Those not uninitiated into the unique culture of our youth movement Noam’s pre-Camp may be ignorant of the fact that one of the great highlight of such occasions has for many years been the ‘death match’.
I should qualify this by saying that it’s a highlight of a highlight, pre-Camp being itself a high point of the year, with over 120 young leaders studying, learning and training to be ready to run camp itself. Pre-Camp took place this year in a beautiful farm in South West Wales; on Thursday morning the sounds of the Shema meditation emerged graciously from barns and huts to the tranquil accompaniment of the lowing of cows and the twittering of swallows.
It’s not just a death match at pre-Camp; it’s a rabbinic death match. I’m ignorant of what by now faded cultural icon gave this ill-named event its lugubrious title; but I can assure you that it’s taken seriously and I’ve had the pleasure of entering (and, mercifully, leaving) the ring on several occasions. The true master however is without doubt Rabbi Joel Levy, who relishes such events, which I have also come to enjoy. Round the rabbinic table (what other death match has pens and note-paper provided?) the entire pre-Camp eagerly gathers.
What did we fight about? Actually we didn’t decide until about two hours beforehand. (Are many battles like that?) But someone said, ‘We’ve been discussing why Judaism needs so many obscure and complex texts. It’s an issue around here’. So we took it as our theme.
The motion was that ‘Too many texts are crushing the spirit out of Judaism’. Devil’s advocate, I proposed it. I won’t tell you what I said just in case anyone ends up believing it, but I feel I managed to rise to the occasion and present half-truths and distortions with tolerable eloquence. Maybe everyone needs the opportunity to be a hypocrite now and then.
No, said Rabbi Joel, sacred text is the key constant through all the vagaries of Jewish history. It is the true core of our culture, and Judaism has developed beautiful and sophisticated ways of re-interpreting it. Yes, its study demands knowledge and dedication. But isn’t that discipline a good thing? And shouldn’t it be a matter of basic pride to learn to read the texts of our own tradition!
The rules of the death match are that after the first round anyone can tap either speaker on the shoulder, take their chair and argue their position. That’s the real beauty of it at pre-Camp, powerful argument with tens of young people giving their opinions. The queue grew at either side of the table, but the queue to argue for our sacred texts was longer and its speakers drew greater applause. Our texts are our democracy. Recourse to our sacred writings is the arbiter in Judaism, not autocracy or power. Our texts are endlessly engaging; here you find every colour of opinion. Here we debate our values as equals. Through our texts we find our spirituality. We must own our texts, not leave the right to interpret to others. ‘Don’t choose ignorance’, pleaded Rabbi Daniella, ‘Go and learn!’
We ended with a short debrief. I didn’t want anybody to be under the illusion that I’d meant what I’d said. This was an argument I was happy to lose in style.
Afterwards half a dozen young leaders in their twenties gathered enthusiastically around Rabbis Daniella, Joel and I: ‘How can we create more opportunities to learn? How could we mentor teenagers who struggle with it all?’ They won’t go unanswered!
After the death-match, this is new life. It’s exciting for the future and for us all. Come learn!

Benevolence exude

A man once said to his rabbi, ‘I read thirty-nine explanations of the verse “Lift up your eyes and behold, who created these” but I never understood it. Then one night I saw for myself the beauty of the stars.” “You must write that down”, said the rabbi, impressed. “Then there’d just be forty explanations, instead of thirty-nine”, replied the man.
Who hasn’t looked up and, seeing the moon and the stars, stopped and watched and then walked on feeling as if infinity itself had washed out the heart with dew? A woodpecker came to the feeder in the pine tree the other day, bringing glory, with its red on its head and under its tummy and the black and white on the end of its wings.
Despite everything, it’s a wonderful world. ‘Look up’, says Isaiah, ‘and see, who created these?’ My God is not some hidden being who made that bird with a sort of superhuman hand, only larger, that we cannot comprehend; my God is in the life of that bird and the freedom of all birds, and beyond, beyond, in the germ and the life of all things.
And despite everything we do wrong in the human world, despite the harshness of fate and the cruelties we inflict, there’s still hope, courage, kindness, goodness, and love.
I visited David Jackson this week. I miss him around the synagogue which, when he had at least a portion of his health, he attended assiduously. He was among the first at every service, and was never absent from any class. He would sit in my Talmud Shiur, his text full of notes, with a grin on his face and some pun on his lips while Safi, my previous dog, sat knowingly behind him and David, imagining we weren’t all watching, furtively passed him broken sticks of Kit-Kat and curls of croissant.
I visited him at Lady Sarah Cohen. His health wasn’t the greatest but his heart and his soul certainly were. ‘I go over in my mind the important words’, he told me, ‘Tikvah,hope; chesed, loving-kindness; chaim, life; emunah, faith; tovah, goodness’. He’s written nine books of poetry over the last years. Here’s a verse from ‘Friendliness’
          Be neighbourly – be genial-
          Benevolence exude,
          Have an amiable – affectionate
          Agreeable attitude. 
If I had the contacts I’d introduce him and Caitlin Moran to each other. She wrote last week about the advice she’d leave to her daughter: ‘Just resolve to shine, constantly and steadily, like a warm lamp in the corner, and people will want to move towards you in order to feel happy…You will be bright and constant in a world of flux.’
Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation comes right after the three weeks of anguish culminating in the fast of the Ninth of Av. It teaches us that there’s joy in the world, as well as sorrow, and hope as well as pain. Above it all, it tells us never to despair of life. It’s a beautiful world, and any of us and all of us can help to make it and keep it that way.


‘With my own eyes I’ve seen cruelty and misery. I don’t understand. I weep.’
This line may serve as a summary of that scroll of extraordinary force and impact which we read on the night of Tishah Be’Av. Its English name is Lamentations, no doubt after the Latin. But the Hebrew title is more powerful: Eichah, which simply means ‘How’.
It is not clear whether the word, with which three of the five chapters of the book commence, indicates a question or an exclamation:
           Young children say to their mothers ‘Where is bread and wine?’
           Then die slowly in their mothers’ laps.
Is the writer asking ‘why?’ Or his heart silenced by an inexpressible ‘how’?
The author, by tradition the Prophet Jeremiah, has witnessed the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. But it feels as if the eyes which observe that scene in the sixth century BCE are the same eyes which have seen the destruction of innumerable cities and villages across ages, the same cruelty and the same suffering. The voice which attempts to describe them says the same words, ‘How!’ ‘Why?’ beyond which lies that vast incomprehensibility which covers like dust the broken interiors of houses and the bodies of those who once inhabited them in peace.  Here is Jerusalem, burnt and plundered by the Romans; here are the villages of Biafra and Cambodia, the suburbs of the cities of Syria.
Why think such horrible thoughts? Why keep such a day as Tishah Be’Av, which combines, at least until the afternoon, the strictures of fasting with the laws of mourning, so that we do not eat or drink or greet one another warmly, but sit on the ground or on low chairs, and reflect? Not many years before he died my father asked me to prepare a list of martyred members of the family and to put it every Ninth of Av next to a candle on the table.
Struggling with my own question, it seems to me that the heart of Tishah Be’Av is solidarity. The Bible contains the terrible image of the man who, to further his own ends, treads mercilessly on the heads of the poor. We don’t know if he sees them but doesn’t care, or if he doesn’t even notice them at all.
I don’t want to be that person, neither through what I do nor what I fail to do. I have a terrible fear that I belong to a civilisation which does sometimes place its heels on the eyeballs of the wretched, though it makes sure they are at the far ends of the earth, or in hidden rooms, or behind walls, where nobody will take heed. I don’t want to make myself a part of it. I have a horror of being subject to cruelty, and an equal horror of being or becoming cruel.
On Tishah Be’Av we sit on the ground because we as a people have often been the victims of gross violence. Equally, we sit symbolically side by side with all who currently are such victims, for this is where our heart and conscience belong.
I had thought Yom Kippur and Tishah Be’Av, Judaism’s two twenty-five hour fasts, were totally different days. After all, Yom Kippur is about goodness, forgiveness and love. But now I realise that love begins right here, in the determination to dedicate ourselves to kindness, awareness, pity and healing.

Burning Temples

Last Sunday I was invited to speak at the end of year celebrations of the Bravanese community. Because their own centre was burnt down in a racist attack, the event was held at the North London Business Park, a location spacious enough to accommodate the several hundred adults and children who participated. It is an annual festivity, timed this year to precede Ramadan, which begins on the new moon of the month of Menachem Av.
When the Community Security Trust contacted me on the morning after the fire to inform me of what happened and to suggest that the Bravanese community, with whom I already had good relations, might appreciate it if I got in touch, I did so at once and with a whole heart. Jews of all denominations, Christians and civic leaders responded in exactly the same way.
For me there was a special reason in addition to the obvious abhorrence at such an attack (which could equally well have been perpetrated against our own congregation.) My grandfather described in his memoirs how, when the great Boerneplatz Synagogue was engulfed by flames on the morning after Kristallnacht, there was a large crowd present. It wasn’t the case that nobody knew. Only, no one did anything to put out the fire. Those who weren’t actually implicated in the violence, or silently supported it, were no doubt too afraid to take action and just the fewest of the courageous few later found covert ways, hidden from the ever menacing SA and SS, of manifesting their support.
These associations were in my mind last Sunday as I listened to the speeches, recitals from the Koran and songs of which the afternoon was composed. Perhaps that’s why what moved me most were not just the warm words of the leaders of the Bravanese community, to whose courtesy I have become accustomed. I was struck most by the police and the local councillors. They did not speak as officials whose duty had compelled them to forgo their Sunday afternoon and give due voice to their formal support. Their words were heart-felt, filled with real sorrow for what had happened, full of warmth: ‘How could anyone do such a terrible thing to this peace-loving community, who fled here from persecution in Somalia, and with whom I’ve lived side-by-side for twenty years?’ ‘We’ve stood together in the past. And we’ll be standing together in the new building we’re going to make sure you soon get, and it’s going to be even better than what you had before’.
I was reminded of the words of my teacher, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, as he reflected back after surviving Auschwitz on his home town of Berehovo and the implications of the fact that Christians and Jews had lived side by side without ever really knowing one another: ‘That I spend much of my time working for better understanding between religious groups and fighting racism…is partly because I know that you can only be safe and secure in a society that practises tolerance, cherishes harmony and can celebrate difference’.
With the fast of Tisha be’Av drawing near I thought too of the tradition that the Messiah is born on the very same date as the Temples in Jerusalem were burnt down. Even the flames of destruction can be understood to shed light, in which we see with an urgent clarity our hopes, our vision and our responsibilities.

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