Monthly Archives: August 2013

Rabbi’s Monthly Message September 2013

RabbiL’shana tovah l’kulchem—A good new year to all of you.

We will shortly gather together for the coming of the new year, 5774. A time for our congregation to renew relationships, gather strength from each other, pray for ourselves and our loved ones, our country, our people, the state of Israel, for all humanity. May this be the year in which we find that God’s blessings of peace, compassion, love and justice is realised, so that the gap between what this world is at present and what it ought to become will be narrowed and ultimately disappear.

There is an urgency in our Jewish tradition, as you all know, to live to the fullest—there is simply no time left for the needless killing, the rupturing of relationships, the disharmony that ruins the potential for life in the world. That sense of urgency comes as no accident, for it is an imperative from our Torah, paraphrasing the words from Deuteronomy: “The choice you have is life or death, blessing or curse—choose life so that you and your children may live!” U’vacharta ba’hayim!

With the month of Elul coming to an end, we know there is little time to cast aside our hurts, to ask or grant forgiveness, to fix our relationships, for tomorrow may be too late. I love that sense of the “now”, the urgency in our Judaism. For generations our people, our rabbis, our sages, have implored the Jewish people to do the right thing; to behave consistently with God’s commandments, for goodness brings life. Judaism’s accent is on behaviour, on the deed, in bringing godliness to today’s world, without expectation of God’s love and rewards in some afterlife. Ours is a behaviouristic religion —all deeds, mitzvot, commandments must be fulfilled in the here and now, not later.

That is one of the major characteristics of Judaism—the mitzvah, the deed bringing righteousness and compassion. All religions, we know, have the same ideals: Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and all others will tell you, rightly, that they want the same things as the rest—peace, life, mercy, goodness for all humanity. The key difference among religions is not in the abstract faith objectives but in how each religion teaches its adherents to realise those lofty ambitions. Not in any way disparaging the religious convictions of others, but in the spirit of honest interreligious dialogue, a Christian would tell you that the way to realising our ideals is through correct faith. As Martin Luther taught, the Christian, in order to reach God’s salvation, must make a leap of faith. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, our revered rabbi and teacher, taught that the way of Judaism is to the contrary—Judaism expects a “leap of action”, not faith. Faith comes with the deed, consistent with living God’s will.

Judaism has a long and detailed prescription for realising our dreams, ideals; concretising our beliefs by fulfilling mitzvot, by our sacred deeds. For example, in order to achieve peace between ourselves and nature, between ourselves and others, and in ourselves, we must “live peace”. And the way that we “live peace” is through the means of Shabbat. “La’asot et-hashabbat” we cry out during the kiddush on Shabbat morning after services (from Exodus 34) ….to DO the Shabbat we sing together. We set aside a day without contracts, argument, business, rich or poor, a day of social harmony, a day when we are even instructed to refrain from plucking a flower from its bush—a day in which we say “Shabbat Shalom”…may you have a Sabbath of Peace. Live it, drink it, eat it, speak it, study it, pray it— peace, peace and more peace. By living peace, we train ourselves to strive for peace each day of our lives, now and not tomorrow.

The second most sacred value shared among religions is the reverence for the “sanctity of human life”. As it is taught in our Torah, each human being is created in the image of God and therefore the taking of one life is like taking the life of an entire world. How does Judaism propose that we revere life, that we promote the sanctity of life? Through the mitzvah of kashrut, the biblical dietary laws. Kashrut’s abhorrence for the spilling of blood, its care for the way that we terminate animal life for the purposes of perpetuating human life, and its making the act of mundane eating into an act of God, promote our core belief in the sanctity of human life.

So, this is our Judaism; a way of concretising our ideals, lofty ones, ideals that are more necessary today than ever before. Why is it that so many Jews do not practise Judaism then? In order to perpetuate Jewish life, we need to practise Judaism, fulfil the mitzvot. Why is it then that so many Jews live lives that are indistinguishable from their neighbours, in ritual and in deed? If we Jews understand that without practising Judaism, our ideals will tarnish, our way of teaching them to the next generation will be paralysed, stopped in its tracks, why are we so alienated from our tradition?

That will be the aim of our High Holydays this year, exploring together the dynamics of Jewish deeds, ritual and mitzvot. How are we connected to other Jews and why is the community important? What else should I know about Shabbat and kashrut? What is the Jewish path to holiness, godliness? What are the essentials of Judaism that we should incorporate into our own lives? How does one incorporate these spiritual matters into the mundane, physical world? These are the questions we will ask each other in a few days.

Until we meet, our first lesson needs to be fulfilled—relationships mean nothing unless they are honest and stand upon deeds of love. Reach out to those who have hurt you, to those whom you have hurt, take control of your actions, your soul, by asking and bestowing forgiveness. Be resolved to start afresh for the new year, to bind those gaps in our spiritual and Jewish lives.

May your heshbon hanefesh—the scrutiny of your lives—bring you closer to God, to your families, to your synagogue, to your friends, to each other. Always, always—CHOOSE LIFE! Ella, Micah and I wish all of you and your families, a shanah tovah u’metukah —a good, blessed, peaceful and fulfilling new year 5774. L’shanah tovah, 

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

Rabbi’s Monthly Message July 2013

RabbiShalom all,

We have become so accustomed to having the modern state of Israel to visit, to admire and to nurture, that we have forgotten what it is like to have no Jerusalem, no Jewish state, and, ultimately, a loss of confidence in the divine promises to our people. We are certainly part of a privileged generation, the first and second generations to experience the existence of an independent Jewish state since the year 74 CE, when the last stronghold of Jewish resistance to the Romans fell at Masada.

I also believe that in order for us to truly appreciate what we have today and to recognise how fortunate all Jews are to have a Jewish state, we must also remember our past. You appreciate something when it is lost and then recovered, and we are compelled to remember days when our people could only hope for what we too often take for granted today.

That is why we have Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) in the Jewish calendar, to remember when Jerusalem and both Temples were destroyed on the same date, one in 586 BCE, the next time in 70 CE.

Our services will take place on Monday 15 July, 9-10:15pm. Cantor Heller and I, along with participants, will be chanting and reading the Book of Lamentations (Megillat Eicha), studying one of the kinot (lamentations) composed for the observance of Tisha B’Av during the Middle Ages. I will present and we will discuss the contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls to our understanding of Judaism during the volatile first century CE, which witnessed the Jewish people’s greatest calamity, Hurban Bet Hamikdash, the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

We will also hold our unique Belsize Square commemoration at Pound Lane Cemetery, on Sunday 14 July, 11:30 am, where a moving service will remember those who perished during the Holocaust and who have no one to remember them. Please join us for both commemorations—it is too easy to forget.

Some notes about Tisha B’Av

1) Tisha B’Av is the only other FULL fast-day on the annual calendar aside from Yom Kippur. It is the saddest day of the Jewish year, for on this very day both Temples were destroyed, and subsequent to 70 CE, many other tragedies befell the Jewish people on this exact date, including the subject of my very first Tisha B’Av with the congregation, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

2) The observance of Tisha B’Av begins at sundown, and not earlier, hence the late beginning to our own service on 15 July. Generally, a simple meal precedes the fast, called seudah mafseket (the meal of demarcation) and many customs and traditions follow in the synagogue: the parokhet (curtain) that covers the Ark is replaced with a black one reminiscent of the pall that covers a casket on its last journey to the grave. It is customary to turn off the lights and to light candles instead to maintain a mood of solemnity. We read the Book of Lamentations, probably composed by the prophet Jeremiah, describing the horrors of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. It is customary to sit on the floor, or on low stools or cushions, as a sign of mourning, as aveilim (mourners) traditionally do at the shiva home when they lose a loved one.

As on Yom Kippur, it is customary to not wear leather shoes (seen as sign of luxury), refrain from sexual intimacy, refrain from washing for pleasure and not wear perfumes or use scented oils.

The maariv (evening) service is chanted in a low voice, with congregational singing muted because of the mournful undertones. It is also customary to recite kinot, or dirges that were written over the course of Jewish history, mostly from the medieval period, all of them dealing with the theme of the loss of the Temple, of Jerusalem, and of Jewish life.

3) The Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Hazon (or the “Sabbath of the vision of Isaiah”), and is chanted in the trope normally used for Tisha B’Av.

4) There are no restrictions on working during Tisha B’Av, but joyful things are usually avoided, as mourners would show restraint during their period of mourning for a loved one.

5) There is some controversy as to whether there should be any connection made between the Shoah and Tisha B’Av. After all, the first proposed date for a commemoration of the Holocaust was supposed to be Tisha B’Av, eventually rejected by consensus in the new state of Israel. The feeling of many authorities is that the two should remain separate, to highlight the fact that the Holocaust is sui generis, one of its kind, never was, is, and hopefully never will be again.

6) There is another controversy because of the existence of the modern state of Israel. Some feel that with the rebuilding of Jerusalem there is less of a need for Tisha B’Av. I disagree, for the reasons I shared above: remembering history, our past, enables us to appreciate what we have today, and the triumphs of today are interwoven with the tears shed by our ancestors.

7) Tradition tells us that Tisha B’Av will also be the day the promised Mashiach (Messiah) will be born. In other words, our Sages never gave up their fervent hope that even in the darkest of days of the Jewish people, would be made up one day with the redemption of Israel and humanity as a whole.

To all of you, good wishes during these summer months. I do hope to see as many of you as possible for the observance of Tisha B’Av here at Belsize Square Synagogue.

In shalom always,

Rabbi Altshuler