightly to halacha and Talmud Torah. But being the Rabbi of a United Synagogue community is a challenging and important role because of this challenge. Our goal is to ensure that Jewish people can find a place under the umbrella of our Orthodox community. To be passionate about this we need to be clear that our community is not based on a boring and passionless concept of decision making but a dynamic and creative one that is careful and tolerant, but in its result is firm.

I will finish with the words of our Chief Rabbi in his book ‘Community of Faith’

“It would mean that Jewish leadership would have to be exercised in a way that was faithful and yet open, tolerant without ceasing to be firm”

This I feel is our definition of ‘the middle road’.

Thank you Rabbi Mason for your thoughts. Here are my questions to you. First and foremost I better tell you that I am an admirer of both Rabbi Y Soloveitchik Z'L-The Rav as he was affectionately known by his followers, and Rabbi Norman Lamm who is perhaps one of the greatest exponents of Torah Umaddah alive today.

  • When using the term "middle of the road" I wasn't referring to Jewish leadership. The message was in relation to your everyday Jew who refers to his/ her Judaism as a middle of the road Jew. what does that mean?
  • So in relation to Jewish committment, are you going to advance the counsel of Maimonides that he keep the golden mean?- I know I'm supposed to read the shema- should I read only the first paragraph? and that makes me a middle of the road Jew? should I eat kosher at home but when I go out I eat treif? Do you see what I mean - in these cases middle of the roadism cannot be your philosophy - it gets you nowhere, and it creates stagnation.
  • I don't think I disagree with you in relation to seeing both sides of an argument. But is that really called Centrism or is it just the fifth Chelek of shulchan Aruch which is as you well know just common sense?

Monday, 24 January 2011

Is there such a thing as Middle of the road Judaism?

A few years ago, I delivered a sermon on Shabbat Mishpatim on the subject of Middle-of-the-road Judaism. It created quite a stir in the community. Some people agreed others were not so happy- especially when I spoke about it again the next week. But it gave a lot of people some food for thought whilst ingesting their Shabbat afternoon cholent.. Here it is...

Middle of the road Judaism

This is the term which we tend to commonly use for the United Synagogue brand of Judaism. My question is what is the definition of this term and is it a correct expression to describe who we are? Isn’t it strange how we use these words all the time-"I am a middle of the road type of Jew"- but we really don’t stop to think about what we are saying. In America the middle of the road Judaism is called Centrism- But we still need to know what it means.

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”- a quote from Jim Hightower.

In a physical sense when I say middle of the road I think of the fact that if you are walking you are vulnerable from both sides and you can get hit from a passing vehicle coming from either direction, because the middle of the road is not a sensible or usual place to be!!

On a spiritual sense when I think of middle of the road- I think of the fact that I am neither veering to the left or right- it suggests a certain parevness, a mediocrity- a certain sitting on the fence, but is that necessarily a good thing for Anglo Jewry?

Before I go any further let me just give you insight from my own experience. I was brought up in a United Shul. My father as you all well know was the Rabbi, yet at that time I’ve got to be honest,I was not turned on at all by United Synagogue Judaism. It was in the mid seventies that Rev A.D Sufrin – a Lubavitch shaliach and his wife Henny and family came to town and I was enticed by firstly the fact that here were people who were frum and at the same time they were modern and trendy and who definitely did not class themselves as middle of the road Jews. Tolerant and open minded yes- but not middle of the road Jews. Dare I say it but perhaps it was the fact at the time that Lubavitch Chabad was not mainstream meant that I was drawn towards this brand of Judaism. Could it have been- the very fact that they offered more obvious truth and were uncompromising on Jewish issues that attracted me to that way of life.

Every day we recite in the Shema- the statement of faith in Judaism: "Veahavta et Hashem Elokecha bechol levavecho uvechol nafshecho uvechol meodecho"- "and you shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart with all your soul and with all your might"- Meodecho- means the meod shelcho- with all your muchness- (which is not really a word in English)with all your strength, force, capacity. Love of G-d, the connection with which a Jew forges with Hakodosh Boruch Hu- should not be bound by middle-of-the-roadism. Completely the opposite, Judaism requires that a person be totally dedicated and committed to Hashem and His Torah.

There’s no room for half measures or compromise.

It means to me as a Jew for example that when I recite the Shema my mind should be totally absorbed with what I am doing. I cannot half recite the Shema- there’s no middle ground here. I am either doing it or not.

A story from the Book of Melachim that I am fond of reading is the showdown between Eliyahu Hanavi and the Priests of Baal. It was a time in Eretz Yisrael when Ahab and Jezebel sat on the throne and ruled the Northern Kingdom. Their influence had become so great that they had managed to implant idolatry- Baal worship throughout their Kingdom. So Eliyahu demanded that they come together- the Priests of Baal- the entire B’nai Yisrael on Har HaCarmel to ascertain whose was truth.

Now listen to the words of Eliyahu addressing the B’nai Yisrael;

"Ad mosai atem poschim al shtei haseifim"

How long will you vacillate between two opinions

"Im Hashem Elokim lechu acharav- veim habaal lechu acharav"

If Hashem is the G-d-follow Him! And if the Baal-follow it!

Eliyahu is saying; there is no room to stand in the middle. You’ve got a choice between idolatry and following Hashem, you cannot stand in the middle. Middle of the roadism for such a decision cannot be the way forward. Dithering and indecision is worse than even following Avodah Zarah, because at least then even though you may have turned away from Hashem, at least you have made a decision.

The quote however has been from quite a clear cut situation- on one side of the road is idolatry on the other is Judaism and following Hashem- in such a state of affairs there’s no middle ground- it’s definitive- Once you’ve made the choice then you’re either for Hashem or you’re not.

But within Judaism is there such a thing as the middle ground?

On one side of the equation is Secular Humanistic Judaism- the other side is Neturei Karta- Middle of the road means a middle point between the two. Once again this is a very difficult suggestion. Secular Humanistic Judaism means a non Halachic way of life and United Synagogue which is an Orthodox institution cannot use that as the barometer-way to measure the middle ground.

So I am at a loss. I do not know what is meant by middle of the road Judaism.

If it means inclusivist and tolerant- which the United Synagogue endeavours to be- you can also find inclusivism and tolerance amongst the Chareidi and Yeshivish world. So what do we mean by middle of the road Judaism-Could it be that perhaps we are just playing with words -food for thought- perhaps a theme to which I will return in coming weeks

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Organ Transplants

Here is a copy of my sermon delivered this past Shabbat. My Chairman quipped that I really murdered this one. Read on to find out why.

The Jewish Chronicle sometimes makes my blood boil.

Last week was no exception. It decided to use its front columns to report on The Beth Din’s decision in relation to Organ Donor Cards and Organ transplantation.

I have no problem with that.

It must be emphasised that this is not an easy subject. The RCA- The Rabbinical Council of America, which is a body representing 1000 mainstream Orthodox Shuls in America recently held an investigation into what is the Halacha in relation to Organ Transplants. After producing a 110 page document and bringing all the various viewpoints on this subject, they came to the conclusion that for their Rabbinate it was better that each individual rabbi use his own discretion to rule in the way he seemed fit in Halacha.

However our Beth Din are more forthright in their opinions: They issued a ruling that whereas Organ donation is permitted in many instances according to the Torah especially in connection with a live donor and even after death, for example kidney or cornea donation, and not only that, but it is a good and upright thing to do. However, when it comes to people carrying blanket donor Cards to be used after death , this was against the Halacha.

The JC in an editorial took a rather emotive and irreverent stand on this issue. They showed complete ignorance of the issues- they could not understand why the Chief Rabbi and the Beth Din do not come in line with Israel and other countries who already allow Organ Donor Cards and could not understand why they do not classify brain stem death as death as if there was an international three line whip on the issue.

This morning we read from the Decalogue, commonly known as the Ten Commandments.

Every body knows that the Ten Commandments are divided into two parts. The first five speak about the Mitzvot Bein Adam LeMakom, the Mitzvot that are between man and G-d and the second five speak about those Mitzvot that are interpersonal-between man and his neighbour.

We all know that and I haven’t said anything new.

But the question is that if you look at the Aseret Hadibrot there appears to be two separate elements. There are those mitzvot that are fundamental to being Jewish like "I am the Lord Your G-d" which speaks about Belief in G-d and "Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy". These are the Mitzvot that are high, reaching up towards the heavens- if you know what I mean.

And then there are those Mitzvot that if the Torah hadn’t told us about them you would have known about them anyway for example: Lo Tirtzach – Thou Shalt not murder. After all it makes sense for any civilised society that if people are going to live with one another, that the first rule of thumb ought to be that you would not murder one another.

It’s a matter of human survival.

So we need to understand if Lo Tirtzach-Thou shalt not murder is self understood and self explanatory and makes sense, why include this commandment in the Top Ten?

There were before and after the Torah had been given, societies, who had as the main framework of their rule book the law that murder is against the law.

Let’s just look at how the Ten Commandments are written on the Two tablets of stone.

You have five on one side and five on the other. The mitzvah of Anochi Hashem Elokecha- I am the Lord Your G-d- belief in Him is placed next to the Mitzvah of Lo Tirzach – Thou Shalt not murder. Why is that so?

Because there might be an occasion where you or I in our finite limited minds will rationalise and say

You know the Torah says You shall not murder- So in the blatant truth of it all of course it is against everything we believe. But maybe there is a sort of grey area where it’s not so easy to make a decision. Perhaps in certain instances it is muttar, you can rationalise forfeiting life- for example a case when somebody is in the last stages of life. They are about to die anyway- why not hasten the experience? In Switzerland there is the Dignitas clinic where people can elect to go and die in a humane fashion before they have to go through the suffering.

It makes sense- end the life a little bit earlier and make it easier why not make it law over here?

However let me just paraphrase the words of Chief Rabbi Lord Jacobovitz Z’l on this very issue.

A parable.

Imagine a person is about to jump off the Empire State building in an attempt to commit suicide. He takes the plunge and on his way down a person with a shotgun shoots and kills him.

So you say- he was going to die anyway?

However according to Jewish law even though he had only twenty seconds to live before he hits the ground nevertheless the person who shoots him is a murderer. But- you say- he was going to die anyway-and his life was very limited- Yet the gunman is a murderer.

Why? Because human life is human life and is sacrosanct- and it makes no difference the quality or the quantity of that life. The Torah says Lo Tirzach- Thou shalt not murder and next to it are the words – Anochi Hashem Elokecha- it is not for us to decide when a person should or should not die- It is in the hands of G-d and He ultimately makes the decision.

So now we come back to the view of Beth Din in relation to Brain Stem death. It’s very easy to become emotive on this issue but it’s a matter of debate: when is a person dead? Now that is a very simple question to answer. When the Neshama-soul departs the body?

But can somebody tell me exactly when that is? How can you tell that a person is dead? When you don’t see signs of neshimah – of breathing? When the heart has stopped? When a person is brain or brain stem dead- yet those organs are still functioning with the help of a ventilator? It’s a grey area- it’s difficult to know- and there are Poskim on both sides of the view.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Moshe Tendler. Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitch are amongst those that accept brain stem death as being true death.

Yet there are Rabbis like Rabbi Eliashiv, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and others who say that Brain Stem death is not necessarily death.

And it makes a difference when it comes to Heart Transplantation. The heart can only be taken from the donor for transplantation when it is still beating. But the question is – is the person alive or dead?

If he/she is still technically alive, to take out the heart would be tantamount to murder according to those authorities. And it’s not just Rabbis but some secular ethicists as well hold this view.

And this is from where the London Beth Din are coming.

I deliberately left out all the sources to this debate.

It’s important to know because when it comes to Lo Tirtzach –it’s no laughing matter.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Don't always judge a book by it's cover

The Organ of Anglo Jewry- the Jewish Chronicle ran this week's edition devoting no less than five pages to the story of Moshe Katzav, President of Israel who has been convicted of rape and sexual harassment this past week.
On the second page, first line, the paper refers to Mr Katzav as the kipa wearing President. It's true he did wear a Kipa whilst he was President but I was trying to figure out what the JC was trying to say. If the paper had been a non Jewish paper I wonder whether they could have got away with it, or would they have been accused of latent anti semitism. But the fact that this is a Jewish paper meant that they could say it. Was it another side swipe at religious Jewry as if to suggest here we have yet another case of a Jew who calls himself religious or Dati yet could behave so despicably?
When Moshe Katzav became President of Israel I was personally pleased. Here we have a man in High public office who chooses to wear his Yarmulke in public. He doesn't just hide his religion and identity under his shirt but he's proud to be the Israeli and the Jew.
On a personal level I identify with that. I went to a non Jewish Secondary School and when I was thirteen I made a conscious decision to wear a Kipa in school. I was the only person in the entire school who had the guts to do so, and I received a lot of respect from my contemporaries for doing that.
Wearing a Kipa in Israel is not always a sign of religiosity. It could be a sign of political identity and affiliation, much more so I think than in the UK. Different colours of Yarmulke, how they are made, what material utilised in production can make a difference between right and left and zionist and non zionist.
So it's important to get things in perspective and not to read too much into it. In the words of Pirkei avot: Don't look at the flask but look at what it contains.
However the message about Moshe Katzav is very clear. The Torah says that the king of Israel wherever he went he had to carry with him a Sefer Torah scroll and always have it with him by his side.
Why was that? Because a king always has to be aware that nobody is above the law- even the President of Israel.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Do we really have free choice?

Here is one of my past musings on an aspect of the Parashah:

An essential of Jewish thought and a pillar of the Torah is what we call the freedom of choice. The Torah says “Behold I am placing before you today life and goodness, death or evil; and you shall choose life:” G-d has placed before each and every one of us choices, and if we want to be good, upright, decent people; living lives permeated with fulfilment and purpose; If we want to deal honestly in business, we desire to sit, study Torah and interact with our fellow beings in a just and charitable way – the choice is in our hands. Conversely, if we G-d forbid want to turn our backs from the Torah, sever our connection with the Jewish community, or act deceitfully in our dealings-the choice is in our hands. In every aspect of life, the choice is there. Take away that freedom to decide between right and wrong, good and bad; we would become mere automatons, fulfilling God’s will with no meaning or choice in the matter.

However, at the outset of this week’s Sedra we come across a statement which at first glance seems to dispute that view. “God said to Moses; “Come to Pharoah, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of mine in his midst… and you will know that I am God”” (Ex 10; 1)

In other words God is saying that, the case of Pharoah is different and in order to demonstrate the miracles and wonders of God with the ten plagues and the Exodus from Egypt it was necessary to put Pharoah in a position of suspended animation and force his “heart to become hardened” so that the freedom to choose would be taken away from him. If so, why should Pharoah be punished for something that was beyond his ability to prevent?

Indeed this question is somewhat aggravated by the fact that from even before the beginning of the ten plagues God says to Moses “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply My miraculous signs and miracles in Egypt.” (Ex.7; 4)

I would like to suggest a novel interpretation of this question based on the words of Nachmanides and other commentaries. He says that it was only after the first five plagues that God hardened the heart of Pharoah. Before that time he made his own choices. It was his own decision to ignore Moses’ initial warnings and it was he who hardened his own heart. Even as miracles were demonstrated before him and he felt the effects of the early plagues, he could not turn back from his original opposition to the Children of Israel’s release from slavery. To do a turn-around at this stage was almost impossible. The reason was because it had become second nature to him. He was bound by the decisions he had made previously which had become ingrained into his being. Rather than taking away his free choice, God implants in Pharoah and indeed in all of us the mechanism that once it becomes a habit it becomes, not impossible but more difficult to change- and that is how God hardens the heart, not by taking away the free choice but by one’s own force of nature implanted by God into every single one of us.

We all face choices in life. We all want to change. But sometimes we are held back by habit forming choices that make the task all that more difficult. The Medrash tells us that Pharoah survived the Splitting of the Sea and eventually returned to God. Even a Pharoah whose heart was hardened, can change.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Anti semitism

In a recent article from Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet in his blog he tells the story of how he went with his children on a Friday night from Mill Hill Shul when they were verbally and racially abused as they walked home.

Now listen to a recent Kenton story that happened to me....

Remember the Shabbat a few weeks ago when it snowed and snowed. O.K it wasn't two feet of snow, something more like three inches but you know how klein keppeldig some people are and they'll make a story out of everything.

Well, anyway in the afternoon I ventured back to Shul just before the end of Shabbat. For those people wondering, we had davened Mincha early and gone home in the "blizzard". Now it was about 4.45 p.m just prior to Motzei Shabbat and I was on the way to Shul. My sons and a few Yeshiva bachurim were about 300 metres behind. I had gone ahead to be there to open the shul.
As I walked through Woodcock Hill park in Kenton, there was nobody around, the silence was deafening, there wasn't a car to be heard, all the planes had been grounded, and my thoughts were away with me. Maybe I was deep in a Shiur for the next morning. Perhaps I was thinking thoughts of Torah. It doesn't matter because it was my space, my time for myself, and that's something we all need to possess and nurture for our own sanity and goodness.!!
Then suddenly I was awoken from my private space by the words ****** Jew!!

I didn't see the people who hurled the abuse at me. I don't know how many of them there were. I heard three distinct voices. I don't even know what the colour of their skin was.

I was alone, because there was nobody else around. The nature of the verbal abuse that they continued to hurl at me I cannot even repeat, because it was violent and sexual (!) as well as anti semitic. I didn't look around because I didn't want confrontation and I was alone. I just kept walking and pretending that I had heard nothing.
So what did I do about this?
I saw our Security Officer in Shul that evening and told him about this. He took this seriously and told the CST. I didn't tell the police because I didn't see anybody- I didn't bother to look in their direction.
What are my thoughts about this?
I am walking along. I have my own space and my own time. I invite people to join me all well and good. But this is an assault- it's a trespass of my space, my freedom, my time. It's rude, it's foul and it's ugly- and it just shouldn't happen.
We need Maschiach more than ever!!

Boteach- nice guy?

I better tell you before I write this post I remember Shmuley Boteach from Yeshiva before he was the famous guy he is today- America's Rabbi no less!!
In a recent article to be found at

he attempts a Rabbi-bashing exercise in which he challenges Rabbis not to be such wimps and "nice guys" as he calls them, and to start speaking out on the issues. Start speaking out about issues like the excessive costs used by people when making a Simcha etc.
He suggests that the reason why Rabbis do not have the voice is because they are just too afraid of being controversial. Why? Maybe it's because of the guys paying the Rabbis who lean excessively on the Rabbi and emasculate his opinion.
Well- if my Shul is anything to go by, I'm given free reign and I can and do speak out on whatever I choose to speak my mind. I think there was only once when it came to Security issues that I was recently held back from saying something in the press.
But that was a one off.
That doesn't mean that I'm above reproof or criticism. I remember giving a sermon two years ago where I said something that seemingly offended a lot of people, they stood on line in the kiddush to berate me!!
However, for Shmuley it must be easy. Not having community and being "America's Rabbi", (please see website)appearing on all the talk shows you can ever dream of. You can say what you like. And you do.

But as any community Rabbi knows, there's much more to being a Rabbi than being controversial and saying things people don't want to hear.
How about looking after your community? Being there for them in sickness and in bereavement G-d forbid? Offering them pastoral support when needed?

It seems that being a nice guy is something you either have or you don't, and to be a Rabbi you have to be somebody who cares passionately about your fellow Jew.

Welcome to my new blog

Well this is the first time that I've opened up a blog so this is all new to me. But it's something I've wanted to do for some time. I'm a pulpit Rabbi. If you want to know a little bit more about me read my profile.
Rabbi's always like to speak their mind, it's just that the ten minutes allocated to you on a Shabbat morning are never long enough, and for some, even that's too long- ask my community they'll tell you!!
In my profile you will read that I'm a United Synagogue Rabbi. Let me explain; the United Synagogue is- excuse the term a "broad church". In my Shul there are a multiplicity of people with different layers of belief and practice. From those who do very little at all, whom I hardly ever see, who keep their membership up with the United synagogue for reasons of Burial alone, to those who come to Shul three times a day to daven, who are Shomer Shabbat ,keep kosher, study Torah and keep the Mitzvot to the best of their abilities.
Because my Shul is a broad perspective of people doesn't mean that I don't have an opinion or I'm too afraid to put my views forward for fear of rocking the boat, for being too far on the left or too far on the right, whatever that might mean.
Au contraire those who know me are aware that I speak my mind and if something needs to be said I say it.
I hope you enjoy my postings on this webblog. I will try to update regularly.