This Shabbat the New North London Synagogue celebrates its fortieth birthday. I am grateful to those who founded it, those who nurtured it through the years, and those, some of them at present wheeled there in buggies, who will create its future. In the words of the traditional blessing, I’m thankful to God for giving us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this day.
How does one measure the success, or failure, of a religious institution? I sometimes explore the fantasy that just as the British Government created Ofgem and Ofsted to hold the energy and educational institutions respectively to account, so one day someone might establish OfGod (or OfG-d) to assess the achievements of churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. What would it look for when it arrived on its tour of inspection? Unlike other such teams or assessors, would it have to visit the world beyond as well?
The reality is that much of the impact of a religious community is not susceptible to measurement. This insight is at the heart of the festival of Chanukkah, when the oil which should, according to the laws of combustion, have burnt for just one day, remained alight for eight. There is much in our world which can and should be measured. But there are also qualities and effects which facts and figures cannot ascertain: what is the impact of an act of kindness, trust, courage, generosity, faith or love? The light generated by such an action, which may have been all but invisible at the time, can travel underground for generations and reveal itself through its influence on a grandchild, who takes to heart what her grandfather once did.
Perhaps, then, what one might look for in considering the impact of a ‘House of God’ is whether it has, in word and deed, in its own actions and through those it has sought to inspire, been faithful to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, to ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’, to ‘strengthen the needy’ and to ‘do not destroy my world’. Has it guided us to give charity, show hospitality, care for the sick, comfort the bereaved, and act with loving-kindness?
If these criteria seem rather this-worldly, moral rather than spiritual, more about our neighbours than God, that’s partly true. I would never trust what’s preached about God from a place which does not practise goodness and justice here on earth, or speak a language free from prejudice and hate.
But it’s only partly true. It’s a question of how we regard the mundane, the everyday. We see it most deeply if we perceive it in the light of the holy. For every life is an infinitesimal portion of God’s life, a living fragment of a greater whole. Every earthly, transient second is also a moment in the unfolding of the infinite. Thus every day we interact with God’s life through the most ordinary encounters, with tree, or bird, or child, or friend, or stranger in the queue. Though we are free beings, privileged and burdened with the capacity for moral choice, we are not in the end solely autonomous creatures, here to please ourselves, but servants of the greater being and the deeper reality to which we belong.
Any religious institution must justify its existence by its devotion to this truth, each through the language and traditions of its faith.
As a synagogue, we thus stand accountable before Judaism. Have we loved its precepts, commandments and traditions sufficiently that God’s light has reached us through them? Have we engaged and struggled with its texts, its legal, moral and spiritual wisdom, both so that we find truth and truth finds us? Have we dedicated our lives, sought to make them holy as the Torah enjoins us, ‘Be holy, for I your God am holy’?
There is a traditional answer to when OfGod visits and the frequency with which the inspectors call: ‘You God know the heart and inner being. Nothing is hidden before you’.
It’s a wonderful and humbling joy to celebrate our forty years.

The attack on a school in Peshawar

I want to express my horror and sorrow at the merciless attack on the school in Peshawar in which over 130 children and many staff were murdered.

All such violent attacks, wherever they take place in the world, are cruel, vicious and utterly indefensible.

There is something particularly vile and appalling about the killing of school children. As the recent Nobel Peace Prise winner Malala Yousafzai said: ‘Innocent children in school have no place in horror such as this’.

It is blasphemous to devise, carry out or applaud such attacks in the name of religion. All religious leaders have a special duty to teach that every human life is sacred and to do their utmost to prevent the misuse of their faith for violent ends. As David Cameron said, ‘There is not a belief system in the world that can justify this attack’.

Our thoughts are with the grief-stricken families in Peshawar, in Sydney, and with those in mourning over deaths caused by acts of terror anywhere in the world.

I would like to express my appreciation for those who, with vigilance and courage, protect our countries and communities from such attacks and seek to make our schools, homes, cities and countries safe for the pursuit of peaceful life.

Love is not forgotten

‘You won’t be forgotten’: over the years I have found myself sitting several times with a young parent who knows she’s dying. Among the many facets of loss is the realisation that he or she won’t be there to share the adventure of the children’s lives, the first snowfall or sight of the sea, next birthday, the anxiety of the exams which measure out the teenage years. Within these thoughts lies a further depth, the sorrow not just of losing, but of being lost, even to memory:  ‘My children won’t know who I was. They won’t know what I looked like. They’ll never feel how much I love them.’
I don’t believe in false reassurance. But in this case it can and should be genuinely given: ‘Your children won’t forget you. Your place inside their hearts is irremovable. Love is not forgotten.’
I believe Chanukkah is about just this, the symbolic expression of the enduring power of courage, inspiration, goodness and love.
Of course, on the literal plane Chanukkah has little to do with such matters. In the classic rabbinic formulation it is ‘the proclamation of the miracle’. It is the fearless expression (since we are instructed in the first instance to light the candles where they’ll be most visible to the greatest possible public) of the miracle of the victory of the Maccabees over the far superior forces of the Seleucid Greeks under Antiochus and his generals in the 2ndcentury BCE, the victory of faith over apostasy, of faithfulness to who we truly are over the assimilatory desire to fit in with whatever popular fashions might prevail.
But it wasn’t the military, or even the cultural, victory the rabbis chose to celebrate, important as they were. They determined that we should commemorate Chanukkah with light, always a symbol of the spirit, as the prophet Zachariah said, ‘Not by might, and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord’.
Was it literally true that the Maccabees found in the ruins of the recaptured Temple in Jerusalem just one sole jar of oil intact with the High Priest’s seal, which, when they used it to light the Menorah, burnt for eight whole days until fresh supplies of oil could be brought from the far north? Or is it just a legend? That’s not the important question.   
What the rabbis wanted us to reflect on is that light and spirit always burn far longer than we imagine.
Love and compassion may often be instinctive; inspiration may flow from the heart quicker than the speed of thought. But in other circumstances, in conditions of totalitarian terror or inner anguish, it may take time before the moral commitment to goodness and kindness prevails over the fear of the consequences.
Often in a callous world people feel that what they do is simply futile, a candle to the wind. Yet time and again, it burns for longer than reason would think possible. One person’s kindness kindles that of another; courage inspires courage, and love sets light to goodness and love. What should have illumined just one hour gives light to an entire life, and time and even death fail to extinguish the power and depth of the spirit.
I think of the Czech woman who sent parcels to my great-grandmother in Theresienstadt in 1943, from whose daughter I was forwarded last month a letter written in 2002: ‘My mother sent parcels, but heard nothing back,’ she wrote, ‘Those good people vanished without trace.’ I replied that I had evidence that those parcels did arrive; they couldn’t save my great-grandmother but they did save other lives. I sent my letter two weeks ago; now I’m waiting for the postman to bring an envelope with a Czech stamp.
Closer to home, I think of my own grandparents and parents. What has the power to extinguish love? Such love, furthermore, is not just memory; it’s what’s alive and burns in one’s own heart. Nothing shall put it out.

Have we not all the same parent?

Nobody gets away with having just one identity and it isn’t good for the soul.
I’m deeply Jewish (no surprises there.) I was born to it, others chose it; I love it just the same. Looking out on the red sunrise, it’s natural to me to think of the words of the morning blessing, ‘You fashion light and create darkness’, to express my joy and wonder, felt with an enthusiasm only slightly less than that of my dog, who’s urging me to hurry up and get out for a walk, in the classic formulation of my faith.
I could take Rupert Brooke’s poem, ‘These I have loved’ and turn it all to Jewish subjects: These I have loved, the smell of challah freshly baked; the trembling touch of my grandfather’s hands in blessing; the melodies of the Kaddish for each and every holyday; the sight and smell of an old page of Talmud, the paper imbued with the discipline of devoted generations; the tightness of Tefilin wound around my arm and bound against my heart.
These things I love, and teach. It may be as deep an instinct to want to inculcate into one’s children the manner in which one respects, engages and rejoices with life, as it is for a duck to teach ducklings how to swim across a rapid current.  These skills and responses are the essence of one’s identity, faith and very way of being. I’m no believer in the notion that such teaching is necessarily indoctrination (though it can become so) and that it’s a sin to offer children anything other than an uncommitted ‘try a bit of everything and choose’ interface with the world.
I’ll say nothing about the parts of me, which, due to parentage, where I was born and where I’ve lived, feel a wee bit Scottish, deeply European, rather English, and very attached to Israel.
But I must speak about the universal in me, and within us all. The fact that I have a specific language and discipline in which to express my sensitivities, ethical, spiritual, emotional, physical, does not mean that what I feel is intrinsically different from what a Muslim, Christian, Hindu or atheist feels. The heart may be developed by the path it follows, but it remains a human heart. When they prick us, we all bleed; when they kick us we all feel hurt. Where there is pain, we all keep silence, or weep; where there is wonder, we feel reverence and joy. When confronted with wrong, there are basic universal moral laws we must all be taught to obey.
‘Have we not all the same parent?’ declared the prophet. That’s what’s so remarkable, the Mishnah explains: everyone is made in the same divine image, and yet every person is unique.
Unique, yet equal; distinctive, yet the same; deeply myself, yet no less or more human than everyone else: this balance must govern our individual self-awareness, the values which govern our actions and teaching, the ethos of communities of faith, and the life of nations.
We are deeply ourselves, and deeply universal; our country must also be deeply Jewish, and deeply and essentially open, plural and democratic. That in itself is part of its Jewishness.

Get in touch...