Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Who are the Jews?

The story I am about to relate took place very shortly after the Baruch Goldstein massacre in Hebron in February ’94. For those people too old to remember or too young to know about this; Baruch Goldstein was a Jewish extremist who walked into the Cave of Machpelah whilst the Muslims were at prayer and gunned down nineteen people in cold blood. It was a deed that was condemned by just about everybody in the Orthodox world.
It was in the aftermath of this atrocity that I was invited by the Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies of the Royal Holloway and Bedford College to sit on a panel to discuss the differences between the three religions. The Board of Deputies sent security officers for protective purposes, because we were on red alert fearing repercussions around the world from Islamic extremists.
When I arrived, I was sitting with two other panellists; the Christian chaplain to the University and a Muslim Imam. The Vice Chancellor of the university chaired the event. We were each given twenty minutes to speak about what our religion is all about, beginning with the representative from the oldest monotheistic religion, followed by random questions fielded by the Vice Chancellor.
There were a smattering of Jewish students present in the audience and a few more Christian students. But the amphitheatre soon filled up to almost capacity with young Muslims. Throughout the evening they put forward only one question to me, or what seemed like a question and that was:
The Jews are impostors. They are not the original people of the book to whom the Torah was given. Indeed the term “Jew” is nowhere to be found in the Bible?

My response:
You are wrong.
Indeed the Jews were called the Children of Israel throughout the Bible. But, when they went into exile they were called Jews or Yehudim. In the Megillat Esther we read: Ish Yehudi hayah beshushan. “There was a Jewish man who lived in Shushan and his name was Mordechai, the son of Yair the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite”.

He was called a Benjaminite because that was his tribal affiliation. However, he was called a Yehudi- a Jew because he came from Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel.

Indeed we read in the Megillah how after defeating their enemies: The Yehudim- Jews had light, joy, happiness and glory.

After responding I wasn’t asked any more questions- I think they became too afraid that I knew what I was talking about.
It’s important to know how to respond when challenged. It’s also vital to know and to be aware of our wealthy heritage. From whence we come and to where we are going.

Monday, 6 February 2012

How secular is "Secular?"

Let me share with you some of the results of an extensive report released this week from the Israeli Democracy Institute from the AVI CHAI foundation. It’s entitled:

“A portrait of Israeli Jews”. You can find it here:

The report is actually from 2009 but its publication had been deferred for three years.

Listen to some of its findings which represented a broad cross section of Israeli society

How would you define yourself religiously?
7% Charedi
15% dati or orthodox
32% Traditional
43% Secular- not anti religious
3% Secular anti religious.

So that puts it at 54% as religious against 46% who are secular In Israel.

Now listen to the responses to the following questions:
To what extent do you believe?
That G-d exists: 80%
That good deeds are rewarded: 80%
A higher power governs the world: 77%
Bad deeds are punished: 74%
The Torah and the precepts are G-d given: 65%

Lifecycle questions:
Respondents for whom Jewish lifecycle ceremonies are very important or important:
Circumcision: 94%
Sitting Shiva: 92%
Bar Mitzvah: 91%
Saying  Kaddish for parents: 90%
Traditional Jewish burial: 86%
Bat Mitzvah: 83%
Being married by a Rabbi: 80%

To what extent do you always or usually:
Eat Kosher at home: 80%
Eat kosher outside the home: 70%
Separate meat from dairy: 63%

 I could go on…90% of people attend a Pesach Seder. 82% of people light Chanukah candles. 67% of people refrain from eating Chametz throughout Pesach.

Now listen to this: 66% light Shabbat candles. 60% recite Kiddush on Friday night. 69% eat a Friday night meal. 84% spend time with the family.

I think these results are staggering.
Remember 46% of people are actually Chiloni- secular. But the question is how secular is secular if you have a high proportion of people who call themselves Secular who are keeping lifecycle events; Shabbat, the Yomim Tovim and Kashrut, believing in G-d and the Torah, yet profess to being irreligious.

Is it possible that they are not entirely telling the truth when they profess to being secular, but believe in G-d?

Could it also be that the secular/ religious divide in Israel is not as acute as the media portrays, or would like it to be? There are only 3% of Israelis in Israel in 2009 who would define themselves as Secular anti religious!!

If you think that I am making up these figures –go look for yourself.

Last week in Shul we read the Song of Moses. After witnessing the Parting of the sea of Reeds, the Torah says: “And they believed in G-d and in His servant Moses”.

Very good, after witnessing all the greatest miracles first hand from G-d, I think that would turn even the greatest cynic into a believer. But look at the story at what transpires next.. They travel in the wilderness and the Israelites complain to G-d for water to drink, they journey further and the Israelites again complain to G-d for food, this time they remember the food in Egypt. They travel again, and they murmur against Moses and Aharon, crying out for water to drink.
Each time, the Israelites complain, but G-d delivers.
 So the question is what kind of faith could they have possibly have had, when each time they test Moses and G-d to the extreme?

Yisrael maaminim bnei Maaminim. Israel are believers, the children of believers. There is something that comes deep down from our souls; it comes from our experience, our history. The fact that we were the ones who stood at Mt Sinai and heard the word  first hand from G-d- the fact that we experienced and witnessed the exodus, culminating in the parting of the Sea. The fact that G-d sustained us and led us through the desert for the forty years  leading us to the promised land-is something that has become ingrained as part of our psyche- as a people.

 So when somebody says to me: “Rabbi- I’m not religious- I don’t believe.” What exactly is he/she saying? 

Think about it!