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Skip the Skips: An Environmentally Responsible Approach to Passover

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  1. Discussing the commandment of not leaving over any of the Passover sacrifice to the next day, the Sefer Hachinuch explains that in order to show our liberated status, coming out of slavery in Egypt and becoming a free people, we are copying monarchs and rulers who as an expression of their wealth simply destroy any food left over at the end of a meal and have no need or wish to preserve food from one day to the next.
  2. Social conditions and social consciences have changed, both for monarchs and for ordinary people in the intervening period since this was written.
  3. No responsible person today would think it appropriate at the end of a banquet simply to throw all the remaining food away: with hunger facing people even in the most developed countries of the world, this would be an act of gross insensitivity, and thought is routinely given by caterers at all levels in society as to how to use leftover food in an appropriate way.
  4. This thought about changing social conditions has no direct application to the Passover sacrifice today because we do not bring it: it does, however, have direct application to our preparations for Passover.
  5. Not so long ago it was common for local councils in areas with large Orthodox Jewish populations to provide an extra rubbish bin collection on the day before Passover, and to set up communal skips into which people were invited to throw their leftover chometz (non-Passover) food on the day before Passover itself.
  6. It is inconceivable that this would be thought appropriate by responsible people today: burning a slice or two of bread in the garden on the day before Passover as a symbolic rejection of the grosser forms of materialism is one thing: throwing into a skip significant quantities of good food for which the homeless and the hungry would be grateful is entirely another.
  7. The message for today’s age is simply this: the mitzvah of biur chometz (destroying leavened food) starts now, or even earlier, with a concerted effort to wind down the larder so as to ensure that on the day before Pesach we have very few open packages of non-Passover food still around, and we can move into the symbolism of a simpler lifestyle for the duration of Passover without committing acts of irresponsible and disreputable waste.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 24, 2019 at 1:52 pm

The Urgency of Rabbinic Regulation

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  1. Here is a post that was published last week (in almost exactly this form) in the Jewish Chronicle online.  Predictably, it’s had a fair amount of reaction, positive and negative.  Someone this morning asked why it wasn’t on the Sceptic Blog – so now it is.
  2. Here we go again: another rabbinic scandal to sweep under the extraordinarily capacious carpet of Anglo Jewry. Whatever we do, this must be hushed up as quickly as possible and, in particular, let’s hope it doesn’t get into the national press, because the Eleventh Commandment of Anglo Jewry over the decades has been “thou shalt not wash dirty linen in public”.
  3. The problem is that, as we have seen time and again, private laundries don’t wash.
  4. It is true that instances of financial or sexual misbehaviour by the Anglo-Jewish Rabbinate are relatively rare, although less rare than one would hope given the nature of the vocation. But looked at in the round, the rabbinic cadre is for the most part mediocre at best and significantly under-performing at worst.
  5. While there are a number of community Rabbis who are extraordinarily inspiring in their dedication to their community and tireless in its service, they are the exception rather than the rule. The perception held by some that the quality of the communal rabbinate is in general superb rests largely on the low standards expected of them, and the lack of transparency and accountability around their role that encourages a culture of flourishing mediocrity.
  6. Sometimes when I am being told how wonderful a communal rabbi is because he visited somebody in hospital or gave thorough attention to a family wedding or funeral, I point out that this is precisely what they have been paid for: and with many rabbis on remuneration packages amounting to actual or full-time equivalent salaries that many of their communities can only dream of, when one calculates an hourly rate for their performance, the heroism of spending several hours a day visiting their parishioners in hospital suddenly appears in context to be nothing more than simply performing their job in the way that the rest of us have to do without the compensation of uncritical adulation.
  7. In part this is because the expectations of communities have become matched to their experiences over time. And perhaps because it is “public money”, synagogue boards are less rigorous in determining what value for money they are getting day by day from their rabbi than they would be in other professional circumstances.
  8. But the main reason why rabbis can perform poorly and get away with is because there simply are no properly regulated standards for the rabbinic profession. While contracts have become more detailed and, to some extent, restrictive than they used to be, there is no systematic method of regulation or enforcement to support the greater detail on those contracts.
  9. If I am unimpressed or offended by the performance of my doctor, my lawyer, my dentist or any other trained professional, there is a clear method by which I can complain. And that applies to simple under-performance as much as to rarer cases of misconduct or impropriety.
  10. What can I do if I feel that my local rabbi did not give proper attention to a particular family funeral, did not bother to find out enough about the family before addressing it, and was possibly insensitive or even improper in the comments that he made? The answer is that there is nothing I can do that is likely to achieve any constructive results.
  11. There is no professional body that regulates the rabbis in a transparent and accountable way and investigates complaints. In extreme cases I can of course complain to the Chief Rabbi – whose dedication and commitment to the community and to the quality of the Rabbinate is well-known – but there is no mechanism for him to make a transparent and accountable investigation and produce publicly identifiable results.
  12. This is simply unacceptable in today’s world. Even judges are now subject to an accountable and public investigatory mechanism for misconduct or significant under-performance (such as unreasonable delay in producing written judgments) and the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, far from diminishing the reputation of the judges, ensures that they can be seen to earn the respect that the system requires them to be accorded.
  13. Exactly the same is true of the rabbis; and in order to preserve the reputation of hard-working, honest and decent rabbis, it is now overdue that we have a proper mechanism for dealing with those who underperform or misbehave.
  14. Over the last few years a number of UK rabbis have behaved improperly and in some cases have left behind victims suffering from their behaviour in a number of different ways. The reaction of the community has been to enjoy a passing scandal, but beyond that the establishment has raced to cover up the wider picture and the mechanisms of reputational damage-limitation have taken precedence over thoughts about support and care for victims and imposing enforceable standards.
  15. We have no right to regard ourselves as a religious community if we do not establish a mechanism for dealing with abuse within the rabbinate, and accountable and transparent ways for people to address inadequate performance, so that we can go back to respecting the rabbis as a group knowing that those who deserve respect will receive it and those who don’t will be dealt with appropriately.
  16. (For those who have asked how my suggestion would have helped in the case of a rabbi who behaves improperly and then leaves his position and the country, the answer is that by having a central licensing process from which he could be formally removed, it would draw a line under the issue and hopefully help direct or indirect victims of his behaviour to feel some closure and public acknowledgment.)

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 17, 2019 at 11:33 am

Isaac and Esau – Conflict and Remembrance Sunday

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  1. Superficial stereotyping of people and communities seems to go hand in hand with religion: it certainly appears to permeate the Torah.
  2. Yesterday we saw Esau and Isaac enter the scene: Esau is apparently written off from his first day, and Jacob achieves saintly status within the family from the start.
  3. Rivkah appears to write Esau off as soon as God tells her that the conflict she senses in the womb is not a single split-personality child but twins: one will be good and one will be bad.
  4. Isaac appears to recognise that Esau may be more complex than that: he loved him although (secondary meaning of the Hebrew word “ki”) he appeared to place materialism first; and when Esau demands a paternal blessing at the end of the story, Isaac gives him almost exactly the same blessing as Jacob’s, but instead of putting spirituality before materialism he reverses the order – but they are both there.
  5. Who is it who appears to make Esau choose between wholly good and wholly bad?  Jacob does.  If you want this very material soup (odom odom) you must sell me the birthright “as today” – what does “as today” mean?  Rabbi Nosson Ordman explains there are two aspects to the birthright: a right to a double portion of the property inheritance and the spiritual leadership of the Jewish religion.  “As today” excludes the property since Isaac is still alive, and it includes only the spiritual inheritance.  Jacob says to Esau “you choose – you can have all the money but I want all the spirituality; you have the gashmius and I’ll take the ruchnius”.
  6. Would Esau have been more nuanced if Jacob had not forced him to choose?
  7. On Remembrance Sunday we face enemies over the trenches and together mourn the futility of conflict and count the cost in millions of lives destroyed and ruined: perhaps we should also remember that the cycle will end only when we look for and nurture the complex humanity in all people, and try to elevate each other rather than writing each other off as wholly good or wholly bad.
  8. Wishing all those who have lost loved ones in conflict the comfort of knowing that the world will try to learn some lessons about cherishing humanity so that their loss will not have been pointless.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

November 11, 2018 at 10:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Orthodox Jewish Attitudes to Modern Issues of Gender Identity and Sexuality

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Here is the text of the talk I gave this afternoon on this topic.



Orthodox Jewish Attitudes to

Modern Issues of Gender Identity and Sexuality


Ner Yisrael / Raleigh Close Women’s Shiur 2018


Daniel Greenberg [1]


A wide range of conflicting emotions and ideas come to mind when orthodox Jews living in Britain consider contemporary issues around gender identity and sexuality.


We remember that Abraham created our religion by discovering common humanity as a creation of a single God and that Abraham’s and Sarah’s concern and love for all people remain the bedrock of our religion and faith.  Anything that appears to foment hatred and persecution of others is as foreign to our beliefs as, and requires to be challenged in the same way as,  Abraham’s challenge of God at Sodom and Gomorrah for appearing to target the innocent alongside the guilty.


Then we recall specific commandments of the Torah which fundamentally oppose certain activities that appear to be becoming fast-accepted as normal within modern secular society.  In particular, in relation to sexuality, there is a Biblical prohibition against homosexual relationships which carries a death penalty[2] and is described in terms of particular severity[3].  In relation to gender identity, the specific Biblical prohibition against transvestism is perhaps only a very minor and tangential part of a fundamental issue, but it is at least a potential distraction that needs to be addressed; more challenging in relation to gender reassignment are the prohibitions of sterilisation.


A starting point in relation to our attitude to sexuality can be found in the blessing recited under the chuppah, which declares that God has sanctified and permitted intimate physical relations between husband and wife in the context of marriage.   The word “permitted” acknowledges that people might entirely naturally wish to have other kinds of sexual relationships in other contexts, but that marriage between a woman and a man is the only permitted context.  The sense that marriage is necessarily between opposite sexes has remained constant in orthodox Judaism; the notion that the relationship is necessarily exclusive on both sides has been more open to cultural variation – in particular, polygamy is not Biblically prohibited, but it has been regarded as morally unacceptable in almost all orthodox communities for many centuries.


This raises interesting questions of the inter-relationship between the commandments of the Torah, positive and negative, and culture and morality.


For example, the law of tzniut (“modesty”) is variable and culturally reflective, while the law of ervoh (which parts of the body require to be covered at different times) is not (or at least not necessarily).  The way in which married women approach the questions of if, when and how they cover their hair will depend on their understanding of both concepts: there will be some, for example, who find the practice of wearing luxury glamour sheitlech offensive to their sense of modesty, in terms of cost, ostentation or both; others will take a different view.  Similarly, there will be married women who will come to the conclusion that the requirement to cover their hair at all is demeaning, distasteful and so far removed from modern norms of morality and equality that they cannot accept it.  They may choose for that reason to depart from the orthodox Jewish community to a limited extent, or even entirely, or to establish individually or with others a variation of contemporary orthodox practice.  They will not necessarily expect me to affirm their practice as according to Torah law as I perceive it; but they will expect me to treat their decision with respect and as much understanding as I can manage as someone who does not share their circumstances[4].


In some ways, we can be proud of the fact that the Torah’s oral law was sensitive to complex issues of gender identity centuries ago.  If some parts of the modern world are now discovering – or perhaps re-discovering – that gender is neither necessarily binary nor necessarily static, the Talmud was well aware of both facts[5] and a range of intersex and non-sex states have been recognised in halachah in various ways over the years.  But mere awareness of issues is only the beginning of the story, if that – the cultural sensitivity of the rabbinic world to issues of gender identity appears to have varied between time, place and communities.


As in so many aspects of our behaviour as a community (notably our treatment of women) we must be careful to separate between cultural habits that we have absorbed from our surroundings, and religious requirements.  In recent decades, for example, homosexuals were treated in a way that must have appeared to them as a hypocritical persecution: in particular, whether or not as a relic from the ecclesiastical origins of much of English criminal law, homosexuality remained a criminal offence in the United Kingdom at a time when other sexual behaviour that is more obviously immoral or unethical – notably adultery – was not unlawful.  And, of course, there are many places in the world today where homosexuals are at constant risk of persecution and death, sometimes as a matter of law and sometimes as a matter of social norm.  The prohibition on homosexual activity is a religious law; bigotry about and intrusive persecution of homosexuals is a cultural weakness.  (In the same way, that women do not read aloud from the Torah in orthodox services is an expression of religious law; but expecting women to leave shul to set out the kiddush during the repetition of the Amidah would be a reflection of outmoded assumptions about women’s role in society, that we absorbed from former host communities and have been slower to shed than secular society.)


Gender identity again raises both halachic and culturally-dependant issues, both in relation to identification as transgender and in relation to rejection of gender identification entirely.  There are some prohibitions: including that of wearing clothing specifically designed for the other gender.  But those are relatively marginal (and the entire notion of what “men’s clothing” or “women’s clothing” is necessarily depends on cultural norms and variations).  In terms of self-expression, and encouraging people to demonstrate and explore aspects of their personality in a way that diminishes the importance of identifying with a particular gender for many purposes, it may be that attitudes and behaviour could change very considerably without infringing any religious law, and that part of the reluctance or unease that some may feel in relation to the topic is more a reflection of prejudice and cultural bigotry than of any particular religious value.


Perhaps nowhere is the assumption of binary gender self-identification so apparent in Judaism than in the morning brachot, where men make a blessing on not having been created as a woman and women make a blessing on having been created in accordance with the Divine will.  Some may see that as a liturgical reflection of an immutable principle of Judaism, and that anything that blurs the distinction between the genders, or suggests that binary identification is not necessarily accurate or helpful for all people, is a departure from the parameters of orthodox Judaism; and I doubt that anyone would deny their right to that interpretation.  And some contemporary rabbinic discussions of transgender issues focus on these brachot as support for the importance in Jewish thought of maintaining a clear gender distinction.  But is there an aspect of the choice of blessings that is culturally reflective of the times in which that part of the liturgy was settled (and settled by men, of course)?  If there is, is it possible that in time it will become generally accepted that the language of the blessings requires revisiting and modifying?  If we make every word of every blessing into an immutable norm, will we be imposing an unnecessarily sterile culture onto a fundamentally dynamic and developing religion?[6]


There is certainly a fear within some parts of the orthodox community that the trend towards acceptance and normalisation of homosexuality and non-binary gender may go beyond counter-balancing persecution and oppression and may become, or may have already become, a kind of actual or perceived proselytising movement.  The fear for some, perhaps, is that it becomes a fashion that may encourage some people who would otherwise follow conventional behaviour patterns, to opt out of behaviour that is common in the mainstream community, and that this may lead to their alienation and them denying themselves family experiences that, whether or not they are religious requirements, are certainly central to how many people express their Judaism and find spiritual growth and expression.


To some extent, of course, this depends on whether sexuality is a lifestyle choice or an inherent (whether or not static) biological characteristic; perhaps we may discover more about that in the future, and there are strong assertions on either side – and for the present it seems possible that for some people it is only the one, for some it is only the other, and that for some it may be a bit of both.  That means that it is probably important, in discussing Jewish attitudes to sexuality, to avoid assuming either that it is necessarily entirely genetic or that it is necessarily entirely a matter of choice, and remaining sensitive to the different religious and cultural implications for people who perceive it as being wholly or primarily one or the other.


On the other hand, we all know that it has always been the case that some people uncomfortable in their gender, or in communal and societal expectations about their sexuality, have felt uncomfortable in the Jewish community, sometimes imprisoned in what they see as a lie – and it is difficult to comprehend how horrific that must feel.  If the secular normalisation of a range of gender and sexuality issues that were once anathematised and stigmatised in the world around us has forced us to confront our cultural insensitivity to people who are unable, or feel unable, to conform to certain cultural norms, then to that extent I believe it is to be welcomed as a needed wake-up call.  Judaism is often praised for our family-centred religious values: but in fact these are more cultural than religious, and they can be a two-edged sword; fulfilling and affirming for all those blessed to sit around a happy family table composed in a conventional way, alienating and accusing for those find themselves not blessed in that way for a wide range of reasons, of which gender identity and sexuality are just two.


I wonder whether the concept of tzniut – modesty – can help at all, not as an answer to the questions of what attitude we should take to issues or homosexuality and gender identity, but as a guide on how everyone should behave until these matters settle down and the appropriate attitude becomes clear[7].  A demonstration or celebration of homosexuality makes things difficult for the orthodox community: it puts us in a position where the commission of a Biblical prohibition is appearing to be flaunted as no longer prohibited, and suggests that continued adherence to the prohibition is inhumane and outmoded.  It may be that for some homosexuals anything short of this attitude is an unacceptable rejection of their own beliefs in, especially, their right to assert pride in all aspects of their personality.  And it may be that for some homosexuals it is considered a necessity to counter and reverse the bigotry and inhumanity with which they have been treated over the years.  But it runs counter to the Jewish tradition of a certain modesty and privacy around sexuality generally, and applies equally to all irrespective of sexuality and gender[8].  In the orthodox Jewish community we treat heterosexual relationships as a matter to be treated with respect and modesty; perhaps if homosexual relationships are treated in the same way it becomes more possible for the community to treat homosexuals in the same way as others.


If anything other than public and positive acceptance is regarded as inhumane denunciation, then the Torah forces us to denounce simply in so far as we have to repeat our adherence to an objection based on a simple Biblical prohibition.  But if members of the community can be accepted at face value, without their finding it necessary to insist upon acceptance of activity that contravenes express Biblical prohibition, and without the community finding it necessary to insist on their conforming to an artificial “normality” which is more a product of culture than a requirement of religion, the entire community can rely on a traditional sensitivity and modesty – which are both more at the heart of the religion as instituted by Abraham and Sarah – to continue without unnecessary division and disruption.


Some people who look on at what is happening about gender and sexuality in the world today see it as a remorseless march towards complete abandonment of all morality and norms, and fear that, for example, the normalisation and liberalisation of homosexuality are the thin end of a wedge that leads inexorably to Sodom and Gemorah.  And that is one possible interpretation of modern events.  But it is not the only one.  It is without doubt true that in an increasingly secular society based on an ecclesiastical inheritance, there may need to be a slow and painful revolution involved in shedding cultural prejudice and bigotry originally founded in religious principles that may never have been expressed in the best way and which now no longer speak for the majority of society at all.  And that revolution may be accompanied by, or achieved through, the swinging of a pendulum that may behave as pendulums do, necessarily over-adjusting before returning to a centre position.


But in any event, the dismantling of prejudice and discrimination that reflects values no longer supported by the majority of society does not necessarily mean the abandonment of all sexual and other morals and constraints, although it may be more difficult to agree on a societal common denominator in the absence of a single set of religious underpinning values.  But from my perspective of modern Britain, while there is an extraordinary surge to liberalisation in some ways that I find uncomfortable both on religious grounds and, probably, as a generational reaction, I see no indication of a wish to abandon morality altogether.  On the contrary, the prohibitions of incest, bestiality, forced marriage, sexual slavery and sex with children all appear to be supported firmly by consensual secular morality; and it is interesting to note that in terms of the need to provide some kind of rational basis for what remains when originally ecclesiastical laws are rejected, one can point to an abuse of trust or power and a lack of consent and mutuality as underpinning all these remaining prohibitions.


For those who predict an inexorable decline towards Sodom and Gemorah, it is perhaps interesting to reflect that the fact that the word sodomy was used until recently in English law as a general term for unnatural sexual intercourse[9] suggests a continuation of ecclesiastical preoccupation with particular sexuality issues rather than looking at broader conceptions of civil morality.  Our own rabbinic traditions are somewhat more discriminating.  It is true that we believe the people of Sodom to have liberated themselves from all natural constraints and to have indulged in every vice; but our rabbis focus as much on their inhumanity to each other and their dishonesty as on their liberalisation of sexuality.  And very interestingly, the first Jewish leader to oppose the people of Sodom was perhaps not the last to allow a feeling of indignation and outrage to blind him to decency; Lot is so determined to protect his guests from the Sodomite mob who oppose hospitality on principle that he offers them his own daughters to abuse: which suggests that his own moral compass had slipped rather a lot (and it is interesting to note that what first induced Abraham to separate from Lot was the lack of adherence to business ethics by his shepherds, suggesting a moral blindness that would inevitably cause his religion to become corrupted into mere residual and random prejudice and bigotry).


It was decent into inhumanity and insensitivity that caused Sodom to be destroyed, not their misguided liberalisation of any one area of human behaviour.  If we answer challenges to our own moral values with insensitivity and inhumanity we only precipitate a spiritual descent.


This note has been a discussion rather than a route from a question to an answer: I remain with a range of questions, and no definite answers.  I have a hope that as the world appears to change ever faster, if we all pray sincerely to be guided in the right paths of thought and behaviour, the Master of a Universe that is both constantly changing and fundamentally eternal will provide each of us with the sensitivity and judgment to behave appropriately in every situation that faces us.  And that requires a fundamental uncertainty and willingness to question, and to challenge even things that we thought yesterday were beyond doubt[10].


Gender identity and sexuality are issues that confront, and sometimes trouble, both young and old Jews and non-Jews today, perhaps as much as at any other time in the history of the world.  Those of us who believe that we know what is right for us and are comfortable with what is expected of us will hopefully encourage those who may not be blessed in the same way to look for love, care, inclusion and acceptance.




[1] This note includes issues dealt with in What if God’s A Christian? – An Orthodox But Sceptical Jewish View of the World – D. Greenberg, 2018; see, in particular, Chapter 86 – Rabbi Dweck, Rabbi Bassous and Homosexuality.

[2] Obviously, the death penalty is not administered at Torah law in the absence of a Sanhedrin, and opinions within the orthodox community vary as to the future practice of criminal law in the Torah in the Messianic age – but the attachment of a death penalty to homosexual acts in the Bible is a simple incontrovertible fact.

[3] The translation and treatment of the word “to’evoh” – sometimes translated as “abomination” is a matter of particular recent contention and controversy; whatever its cultural nuances may have been originally, and however they are expected to be refined in their resonance through the ages, it is clearly a term of opprobrium; and it seems to be used for things that engender some specific emotional feeling of repulsion for many people.

[4] I find that the Mishnaic injunction not to judge someone until you reach his or her place has to be constantly kept in mind in considering issues of gender identity and sexuality.

[5] See, in particular, “for perhaps his maleness transformed into femaleness” (Bechorot 42b); status of androgynos (both male and female) and the tumtum  (neither gender status) (Nazir 12b); halachic status of tumtum for marriage (Tosefta Yevamot 11:1; Yevamot 72a) and inheritance (Baba Batra 140b).

[6] It is interesting that one of the best known instances of rabbinic discussion about liturgical modification occurred in connection with the blessing about treatment of heresy and heretics, and occurred partly at a time when it was unclear whether Christianity was a temporary aberration or a permanent development, in the same way that it is unclear whether certain changes in today’s society will turn out to be permanent readjustments of societal norms or relatively brief experimental phenomena.  (See, for example, The Eighteen Benedictions and the Minim before 70CE – Dr David Instone-Brewer, Tyndale House, Cambridge 2003.)

[7] At the risk of writing something controversial, it is certainly true that a number of causes of contention and dispute within the Jewish community sort themselves out in the course of a decade or two, or sometimes a century or two, and the most important question for interim generations is how to “tread water” while things settle down, without doing violence to any of the immutable principles and values of our religion.

[8] Indeed tzniut is all too often thought to be a set of rules about the length of women’s skirts or sleeves, rather than as an all-encompassing value (Micah – “Walk modestly with your God”) that affects, or should affect, every aspect of our behaviour: for example, to spend on a personalised number plate an amount of money that would support thirty starving families for a year is at least as much an affront to Jewish values of modesty as any other form of behaviour.

[9] See the First Edition of Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law, 1959, p.1651; later editions, including the editions edited by me in 2010 and 2015, omit the entry on the grounds that the term has now become offensive.

[10] The angels of God are depicted in the prophetic vision as asking each other “Where is the Place of God’s Glory?” – and in the prophetic description of the spiritual bankruptcy that brought about the destruction of the Temple the prophet notes that “The priests no longer ask ‘Where is God?’”.  Certainty in religious matters is bound to breed bigotry, hatred and intolerance – doubt and a constant search for truth are essentials to productive faith.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

May 5, 2018 at 9:34 pm

Magen Avot Random Thought for Yom Tov – In Case Anyone Else Is Interested

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Dear Magen Avot Friends,

I just watched a beautiful flash mob rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Spring which is highly appropriate to our Chag HaAviv – It put a thought in my mind that I wanted to share with my friends at Magen Avot half way through this yom tov.

A shul is a bit like a flash mob – or at least ours is: in particular, it is normally rather less spontaneous than it appears, because someone had to organise it and arrange it. Which makes this a good moment to offer thanks on behalf of us all to Daniel Ehreich who has performed the sole gabbai in residence role with such aplomb, to Simon Leigh for ensuring continuity of morning minyonim and to everyone else who keeps us going.

But the organisation isn’t the point of a flash mob – it’s the mob that it enables to flash in. It’s always slightly different, and it always gives a slightly different feel and flavour to old melodies and old words. And that sums up what Magen Avot means to me. One of the reasons why we wanted to set up an open shul and not a closed community back nearly three years ago is that this way every tefillah takes on a slightly different flavour depending on exactly who comes to join us. There are some common and continuous components, but they are given a constant freshness and reinvigoration by being surrounded by a variable cast who place the tefillos in an entirely new setting every time.

The Seder Table teaches us many things: one of them is that the table is not complete without the four sons. As the baal Haggadah says, even if we were all chachomim, nevonim and yodei Torah, we would sit and tell the story of the four sons, yearning to be joined by everyone in the widest possible Jewish family, whether they contribute wisdom like the chacham, challenge us like the rashah, offer us an opportunity to help them like the tam, or just stand in silent wonder and inspire us to draw them in and help them to formulate a useful question. Every child’s contribution is unique and invaluable and the table is empty without any one of them; in our community everyone who joins us adds something special and irreplaceable to the davening.

This Pesach has been wonderful at Magen Avot. We have missed many of our regulars who are away but the fact that so many are in Israel makes us feel closer to the time when we will all be olim l’regel iy’h. The absence of so many has made it even more important for all our remaining members, regular visitors, occasional visitors, and once-off guests to step up to make the flash mob work – and it has, for me and I hope for everyone.

On the last day of yom tov that flash mob becomes even more special, when we let into our midst the memories of so many people we loved when they were alive and still love now they are gone. Pesach probably carries more poignant memories than any other yom tov, as the familiar kitchen and dining room items come out of storage again and each one brings a memory of a smile, a laugh or a tear. Yizkor is important for each person who remembers someone, but it is also so important for the community as a whole, to enhance our final flash mob of the yom tov with special memories. Once again, I hope this year those who leave the shul for Yizkor will do so very quietly, as if we were tiptoeing out of the room to leave space and time for our friends to reflect on those they have loved.

Sorry for the random thoughts – but that’s Youtube for you: chag sameyach l’kulanu, la’rochok v’lakorov.

Daniel Greenberg

Written by Daniel Greenberg

April 5, 2018 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Is the UK about to change for Jews?

with 2 comments

  1. In a comment on a post about the Me Too campaign a reader writes the following:
  2. “The “Bagehot” article in “The Economist”, 10 March ’18, is entitled “It could happen here”.  The author makes the case that Britain could suffer an authoritarian takeover in the next 5 years. The threats come from: a government lead by Jeremy Corbyn, the incendiary right, Britain’s weak formal defences against authoritarian populism and its vulnerability to external shocks. The biggest threat comes “from a growing sense that democracy has let people down”. The proportion of Britons who support a “strongman leader” has increased from 25% in 1999 to 50%.The article concludes: “It is too early to head for the exits. ….. But anyone who doesn’t know where the exits are is a fool”.How should the Jewish community react to this article?”
  3. My initial reactions are as follows.
  4. The UK is still very much a malchus shel chessed (host nation that treats the Jewish people kindly).
  5. But the chessed (kindness) appears to some to be wearing slightly thin at the edges.  The hostility faced by university students who wish to express their Jewish identity in part by supporting Israel has certainly made some of them feel less than welcome within the UK academic environment.  The decision of a London coroner to change long-standing arrangements to accommodate the burial timing wishes of bereaved Jewish families has struck some as an act of overt anti-religious hostility by a public official.  Parts of the Jewish educational system feel under attack for failing to teach British values in the way they are interpreted by particular sectors.  Threats to ban shechitah and bris milah appear to some to be growing stronger.  These perceptions may or may not be fair, and they may or may not be accurate, but they certainly combine to show that some parts of the Jewish community do not feel entirely welcomed by significant parts of the wider UK citizenry.
  6. I speak for nobody on this, and I have no knowledge as to how many Jews, or what proportion of the UK Jewish community, would identify with all or any of the previous paragraph.  Personally, I think that there is some truth in some of the perceptions mentioned there, and although some are exaggerated from time to time they are not to be dismissed entirely and should at the least be used as a basis for thought as to whether the relationship between the UK and the Jewish community has changed, is changing or perhaps needs to change.
  7. Jewish history is marked by periods of ups and downs around the world.  We have often settled conspicuously comfortably in one region or country, enjoying a long and apparently mutually-appreciated relationship with a host nation, only to find the tables turned into expulsion or persecution in a relatively short period of time.
  8. Could that happen in the United Kingdom?  Of course it could.  If it can happen in all the different countries in which it has happened over the centuries, why should it be impossible that it could happen here?
  9. As a British Jew – born and educated here and operating daily in a range of professional, commercial, public and academic environments – I am always conscious not exactly of a divided loyalty but of having a range of loyalties.  Not divided, because that suggests a conflict that I have never felt.  But a range of loyalties, including to my religious beliefs, my family, and my community, as well as to my country, my Queen, my government and my people.
  10. Presumably everyone – religious or secular – also experiences a range of loyalties?
  11. So does that mean that I could find that loyalty to my religious beliefs was no longer compatible with loyalty to or participation in UK society?  Of course I could.
  12. Do I expect it?  Possibly naïvely, I don’t.  I believe that there is an innate tolerance and respect in British society that would be very difficult (although obviously not impossible) for one or more authoritarian or sectarian interests to displace.
  13. So personally I’m not packing any bags: rather, I am proposing to redouble my efforts to promote positive inter-action between all faith and non-faith communities in the UK to make it more difficult for unpleasant people to drive wedges between us.
  14. I have always believed and argued that real inter-community activity takes place not at planned events but on the streets, in shops, libraries, pubs, offices and everywhere open to the public (hopefully not too much on the tube, as I’m normally rather grumpy there).
  15. I do sense threats to tolerance from various sources; and I believe that we counter them most effectively by continuing to encourage tolerance, and by being increasingly scrupulous in ensuring that the behaviour of anyone who wittingly or unwittingly represents or is seen as representing a particular faith or other community, brings credit on that community and avoids disgracing it in a way that plays into the hands of those who enjoy division.
  16. I think it would be naïve to assert that there could never be a time when as a Jew I felt so uncomfortable or threatened in the UK that I had to leave, or try to leave.  Our history has shown that this can happen anywhere in the world.  But for me the identification of a possible threat to continued diversity and harmony in the UK is a spur to renewed emphasis on positive participation as a citizen, rather than on projected flight.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 18, 2018 at 11:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

“Me too” – the dangers of normalisation?

with 2 comments

  1. I sense a danger of the “Me Too” world achieving, in part, almost the opposite of what I imagine the campaign is designed to achieve.
  2. As more people come forward to the public to reveal that they were sexually abused in a wide range of different professional and other contexts, it is important that the sheer numbers of the revelations are not allowed to give past, present and future abusers some sense of comfort or safety in numbers, or a feeling that they “can’t be all that bad given that everybody else was and is doing it”.
  3. Perhaps I’m worrying about nothing: but the following passage from an internet posting by Neshama Carlebach – the daughter of Shlomo Carlebach (I wrote about allegations against him in 27 December 2016) – makes me suspect that there may be some kind of normalisation attempt underpinning some of the responses to the Me Too movement.
  4. She writes ( – accessed 18 February 2018):
  5. Human beings are complex, the questions of life are complex, the healing is real, and the pain is real. There is no hiding from all these truths. My father, a soul who saw sisters and brothers cut down by the Nazis, who jumped straight from the insular Yeshiva world of his childhood into the boundaryless free-love world of Berkeley in the late 60s, who revolutionized Jewish music forever and embraced every human being, was complicated too.

    Sometime in the late 70s, my father was involved in an intervention staged by women who were hurt by him. He came, even knowing the content of the conversation that was to happen. And when they told him that his actions and behavior had hurt them, he cried and said, “Oy this needs such a fixing.” I do believe that the actions, advocacy work and the way he raised his daughters in the last years of his life showed remarkable listening and personal accountability.
    I accept the fullness of who my father was, flaws and all. I am angry with him. And I refuse to see his faults as the totality of who he was.

    Who knows the apologies he might have made, if he might have been granted the chance to offer the public acknowledgements so many only called for upon his passing, if only he had been able to give more years to repair the world around him as a man brave enough to ask for forgiveness. I wish he had had that chance, and that he could have been part of the healing he necessitated, a healing he would have been particularly equipped to offer. I would have had the chance to ask my own questions, and perhaps to hear what he would have said in response.

    As my father himself said, we have to laugh with one side of our heart and cry with the other. That his life, music and actions prompt both laughter and tears will likely not cease in our lifetimes.

  6. Meaningless drivel I could have overlooked (doubtless being seen by some as a prime perpetrator of it myself): but this seems to me to be insidious meaningless drivel, which is one stage more dangerous.
  7. “I refuse to see his faults as the totality of who he was” – yes, that is entirely reasonable for a daughter.  I have been telling my children since they were tiny that it is best to assume that nobody is quite as good or quite as bad as they appear, and the number of complete tzadikim (righteous) or resho’im (wicked) at any one time in the world is tiny.
  8. But that’s about private relationships.  In terms of public relationships, nobody has the right to say to the world “yes I’m only human, and now that you’ve found out that I victimised women or some other vulnerable class, please continue to celebrate (and pay for) my artistic genius or other saleable qualities on the grounds that we’re all human after all, aren’t we?”
  9. We live in an increasingly celebrity-focused world.  Religious leaders, politicians, actors, singers and others make a living out of presenting their message to the world, and mostly hire expensive marketing teams to promote that message.  That’s fine (or at least unavoidable today): but if your image becomes tarnished because we find out (which will be possible while there remains a relatively free media) that the reality of your behaviour is inconsistent with your public message, then in my eyes you are permanently disqualified from continuing to present that message.  You are probably not a wholly bad person – because few people are – but you are a wholly unsatisfactory promoter of a message that you cannot practise yourself.
  10. If Neshama Carlebach is admitting – which she appears to be – that her father abused women, then so far as I am concerned that is indeed the totality of his public persona: by which I mean I no longer want to watch old videos of him singing about spirituality and peace to all mankind on the stage, and I no longer want holy services to be held as “Carlebach minyanim”, and where I think of a tune of having been specifically his, I will aim to avoid it.
  11. The Me Too movement makes it impossible for some people to hide: but it may also encourage others to confess, or for their families to confess on their behalf, in the hope that as GK Chesterton reminded us, the best place to hide a leaf is in a tree: something like “now that everyone’s being caught, let’s add ourselves to their number, and hope that our own actions get somehow swept up into the general mass of allegations and we avoid the kind of individual scrutiny that we’ve been hiding from for so long”.
  12. The Me Too movement should remain a campaign – it should never become an amnesty.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

February 18, 2018 at 11:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized