Memory as Empathy - Pesach VIII

  Memory as Empathy - Pesach VIII The Seder is a fascinating exercise in telling stories. It is almost easier to talk about what the Seder is not. It is not an exercise in engaging with history as a historian. When a historian engages with history, she does it in a manner closer to the scientist than the Jew at the Seder; she finds data points and weaves a narrative around them, a narrative which is always on unsteady ground, because the threads of it may unspool with the discovery of new data altogether. When we sat at the Seder last week, we were not historians. But we were also not the tellers of fiction. Even the most outlandish of midrashim are not really fiction, not in the plain meaning of the word. Even if I were speaking with someone who believes that not a single element of the story was a historical reality - a statement I would disagree with, but nonetheless - I do not think I could support the view that we were just, well, telling stories.  This is the fundamental

A Tale of (More Than) Two Cities

  A Tale of (More Than) Two Cities There is an ongoing joke about the British that football is our religion. I happen to be a football atheist; I don't spend much time thinking about football or its value. However, we seem to be discovering in recent years that this parallel unfortunately extends to some of the less savoury elements of religion, too - such as the overlooking of abuse when it threatens to topple organisations and authorities.  I am thinking, of course, of a building project. I am thinking of a society rife with abuses of human rights, where individuality and expression are punished financially and violently, whose streets I would personally be afraid to walk.  Actually, I am thinking of two societies.  One is Qatar, where the World Cup is due to begin tomorrow, drawing over a million international visitors. Where migrant workers have been building the infrastructure, under conditions described as slavery, with a truly shocking death toll in the thousands. Where homo

Choosing Curses (Parashat Balak)

It is easy to assume that words are just labels for objects and movements and ideas. That to translate from one language to another is just to find the series of sounds we make that parallel the exact same concept. That is to say: New London Synagogue is a synagogue, from the Greek συναγωγή, meaning “place of gathering”. We can translate that back and forth from the Hebrew Beit Knesset, “house of gathering”. Different sounds, but essentially the same meaning. So surely it doesn’t matter which language we are using.  Except within the field of linguistics, there are long arguments on whether and how the language of the speaker affects the mind of the speaker. We can all agree that culture shapes language, but maybe, some hypothesise, language affects cognition, too. The most famous example of this is regarding the colour spectrum. Speakers of languages like Zuni, a Native American language, have a harder time distinguishing between blues and greens because the Zuni language classifies b

Tazria: Staying Outside the Temple Gates

  Staying Outside the Temple Gates This week, I have spent time with two women whose thoughts and ideas are permeating my experience of our Torah portion. The first, Kerry, has been my best friend since before we can remember. Kerry is now Doctor Kerry, and her field of medicine is paediatrics. She spends her days (and often nights) in the NICU - the neonatal (or newborn) intensive care unit. Kerry’s babies are often just a couple of pounds, dwarfed in comparison to full-term newborns, and facing the fight for their lives. The second of these women is Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, my guest in the Salon last week. Rabbi Debbie joined us to talk about the Wellspring Project, the building of a centre of wellbeing with mikveh - waters for ritual immersion - at its heart. Mikveh is not commonly used outside of the orthodox world anymore, with the exception of conversion to Judaism. The reasons for this are varied, but are mostly related to two things: off-putting experiences in orthodox mikva’

Torah: A Love Story in Verse

Today is a day of many a first  For trying new tricks, with some trust  Which is why, you will see, that this speech is in verse For I was told, a new thing is a must.  So please excuse if it’s clumsy Please excuse if I slip Understand that I’m just not well-trained I will try not to mumble I will try not to trip I have no expertise here to claim. But beyond my own wish to take part in this tryst  Of new things with some nerves and some glory  This is the perfect portion   for poetic distortion To tell Torah as an epic love story.  Now this may sound strange, but I swear it sincere  That with heart and with ear just refined The whole Torah can seem to an eye that is keen As a romance with the Divine. It has love, it has loss; it has drama, intrigue, It has character growth and deceit, It has pain, it has hope, it has sadness and glee So hold on to the edge of your seat.  Here we are, here today, at the scene of Sinai At what mig