Yearly Archives: 2019

Books for Summer Reading

We are entering the quiet summer months and I hope this is a time for physical and mental recovery, surrounded by friends and family.

I will be away to see my family in the United States and look forward to some precious moments with my children, my grandchildren, my cousins, my friends, my brother and my mother who will be 98½ years old on 5 August. She is still going strong, if physically weaker, but her mental state is as vibrant as ever. We are all so proud of her love of life.

Not only is this the time of year to reconnect with loved ones, it is also a time for walks, time to meditate, to think about the state of our lives and, for me, to read and read yet more. I hope you will take time this summer to read some Jewish content and I am always here to recommend my favourite books.

Among my chosen subjects would be Bible, rabbinics, liturgy, history, Zionism and Israel. For Bible interest I highly recommend A History of the Bible by theologist and Anglican priest John Barton, published earlier this year. It is a fascinating account of basic biblical scholarship in both Jewish and Christian Scriptures, with the most accurate and interesting chapters on how the biblical texts were canonised and edited in the forms that we are familiar with today.

For rabbinics, There We Sat Down by Jacob Neusner is still the standard classic on how rabbinic literature was written and what it is. Also anything written by Adin Steinsaltz.

For liturgy, I recommend my teacher Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s excellent commentaries on Jewish liturgy. On Amazon there is a full selection of his commentaries on the High Holiday liturgy, the Siddur and much else.

For history, I recommend Martin Goodman’s History of Judaism, an excellent overview of how Judaism evolved and achieved the forms that it embraces today.

On Zionism and Israel, David Gordis’s Israel is a must-read, a stirring account of Israel’s history which distinguishes between fact, fantasy and myth.

Of course, there are many other books to read and we should not be limited to just those with Jewish content. So enjoy the thrill of the intellectual journey and let me know what you think of the books you have read this summer!

Another thing we will be doing is to plan our calendar for the forthcoming year. Please share any suggestions for themes or topics for our Sunday morning study group.

And let me know what you think of these:

  • A study of the Siddur: an extensive conversation and examination of each part of our prayer book. Why? When? How?
  • From Moses to Ben Gurion: famous Jewish personalities through the ages from ancient to modern times.
  • Jewish Ethics.
  • Shoah: a detailed study of the worst catastrophe in world history.

On that note, I wish you all summer months of peace and blessing. Please come to shul, enjoy the quiet, and stay in touch.

Kol Tuv, only blessing and peace,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler


Season of painful memories – and hope

This is a unique time in the Jewish calendar, with such a variety of emotions, memories and experiences. During these next two months we will be marking Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Shavuot.

Yom Hashoah, 2 May – the oldest established day for remembering the Shoah and the memory of the six million. It is 74 years since the end of World War Two when we began to count the numbers of Jews murdered. As our survivors disappear from among us, we have an ever-growing obligation to keep their memory alive so that such a Shoah never happens again.

It is almost incomprehensible that within so short a time since the greatest mass murder in world history, the first attempt to exterminate an entire group of people – men, women and children, all Jews – no matter where or how they lived, today, before our very eyes, over the last year and more we have seen a vast increase in Shoah denial and massive ignorance about the fate of Europe’s Jews. That phenomenon, in addition to the appalling increase in antisemitism in this country and throughout Europe, should make us all aware of the need to let the world know what happened only a few decades ago.

That is our sacred obligation to those who have no one to narrate their horrific story, and to honour those non-Jews who sacrificed their own lives for the sake of saving Jews during the Shoah. Their heroism must never be forgotten.

Those memories lead to the second major calendar event of the coming months, Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day, 8 May) which precedes Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day) the following day. Yom Hazikaron commemorates over 25,000 Israelis who gave their lives in combat or were victims of terrorist attacks. Yom Ha’atzma’ut on 9 May marks Israel’s 71st anniversary.

With declining Shoah memory and an increase in vile antisemitism, our support and love of the State of Israel and what it means to every Jew in the world must never be forgotten. Israel is our beacon of sanity in an insane world, a place of hope for every Jew seeking his or her home, a miraculous prosperous Jewish state that rose literally from the ashes of the Shoah.

No matter what our political views are regarding Israel and her recent election,we all know that Israel’s viability and safety is vital not only to Israel’s future but to our own security, safety and future living in the Diaspora. May this bea year of celebration for what Israel has accomplished, its wonderfully creative population and its diversity of peoples, with Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druze, Circassians and students from all over the world, who come to study in Israel, to live and be a part of the greatest miracle of the 20th and 21st centuries, a tikvah, a hope for everyone.

We will continue our solidarity with the State of Israel at our annual Israel Dinner at the Synagogue on Thursday 9May. Thanks to everyone who makes this celebration possible each year.

Then comes Shavuot (9-10 June) the celebration of matan Torateinu, the giving of our Torah at Har Sinai, starting this year with evening service on Saturday 8 June. I hope you will join us for our successful annual Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, our evening study sessions. It will begin at 7:30 pm after our ma’ariv (evening) service that ushers in the festival.

This year our theme is Relationships and, as I write this address to you, the schedule is still being finalised. But we will be covering the relationship of Diaspora Jewry to Israel, past and present; our relationship to Judaism’s sacred texts (Midrash, Talmud and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah); our relationship with other religions; our relationship today to the Jewish past; our relationship to music on Shabbat; our relationship between Jewish law and secular national law….and more!

Certainly, Shavuot is a reminder of the preciousness of study, of discovering each day more of our Jewish heritage and compelling tradition. Pick up a good Jewish book and share it with others! And kol hakavod to all our many Sunday morning attendees at the Discussion Class. This year we have delved into the history of Ancient Israel and made the Bible come alive.
To remember, to learn, to think, to commit, to act – all these components form part of our months ahead. May they be fruitful and uplifting months for each and every one of us.

My wishes for Shalom and Brachah as always,

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Purim and Passover: two festivals confronting antisemitism

In the coming months we celebrate Purim and Passover, two very different chagim (holidays) but with common themes and lessons. Both point to two real challenges to the continued existence of the Jewish people. Both tellus that Jewish history contains real and brutal efforts to destroy our people, pointing to a constant aim in the arc of Jewish history – the attempt to hurt us, destroy us, wipe us off the map.

The book of Esther, which contains the story of Purim, reminds us of Haman’s attempt some 2,500 years ago to annihilate every Jewish man, woman and child. It is the first description of the existential threat that springs up periodically, reminding us that Jew hatred can arise at any juncture, often without much of a coherent ideology. As scholars of antisemitism have correctly suggested, it is also a barometer of society, an indication of an inherent weakness in the society from which it originates.

Perhaps that is why we are so troubled today because we know that the dramatic rise in antisemitism across Continental Europe, the Arab Middle East and even in Britain as well as the USA, indicates fundamental weaknesses at the core of our society. Going after the Jews never ends well for anyone – certainly not for the Jews, but not for the rest of society, either.

What saved the Jews in ancient Persia, before the rule of Ayatollahs? The drama of Esther points to the heroic behaviour of the Queen who, with the support and direction of her cousin Mordechai, went straight to the King, Ahasuerus, and demanded freedom for the Jews of Shushan. When she realised what was really afoot, she was not afraid to speak out and expose Haman’s murderous plot. In other words, the message of Megillat Esther is that cowardice and fear of exposing antisemitism allows Jew haters to succeed. Stand up and speak out, yesterday, today and tomorrow!

At Passover the Jewish people, as we read in the Haggadah, faced excruciating bondage in Egypt, whips and burdens that constituted our people’s unbearable suffering at the hand of others. But through Moses’ courageous leadership and his challenge, together with his brother Aaron, to the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Israelites, precursors of the Jewish people, were liberated from bondage and found the gift of freedom that enabled them to create a nation state based on Torah and the word of God.

One of the most startling facts of the Exodus is that the Israelites celebrated Passover, the Seder, BEFORE they left Egypt, not after liberation. The reason, according to our Sages, is that the value of freedom had to be articulated first, assimilated inside every member of Israel, before they could be truly free. In other words, freedom begins from inside. No external enemy can defeat us or destroy us if we are free inside, if we stay loyal to our religious values and heritage. No enemy can destroy us if we remain true to ourselves.

So, to Jeremy Corbyn and all his antisemitic followers,to so many in the Arab Middle East, to supporters of the rising BDS movement, we must affirm our commitment to pride in ourselves, to combat assimilation and rampant acculturation, the breakup of the Jewish family, and the scourge of Jewish selfhatred. The internal struggle against all thosefactors that weaken Jewish observance and understanding of who we are and what we represent to the rest of the world, will be the test as to whether antisemites succeed in weakening us. From Esther and Mordechai, Moses and Aaron, and the resolve of all those Jews who knew who and what they were, we are here today, under orders to keep our Judaism and Jewish identity strong and mighty, impenetrable to attack.

The argument as to which factor is more important, freedom from external threats or from internal weakness and assimilation, is clearly spelled out in the Haggadah. Shmuel (2nd century rabbi) argues that the greatest threat to the Jewish people is the external enemy (“We were slaves in the land of Egypt”). Rav claims it is idolatry or, in modern terms, our abandonment of Judaism, our exit from Jewish life (“My father was an Aramean”, meaning an idolator, as Abraham was brought up to be).

What do you think is the greater threat to Jewish existence? Enemies bent on destroying us or the enemy within us? There is ample material here for a good discussion in synagogue when we celebrate Purim in March, and at your Seder tables in April.

I extend my warm wishes to you and your loved ones for a joyful celebration of Purim and a meaningful and blessed Passover.
Mo’adim l’simcha (times for joy)

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler