Sunday, 20 February 2011

Jewish Taliban

This was a drasha I delivered three years ago on Shabbat Ki Tissa. I received quite a lot of criticism for this because people felt at the time: "What are you criticising Chareidim, haven't the non Orthodox got enough ammunition without our own people throwing them a present?" However, the issue is still here and has become increasingly more popular despite the condemnation from the mainstream Chareidi Kehillah.

Here it is...

The main body of our Sedra today deals with the cataclysmic event of the Golden Calf. Forty days earlier, the people have witnessed the greatest revelation in history, the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. They had seen all the wondrous miracles of G-d. According to our Sages there has been no point in our collective history when we have been on a more elevated spiritual peak than at that time when we saw the revelation of God at Sinai.

Yet forty days later the descent could not have been worse. From an Igra Rama- a high mountain to a Beira Amikta- a deep pit. The Children of Yisrael have turned their backs on Hashem and have created a Golden calf around which they dance and declare Eleh Ehokecho Yisrael- These are your God O Israel.

How could they- the generation which was full of knowledge of God- How could they fall to the depths of despair?

My friends I am not going to give an in depth answer to that question. But there is I think an important message for all of us.

We should never think in our minds because we are frum that we cannot fall. Because here we have a generation that was full of connection to God -yet they fell- and boy did they fall with a mighty thump. Indeed our Rabbis say that the greater the person, the stronger is the Yetzer Hara- the evil inclination trying to pull- to schlep that individual away from Torah and Mitzvot. And the Yetzer Hara comes in many guises to try to entice somebody away from God. The higher the mountain an individual climbs, the greater the fall.

Now what I’m about to say perhaps will upset some people – so I apologise in advance. There was an article in the JC two weeks ago – a report of a group of women who had taken it upon themselves to be extra frum – to go where no Jewish woman had gone before, to start wearing the Burka. The “Minhag” began from a group of women who live in Bet Shemesh. Very pious women who want to keep the laws of Tzniut to the greatest level.

Let me begin...and say I am always in support of people who want to do more, to daven three times a day, to keep Shabbat, Kashrut and Taharat Hamishpacha – all the laws of the Torah. And indeed the laws of Tzniut are an integral part of being a Jew. Tzniut- modesty means not just in the way we dress, it has also a lot to do with how we speak and interact with people and how we behave, all have to be done in a way of tzniut, of modesty and reserve.

Indeed the Navi declares. “Vehatzneah Lechet im Hashem Elokecha”- Walk modestly with the Lord Your God- wherever we are, we should pursue the characteristic of Tzniut

However, according to the JC report- and I can only go according to what I read in print, these women are taking the laws of modesty to the furthest extreme. Many are covering not only their hair, which is according to Halachah but they are covering also their entire faces, something which is not prescribed by the Torah. They are covering up areas of their body that should be concealed according to Halachah but then they are wearing up to ten coverings of clothing- again something not required by Halachah.

So what’s the matter with people who want to be extra frum to this extent- it’s a free world let them do what they want to do and leave them alone.

However I believe that with trying to keep a Chumrah- a stricture, one sometimes ends up doing the exact opposite of what one really wants to achieve. Let me explain. The Talmud in a number of places talks about something which is called Yehurah- that means unnecessary drawing attention to oneself through trying to be extra pious, more than what the Halachah desires, because by doing that you are causing people to say; Look how frum this person is- he really is great. That is frowned upon in many instances in the Gemorrah.

The whole concept of Tzniut is modesty. That means not to draw any unnecessary attention to oneself. Therefore when one dresses in a non tzniut fashion one draws attention to ones state of dress or undress. When however one covers oneself to the extent that you are fulfilling the requirement much more than needed one is also unnecessarily drawing attention to oneself and doing the opposite of what was intended. Or perhaps that is really what is intended these women wanted to draw attention to themselves and say “Look how really frum we are- we are frumer than everybody.” One can imagine how therefore a faulty sense of religiosity can lead to a Yeridah- a descent rather than an Aliyah.

Perhaps we should be listening to the words of the Rambam in Hilchot Deot who speaks about the middle way and how in all our middot we should try to pursue the median.

Therefore- says the Rambam – Our Sages declared that a person should only prevent himself from doing those things that the Torah has prohibited, and he should not take upon himself vows or oaths that prohibit him from doing things that are permitted by the Torah. Is it not enough what the Torah prevents one to do- that you prohibit other things that the Torah does not prohibit?

The Rambam then criticizes those who spend their time needlessly fasting because by focussing on these things it can God forbid turn one away from what one should be doing.

Friends and Facebook

I realised I was on to a loser with this sermon two Shabbatot ago in my community when I asked the question: Who uses Facebook here? -and only about four people put their hands up...

Well here it is anyway.

Today I want to talk about friends and friendship-

This is all initiated thanks to a lady in the community who frequents my Monday afternoon Shiur and said “Rabbi, it’s really important that you speak from the pulpit about Facebook and its dangers”- so dutifully I listen.

Who uses Facebook?

After all Mark Zukerberg- the founder and inventor of Facebook is a Jewish boy and happens to be one of the richest people on this planet!

Don’t get me wrong-it’s not all bad.

Facebook is a fantastic invention and I use it. It allows me to make contact with friends whom I haven’t seen in years. It allows family who are living on the other side of the world to keep in touch- to upload photos and videos. It allows me to engage in conversation with my friends from the privacy of your home at any time of night and day. It allows me to contact people with whom I may not see on a day to day basis.

Have I sold the idea to you?

However-with all this - You know I’m quite jealous- many of my generation use Facebook. Nevertheless, if you look at peoples profiles you will see that there are many out there who have so many friends. 300- 500- is not unusual. I have one Rabbi friend from Stamford Hill with a beard and peyot down to his pipick who has over 1800 friends, and it’s not rare for some to have as many as 3000 friends on Facebook.

I consider myself quite a public figure-yet until recently I only had a meagre 40 friends on Facebook. Am I unpopular, do I not get it? Am I out of touch? Do I not have any friends?

So two weeks ago I embarked on a find-friends-on-Facebook crusade- and I’m up to 180 friends- not bad huh?

And this is the point that needs to be made. If you are on Facebook you are living a delusion.

You think that everybody out there is your friend, but they’re not necessarily. You’re having a private conversation with one person, but the truth is that it’s not really private because other people get to see it. And Facebook with it’s exhibitionism destroys boundaries between the public and the private.

But not only that- it’s the usage of the word friend- I think Facebook cheapens that word by using verbal inflation.

The Mishneh in Pirkei Avot says “acquire for your self a friend”. Rambam explains there that there are three aspects to being a true friend – a chaver.

First a friend is someone to whom you can turn at a time of trouble. Someone in whom you can rely without the need to ask.

Second, a friend is a person to whom one can communicate one’s deepest thoughts, no matter what they are.

And finally, a friend is one with whom you can share common goals and values.

If you cogitate on these words you suddenly realise that in life we have very few true friends.

Think about Joseph who was told by his father Yaakov:

“Go and see the well being of your brothers who are shepherding in Shechem”. Note the word Shalom- which means well being, but of course also means peace. See if your brothers have peace and pursue peace with one another.

Yet he comes to Shechem and he finds the man in the field who asks him: “What are you seeking?”

He answers:

“Et achai anochi mevakesh- I seek my brothers!”

My father Z’L used to say on these words that Joseph was making a qualitative statement

I seek my brothers- I look not just in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense as well- who is really my brother? Who is somebody in whom I can confide? In whom I can really trust and who shares my goals and my vision in life?

And this is all connected with the Mishkan-that we have been studying these past two weeks- because just as the Mishkan was built on a physical plain so too there are deep hidden mystical interpretations of each part of that Mishkan.

The kapporet was the covering on the top of the Aron. On these were two Kerubim – cherubim- in English that were fashioned from the same piece of gold. The faces of these Kerubim had, according to one interpretation- the faces were of children- a boy and a girl or malachim- angels.

Vehayu hakeruvim porshei kenafayim lemaalah- the Keruvim spread out their wings above.

Upheneihem ish el achiv and their faces pointed towards each other.

The Medrashic statement is that when Israel is good with one another then Cherubim would face each other- a sign of Divine happiness when there is peace and brotherhood in Israel.

Indeed the Baal Haturim points out that the end letters of these words upheneihem ish el achiv spell out shalom- peace!

So back to Facebook- it’s a great tool to be used- but that’s it.

We have to realise the importance of each and every real friend and thank Hashem for the true friends that we have.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Tikva/Hope in Odessa

I introduce here Madeleine Whiteson as my guest post this week. Originally this piece was supposed to have gone out two weeks ago before their embarkation to the Ukraine. However they are now back from their visit to the Tikva children’s home in Odessa Ukraine.

For more information about Tikva please go to;

I think this is the first time that a group from the United Synagogue has ever done such a thing and I as the Rabbi of the community, am extremely proud of their achievements. This Shabbat, 19th February in Kenton Shul there will be a Shabbat Kodesh Programme which will centre on this trip.

Here are the words from Madeleine:

Almost two years ago, David Harris delivered an inspiring Shabbat Kodesh Programme centred on his visit to the Tikva Children’s Home in Odessa, Ukraine:

I resolved there and then that I should like to undertake something similar. I realised that a few people might be interested so eventually I put a notice in Mah Chadash asking for anyone wanting to go to contact me. Enough people responded for me to decide to follow it up with the Tikvah Organisation, who gave me Rebecca Nahon as a contact.

We arranged a meeting for 5th October, and as a result, fifteen of us are visiting Odessa from the 3rd to the 6th February. Fourteen are members of Kenton Shul : David and Vivian Harris, Daniel Harris plus a family friend Chantal smith, Geoffrey and Irene Herman, Jenny Lamsli, Rivka Conrad, Aubrey Kutner, Danny Tuchband, Ruth and Michael Topper, Sharon Arad, Robert Brody and myself; Madeleine Whiteson.

This is probably the first group going from a Synagogue, but it is certainly the largest.

We are taking twelve sets of Tefillin as a result of donations to a Tefillin fund by members of the Shul and beyond. These are badly needed according to the information David harris gave us. In addition we are taking new clothes, toys, books etc, to suit children from babyhood up to sixteen.

Sydney Faber will be our leader in Odessa and he has warned us to expect temperatures of -15° to -20°!

So, see you on Shabbat in two weeks time when we return to the tropical climate of Kenton! We shall hope to give you much more first hand information then, once we have thawed out!

Finally to all those who have donated time, money and/or goods to this trip a very big thank you.