Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Jewish woman par excellence

My own personal Eshet Chayil- photo courtesy of Geoff Karr
Every year Kenton Shul honours two special ladies who have done so much for the community. We call them “Women of Worth” This year we honoured Clemy Lazarus and Kathy Peters. We wish them all the very best, and they should have lots of joy from their children and grandchildren.

Here are a few words that I spoke in Shul this past Shabbat :

Did you know that up in heaven there are two queues for the men? One is a very long one; the one for hen-pecked men. The other for non hen-pecked men, has only one person standing in line. The angel goes up to him and says:
“What are you doing standing alone in this line?”
He answers: “My wife told me to stand here!”

Today I intend to speak a little about the Jewish woman, but I feel a certain inadequacy here. First, because I’m not a woman, but second, because I see my wife and how she is able to multi task and juggle all the things that I, in my deficiency cannot do- and I ask:  Who and what am I? I am humbled when I am in the presence of a true Eshet Chayil.

But these words Eshet Chayil what do they really mean?
We know that the phrase comes from the Book of Proverbs chapter 31 Verses 10- 31. These words are supposed to be read, chanted or sung by a husband to his wife on a Friday night. It’s because the Jewish woman is the hub- the core of the Jewish home.
When we speak of our Women of worth we seem to be following the old Singers Prayer book which translates the word Chayil as worth- the woman of worth:
“Who can find the woman of worth- for her price is far beyond rubies”.
But not every Siddur translates the same.
The Centenary edition translates it: The valiant woman. Etymologically this could be more correct- the noun chayal- a soldier is a person of valour.
The Artscroll translation renders; the accomplished woman, and the Chief Rabbi’s Siddur translates; the woman of strength–and there’s a comment from the Chief Rabbi who says that the word Chayil in the opening phrase signifies strength both moral and physical.
I could be naughty and translate the word in the context of Sedra Ekev which renders the word Chayil as wealth.
“Who can find the wealthy woman for her price is far beyond rubies?” In my humble opinion all the above could be applicable to a true Eshet Chayil. A woman of: valour, worth, strength, accomplishment. The main thing is that the Eshet Chayil is the Jewish woman par excellence to whom we look for inspiration.

This morning’s Sedrah we read about the last three plagues, the killing of the first born. How Pharaoh finally acquiesces to let the Israelites free, and how G-d instructed Moses in the taking of the Paschal lamb, the eating of the Matzah and Marror, the keeping of the Chag HaPesach- the relating of the Exodus from Egypt; all of these things are to be found in this morning’s Sedrah and much more.
The Gemara in Pesachim discusses the obligations of women in relation to the four cups of wine at the Seder; the eating of Matzah and maror; the participation in the Hagadah. Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi says that the Jewish woman is duty bound to keep these mitzvoth even though they are time bound mitzvoth in which they are not usually obligated because  “they were involved in the miracle”.
According to the Rashbam- the Jewish women were delivered by Hashem from the hands of the Egyptians just like all the other Israelites so therefore they have an obligation as well to thank Hashem.
Tosfot takes it one step further.
He says that it’s not just because the Jewish woman was delivered from slavery but more. It was the Jewish woman who was intimately involved in the deliverance of the Israelites. In the words of the Midrash:
“In the merit of the righteous women of that generation our forefathers went out of Egypt”.
We are reminded of the two Hebrew midwifes Shifra and Puah who refused to listen to the decree of Pharaoh to throw the Hebrew children in the Nile. Or, Miriam and Yocheved who protected the baby Moshe whilst in Pharaoh’s palace. We are reminded also of the Jewish women who still continued to have children despite the decrees against them.

However, there are those who postulate that Judaism doesn’t look too favourably on the role of the Jewish woman.
We start with creation. Adam was created first, meaning or implying that somehow the woman is inferior- the woman being created from the tzelah –the rib/side of Adam.
Even later on when Adam was commanded NOT to eat from the Etz Hadaat- it was Eve who succumbed and tempted Adam to eat of its fruit.
It implies that the woman is of the weaker sex.
Indeed even in the role of the Jewish woman today- women are told that they are relieved from mitzvoth that have any time element.
What? Are women just not good enough?

There are answers to these questions.
At the creation of woman the Torah says that G-d caused man to fall asleep

Vayiven et hatzelah- and he built the rib

Notice the word Vayiven comes from the same root as binah meaning understanding.
Indeed our Rabbis learn from this:
 Binah yeterah nitnah beishah- a greater binah perception/ intuition was given to woman. So far from being a put down, Man was created first because he was the prototype, the trial product but the Woman has a deeper greater spiritual understanding. So far from being inferior the woman comes out better.

It was Eve who was tempted by the serpent to eat of the fruit, she in turn gave it to Adam.
But look into the Torah again. Who was the one commanded directly by G-d NOT to eat of the fruit?
It was Adam.
Eve had received the information second hand with a bit of corruption in between- and somehow it had lost something in the transmission process.

In two weeks time we read Sedra Yitro. G-d says to Moses; Ko tomar lebeit Yaakov vetageid livnei yisrael- Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob and you shall tell the Children of Israel.
Our Sages say: Beit Yaakov- these are the women-bnei yisrael - these are the men. Moses; when you are about to give the Torah to Israel say to the women first and only after that to the men, because it is the Jewish woman who has the power to influence the Jewish man.
If the Jewish woman is keeping kosher, then all the household keeps Kashrut. The same goes to many of the other Mitzvot. It is the woman who holds the rein of power who has the binah yeteira the extra understanding to transform the household into a place of holiness. And it is the Jewish woman who has the binah to educate our children in their formative years and bring them a love and a feeling for Judaism.
Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Oy Vey Goy

A few years ago whilst I was the Rabbi in Newcastle upon Tyne we lived next door a delightful non Jewish couple called Jane and Peter. They were superb neighbours and we were the best of friends. Each year when it came to the December holiday period they would send us a card reading: “Seasons greetings from the Goys next door!”

Chas and me. Photo courtesy of Murray freedman
Last night I attended a superb talk under the auspices of our Adult Education KKW2 programme in my Shul delivered by Chas Newkey-Burden. He is a non Jewish guy who has a blog- you can reach him here at:

Yes –you read that right Oy Vay Goy. Chas is an advocate for Israel. He explained to his audience why he exactly came to reaching this path:
“As well as wanting to support Israel I’m also disgusted by antisemitism in general, as I am by all bigotry from sexism to homophobia and Islamophobia. However, of all the bigotries that exist antisemitism seems the most universally held: from the numbskull skinhead to the sophisticated leftie to the aristocratic Brit and nearly everyone in between. I don’t mean to be flippant when I ask surely the bigger mystery is not why I oppose anti semitism but why more other people don’t? My hope is that this blog can help in some small way to work against anti-Israel bigotry and anti semitism in general, and perhaps bring some moments of comfort to those who suffer as a result of them”.

Thank you Chas for a fabulous evening!!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The escalator up

There are three kinds of reaction from people who break the Shabbat, when they happen to run into the local rabbi.

The first kind are sitting in their car they see the rabbi, they  either duck to prevent themselves  being seen or they pretend that they haven’t seen him.
Next there are the types who will stop and say Good Shabbos to the rabbi whilst they’re in the car.
Finally you have the third kind who will actually stop the car, wind down the window and say to the Rabbi.. “Good Shabbos Rabbi- you need a lift?”

One of my previous communities, I’m not saying where; most of the people were not Shomer Shabbat. Indeed most of the membership lived 5-10 miles from Shul, so I would have had to be very na├»ve indeed to believe that they had walked. Shul on Shabbat morning began late at 10 and went on to well after 12.45 Around 11 in the morning every Shabbat, I noticed a few members went out for a few minutes and then came back, and I wondered why, later I was to find out that it was to feed the meters.
So here I was, one bright Shabbat morning walking to Shul and one particular man who I knew well with his kippah serugah got out of his parked car and noticing me-came running over to me. He said the following:
“What do you think rabbi? Should my wife be lighting Shabbat candles, yet we are not observant?  Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to be driving on Shabbat yet my wife lights up every week?”
I could have said the following: “You know what I think – your Judaism is entirely worthless because how could you be driving to Shul and doing other things on Shabbat which openly profane the Shabbat day? However, you want to be frum in other aspects!? What do you think- that Hashem sees certain things but He doesn’t see others?”

But that’s not what I said.

Instead I told him the following:
“The fact that you are lighting your Shabbat candles is not negated by the fact that you don’t keep Shabbat. In other words: you’ve done something positive by doing one mitzvah- and one mitzvah leads to another….The most important thing is that you are ascending; climbing up your own spiritual ladder.”
This very same man together with his entire family later on became totally observant, they now live in Israel, and I still keep a strong connection with him and his family. The moral is; you cannot write somebody off completely because they are not 100%. At any rate who is 100% any way? I am reminded of the words of King Solomon: There is no man under the sun who has never sinned.

Nobody is perfect

This morning’s Sedrah, is left over from last week on a cliff hanger. Moses had gone to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Jewish people go free. But Pharaoh tells him no way. Instead of making it easier for the Jews he makes it harder.
Moses, having been approached by representatives of the people who come to complain, then goes to G-d and says: “Why have You dealt so wickedly with this people and why have You not delivered them?”

Our Sedra opens with the response to Moshe from Hashem with the promise of freedom and redemption. Moses is now instructed by G-d to go back to the people and tell them everything that he has been told and that indeed the children of Israel will go free.
So Moses does as he has been ordered by Hashem. He tells them that it will be G-d who will take them out of Egypt.

The reaction of the Israelites was as follows:

“They did not listen to Moses because of [mi-kotzer ruach]-shortness of breath and [avodah kashah]- hard work.”
It’s easy to understand the avodah kashah, the hard work. Here are the Israelites and they’re suffering on a bad scale. So Moses is coming with this message of freedom. And their reaction is: Moses- you’ve got to be kidding!-We’re living a life of hard labour and you, Moshe are telling us that we’re going to go free?!!

But what is meant here by mi-kotzer ruach-shortness of breath?  On a simple level you could explain it that their spirit had almost completely been crushed by the servitude of the Egyptians.
But I would like to suggest a novel explanation from the Yalkut Reuveni,  a Kabbalistic work from the 17th century. He says that Kotzer Ruach means lacking in ruach- which means spirit or religiosity. They are saying: you know we just don’t have what it takes, we’re not good enough, we do not deserve redemption because we’re not on the level to deserve redemption.
I think there is a very profound message that each and every one of us can take out on our own level. There are people who reject a deeper or a greater involvement in Judaism because they have what I call the ALL OR NOTHING syndrome.
If I am not keeping Shabbat, How can I keep Kosher? Or, if I am not keeping Kosher, how can I have the chutzpah to walk into Shul. They fail to understand that sometimes I can excel in one aspect of Judaism but there are other aspects on which I need to work.
So does that make me a hypocrite if I am good at one mitzvah and not good in another?
I suppose there are Jews out there who would judge me unfavourably. They would say it’s an all or nothing approach, and if you’re not doing it all then you’re a nothing. But I don’t ascribe to that view.
First, there is no aspect of my life to which I apply the all or nothing approach. If I cannot make a million pounds it doesn’t mean that I give up and go on welfare. If I have a row with my wife, it doesn’t mean I give up and get divorced, because I know that life has its ups and downs and there’s a lot of grey in the middle.

Remember Yaakov’s dream. He has a vision of a ladder which is firmly planted in the ground and its top is reaching up to the heavens. The ladder represents our spiritual life. Each wrung of the ladder is another step up.
It’s not important to know which wrung of the ladder I am on at the moment because ultimately we do not know where we are. But it’s important to know that we’re on our way up.
Mitzvah goreret mitzvah- each mitzvah leads to another

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Who will be the next Chief Rabbi?

Last Sunday my wife and I went to see IRON LADY, the film about Margaret Thatcher. We went together with a Kenton contingent to Borehamwood. We thought to go there because there would be nobody else we knew, and we could go incognito. However, when we arrived, just about everybody in the cinema was Jewish, many whom we knew.
So what did I think of the film?
I question the morality of showing a film and depicting somebody in the throes of dementia whilst still alive. It would have been more correct to have shown this movie after her demise.
However, Meryl Streep plays the part brilliantly.
Everybody has different opinions of Maggie; my dad Z’L couldn’t stand her. He had a good reason; he was a socialist through and through. But there was more than that; he didn’t like how she had to commandeer everything herself. When it came to a photo shoot, she had to be the one to place everybody in the right position, as if it could not be done without her being there.
But many people will remember her for standing up for what she thought was right. I think particularly of her famous statement,
“This lady’s not for turning.”
I don’t know how far you can take that. She stood up on issues like the Falklands War, the miners strike, the Euro and the infamous poll tax. But sometimes she could be wrong, and I think a leader has to face up to and admit that fact. That was her downfall, in the end she became autocratic and overbearing and unable to lead properly having lost the support from her inner circle.

This week’s Sedra speaks about the life and times of our greatest leader; Moses.
We read in the Torah:  “There will never arise in Israel a prophet of the stature of Moses”.
He is known as Moshe Rabbeinu- Moses our Rabbi, our teacher par excellence.
Moses would be the one to take the Israelites out of Egypt, to receive the Torah at Sinai. He would lead the Israelites through the Wilderness for forty years. Moses fought against the Amalekites, Sichon and Og and defeated them, and he stopped short of leading them into Israel.
He was the greatest leader who ever lived.

Anglo Jewry is in the throes of choosing a leader, a Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.
Who will it be?
Here’s a few of the front line names for the position:
The acerbic Rabbi Schochet from Mill Hill and Jewish News’ Ask the Rabbi fame.
The highly creative Rabbi Belovski from Golders Green United.
The very wise Rabbi Mirvis from Finchley United.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein from South Africa who inspired all the Rabbis at the recent conference of the Chief Rabbi.
Or maybe we should go for Shmuli Boteach, the intergalactic Rabbi or Chief Rabbi Yoni Metzger from Israel who seems to want the job?

So what ingredients do you need to have to be a leader? What qualities do you need to be Chief Rabbi?

Look at the sedra and the formative years of Moses to see the aspects of leadership for which we should be looking.

·        Look at his birth. “A man from the house of Levy went and took a daughter of Levy.” We know from later on that the parents of Moses were Amram and Yocheved, so why the cover up at this stage? Why just tell us that his parents were from the Tribe of Levy? The message is that it doesn’t go according to yichus (pedigree). When looking for a leader it doesn’t matter from whence you come. Another aspect is that when we’re looking for a leader in Israel he has to be someone born of flesh and blood- none of the Immaculate Conception nonsense. Moses had a mother and father.
·        “And the woman became pregnant and she gave birth to a son, and she saw him for he was good, and she hid him for three months.” What is meant by the words, “for he was good” every Jewish mother looks at her child as good? One interpretation brought from Rashi is that he was born in a state of perfection. He was already circumcised. Another explanation is that this goodness is connected to the very first time “it was good” was used in the Torah, at the creation of light. When Moses was born, the whole house was full of light. It was obvious that here was a special and unique person who would eventually become a leader in Israel.
·        “And it was in those days that Moses grew and he went out to his brothers and saw their travails.” He was a member of Pharaoh’s household and had reached a status of royalty, yet he wasn’t too big a person to go out to his brothers and see their afflictions. A true leader has to relate and empathize with the troubles of his fellow Jews.
·        “And he saw an Egyptian man smiting a Hebrew man from his brothers. And he turned this way and that way and he saw there was no man and he smote the Egyptian man and he hid him in the sand.” What is meant by these words; he saw there was no man. Three interpretations: First, the simple explanation, he saw there was nobody around who would witness what was about to happen. Second, he saw in the future that nobody of any goodness or substance would come from this Egyptian. Third, he saw there was no man means; he saw nobody man enough to do something about an injustice which was perpetrated against one of his people. What would you do- just stand around or are you man enough to be the man? True leadership means standing up in the pursuit of justice. Moses had the courage and the fearlessness to do something when everybody around him did nothing. Shortly after as well, he stood up for the injustices taking place against the daughters of Jethro at the well. Later on in life, Moses was to exhort the people: “justice, justice shall you pursue!”
·        “And he led the flock into the wilderness, and he came to the Mountain of G-d at Choreb.” The Medrash rabbah notes that the incident of the Burning Bush occurred after the leading of the flock in the wilderness. The story is related that Moses ran after a lamb that had strayed. He followed it and saw that the lamb just needed some water to drink and with kindness, after allowing the lamb to drink, he carried him back to the flock. It was that caring nature of a shepherd with his flock that merited Moses to lead the Children of Israel.
·        When G-d revealed himself to Moses at the Burning Bush, Moses says: “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh to take out the Children of Israel from his land?” Moses, despite the fact that he was the leader par excellence of the Jewish people, nevertheless he knew his own limitations. He knew that ultimately everything comes from G-d and all his talents of leadership were G-d given. This was something that he took with him throughout his life. Indeed when his sister Miriam criticised him for marrying a Cushite woman, he held his peace and said nothing.  The Torah says: “Moses was the most humble of men who lived on the earth.” If you are humble you can also admit to your own limitations and recognise ones own faults.
·        Finally, Moses was the one who stood up and challenged G-d in face of the suffering of his brethren. At the conclusion of the Sedra Moses  asks Hashem; “Why have you dealt so badly with this people? Why have you not delivered your people?” A true leader will pray and act as an intercessor on behalf of the Jewish people.
So again, in no particular order here are the qualities for which we need to be looking in the search for a leader of the Jewish people:
1.     Somebody unique and special who lifts the people around him.
2.     He has empathy. He sees the travails of his fellow Jews and is prepared to do something about it.
3.     Pursuit of justice. He has to be fearless and courageous, to speak out on issues that matter.
4.     Caring for every single one of his flock. Like a true shepherd.
5.     Humility. Doesn’t let the position go to his head, at the same time he has the maturity to accept constructive criticism and realises that he is only human.
6.     Standing up on behalf of his people Israel.

Do you have what it takes?

Monday, 9 January 2012

The commission for assisted dying is wrong

Rabbi Akiva Tatz's book dealing with end of life issues

There are some values that we must not compromise.

A theoretical case:

Imagine a man jumps off from the top of the Empire State Building to his almost inevitable death. On the way down a person standing on the eightieth floor, who is an expert marksman sees him and shoots. He kills him, and by the time he hits the ground he is already dead. So there were only seconds from the time he has shot him till the time that he would have hit the ground. Is the person guilty of murder?

In Jewish law the gunman would be found guilty of murder (as long as it could be proven according to Halacha)
It sounds a bit strange. The person was going to die anyway. Why should the gunman be guilty of something that would have happened seconds later in any case?
The reason is that notwithstanding that this man had only seconds to live, nevertheless the short life that he has left to live is of infinite value, to take the few seconds of life left away from that person is, according to all opinions deemed murder.
It’s got nothing to do with the length of time that a person has left in this world or even the quality of that life, actively assisting a person in taking his/ her life is tantamount to murder.

This law is encapsulated in the laws of the Goses; a dying person who has only a very short time to live.
 Maimonides in the Laws of Aveilut says: A Goses is considered to be alive in every respect. Whoever touches him is considered to be a murderer… whoever closes his eyes as he dies is a murderer-one should wait a short while as perhaps he is in a swoon.

If, in the case of a Goses whose life is very limited (in most cases a person remains a Goses for only 72 hours) one is not allowed to actively assist the dying, how much more so in a case when a person has some time to go, that we not assist in a persons demise.

Last Thursday the Commission on assisted Dying came out with the following declaration: “The current legal status of assisted dying is inadequate and incoherent”

This commission was set up by the government in November 2010.  It does not mean that any of its findings will become law. What it does promote is a change in the law that on the advice of two physicians a lethal dose of medication should be prescribed to somebody who has found his/her life too difficult to bear because of the terminal and agonising nature of his/her condition.

It was interesting to hear the arguments pro and con. Very damning was the fact that there was no declaration from the BMA- the British Medical Association. One would immediately have thought that if it were doctors who were asked to administer/prescribe the lethal drug that at least they would be in agreement with this. In discussion with a few doctors from my community, I learned that doctors in general feel very unhappy about this proposal. Doctors are there to heal, not to help people to die. Writing a prescription for death goes against the Hippocratic oath which binds a doctor to help heal and alleviate the suffering of his patients.

There is of course the slippery slope argument: which is, if you allow cases of assisted suicide that are justified who is there to protect those who are vulnerable who cannot make the decision, could we be going down the root of Nazi eugenics?

But Judaism takes it one step more. The value of Life is inestimable. You cannot actively shorten life. You cannot justify suicide.

So what can we do?

I believe that to alleviate suffering in end of life cases, we need to focus our attention on palliative care. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Shame on them!

Sometimes you have to think very carefully whether or not to react.

The picture above is one such instance. At a Hafganah (demonstration) last week in Jerusalem to which over 1500 persons attended, Chareidi children were seen dressed up in concentration camp uniforms wearing the yellow star.
The charge was against the Israeli State. It was if to suggest that the Israeli State acts and mistreats elements of Chareidi society in some type of oppressive way comparable to Nazism.

I have to say it. This accusation by sectors of the Chareidim, of victimisation by the Israeli State brings the memory of the six million into shame.

Orthodox Jews have never had it so easy. Look at the faces in the pictures of the Chareidi men and you see everybody looks happy and well, and they are supported by the State. The ones who should be accused of intolerance are the Chareidim from Ramat Bet Shemesh who spit and abuse young girls on their way to school and harass women on the buses, readily supported by their champions in Jerusalem.

Shame on them.

It's also up to the police and authorities to bring down the full weight of the law to bear on these criminals.

Instead of placing a ban on the innocuous Mishpacha magazine, perhaps the Rabbanim ought to have banned this mad group of Sikrikim and its bunch of thugs. 

The Orthodox world needs proper leadership.