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    Free agents for sin? – No’ach

    October 15th, 2017

    No’ach found favour with God but his contemporaries didn’t.

    Their sinfulness placed the whole future of humanity in jeopardy. That’s why God wanted to wipe them out with a flood.

    What this implies is that the Flood generation chose to be sinful, exercising the free will implanted in them from the inception of history.

    According to Maimonides, free will is the pillar of the Torah and its mitzvot.

    Yet thinkers have always been uneasy about the doctrine. It clearly conflicts with the principle of God’s foreknowledge, which the same Maimonides inserts in his 13 Principles as a fundamental of Jewish belief.

    Both ideas, free will and Divine foreknowledge, are essential to Judaism – free will because otherwise there would be no point in the religious life, and foreknowledge because otherwise God would be too limited – but how can they both be true?

    The rabbis tried to solve the problem by saying there were limits to free will.

    Modern thinking pursues this line by positing a range of determinants of human behaviour which vary from person to person. In other words, the limits to one’s free will are not fixed and universal. The great determinant, in Jewish thinking, is of course God.

    A frequently found view is that of Rabbi Chanina, who said, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven”.

    In one view, it is God who is responsible for our physical characteristics such as height and facial appearance but we who choose whether to be evil or righteous. As others put it, the “external event” is controlled by God, but the “internal event” (how we respond to what happens to us) is up to us.

    This sounds fine but it still does not explain what is meant by God’s foreknowledge and determinism and indeed whether the two are identical.


    A common language No’ach

    October 15th, 2017

    In the story of the Tower of Babel, the Torah explains why human beings, despite their common ancestor, speak so many languages.

    The story of language has been widely researched. There are commonalities and differences between languages.

    One of the major features of language today is how one language, English, has so many variants.

    There are words, idioms and intonations which prove the truth of what Churchill said about the English and Americans, that they are one people divided by a common language.

    From the Jewish point of view a major phenomenon is the way in which Jews have adopted and adapted so many languages to produce Jewish versions. The most obvious are, amongst Sephardim, Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, and amongst Ashkenazim, Yiddish or Judeo-German.

    The big question, however, is not linguistic history but whether human beings can find a common ethical language.

    It doesn’t matter so much which language they use but whether they can agree to build a common climate of truth, peace and justice, the three pillars on which, according to Judaism, the universe stands.


    Adam as male & female – Ask the Rabbi

    October 15th, 2017

    Q. B’reshit 5:2 says that “Male and female He created them… and called their name Adam”. What does this mean?

    A. One rabbi said this meant that He made Adam bi-sexual (a hermaphrodite).

    Another rabbi read the verse as saying that He made Adam double-faced, male on one side and female on the other, and split him into two separate beings (B’reshit Rabbah 8:1).

    The first view reflects the idea that man being made “in the image of God” had no distinct sexual identity. God was the source of love, both fatherly and motherly love intertwined.

    The second view suggests that there are two separate male and female identities; man symbolising power and conquest whilst woman is associated with growth and development.

    In the first view, man and woman are essentially one. The human being, like God, is a fusion of din (justice) and rachamim (compassion).

    In the second view the two genders are essentially different. But each one needs the other.

    United in marriage, man and woman combine to become a balanced partnership.


    Were Adam & Eve Jewish? – Ask the Rabbi

    October 15th, 2017

    Adam & Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Foster Bible Pictures, 1860)

    When I was a professional youth worker I went up and down the British Isles organising Jewish programs. I gave talks to youth clubs in countless places and also frequently addressed adult groups and even senior citizens’ clubs.

    At one such club in the East End of London, appropriately named the Zekeinim Club, I gave occasional talks on Sunday afternoons.

    On one occasion, regardless of the official title of my address, one of the Yiddish-speaking audience asked me in question time, “Adam and Eve – they was Jewish, yes?”

    I probably disappointed the questioner by having to say “No”. Religion had not yet come into being. Nor were there any religious commandments, though of course the beginning of B’reshit told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.

    When the structure of Divine commandments was complete, this became mitzvah number 1 and it still is, but at that point it could not be said to be addressed to the Jewish people because there was no Jewish people.

    Yet there is actually a point in the question I was asked. It is not so much that Adam and Eve were Jewish, but that Judaism interprets their career in a distinctive way.

    Where Christianity builds a whole superstructure on their sin and, at least in circles that still teach this theology, propounded a doctrine of original sin whereby Adam and Eve’s descendants are deemed eternally tainted unless they rise above the taint by means of belief.

    What Judaism did was to stick more closely to the text. It noted that God told the first couple that if they disobeyed Him they would surely die (Gen. 2:17); the effect of their sin was that death was brought into the world.

    It is true that there are views here and there in rabbinic sources that speak of a load of guilt sitting on Adam and Eve’s descendants, but such views are not standard or normative.


    All those years ago – Hampstead Review 2017/18

    October 14th, 2017

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the 125th Anniversary edition of the Hampstead Review 5778 (2017/18), published by Hampstead Synagogue, London.

    As a Jews’ College student I often helped out with the Torah reading at the historic Bayswater Synagogue and when the Bayswater minister, Rev. Sidney Gold, moved to Birmingham I was appointed to his pulpit.

    Later I applied for the vacancy at Hampstead that arose when Rev. Dr Isaac Levy became director of the JNF and I found myself in 1965 the chosen candidate.

    In Melbourne, Australia, where my family lived, my father happened to meet Minnie Sheink, Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie’s sister. They discussed Hampstead – and me. My father wrote, “She congratulated me on your appointment to Hampstead and said, ‘I’m sure he didn’t get the job because of his good looks!’”

    I’m not certain how she knew about Hampstead, maybe from the Jewish Chronicle or perhaps from her brother. The wits said something about an apple getting a plum job, though no one else made any comment about my looks.

    Actually Mrs Sheink could have said something about my voice – not my speaking voice, which my wife says was what attracted me to her, but my non-existent musical ability. Neither Hampstead nor any other shul thought much of me as a chazan, though I believe I was a relatively harmonious ba’al kriah (Torah reader).

    Hampstead was a place of arrival, one of the community’s most prestigious pulpits. Our congregation knew how to behave in shul and outside (Chaim Bermant wrote in the Jewish Chronicle that in places like Hampstead the minister spoke grammatical English and the congregants didn’t spit on the floor). The minister was presumed to have the makings and manners of an English gentleman. I was so English that I wore striped trousers, black jacket and a bowler hat on Shabbat. I even had a clerical collar but abandoned it after a while in favour of a white shirt and black tie.

    Maybe my Englishness is why Chief Rabbi Jakobovits sent me to represent him at places as august as the Mansion House.

    The Hampstead service was Minhag Anglia (“the English usage”) at its height. Singer’s siddur ruled, with the Routledge machzor (festival prayer book) and the musical “blue book”.

    At that stage Hampstead and a number of other London synagogues had mixed choirs, though now all have gone. Apart from a few more Orthodox congregants, Hampstead loved its choir, though a certain male member used to say, “When I hear the female soloist in the choir it sends shivers down my back!”

    My wife Marian and I and our children settled into 13 Fawley Road and later 533 Finchley Road. We often meandered up to the Heath and on sunny weekend afternoons would go as far as Hampstead Garden Suburb, where Marian’s aunt and uncle lived in Church Mount. Our children enjoyed their outings to the local parks. When we drove them to North West London Jewish Day School we would cross the railway line and little voices piped up, “Hello train, bye-bye train!” We and our children made friends with many locals, especially the Goldschmidt family of Westbere Road.

    My colleague Rev. Charles Lowy was a remarkable chazan. His urbanity and harmony were severely tested during the Holocaust. Somehow he emerged from the horrible years with his faith and sense of humour intact and years later his daughter and son published his often whimsical stories in a book which they titled “In and Out of Harmony: Tales of a Cantor in the Hitler Era”.

    The Shul office was manned by Phineas May, the United Synagogue’s most talented administrator (and its resident caricaturist), helped by Julius Bernstein, who came back to duty as beadle so often that they called him “the retiring Mr Bernstein”. Charles and Magda Lowy and Phineas and Vivienne May were really dear friends. When Vivienne compiled a cookery book she even got me to write the Foreword.

    My predecessor, Dr Levy, occupied Seat No 1 and I suspected (though he never told me so himself) that he didn’t always approve of my sermons even though he had been my homiletics teacher at Jews’ College. Chaim Bermant, who came to the Shul occasionally, did approve of what he called my “felicities of expression” and thought that Hampstead had the best Shabbat service in London.

    The first time we visited Hampstead after leaving for Australia they thought they could catch me out with Hebrew names. Stanley Kershaw, the then beadle, threw the question at me, “What is Toddy Simons’ Hebrew name?” Fortunately I knew the answer. Toddy too (real name Hyman A Simons) was a dear friend. Old-timers will remember his regular letters in the JC; I recall how he used a green typewriter ribbon. Toddy encouraged me as a budding historian (I had written a history of Hampstead) but the United Synagogue would not give me leave of absence in order to write its history.

    In late 1972 I moved back to Australia as senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and held that position for 32 years. At one stage when there was a vacancy at Hampstead, an honorary officer who was visiting Australia asked if I would like the job back but I declined.

    All these decades later, our seven and a half years at Hampstead remain amongst Marian’s and my choicest memories.

    See also: “In Farewell to Hampstead”