Steve Margolis z”l


S-Margolis-190x300It’s not easy to explain which are the traits of a good Sensei, a good Teacher of Aikido. This is because there is no ideal profile, each student develops his/her own way, helped and encouraged by Sensei. In Aikido, a martial art that knows no competition (someone said it is more a technique for conflicts resolution), the relationship between teacher and student is unique, involving the body but also the mind and the spirituality through e.g. controlling your breath.

I had been lucky enough to meet with a great teacher, with whom I came back to practice Aikido after a break of more than ten years. Movements and techniques were still there, and Sensei Margolis first helped me to uncover them, and then taught me to evolve.

Sensei Steve Margolis was always smiling. He was able to put humor, a lot of humor, irreverent Jewish humor, in the philosophy of Aikido, which is inspired by the Samurai code of honour and sometimes canbe a bit pompous.

Ki Aikido was his life.  From a certain point onwards it also became his profession. Steven Margolis quickly had became an authority in the discipline, practicing with no other than Sensei Ken Williams, the first European to be admitted among the students of Koichi Tohei, a direct student of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido. In Jewish terms, it is what is called an illustrious “Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah” chain of tradition.

Despite being such an authority in the Ki Federation, Steve, Sensei Margolis did not bother that much with the petti politics of martial arts institutions. He was aware of coming from a too illustrious tradition, literally unrivalled. He did not need any confirmation.

But above all, like the Rabbis of the Mishnah, Sensei Margolis has never been in search of honours, but only of students. So he told me once with a smile and I could see in his eyes the same curious look of that little boy, who had had his Bar Mitzvah with Louis Jacobs.

Judaism, you know, is a strange religion. A religion that does not say much about life after death. There are Jews who do not believe in the hereafter. There are Rabbis who, for having experienced persecution, have lost faith in the Divine Justice. There are even Jews who believe in a kind of Jewish reincarnation, the gilgul ha-nefesh.

But all the currents of Judaism agree on one point: that the best way to honour those who are no longer with us, is to look at their lives as an example, so that the memory of them will become, as we say, a blessing.  For this reason we Jews we add two letters, z”l, the name of a person who is no more with us. They mean zikhrono livrakha “may his memory become a blessing”.

As Jews, we do not know, we cannot know where is now Sensei Margolis. Perhaps he is teaching Ki-Aikido to the angels, between one Jewish joke and the other. And after an hour of lessons, during which they only thought were joking, these angels will feel lighter and more balanced, maybe even safer, just like how we felt after each class. They are very lucky angels. And we envy them a little.

You have been a great Teacher, Sensei Margolis. May your memory become a blessing and an example for those who have known you, and miss you dearly now.

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Lost in translation

In the Jewish calendar, the current month, Tevet is pretty dull. Apart from the last days of Chanukah, which are at the beginning, there are no holidays during the month of Tevet. The only noticeable day is the 10th Tevet, which this year is tomorrow, and is a fast.
Now, in case you are panicking already, either because you did not know, (or have forgotten), the fast of the 10th Tevet, or because you don’t know what such a fast commemorates, I will provide some explanation.
First of all, 10th Tevet is a minor fast. People fast from dawn to sunset, which in the winter is not a long time. All the restrictions which are observed on Yom Kippur, such as not wearing leather shoes, are not observed. This fast has been instituted by the Rabbis and it is not in the Torah, therefore few Jews observe the practice of fasting on the 10th Tevet.
Even the reasons for the fast are not clear. The Rabbinic literature mentions the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE, but the calculation is wrong. The prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, especially Zecharia) mention the 5th Tevet as a day of affliction, because of the loss of Jerusalem.
The search for reasons to fast on the 10th Tevet, includes “something that has happened but we do not know what it was” (so says the Shulchan Aruch). Nowadays some Rabbi suggests commemorating the victims of the Holocaust on such a day, as Yom ha Shoah is on the month of Nissan, when mourning is generally avoided.
One of the reasons why Jews fast, (or should fast), on the 10th Tevet, according to the Rabbinic literature, is really surprising. The translation of the Torah is in Greek, the Septuaginta as it is called, was completed on the 10th Tevet. Therefore we afflict ourselves: which is surprising. Why indeed should we fast, be sad, and afflict ourselves because of the translation of our Torah?
Rather, we should celebrate! There are so many wonderful things and teachings in the Torah, from which the non Jews can certainly learn, much like us. But the Rabbis reply that, because of its Greek translation, the Bible became the founding book for Christianity. And later the Church, on the basis of the Greek translation of the Bible, claimed that the Christians were the real Chosen People, the real Godly people, and that the Jews, that means us, were usurpers at least. That our understanding of the Torah was wrong. Because, so they teach and believe, the Torah, the Pentateuch, is not the law according to which one should live. It is rather “Old Testament”, preparation of the revelation included in the Gospels and in the New Testament.
Here you go, anti-Semitism was born.
Because, so the anti-Semites say, the Jewish people had no positive role in history. We are, they say, useless and our holy Book is just a collection of old stories that we are not even able to understand properly.
And what about Israel or, as they say, the Holy Land? Well, that certainly does not belong to us, because we are not the Chosen People anymore: the Christians are.
You see how the consequences of the translation of the Torah in Greek have been catastrophic for the Jewish people, and that there are good reasons to afflict ourselves and to fast on the anniversary of such a translation.
But. There is, indeed, a but.
None of us reads the Bible in Hebrew only, its original language. We have here the Hertz Humash, which is the English translation of the Torah. It is not my favourite, (I actually quite dislike it), because there are better translations available. But we certainly need a translation, if not in Greek, at least in English! We should celebrate the first translation of the Torah and not afflict ourselves because someone had dared to produce it. Therefore we find it particularly difficult to accept those passages of Rabbinic literature that say otherwise, that mourn for the translation of the Torah and condemn even the idea of reading the Torah in a language other than Hebrew.
But the problem still remains. As much as we can be happy and comfortable, because we have a translation of the Torah in our hands and we can access the text, we cannot deny that the anti-Semitic ideology is sadly strong and vivid around us.
A cornerstone of such an ideology is that we Jews are wrong, and not a people but merely another faith, and a wrong one. Because our holy book is an “Old Testament” has been replaced. And if we can say that the proof of our connection with the Land of Israel is in the Torah, the anti-Semite replies that we Jews are unable to properly understand such a book, which it is merely an introduction to the New Testament; and that the Land of Israel, which they call Palestine, belongs rather to the Christians. Hence the need for the Vatican to “protect the Holy Sites” which in the language of international diplomacy means that Jerusalem should never be Jewish.
A few weeks ago the United Nations had approved a resolution, according to which Jerusalem is “occupied territory”, hence the Jewish presence there is illegitimate. Unfortunately there is a red thread of anti-Semitic hate which connects that vile resolution to the first translation of the Torah.
Whether we fast or not on the 10th Tevet it is a matter of choice, like many of the elements of traditional Judaism that the non Orthodox movements are claiming back. We can decide to do it, we can decide not to do it.
But we should be aware that anti-Semitism, the irrational and furious hate against us, is still around. And that anti-Semites are subtle: they pretend to be secular, enlightened people, who just dream of peace between Arabs and Jews. But they are recycling ancient hateful legends, religious hate sugarcoated in the language of human rights.
Shabbat shalom, and don’t be fooled.

Toledot 5777

Nowadays I don’t see many kefyahs. You know the scarf with fringes, usually black and white, which is a sort of a symbol of Palestinian identity. It used to be a regular feature of the uniform of Mr Arafat, and Israeli haters wear it on a daily basis. But the number of people wearing such a scarf is dwindling nowadays, even in Brighton. Palestinian identity and fashion don’t match anymore.
Be as it may, I noticed the first kefiah of this year only this week. Just one. But it struck me, because it was on November 30th. What’s so special about such a date, you may ask.
Well, in the Israeli calendar November 30th is the Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran. The tragic end of those centuries’ old Jewish communities is remembered throughout the country, with official ceremonies of commemoration, at the Knesset and in various public places, such as schools and city halls.
I must admit: I was tempted. There was this lady, wearing that Palestinian scarf, one which I haven’t seen for a long time, on the day devoted to remember and to honour the tragically lost Jewish communities in the Arab Countries.
I was tempted to ask that lady whether she knew the significance of the day in Israel, a State which I suppose she was not so fond of.
I was tempted to ask that lady, who certainly cares very much about the Palestinians, if there was room for other Middle Eastern refugees, other victims, in her bleeding heart. If she knew that in 1948 there were more than 140.000 Jews in Algeria, and now there is none. Whether she know that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian autocrat, declared all the Jews enemies of the State in 1956, (yes, just like in Nazi Germany, less than 30 years before), and signed the death sentence for the oldest Jewish community of the Mediterranean. Whether she has heard about the pogroms in Libya in 1966, when the mob assaulted, of all places, the Jewish orphanage in Tripoli, and left the teachers beheaded: that is long before the army of the Islamic State decided to revamp that ancient tradition.
Of course I resisted the temptation and did nothing of that kind. But the comparison between the Palestinians and the Mizrahim, or North African Jews, lingered in my mind for a while.
What a stark contrast. The Palestinians are kept in refugee camps, in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, (if they are still there), and the Palestinian Authority: those who at the moment rule the West Bank, (that of Abu Mazen). They cannot work out of these camps, let alone live. They have to live off the benefits provided by the UN. The United Nations has a special agency, a well funded agency, expressly for Palestinian refugees while all the other refugees, of all the other conflicts in the world, are cared by another agency. And the Agency devoted to the Palestinians needs to justify its existence in order to receive funding from the UN. So they constantly review the very definition of “Palestinian refugees” in order to have a larger number of clients to care for.
At the moment if you are a son, or a grandson, or a great grandson, of someone who, prior to 1948, lived in, what is nowadays Israel, for two years in then Palestine, you can call yourself a “Palestinian refugee” and you and your family can receive money from the United Nations, that is from the Western Countries, including England, and of course, oh the irony, Israel.
So you have all these people living in so called refugee camps, that actually are slums of Arab capitals, dreaming of an impossible return, to places that they themselves have never seen and in which only a grandparent had lived, for two years.
On the other hand think to the Mizrahim, the Jewish refugees from North African Countries. Part of them had also lived in refugee camps set up in France, Italy or (mostly) in Israel. But they had left those camps after a few months. There is no such thing as a UN sponsored agency for the Jewish refugees. Mostly, because there is no need. They, their children and their grandchildren have moved on, and do not live in the shadow of the tragedy that happened in the past. They have been able to rebuild their lives and to turn the page.
It helps to put things into perspective, doesn’t it? It is an interesting comparison between Palestinian refugees, and the way they have been treated, one would say even spoon-fed, by the international community. Who did not help the Jewish refugees, that much, as we all know.
And it reminds me of the comparison between Jacob and Esau, which is narrated in our Torah portion. Rebecca pushes Jacob, we are told, to steal the blessing that his father wanted to give to Esau, his brother. That is what we know from the text of the Torah. But think about what happened afterwards. Esau lived for years, for decades, in the shadow of the event, looking forward to the moment of revenge. While Jacob grew up and became a more mature person, through the vicissitudes that the Torah tells us: he met Rachel, fell in love, worked for seven years to marry her, was cheated by Laban, found himself with Lea, whom he did not love, worked hard other seven years and finally could marry.
On one side you have someone, Esau, who became obsessed of being a victim. Who could think of himself only as a victim of his brother’s tricks, which he had to suffer when he was young. While Jacob, on the other side, built a life for himself and became independent, mature; while as a young man, he was so easily manipulated by his mother.
Jacob, as a mature human being, is able to see nuances and to understand complexities. He knows, he has learnt, that things are not always in black and white, that life is more than a confrontation between victims and perpetrators. This is not, as we know, the way the media look at the Middle East. They want us to believe that the situation is in black and white, that the Jewish State is the perpetrator, that the Palestinians are victims, always victims, forever victims, the only victims. And by peddling this representation, they erase or ignore the Jewish victims of the conflict.
Which of course we, children of Jacob have the duty to remember, at least once a year.

Be like Noah

You know, Mashiach came in November 2013.
Or so you may have thought if you follow the news from the Jewish, and Zionist, intellectual world. Because on November 2013 a brilliant Israeli journalist called Ari Shavit, Haaretz columnist, published a book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel. Such a book rapidly became a sort of a Bible especially in the so called liberal Zionist world.
In his book, by accumulating personal stories, Ari Shavit travels through the chapters of the Zionist enterprise. He begins with his own great-grandfather, who immigrated to the then Palestine from England in 1897. And then Shavit follows the whole genealogical tree down to his generation. And himself. More specifically to his own moral awakening, when as a soldier he witnesses the harsh treatment that the Army of the Jewish State imposes on the Palestinian population.
After having served in the Army, Shavit became a peacenick and -needless to say- an outspoken opponent of the occupation of the West Bank. The media gave him space to air his opinions: Haaretz, New Yorker, New York Times: isn’t it amazing how welcoming all these media are for Israeli left wing dissenters, who claim to be silenced?
Shavit made good use of such a space, unleashing his furore against right-wing Israeli politicians, such as the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, the Minister of Culture Miri Regev and Ayelet Shaked, the secular Minister of Justice. Again, isn’t it amazing how those same people who advocate for a multicultural, pluralistic Israel, always chastise those of poorer background? Lieberman is a Russian immigrant; Regev is daughter of immigrants from Morocco, Shakhed’s family immigrated from Iraq. Far less prestigious genealogies than Ari Shavit’s!
Anyway, in his book, Ari Shavit, on the ground of his illustrious family history, makes the case for his political positions, which is the same as Liberal Zionists all over the world. Mainly the English speaking world, that is America and the UK (as the book was never translated in Hebrew). Let me quote from an interview.

“It is the moral and political duty of every Israeli prime minister to try to achieve the two-state solution […] We must end the occupation for sure […] We cannot survive another decade with the suicidal ways in which Israel is building more settlements”. [The Guardian, 10 June 2014]

I can go on, and on, quoting directly from the book, or from countless other interviews. Because of course Shavit gave many, many interviews, Guardian, BBC, Independent etc. Liberal Zionists are part of a silenced minority, they say, but, strangely enough, they are always on the media.
Even if I spare you from all these quotes, which frankly speaking are quite repetitive, I think it’s clear why Ari Shavit has been welcomed (at least in certain circles) as a sort of Messianic figure.
Finally there was a voice who made Zionism acceptable for the European and American Left. Ari Shavit lectured about the moral duty to support those Israelis who were working to stop the occupation and to deliver social justice to the Arab population

“and by so doing prove the enlightened possibility of being both Jewish and democratic”,

as per another enthusiastic endorsement, this time from Jewish Chronicle [7 March 2014]. But as you can imagine, there ‘s more, for example in many synagogues’ newsletter, where Ari Shavit is portrayed as a sort of Messiah.
The problem, as it turned out last week, is that Shavit himself was not exactly a very moral person. It turned out indeed that, far from being the flag bearer of noble values, he is more a sort of Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump. Over the last week, charges of his sexual misconduct involving groping of women in the workplace have surfaced.
A woman journalist reported to have been sexually assaulted by him. Shavit initially defended himself by admitting that there were “misunderstood elements of courtship” in some conversation with the same journalist. I don’t know how many ladies would like to be on the receiving end of this kind of courtship. Even if it comes from the celebrated author of My Promised Land.
But then other journalists reported having had similar experiences. And it emerged that JStreet, the self styled pro-Israel pro-peace American lobby (an sort of equivalent of British Yachad), purposely avoided inviting Shavit to its conventions. They were aware of his problematic behaviour, but in any case they chose not to denounce publicly. Which is an interesting choice from an organisation whose leaders often challenge other Jewish institutions’ accountability.
So you have someone who publicly preaches peace and social justice and, I’m sure, inclusion, feminism, gender equality. But in private he behaves in a disgusting, morally reprehensible way. He does in private hose very same things he accuses his enemies of doing: abusing those who are weaker than him, female journalists of every age.
What a depressing story!
It made me think to this week’s Torah portion, and more specifically to the personality of Noach. In the Torah Noach is described twice as ish tzadik bedorotav a just man in his generation.
According to the Rabbis Noah was a righteous person, and for this reason he was worthy of surviving the Flood, and God gave him the task to repopulate the earth.
But Noah was not like Abraham, to whom God gave an extraordinary responsibility. Abraham was a spiritual giant, and indeed every time we pray we mention him. Noah was the most righteous person of his generation.
There is a significant difference.
In the Torah Noah does not stand out as someone who always knows how to distinguish good from evil. He does not lecture every audience with his incredibly deep and profoundly moral knowledge. On the contrary. As soon as he knows what God wants from him, he does not question, he does not argue, he merely does what he thinks it ought to be done.
Noah is probably not good at writing columns or signing petitions. He is just a righteous person, which -while the whole world goes crazy- manages to keep a bit of morality and a bit of reason, while the flood is approaching.
In a few days from today the American people will choose their leader, and the leader of the most important superpower of the Western world. Their choice will affect the world, will affect the Jewish people, either in the USA, in Israel or in Europe.
Is this something similar to the Flood? We don’t know.
What we do know is that we should be like Noah, who used to walk humbly with God.
While a monumental change is coming at the horizon we can choose to be like those who preach to the rest of the Jewish people in the name of lofty ideals, noble values. Those who, for the sake of humanity chastise those Jews who fail to embody their ideals of moral perfection. By supporting for example the wrong Israeli party.
Or we can chose to be like Noah, the most righteous human being in his generation. We can chose to live a more committed Jewish life. Instead of pretending to raise above the rest of the Jewish people, and placing ourselves on some higher moral ground, we can chose to stay with our people, the Jewish people, and to defend Israel, the Jewish State, from its detractors and critics.
We can chose to ignore the arrogance of those who pretend to conform the Jewish State to their own standards of morality. Which they not often observe in their own private life. And if Israel is not as they wish it to be, then they wish the Jewish State to be damned.
We can like these people, who call themselves Liberal. But in this generation, those preachers are hardly an example of righteousness.
Let’s ignore them and try to be like Noah.

Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 5 November 2016 / 4 Cheshvan 5776

About Bob Dylan

Dbobdylan-edit-006uring the time of the Soviet Union, there was a story about the Internationalist Orchestra, established by Comrade Stalin, to encourage brotherhood among all the peoples of the Soviet Union. Because such a brotherhood was obviously a reality in the Soviet Union, the Internationalist Orchestra used to tour the most important theatres of the world. And at the end of every performance, the Soviet ambassador used to introduce each member of the Internationalist Orchestra to the audience.
“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Igor Kuzekov, the Russian member of our Internationalist Orchestra.” “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Anton Malenko, the Ukrainian member of our Internationalist Orchestra.” “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Georgy Sarayan, the Armenian member of our Internationalist Orchestra” And of course: “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Isaac Rabinovitch, the violinist of our Internationalist Orchestra.”
In those days, anti-Semites used to express their hate through denial. In the Soviet Union Jews could be classified by the legislation as members of a religion: but the practice of every religion was forbidden. Or we could be classified as an ethnic minority, which was equally not easy, because in a totalitarian regime, such as Soviet Communism, members of minorities were generally suspected of double loyalty. So Jews, plainly and simply, did not exist.
This joke, and the gloomy cultural atmosphere of those days, came to my mind over the last couple of days, after I learnt that another Nobel Prize went to a Jew. It is a sort of a tradition; we are one of the smallest minorities in the world, by the receivers of the largest number of Nobel Prizes in the world. I am of course talking about Robert Allen Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature.
Now, Bob Dylan is Jewish, and this is a fact that no one can deny. His Jewish name (see Wikipedia) is Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham. Both of his parents were children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up in the close knit Jewish community of a small rural centre in Minnesota. As a teenager he spent the school holidays at a Zionist Summer camp named after Theodor Herzl.
True, in the 70s Bob Dylan went a bit off the derech and schmoozed with the movement of the “born again”, Evangelical Christians, which by the way are good supporters of Israel. Here in Brighton, most of the members of Sussex Friends of Israel are indeed born Evangelicals of that kind: I would call them “Jewish friendly” kind of Christians. But then in the 80s Dylan had his son bar mitzvaed with a ceremony, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, nonetheless: only the crazy nutters at the UNESCO can deny the connection between that site and the Jewish people.
There is certainly a strong Jewish influence in Bob Dylan’s protest songs, with all these references to the prophetic ideals of social justice. Loyalty to the Jewish tradition motivated the participation of Bob Dylan to the Civil Rights movement, together with many, many other American Jews of his generation. Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in consideration of his contribution to the great tradition of American song, and that literary tradition, the re-discovery of American folk songs and ballades is one of the great contributions of the Jewish community to the American culture.
Nonetheless, the fact that Bob Dylan is Jewish went more or less unmentioned in the British media when the news of the Nobel Prize was announced.
That is strange, right? I mean, our media, the Guardian, the BBC, the Independent, always remind their readers that Israel is a Jewish State, especially when it behaves badly for their standards, that means: always. They never fail to remind us of the connection to the Jewish community of this or that magnate (especially when they go bankrupt, or do something questionable), not to mention of those politicians who dare to oppose the leadership of the Labour party.
Think about it. For our media, an Unitarian tax dodger is a tax dodger, while a Jewish tax dodger is generally “a prominent member of the Jewish community”. But then, when they have to mention the highest achievement of the career of a Jewish artist, whose talent is universally acknowledged and praised, those same media who are always so keen of cultural diversity, they forget that the artist is Jewish, even when his life and his art are deeply influenced by his Jewish education, his Jewish origin. What a strange, strange phenomenon. As in the joke of the Soviet era: Isaac Rabinovitz is not Jewish. He’s a violinist
And so it has happened with Bob Dylan. He is a great American songwriter, but not a Jewish songwriter. I have been told that Radio Teheran has informed its listeners of the Nobel Prize awarded to Bob Dylan and they even played some of his songs from the 60s. Which is priceless: these guys are getting for war against Israel, and they play an anti-militarist song written by a Jew. Maybe, really times are a-changing (sorry, could not resist).
But anyway, Radio Teheran is no different from the BBC: they both accurately avoid informing their audience that the winner of the Nobel Prize is Jewish. God forbid, their audience may start thinking that Jews give some positive contribution to cultural life.
It certainly does not help that Bob Dylan is, how shall I put it, the wrong kind of Jew. Dylan is, as I have said, a staunch Zionist, and has expressed his support for Israel a number of times. And he’s not the kind of a Jew who is used to blame Israel when things go wrong in the Middle East. Neither he is the kind of the Jew who feels compelled to mentions “peace with Palestine” every time he mentions “Israel”. And I don’t think that for Bob Dylan is really such a terrible problem being embarrassed during cocktail parties because of Israel and, you know, the Occupation.
Bob Dylan is the kind of Jew who has problem in taking Israel’s side, exactly for the same reason because he took side with the Afro American community in the 60s. Because of justice. Because opposing the right of the Jewish people to self determination is, plainly and simply, wrong. Just like denying the right to vote to an Afro American
I’d like to remember a song: Neighborhood Bully.

Neighborhood Bully – Bob Dylan from Noehed on Vimeo.

“The neighborhood bully he just lives to survive / He’s criticized and condemned for being alive / He’s not supposed to fight back; he’s supposed to have thick skin / He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in /The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land / He’s wandered the earth an exiled man / Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn / He’s always on trial for just being born / Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace / They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease /Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly / To hurt one they would weep / They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep He’s the neighborhood bully”

These are only a few verses, the song is really powerful. It is probably the most Zionist song ever written in American history. I highly recommend you listen to it, and also have a look at the lyrics.
Then think for a moment: Bob Dylan wrote these lyrics in 1983. But things haven’t changed that much. Still Israel is criticised and condemned for being alive; still we are supposed not to fight back; still we are always on trial for just being born; and yes, still we are surrounded by self called pacifists who merely want the Jewish State to disappear and the Jewish people return in exile.
Yet, it is very difficult to express things openly as they are, even if you are a Nobel Prize. Which, of course, is not a reason to stay silent, or -as Bob Dylan would undoubtedly say – to keep shtum.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 15 October 2016

Between Ken Livingstone and the Mishnah

One would love to deliver a sermon on anything else other than the last extravaganza by Ken Livingstone.
But what can I do, it just jumps out of the page, as the Satmar Rebbe used to say when his congregants criticised him for preaching only about Zionism. What can I do, the whole Torah is about Zionism, every Torah portion is about Zionism, and I have to preach about the Torah portion, don’t I?
So, I cannot help it, this week’s Torah portion makes me think to the last boutades by Ken Livingstone. It just jumps out of the page.
Because, in case you have missed it, the former Mayor of London had come back to the scene with his favourite piece of historical fantasy: that is the alleged cooperation between the German Nazis and the Zionist movement. Ken Livingstone is persuaded that in the 1930s there was a “working relationship” between Hitler and the Zionist groups. He had repeated this grotesque falsehood during an interview broadcasted few days ago.
It is of course a plain lie. There has never been any working relationship, let alone cooperation, between the Nazi Regime and the Zionist movement.
The often quoted Haavara Agreement is nothing comparable to cooperation. The Haavara Agreement in 1933 allowed the German Jews to recover, in then Palestine, part of the goods they were forced to leave in Germany when they were expelled. It has been nothing close to ‘cooperation’, unless you consider “cooperation” to similar situations, such as rape. Yes, the woman who is raped “cooperates” with the rapist rather than been killed.
There has never been any cooperation, or working relationship of any kind, between Nazis and Zionists. To suggest otherwise is simply outrageous and distorted.
Fine, you may say, everybody agrees with that. But what does this have to do with the Torah portion? How does this week’s Torah portion make us think of the boutades by Ken Livingstone?
You see, the Torah portion of this week is called “Shofetim”, Judges. It deals mainly with matters of justice. Here are there the elements for a constitution, and for the judicial system. Here we find the job description, if you like, of judges, kings, priests, and prophets. We have the rules regarding witnesses, justice in time of war, and unsolved murder victims. This is particularly interesting. The rules are that if the body of a murder victim is found lying in the open, and despite many investigations, it is impossible to determine the killer, then the elders of the nearest town had to perform an enigmatic ritual: the sacrifice of a heifer. Just before the sacrifice, the eldest of the town, the public authorities, had to state aloud “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it” [Deut 21:7] They were innocent; and yet they had to confess they have been guilty, because they had not been able to prevent the murder, they had to ask God to be merciful.
In Biblical times, in the Land of Israel, an unsolved murder was so shocking that the whole community had to take responsibility.
The Mishnah, a text written several centuries after the Torah, explains that such a ritual lapsed “when the number of murders increased” [Sotah 9:9]. That is particularly interesting. This ritual is meaningful in a society in which murder is an exceptional recurrence. In the current society it is hypocritical to pretend that every citizen must feel the responsibility for an unsolved murder. Only when murder is an abnormal occurrence, there are reasons to expiate if we are not able to punish the murderer.
You may ask what this discussion about an ancient ritual has to do with the grotesque historical boutades of the former Mayor of London. And I invite you to compare the tales by radical demagogues like Ken Livingstone to the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis.
On one side we have someone who plays with symbols. Radical demagogues do not deal with real people. Real people, real individuals, are complicated. Ken Livingstone and his followers believe that Nazism is evil, that Zionism is equally evil. Therefore, so the ideology dictates, there should be some kind of working relationship between the two evils.
It does not cross their minds that Zionism, namely emigrating to then Palestine, was the only way for hundreds of thousands of Jews to remain alive. Radicals don’t deal with real life situations, with real life tragedies: they want to affirm principles. So they turn people, individuals, and human beings, into symbols of some ideology.
Is Ken Livingstone trying to put himself in the shoes of any of the 1930s German Jews? Of course not. In his world there is no such a thing as a German Jew, as a human being. In his world there is Zionism, which is evil like Nazism (with which they must have, indeed, some kind of working relationship). He takes into consideration the individuals, real people, only as symbols of ideologies.
How different is Judaism, how much more profound is the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis. Because they dealt with real people, they acknowledged that a ritual, which was instituted by God nonetheless, was not to be observed anymore.
On one side you have a crazy demagogue who turns human beings into symbols: a man who thinks ideology always comes first. On the other side you have religious leaders who know the reality of human life, which is tragic and complicated. Even if they are religious leaders, they boldly ignore God’s expectations, because they know that, in the world we live in, the Divine expectations are too extreme, impossible to match for the human beings of their generation.
Now, that is Judaism. Learning how to deal with the complexities of human nature. Trying to put noble and high moral values into practice, in this society, which like every human society, is a complicated society. And acknowledging that is difficult, sometimes very difficult, and maybe impossible.
It is well known that we Jews are not popular among radicals and demagogues. Because they like to say that things are simple, that everywhere there is black and white, good versus evil (Judaism and Zionism needless to say, are on the evil side).
While we Jews know very well, and our Tradition teaches that, things are very, very complicated.

Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue
10 September 2016 / 7 Elul 5776

Pinchas. I cannot, because I am Jewish.

If only things were simple. This is my reaction when I think to the horrendous carnage in Nice, less than ten days ago.
If only things were that simple. This is, too, my reaction to the other episode of Islamic motivated violence, on a train in Germany, last week.
If only things were that simple.
Because we are told that radicalisation happens in isolation. We read that these two murderers were alienated, frustrated, and that they did not regularly attend any mosque. We are informed that they were not pious Muslim: actually, the Franco-Tunisian mass murderer seems to have led a very promiscuous life. Then, so it seems, he decided that making war was better than making love.
This is not the real Islam, because Islam is a religion of peace, they say. Therefore someone, some pervert, some criminal, must have twisted the teachings of such a religion of peace. Therefore these Muslim men must have been brainwashed by some evil mind, some terrorist leader, aiming to exploit their feelings of alienation. And therefore we have to work hard against this feeling of alienation.
We must build an inclusive society, so that the Muslim newcomers to Europe will benefit from inclusion, so that they will feel part of the same society we are part of. And they will not listen to the twisted teachings of the extremists, radical Islamists: Wahabite, Salafites or whatever.
To which I reply: if only things were that simple.
The more we know about the background of Islamic terrorists and murderers, the more we see that this sociological explanation does not hold water. It is probably not the case of these last; but let’s not forget that many, many of the Muslim extremists who have joined the ISIS came from very posh background. They were deejays, personal trainers, doctors, engineers. Certainly not alienated or marginalised young men.
And there is another explanation that we hear nowadays, every time news of Islamic extremism reach us: we are lectured about the horrors of colonialism, to which Islamism is a reaction, we are told that it is always a reaction. A reaction to the Gulf Wars, a reaction to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reaction -guess what – to the occupation of Palestine etc… Muslim people are peaceful; Islam is a religion of peace.
Radical, terroristic Islam is allegedly  a reaction to the perpetual violence that we, the guilty Westerners, infer to the Arab population since the War in Iraq, or maybe the First World War (you know: the Balfour Declaration…), or who knows, the end of the Ottoman Empire, or even the Crusades.
Islam is not guilty. Muslims are only reacting. We are the ones to blame, because a young man axes passengers on a train in Germany; and/or because a Tunisian born man massacred eighty four French citizens, and injures several more, on the anniversary of the French Revolution.
And, here, too, my answer is: if only things were that simple.
Because, you know what? I would really like to live in the world where these people, where these commentators, are living. Religious violence come to surface here in Europe, in the Western World. Centuries ago, we had the religion wars: hundreds of people were killed, here, in England too, because they refused to believe, or refused to give up the belief in, obscure details of the New Testament: the virginity of Mary, the Primate of Peter… That was centuries ago. We thought it was over, but we have, once again, people killing other people because of religious beliefs. That is tragic, that is pure horror.
I would love to trust those commentators and academics who lecture about need for inclusion, and colonial guilt, and Muslims who are all peaceful, and Islam which is a religion of peace, and if only we would become more inclusive, and if only we would give up the war, and of course, if only we Jews left Palestine (or accept to become second class citizens, under some form of Islamic rule) then Muslim terrorism will disappear and we will all live in safety and peace in Europe and in the United Kingdom.
I would really love to share the faith in this belief. But I cannot.
I cannot because I am Jewish. I cannot because in my tradition there is the story of Pinchas, which we have read last week.
Pinchas: the Israelite man who killed another Israelite man and a Moabite woman, “because of their immorality”. The commentators say, this is a clean way of saying that they were having sex.You see: our tradition, Jewish tradition, is familiar with religious violence. The Torah, the Bible is full of religious violence. But Judaism does not approve of it at all.
And we see it clearly in the story of Pinchas. That episode, the killing, happened actually in last week’s Torah portion. This week we are dealing with the aftermath. Now the Rabbis wonder why the narrative is broken at that point, so that we have to wait one week before reading its outcome.
And the answer is striking for its depth: because we should never rush to reward extremism. We are to wait, even in the Torah itself, until later events clarify the real intentions of actions religiously motivated.
In the Torah scroll itself the letter yud in Pinchas’s name in the second verse, v. 11, is written smaller than the other letters. This happens also in printed editions of the Torah. See for example the Hertz Humash, pag 686, v. 11, the first word, “Pinchas”, you may notice that the yud is smaller. That is because when we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yud in us diminishes.
The yud: the first letter of the Name of God, and the first letter of the word Yehudi, Jew. Even if religiously motivated, even if driven by justice, violence makes us less human, less Jewish, and less connected to God.
This is the teaching of Jewish tradition. This is where we come from. For this reason I feel I cannot accept the justifications of Muslim fundamentalist violence, as much as they look attractive, fashioned as they are in sociological or historical jargon.
Our tradition is familiar with religious violence, but it does not approve of religious violence. We expect everybody, including our fellow Muslim citizens, to do the same.

Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 23rd July 2016, 17 Tammuz 5776