Category: Rabbi’s Monthly Message

Summer stocktaking: Rabbi’s end of term report

It is that time of year again, time to take stock, to enjoy the quiet of the summer months, to recharge our energies for the coming year, and, hopefully, find a new perspective in renewed faith. We may have no control over the turbulence around us but we can look back over the past year at our Synagogue and see cause for pride and gratitude.

I have said many times that I feel so privileged to be the rabbi of this unusual and gifted community. I am blessed with remarkable students, the best of friends and a congregation that believes in the best of our Jewish ideals and spirit. May God continue to give us that strength. So, here are a few reflections on what we have accomplished together and where we are headed.

We began the Jewish year with powerful High Holy Day services and attendance. I spoke on aspects of fear, the choir was magnificent, the Cantor never sounded better, everyone took part. We had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah virtually every week, where our gifted children affirmed their Jewish identity.
We took 30 members to Berlin on a trip beyond all expectation. We learned so much and were impressed by the local activists we met at the Alexander Haus, thanks to our co-host, Thomas Harding. A big thank you to Claire Walford for arranging it all.

We had classes: our Sunday morning adult discussion class on modern western philosophy and Jewish responses from Hobbes to Moses Mendelssohn. We held our annual lecture with Rev Paul Nicholson on religious extremism in our respective faiths, and were joined by a leading
figure of the Shiite Muslim community.

Our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot was led by Alasdair Nisbet. Though small in number, we were mighty in the content of our educational endeavour. Maimonides was the glue and learning was all around us, as was the cheesecake. Our community second Seder attracted the largest attendance we have ever had. And we had a joyous Purim, a festive Succot.

Seven adults who have studied every week with me in the synagogue library were brought before the Bet Din and became part of the Jewish people. We also welcomed three children who followed their converted mothers. We had Hebrew “marathon reading” classes for the first time, to try to put those unfamiliar with Hebrew at ease with our services.

We are growing. Membership is up. Attendance is largely excellent. We are blessed with leadership, and this is a good moment to thank our outgoing Co-Chairs, Suzanne Goldstein and John Abramson, along with the Board and Executive, for their time and commitment.

Our office works hard and I personally am grateful that I work with such fine individuals as Jennifer Saul, Jagdish (bookkeeping), Adam Rynhold (my right arm), Gordon Larkin (our man who keeps us safe and organised!), and Lee Taylor, the very best Chief Executive, a man of incredible integrity and devotion to the community.

I also want to again note how blessed we are in our music, our professional choir, our youth choir director, Alyson Denza, our superb music director, Dr Ben Wolf, and, finally, my partner on the bimah, Cantor Paul Heller.

Our music programme has been revolutionised by Philip Keller and the the Music Committee. Concerts just get better and better. Our Israel Committee, led by Jeffrey Graham, arranged a memorable dinner, raising funds for our regular charities in Israel.

Our talented Education Director, Jeanie Horowitz, enhances our children’s knowledge of their Jewish heritage. Thank you, Jeanie, and thank you also, Eve Hersov, compassionate and caring, who visits our seniors and those who are ill and watches over mourners.

So, how can we do better next year? Well, we will certainly try! We will focus on ideals, aims and goals at the High Holy Days. We will organise another trip, most likely to Israel.

Our Monday night Introduction to Judaism course has 12 new students. We will continue our Sunday morning study of modern philosophy and Jewish thought. There will be more Hebrew reading opportunities. Stay tuned!

Welcome to Jackie Alexander, our new Chairman, and the Board of this great community, to all our committee chairs and, most of all, to our entire membership. You continue to astound with your energy, compassion, devotion to the community and passionate interest in seeing Jewish life thrive.
Have a wonderful summer and may God bless us with renewed faith and most of all, shalom.

B’shalom,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Shavuot and this year’s theme of Maimonides

Chaverim Yekarim – Dear Friends,

This is the month of Sivan, the month of June, when we celebrate Shavuot, our short two-day chag that has few rituals or customs attached to it, unlike its partner pilgrimage festivals (regalim) of Passover and Succot.

There’s a reason for that lacuna in ritual for Shavuot because the primary message of this festival is matan Torateinu, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah. Torah speaks for itself, it needs no formal ritual, for it is about our mental and intellectual connection to Torah and Judaism. That is why the most prominent ritual attached to Shavuot has been the custom of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, the Kabbalistic tradition of studying Torah all night long, as our ancestors at Har Sinai stayed awake all night long before receiving the Ten Commandments.

By now you all know the importance of our educational component at Belsize Square Synagogue. We have hosted a variety of prominent speakers, including the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Dr Ismar Schorsch, and more recently the Provost and esteemed Dean of History at JTS, Professor Jack Wertheimer. We’ve had other scholars with us and we have a steady diet of classes in our weekly Monday night Introduction to Judaism course, covering everything from theology, festivals and life cycle to interfaith matters and history.

And we have our regular Sunday morning discussion group where we we have studied this year the great thinkers of Western civilisation and Jewish responses to those thinkers, and have become familiar and knowledgeable about Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Hegel. We have hosted a magnificently successful day of study, Limmud, and held joint classes with our neighbour, St Peter’s Church, on Bible, extremism and many other subjects.

Education is the heart and core of our congregation. Without knowledge we lose our vision, our wisdom, our drive to maintain the light of Israel. Talmud Torah (Torah study) is the hallmark of our religious faith and commitments. We know that without our Jewish education, knowledge and literacy, we would have disappeared long ago.

Here are some cornerstone citations to remember:

1. It says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): Am ha’aretz lo chasid (An ignorant Jew cannot be a pious person). Our rabbis knew 2,000 years ago that without knowledge of Torah, it is impossible to find the drive and purpose to observe the commandments, personal and inter-personal. You simply cannot be or act on something important to you without knowing why. Knowledge increases the sense of obligation.

Jews have learned through the centuries that there is no substitute for learning.

2. Talmud Torah k’neged kulam (The study of Torah has equal weight to all of them, i.e. the rest of the commandments). What was Rabbi Akiva trying to teach us? Without study of Torah you cannot understand why we Jews must do what we do. This says it all regarding the place of study in our tradition.

3. V’shinantem l’vanecha (And you shall teach it to your children – or chew it over with them.) All parents have this obligation, as we recite from the Shema morning and evening, for study leads to the parental ability to transmit our tradition to our children and grandchildren. The verse says we should teach them intensively, repeatedly. V’shinantem, which comes from the word for tooth (shin, like the Hebrew letter), means that we must first be students ourselves so that we know what we are telling our children.

4. Torah lishma (Torah for its own sake), which means that the purpose of our study is not to gain a diploma or secure good grades or even “prepare ourselves for a job”, but for its own sake, just to love the learning – no ulterior motives allowed. Now, would not this ethical value be helpful on our university campuses where so much of student and classroom life is about getting good grades rather than the substance of learning?

So my plea to you all is: Come to our classes and services. I always try to teach something new each week. Come to our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot after evening service on Saturday 11 June. Our subject this year is Maimonides, the great Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1140-1205). Each of our sessions will be on a different aspect of his teachings. What do you know about Maimonides? Come and find out.

And join us on Sunday mornings. We’re wrapping up this year’s course but come next year, when we will be exploring the philosophies of Heschel, Fackenheim, Buber, Rosenzweig, Kaplan and many more prominent 20th century Jewish thinkers.

My wishes to all of you for a blessed and dairy-filled Shavuot.

Chag Shavuot Sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

A challenge for unity and acceptance

Shalom Chaverim,

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book, Not in God’s Name, is a masterpiece, an essential, brilliant and necessary dissertation which combines the best of Jewish ethics, theology and vision in one book. It is no surprise that Rabbi Sacks received, and well deserved, the prestigious Templeton Prize 2016 for his exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

The theology presented in Rabbi Sacks’ book is the most perfect response to a world that has been plunged into interfaith conflict, due to the rise of religious and political extremism. And it is extremism, whether it be Islamic, Christian, Jewish or secular, which threatens to destroy us in its murderous agenda of bloodshed and intolerance.

Our very hope for coexistence and understanding of each other, especially in the area of interfaith dialogue, depends upon a new framework of religious vision that encompasses the “other”, and Rabbi Sacks has mastered the religious response to terror and extremism.

“Us” Versus “Them”

Both religious and secular extremism in the past and today divides the world into a dualism that splits the world into an “us” versus “them” mentality. The “good guys” take on an ideological position that soon warps the human soul by justifying a contrived and diabolical need to destroy the ”bad guys” and, as Rabbi Sacks demonstrates so lucidly in his book, allowing for the most violent and dastardly murderous activity.

This need to be rid of all ideological and religious competitors characterised the Jewish Dead Sea Sect (from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st Century CE) whose religious stance divided the world into the “children of Light and Darkness”.

The Christian crusaders separated the heathens who rejected Christianity from the pure faithful. Hitler and Stalin crushed the Jews and all their other ideological opponents as “evil ones” preventing the pure race or righteous ideology from victory. Today’s Islamic fanatics have made cruel war against anyone who defies Islamic sharia law and the establishment of Islamic dominance.

Embracing the Other

However, true monotheism, as we read in Sacks’ book, finds a way of encompassing us all in a family of nations. If we were only to read our Scriptural sources carefully, maintaining our unique religious callings while, at the same time, finding a theology that embraces the other due to an enlarged and appropriate understanding of monotheism – one God, one humanity – then the problems of terror, fanaticism and dualism would find no followers.

I am not an Orthodox rabbi but I have relied upon my brilliant teacher, Rabbi Sacks, for wisdom, Torah, insight and more. I, for one, marvel at the breadth and depth of Rabbi Sacks’ knowledge and insight and believe that everyone should read his brilliant book.

However, there is one caveat to his Not in God’s Name that needs to be addressed, and sooner rather than later.

While Rabbi Sacks has presented a coherent and necessary theological framework for

interfaith relations, in my view the time has come for a similar ideological and theological basis to improve “intra-faith” relations, i.e. the way Jews should look upon their fellow Jews. The intolerance that exists, the apartheid we have created in our own Jewish world, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are appalling and, unfortunately, getting worse.

There are constant spats regarding praying at the Western Wall, whether non-Orthodox rabbis should be granted the right to officiate at weddings, funerals or conversions, prohibitions on Orthodox rabbis from even stepping foot in Masorti, Reform or Liberal synagogues, let alone engage in classes, worship or dialogue with each other, in a dark side of Jewish life today that we too often ignore.

Unnecessary Division

In fact, we live with the absurdity that an Orthodox rabbi, even here in the UK, finds it easier to attend a church or mosque than to be present at a nonOrthodox synagogue or institution.

The time has come to rethink this preposterous and unnecessary division within our small Jewish world. The fighting and division weaken us at the very time when we need to stand united in the face of rising anti-Semitism, constant attacks against the state of Israel, and rampant assimilation and acculturation.

Not only are we, the Jewish people, weakened by such divisiveness. We appear as absurd, empty proponents of the kind of mutual respect for all that our world desperately needs at this time in history, unless we become determined to undo the walls we have erected to keep the other Jew out.

We must be one people, for the underlying principle of the Torah is the Oneness of God, and the correlation to that is the oneness of the people of Israel. The divisions among us lead to a disqualification of our ability to testify to the world regarding God’s unity and the unity of nations and religions. As the Midrash tells us: “The Divine Presence does not dwell among a people with a divided heart.” (Numbers Rabbah 15:14)

A Diverse People

This call for unity does not mean that we Jews need to be the same in our various approaches to Jewish life, law, ethics and tradition. We are a diverse people and that has always been a salient fact of Jewish history, whether it be Pharisees vs Sadducees, Rabbis Shammai vs Hillel, Ishmael vs Akiva, kabbalists (mystics) vs Maimonidean rational philosophers, or Mitnagdim (traditionalist opponents) vs Chasidim (thought illiterate revolutionaries when the movement arose in the 18th century).

These are all schisms which predate the differences that now exist in the Orthodox world (including Chasidim, Charedim, religious Zionists and antiZionists) and Masorti, Reform and Liberal Jews.

We Jews have never shared the same understanding of Jewish tradition and law. But as Rabbi Sacks so eloquently said at Jewish Book Week in February, we do, however, share the same fate despite our faith differences.

We are of a rabbinic tradition in which each daf or page of the Mishnah and Gemarah (together making up the Talmud) and Midrash (rabbinic literature expounding the Bible) reminds us that there are different voices on any subject. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – these views and those views are all part of a living God. To differ is divine.

We are continuously reminded by our sages that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed not because there was no study of Torah or because of laxity in the observance of Jewish law. The rabbis taught that the cause of our destruction was sinat chinam, causeless hatred. The rabbis said that the sin of sinat chinam was equal to the three major transgressions of murder, idolatry and harlotry. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 62b)

Rabbi Sacks so eloquently called for an end to the political power of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, stating that the existence of a highly politicised rabbinate in Israel has destroyed the moral and religious credibility of Judaism. The dislike for much of our beautiful Judaism among the masses of secular Israelis is an appalling legacy of their politicised rabbinate.

The fact is that with the onset of the Enlightenment, Haskalah, in the 18th century, Jews were divided as to the direction of Judaism, on the degree of acculturation, the meshing of the new values of modernity with the sacred values of our Jewish tradition.

There were Reformers, beginning with Moses Mendelssohn’s disciples, followers of Immanuel Kant, who called for the dismantling of the authority of Jewish Law.  The mid-19th century saw Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose neo-Orthodoxy called for integration into modern European society while freezing Jewish law as promulgated in the Shulhan Aruch, the definitive religious framework of Orthodoxy today.

A few decades earlier saw the birth of Wissenschaft Judentums, the “science of Judaism” the scholarly framework of what became the Conservative or Masorti movement, that called for a maintenance of the authority of Jewish law, accompanied by the understanding that Jewish law has always evolved and changed in accordance with circumstances at various stages in Jewish history.

Different responses to modernity, different outlooks on what constitutes Judaism and Jewish law. It has always been that way and we have to find a way of recognising the authenticity and the seriousness by which Jews of different paths approach their understanding of Judaism.

Healthy Whole

There has never been an “Orthodox” Judaism – that is, One Way, a “right” way of Judaism. We are a proud and diverse people, and each branch and stream contributes to the healthy whole of klal Yisrael, the community or congregation of Israel.

Getting stuck in the view that “we are the right way” and “you are the wrong way” will weaken us and dismantle our ability to teach our various approaches with passion. We must look with admiration on Orthodox Judaism’s maintenance of Jewish tradition, the ability to flow against the stream of assimilation, preserving our yeshivot and reverence for our sacred texts and halachah or way of doing things. But at the same time, we have to admire the creativity and advances made by Masorti, Reform and Liberal Jewish scholars and communities in their efforts to make Jewish life fit the patterns and mores of our contemporary society.

Jewish scholarship in Bible, rabbinics, history, literature and halachah has been enhanced by the contributions of my own teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the heart of the Conservative, or Masorti, movement – luminaries such as Saul Lieberman, Louis Finkelstein, Ismar Schorsch, Mordechai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Jewish Apartheid

The time has come for leadership to come from United Synagogue, led by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who knows very well that the tear in the fabric of Jewish collectiveness and unity is damaging us and our future. We must prevent our own extremists from hijacking our wonderful Judaism, so that we may build together a unity that will enhance the state of Israel and Jews everywhere in the world, destroy the scourge of anti-Semitism that has found new life around the world, and struggle together to create a Judaism, with different shades, that will enhance the great name of God and the Torah.

We live apart, we seldom speak to each other in our different machanayim (camps). We do not pray with each other and we do not meet each other enough. What is this Jewish apartheid doing to the next generation, our children, when they see their parents divided, when the rabbis of one camp will not enter the domain of another synagogue community?

I have been told that it is impossible but, yes, I am willing to dream and to challenge the way things are, because they are simply wrong. I invite Rabbi Sacks to come and speak to my synagogue, Belsize Square Synagogue, where he is respected and admired, and where his knowledge and Torah will be as revered as in any Orthodox synagogue.

We are all the brothers of Joseph and we will merit the greatest part of our future when we stop fighting, when we end the barriers and truly become am echad, one people, with diverse paths to Jewish law and Jewish genius.

We are preparing for Passover, knowing that the path of freedom will require greater love, ahavat Yisrael, a respect for each other that we can then pass on to the rest of humanity, waiting for our own example of what it means to be a loving servant of God, with a love of all God’s Creation and life And the same is true for non-Orthodox Jews toward Orthodox Jews and Judaism. The intolerance goes both ways. Our intolerance of our fellow Jew knows no ideological borders today.

Please accept this invitation, Rabbi Sacks, for God’s sake, for our people’s future, for our children and for the full fruition of your brilliant plea for oneness

among all peoples. Let us follow the advice of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who taught us that only causeless love, ahavat Yisrael, may overcome the ruination of causeless hatred. It is no dream but a matter of our very Jewish future that we share together.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

This is a version of the article published in the Jewish Chronicle on 1 April.

 

The responsibility of safeguarding freedom

Passover is coming soon, later than usual this year because of the extra month, a leap year in the Jewish calendar, so we are already well into the swing of spring, sunshine and the renewal of greenery all around us.

The overall theme of Passover is not only particular to the Jewish people, as we retell the story of our nation’s origins from slavery in Egypt to freedom on the road to Eretz Yisrael. It also has universal implications.

Freedom, both of the physical and spiritual kind, is a special gift. We know that the human soul cannot function for long without it. Unfortunately, even today, most people on this earth of ours do not enjoy full freedom.

We also know that even when democracy takes place at the ballot box, there is no guarantee that freedom will flourish. The will of the people can be a dangerous thing, as we know from 20th-century history, when the National Socialist Party – the Nazis – gained power in Germany under the guise of a fair democratic election. In Gaza, Hamas, a violent terrorist organisation, was “elected” by the people. And now we are experiencing the wildest election campaign I can ever remember in the United States, with all the features of mudslinging, baiting, occasional violence, promises that can never be fulfilled and plenty more.

Freedom can also lead to a breakdown in Jewish education and commitment. Physical freedom is not enough to sustain our faith and people. As a result of our love affair with being unburdened from the weight of commandments, study, tzedakah and all those other obligations that Jewish tradition imposes on us, we are liable to disintegrate quite quickly.

That is why Passover leads into Shavuot, why we carry out sefirat ha’Omer, counting the Omer for 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, in order to remind us that freedom without the acceptance of responsibility cannot sustain itself. It is our ability to accept the notion that with freedom comes the mitzvah, the sense of obligation to others, that ensures our survival not only as Jews but as a viable society.

Making Visits Meaningful
We have yet another month at Belsize Square offering opportunities to make this Nisan/April, the month of Passover, a meaningful one for us all.

Firstly, Dr Jack Wertheimer, professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, will be our scholar-in-residence and special guest. On Friday night, 1 April, after the evening service, there will be a Shabbat dinner when Professor Wertheimer will speak on Judaism in an Age of Recession. Next morning after Shabbat service and Kiddush, he will address the congregation on The Religious Lives of Ordinary Jews.

At the Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group from 10.00am-12.30pm on 3 April, he will present Orthodoxies in Transition, followed by a discussion. In the evening there will be a reception at the home of Miriam and Richard Borchard for those who contributed to making this weekend possible, and an opportunity to hear a final talk in an intimate setting on Community in an Era of “Do-it-Yourself” Identity.

Do take advantage of this incredible opportunity to learn from one of the scholarly luminaries of our day.

Secondly, on Sunday 10 April and Tuesday 12 April we will be visited by Reverend Craig Brown, a Methodist bishop from Southern California, who is coming to London with a party of 30, including leading Christian clerical figures. Rev’d Brown, who is a dear friend of mine, will speak to our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group on 10 April. On 12 April the whole group will visit our synagogue to meet me with Reverend Paul Nicholson of St Peter’s (Church of England) and anyone who would like to join us. Another great opportunity!

And thirdly, Passover. It is time to clear the house of chametz and make the final preparations for Pesach, which begins Shabbat evening, 22 April. There is a wonderful mitzvah that is too often neglected, the mitzvah of Ma’ot Hittin, selling the chametz and making a wonderful contribution to the poor. This is a great way to make the message of Passover clear and relevant.

The freedom we have must be shared with those who have less than us, and we are collecting funds for Manna, an organisation that raises critical funds for Jewish poor in Israel, and with a special purpose of subsidising Holocaust survivors. Ten per cent of these now elderly survivors, mostly from the former Soviet Union, live in poverty conditions. Help them celebrate the yom tov!

A time for renewal, new hopes for freedom and a greater commitment to Judaism and to our shul. Come and learn and give to those in need.

I wish you and your loved ones a delicious and blessed Pesach.

Chag kasher v’sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Celebrating life – the best reaction to antisemitism

Shalom Chaverim,

Adar, this March, is the month of Purim, that one-day festival in which we celebrate, eat, drink and refuse all signs of sadness. These characteristics of Purim persist despite the fact that the story, as told in the Book of Esther, is one of the most difficult chapters to comprehend in all of Jewish history.

And that is because the Book of Esther tells us of a Persian plot, probably in the 3rd or 4th century BCE, to annihilate the entire Jewish people. Behind all the celebrating is a dreadful story, one that we have experienced all too often.There have been two streams of assault against the Jewish people since Abraham appeared in the annals of history. We label them under the rubric of that longest and most virulent of ethnic and religious hatreds, “antisemitism”.

The first is told in the story of Esther: the attempt to destroy the Jews physically. It happened again after Rome defeated the Bar Kochba revolt in 135CE, then sporadic Islamic jihad from the 7th century on, 400 years of crusades from 1096, expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, the 1648 Chmielnitski massacres in Ukraine and 19th-century pogroms in Tsarist Russia, leading finally to the Shoah. Jews were murdered because they were Jews.

And then there is the Book of Maccabees, the story of Chanukah and, in 168 BCE, the first attempt to destroy our Judaism, culminating in the first recorded instance of a revolt for religious freedom. With the physical attacks went book-burning (the Talmud in 14th-century Paris), destroying synagogues, desecrating Torah scrolls and eliminating Jewish education, notably in the Soviet Union.

The practice of difference

Why do we rejoice as we do, for both Purim and Chanukah, when behind them lies a story of such sadness and darkness? I think the answer lies in our cherished tradition of meeting sadness with life, with celebration, without forgetting the countless times we have had to hope, pray and, as now, fight for our right to exist in our own land, Eretz Yisrael, and our sovereignty in the modern State of Israel.

For the best, succinct, single-volume review of the scourge of anti-Semitism, I always recommend Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin’s Why the Jews? This fine book tackles the issue of this endemic and violent hatred. The common thread is the Jews’ desire to remain different. This arouses hatred and intolerance of the “different”, who reject the majority culture.

In antiquity, it was because the Jews had an invisible God, rejecting paganism. In medieval times it was because they refused to convert willingly to either Christianity or Islam. In the modern period, the refusal of the Jews yet again to obliterate themselves, as they integrated into a new liberal law-bound society, led to the coining of the word Antisemitismus by Wilhelm Marr in 1879.

Marr was promulgating his quasi-scientific racial theory that both put Jews at odds with Germans and forecast that Germans would lose out. It was this anti-Semitism that culminated in the Shoah. Today, hate-filled antisemitism, attached to the State of Israel and Zionism, still targets Jews.

Our Jewish response

Our Jewish response to all this madness? Life, study and celebration! Join us for our Purim festivities. Join us for this month’s joint course with St Peter’s Church on “Religious Extremism”.

And get ready everyone: Professor Jack Wertheimer, world-renowned Jewish historian and former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, author of over 16 books – and my mentor throughout my rabbinic career – is coming to visit us. He will speak briefly at Friday night service on 1 April and at length after Shabbat dinner that night on “Judaism in an Age of Religious Recession”.

After Kiddush following Shabbat morning service, he will speak on “The Religious Lives of Ordinary Jews”. On Sunday morning, 10-12.30, he will address our Adult Discussion Group on “Orthodoxies in Transition”.

There will be a special evening reception and talk on Monday 4 April for our generous patrons who have made this scholar-in-residence week possible.
I will see you all in synagogue for our continued first-class offerings. Wishing you all a month of learning, celebrating and rejoicing in our challenging and never dull Jewish life here.

B’shalom tamid,

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Meet my friends – old and new

One of my greatest thrills is to bring my past into my present – my dear friends from my previous life to my new family at Belsize Square Synagogue. In January we hosted Mona Golabek, the gifted pianist, actress and star of the one-woman show now running at St James Theatre. The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the story of Mona’s mother, Lisa Jura, who came to London from Vienna on a Kindertransport in 1939.

At 14 Lisa was a budding classical pianist, and it was music that gave comfort to herself and other youngsters in the hostel, known as the “Children of Willesden Lane” through Mona’s bestselling book of that name. Most, like Lisa, never saw their parents again. We met Mona in Los Angeles when my wife, Ella, appeared on Mona’s popular radio show, Romantic Hour.

Shortly we will host another long-time friend of mine, Professor Rabbi Hanan Alexander, Dean of Students at Haifa University and a leading academic authority on Jewish education. The latest of his three books has drawn the attention of the education world through its focus on combining Jewish and secular liberal education. The bifurcation, especially in Israel, between the Jewish and secular world has created two societies, two worlds afraid of and largely ignorant of each other.

On Erev Shabbat 5 February, Professor Alexander will talk about criticism of Israel as opposed to demonisation. On Shabbat morning, after our Kiddush, he will speak about his own field: How Jewish is Jewish Education? At our Adult Discussion Group the next morning, he will discuss his latest book, Re-imagining Liberal Education.

Hanan and I met as eager young rabbinic students at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, now called the American Jewish University. At that time, students could study two years in Los Angeles, then transfer to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. So that’s what these two guys from California did! Our memories and friendships with colleagues and mentors go back 40 years.

On the first Shabbat in April, we will welcome the eminent scholar and former Provost of JTS, Professor Jack Wertheimer, a leading historian of European and American Jewry. His 16 books and prolific articles for academic journals explore every aspect of Jewish life, such as schools and the rise and fall of movements. He will be with us, thanks to the support of our “angels” who have made this week possible, for our Shabbat morning Service and at our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group, as well as a special week-long programme for our patrons.

Jack and I met when I started at JTS and we have been close friends ever since. He mentored my doctoral studies, exams and dissertation, helped me edit my book and influenced virtually all my rabbinic studies. A wonderful teacher and brilliant scholar, and another incredible week ahead of us with an important person from my past!

From 1-5 May, I will be joined by a more recent friend, Thomas Harding, author, journalist and product of Belsize, son of our own Frank and Belinda Harding, as he leads a trip to Berlin. Thomas is a brilliant writer and speaker. You all know his first book, Hanns and Rudolf, about the capture of the Kommandant of Auschwitz. His second very personal book, Kadian Journal, chronicles his grief and reaction to his teenage son’s fatal cycling accident in 2012. With his third book, The House by the Lake, he returns to German history, tracing events of the last 120 years or so through their impact on the families who lived in a country house near Berlin, which once belonged to the Alexanders, his grandparents. Thomas is another friend whom I treasure.

And finally, on Sunday 25 September, the world-renowned violinist, Maxim Vengerov, will be joined by his accompanist and my wife for an unforgettable evening. Maxim and I go back some 20 years since we met in Chicago and we have become like close family. As an amateur violinist, I admire his virtuosity and warmth. He admires and loves my devotion to Jewish life and studies, and so we have this mutual admiration society.

Well, I’ve been in love with my Ella for over 22 years now and have never met anyone so brilliant and talented: composer and singer, with three CD records and film soundtracks – and now an author, with her book, The Orphan Sky, published last year. The novel, drawing on her youth in Soviet ruled Azerbaijan, received rave reviews.

The people I love from past and present will meet the people I love at Belsize Square Synagogue. Let’s rejoice and enjoy the wisdom, learning and music – together! See you in synagogue this month and beyond. May you all be blessed with a month of goodness, peace and joy.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Chanukah and the battle against evil: then and now

Certain events in history are watershed occurrences. Some have moved us forward, some weigh heavily on the souls and fibre of civilisation. The horrific Paris terrorist attack by ISIS, or ISIL, is one such tipping point.

Suddenly there are declarations of World War III, a security crisis and the massive human problem of dealing with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Our eyes have been opened to the necessity of waging war against radical extreme Islam.

ISIS now controls a territory larger than Britain, has recruited at least 60,000 militants and thrives in the heart of Iraq and Syria. It is bent on re-establishing the Sunni caliphate and destroying the “heathen” West. And now it threatens our nations, cities and way of life.

Well, it is Chanukah. The holiday begins on the evening of Sunday 6 December, when we light the Chanukiah, sing, eat latkes and doughnuts and retell the story of the Maccabees’ brave stand for freedom against the Greek Seleucid monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned from 175 to 164 BCE.

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The pre-eminent lesson of Chanukah is that in order to retain our values and live as Jews, freely practising our religion, we have to fight for the right simply to exist.

The war of the Maccabees was an existential fight, not so much for numbers, though scores of thousands died, but for the preservation of our Jewish soul, our right to live as Jews.

After being prevented in 168BCE by the superpower, Rome, from pursuing his dream of conquering Egypt, Antiochus returned to his Syrian realm to find that his Jewish subjects had reacted to a false report of his death in Egypt by ousting his choice of High Priest and reinstating the previous holder.
He vented his fury and frustration on Jerusalem’s Jews. Some 40,000 men were executed, around the same number of women and children sold into slavery, and their homes demolished.

He then turned on Judaism itself, banning Torah study and circumcision as well as converting the Temple to the worship of Zeus, with a daily sacrifice of a pig – he had already stolen the Temple’s golden treasures.

We learn from this heroic episode of Jewish resistance that evil exists, that our people have had to fight against those bent on destroying us.

Earlier this year, archaeologists discovered under a parking lot in Jerusalem the remains of the “acra” fortress built by Antiochus between Ir David, the City of David, and Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, on the site of demolished Jewish homes. It is all there, an archaeological miracle: the barracks, the watch towers, the spying on all Jewish activity – symbols of despotism and brutality.

In Israel Chanukah will be celebrated in grand style as Jewish history seen from the Israeli view, reminding us of Israel’s past and ongoing fight against forces bent on its destruction not just as a sovereign state but increasingly for the right of Jews to be Jewish.

Alarming claims from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority that the Kotel, the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple, is an “Islamic shrine”, is the clearest denial of Jewish ties to Jerusalem, both historically and religiously.

The western world has been increasingly shocked by ISIS brutality. Its origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928. Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was carried out by a member of a Brotherhood offshoot. The 1979 Iranian theocratic revolution supported Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot, in Gaza, as well as the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. All these factors have crippled the last remnants of “secularism”. Yes, even the brutal dictatorships of Nasser, Assad, Saddam Hussein and others are looking less threatening than ISIS madness.

The Jewish people, with our experience of fighting terror and evil around Israel, can play a crucial role in giving others strength and hope against pure evil.

  • We light candles to keep faith in our ideals, while never losing sight of the practical and brutal realities needed to stay alive as Jews.
  • We light candles in the hope that the Almighty will give us the strength to protect the persecuted and pray that we never give up our hope in a better tomorrow.
  • We light candles to remain strong in our Jewish convictions and determined to maintain our way of life.
  • We light candles so that we can continue to be a “light unto the nations” and teach our compatriots in this country, in France and throughout the free world that we can and will win this battle. We will never surrender to evil.

God bless our people, Israel, our families, our loved ones, and the vast majority of Christians, Jews and Muslims who desire not war, not terror, but peace.

Chag Chanukah Sameach
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

The right sort of fear: our High Holydays theme

Shalom Chaverim
As the days become shorter, we settle back into our routines. The test now is to infuse into our daily lives a spiritual and moral dimension. So here is a brief summary of the journey we made in our sermons during the High Holydays.

Erev Rosh Hashanah
I welcomed 5776 by introducing the theme of fear, because these are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Fear (or Awe) when we confront our basic fears. But this should be put into perspective. While we have legitimate fears about health, finances, children or politics, when compared to earlier generations we are far better off in life span, health and security. We have the State of Israel and no longer need fear the pogroms and genocide endured by our grandparents and great-grandparents.

First Day Rosh Hashanah
On Rosh Hashanah, I expanded on our legitimate fears – including dentists and heights! – and looked at how our ancestors reacted. They were guided by a biblical fear, the fear of God (yir’at shamayim – the fear of heaven) the fear of doing the wrong thing. My examples were the midwives in Exodus, Shiphrah and Puah, who defied Pharaoh’s orders at risk of death because of yir’at Elohim, fear of God, and then the command in Leviticus not to “put a stumbling block in front of the blind nor curse the deaf … because you shall fear God”. No fear of thunderbolts here, just an awareness of doing the right thing.

Second Day Rosh Hashanah
Here I spoke about parents’ fears for their children’s future. This is the era of the “selfie”, of incredible narcissism, cynicism and a jaded attitude towards goodness. We need to ensure that our children do not forget their Jewish heritage and values or lose hope in the vital belief that they can make a difference through fulfilling the mitzvot.

Kol Nidrei
With antisemitism rising, another fear is a repeat of the Shoah. What lessons can we learn? My hypothesis is that, by dwelling on the means – the depraved torture, terror and murder of six million – we are in danger of forgetting the most important issue, the end. The aim was to annihilate Judaism as well as the Jews. On Kol Nidrei, the holiest night of the Jewish year, we must increase our support for the synagogue and what it represents. Especially in this congregation, we must be more determined than ever to make living Judaism our greatest priority.

Yom Kippur
Here I suggested we have two sides, as shown in the creation stories of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I was once asked at a Bar Mitzvah whether I really believed that the kind of ethics I had taught mattered because, as the guest said, “That’s not my world, Rabbi. My world is about success and achieving”.
In Genesis 1 we are told to “conquer the world”, using our powers to conquer space, disease, etc. In Genesis 2, we are told we are nefesh, soul, and must be joined to another soul to develop and nurture our love for others. Genesis 1 symbolises our power. Genesis 2 is Shabbat, a reflection of the part of us that lives for others. I asked you to be a part of “my world”. We are more than figures and achievements, we are also love and soul.

Yizkor
I addressed our concerns as to how to keep our loved ones alive in our minds. To keep their memory fresh by recalling their values and beliefs. Through living by their principles, we continue to be with them. And if we live in such a way, with love and devotion, our children and grandchildren will in turn remember us.

Neilah
I ended by reviewing our journey of fear. Despite terror, economic uncertainty or worry about our loved ones, we need to confront fear in the right spirit – with renewed hope, strength, faith, love of humanity and love of God. We become the “god” we worship. If we are cynical and negative about our power for good, that is the god we create. The God with whom our ancestors communicated is an optimistic God, believing in the power to make the world better, rather than dimming our vision and reducing our faith, confining us in a world of negativity. Have hope, courage and faith before the gates close!

Thanks
There are so many people to thank for our High Holyday experience but I do thank all our daveners, Torah readers, Haftarah chanters, shofar blowers, the leaders of our Youth Services, the children who led Yom Kippur Minchah, our Succah decorators, the professional and community choirs, our caretakers, crèche workers, security, youth leaders, sound equipment people, wardens, webcasting crew, our music director Ben Wolf and Cantor Paul Heller.
Join us each Shabbat and send a wish and prayer for your dear ones. A special prayer for peace for the people and State of Israel. You are constantly in our prayers and thoughts.

B’shalom

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Law, custom and folk belief

The problem of the “Mazkir Exodus”

We are still very much into our Holiday season, having just completed our Yamim Noraim and now entering the festivities of the Succot week, culminating in Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Please come to our synagogue and rejoice in the Holidays.

What I thought would be of most value to you is a little guidance on the following question: what exactly does Judaism require of me? What is law? What is custom? What is bubbe meise, or folk religion? The reason why I share this lesson with you is that each year at Yom Kippur, at Yizkor or, as we say at Belsize Square, Mazkir, there is a mass exodus from the synagogue as we begin to recite the memorial prayers, meditate upon the lives of our loved ones and recite our affirmation of love and faith with the words of the Kaddish, always in their memory.

The exodus from shul is one of the most interesting examples of how folk religion has in many ways come to replace the dictates of Jewish law and normative minhag, or custom. There is no good reason why it should have become such an odd replacement of traditional mandated behaviour, since there is no prohibition in any shape or form on reciting Kaddish and being in synagogue with living parents to remember our departed loved ones.

There is always someone for us to remember – a grandparent, friend, Jews of the past, anonymous individuals who need to be remembered. We miss a great opportunity, an essential part of our spiritual beings, in leaving just at the time we need to remember and do right by those no longer with us. Leaving is entirely bubbe meise, an unnecessary superstition.

There are three categories that dictate Jewish behaviour: halachah (Jewish law), minhag (normative custom or convention) – and then there’s bubbe meise. Halachah is mandated, required for each and every Jew after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Halachah is mitzvah, commandment.

The halachot are rooted in the 613 Torah Mitzvot, a large chunk of which we can no longer fulfill because they require the existence of a Temple. In addition, there are later rabbinic halachot, such as lighting Shabbat or Chanucah candles, which carry the same weight as a Torah commandment.

Halachot are both ethical and ritual and they run to a long list. To take some well-known examples: asking for and granting forgiveness (Teshuvah), ethical business practices, giving to those in need (Tzedakah), studying Torah, keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, refraining from gossip and slander (lashon harah), and fasting on Yom Kippur.

Halachah is required of us but halachah changes. Some halachot fall out of use or lose their relevance, such as shatnez, the Torah prohibition against mixing wool and linen, which pales into insignificance in today’s wide range of materials. But these emendations to halachah are part of a process of legal interpretation, growth and evolution.

As an example of the evolution of rabbinic understanding of Jewish law, take the participation of women in Jewish ritual life. Not until the late 19th century were Jewish women allowed to study Torah in major Eastern European communities. Yet halachah has never restricted women in any way.

Minhag is a tougher definition since some “customs” do eventually find their way into normative Jewish practice while others fade away. We bow during the Aleinu, we eat honey and apples at Rosh Hashanah, we refrain from eating meat in the nine days before Tisha B’Av, we cover our mirrors in a house of mourning, we do not eat dairy after eating meat for either one, three or even six hours depending upon local minhag, we come the long way to the Torah for our Aliyah, we recite early morning prayers before the formal call to worship, and so on.

There are different customs for Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, as well as for Jews living in Israel today. All these customs have a vital role to play in how we as Jews express our commitment to halachah and Jewish values.

And then there are Belsize Square customs, customs that belong to no other Jewish community! Yes, we have our very own. You might have your favourites, here are some of mine: bowing at the Ark before the Torah scroll is removed, the Cantor shifting the Torah scroll from the right to left shoulder before the blessing of the coming month (birkat hachodesh), not announcing page numbers (in common, admittedly, with most British synagogues), calling Yizkor – the normal term for the Memorial Service everywhere else – Mazkir, and … starting services punctually on time and, following unspoken guidelines, taking one hour on Friday evening and two hours on Saturday morning!

Finally, there are superstitions, pure and simple, developed over the years. Many originated from the kabbalistic movement in the late mediaeval shtetls of Eastern Europe. They are mostly concerned with graveside and mourning practices. One belief I heard recently is that it is inappropriate for a grandchild to recite Kaddish for a grandparent while the parents are still alive. That’s totally superstition.

Reciting Kaddish is binding on the deceased’s children, siblings, parents and spouse. But there is nothing that precludes a grandchild, or anyone for that matter, from reciting Kaddish at the cemetery, in synagogue or in a minyan.

There is no bar on remaining in synagogue, even if both parents arealive, for the Mazkir/Yizkor service,which is also recited on the three Pilgrimage Festivals. And only superstition would stop a pregnant woman coming to the cemetery.

I hope this synopsis helps. If you have any questions about what Judaism requires of us through halachah, or suggests that we do because of minhag, or seems to prohibit by virtue of folk religion, just ask. That’s why I’m here.

My wishes to all of you for a week of Succot joy and celebration. To rejoice is a mitzvah. It’s an order! So mo’adim l’simchah (fixed times for joy). May your Holidays be celebrated with simchah, with joy.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Ushering in New Year 5776

We are just a couple weeks away from ushering in another new year, 5776. These Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) will be my fifth with the congregation and I, as each year, look forward to our sacred time together.

So much that has occurred during the past year – the terror threat of ISIS, or Daesh, streams of Middle Eastern refugees, continuing Israeli tensions, a likely change in Western relationships with Iran’s Shiite theocracy, the Greek financial crisis, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Elections at home highlighted worries over immigration.

For Belsize Square Synagogue, there were more triumphs than not – increased membership and continued enthusiasm for our beloved congregation and its activities, with celebrations galore and glorious musical offerings from our multi-talented members, young and old.

The challenges remain the same: enhancing Jewish identity, raising educational levels, offering a vital home for our youth, developing leadership and new volunteers, and never taking our future for granted.

We may approach the holidays with our usual presumptions but there are ways we can improve. For many the holidays are an ordeal, attendance something we “have to do”, services boring and prayers written in a time hard to relate to. We are unaware of the symphony, history and moral genius of the liturgy. We come late, leave early and let our minds wander or talk to our neighbours.

Despite the regular assumption that I must be disheartened by the lack of attention, I am fully aware how difficult it can be for some of you. The Hebrew is difficult, translations even more so, and services are long. And while I spend days and weeks writing my sermons, it is always a wonder that anyone really listens to my words, whose theme this year is Fear: Fear of God (the Yamim Nora’im), terror, loss of health, life, relationships.

The biggest challenge for us is this: we have too blithely turned our services into a spectator sport. People come to watch the action take place on the bimah instead of in the seats! You can change that by doing something to make our time together more engaging.

  • So make some noise at services! They are not supposed to be quiet. I hope for a constant buzz of people singing along with the choir and Cantor and it is OK to chat to our neighbours, so long as we avoid long conversations that detract from the focus of the services and disturb others.
  • Make the services more meaningful before you even get here! Find someone to whom you owe an apology. Ask forgiveness and forgive others at home, work and synagogue. Do real cheshbon hanefesh (scrutiny of our lives and souls) to put us in the right frame of mind to use the service as a catalyst for self-improvement.
  • Da lifnei mi atah omed – Know before Whom you stand. If you are distracted in synagogue, have negative thoughts, get annoyed with this or that, say to yourself: “I stand here before my Creator and I must take account of who I am.” It will jolt us into experiencing truly meaningful prayer and devotion.

There is a tale of a wagon driver who took a rabbi from town to town. Passing an orchard. the driver said: “I’ll get some apples.” As he climbed a tree, the rabbi yelled: “He’s watching!” The driver scrambled down and ran. The rabbi drove till he caught up. “Rabbi, why did you yell: ‘He’s watching’? There was no one there.” The rabbi said: “I wasn’t talking about the farmer. I said – and he pointed upwards – ‘HE’s watching!’”

Come to our synagogue, a haven of sanctity. I want them to have a constant buzz, with all of you singing, thinking, engaging with God, Torah and the Jewish people. Then our ushering in of 5776 will be the best ever!

My wife Ella and our son Micah, with my daughter Elana and son Eitan, and I wish you all a sweet, healthy, blessed and peaceful new year 5776

Bivracha, shana tova u’metukah
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler