Recent Lectures – Why Might We Keep Halakha? and Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?

The Honest Theology Project has been progressing in a manner that provides great encouragement for those of us interested in a thoughtful, honest and constructive form of religion.

The third lecture was given on February 7th 2016 and engaged with the questions of why we might actually maintain halakhic practice in today’s world and in light of our theological understanding.

It can be viewed here, together with an excellent Q&A session.

By way of taster:

The middle position, and perhaps the most challenging both to defend and to live by, is one that can see that sometimes and in some ways there is a need for submission and surrender. But that this does not mean that the aim is to thwart the flourishing of human wellbeing or to pollute its moral conscience.

We need not understand everything or always feel moved to observe, but nor must we always simply seek to negate our sense of self or suspend our ethical judgment. Living a life is a long and complex process, comparable perhaps to a complex symphony, and whilst perhaps some notes are primarily there to link between the more poignant and moving moments, they are nonetheless of tremendous importance, an essential part of the overall structure.

The fourth lecture was given on April 17th 2016, and asked ‘Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?’.  It was an attempt to probe the depths of the dangers of religious literalism, particularly as manifested in contemporary Zionism, particularly its religious varieties.

A sample of the opening reads:

Religion, as we have described it thus far, consists of an elaborate and complex web of metaphor, symbol and myth. It is laden with suggestions, hints and multi layered meanings. For a person to make good use of such a system, they must, amongst other things, have an awareness and sensitivity for symbolic language, for mythical representation, for rituals that are soaked in metaphoric suggestion. 

When people approach religion without this sensitivity, or worse, with a sense of anxiety or threatened-ness that they wish to dispel, then they will find therein a set of stories, teachings and ideas which offer them very concrete guidance and instruction. They may even find there sanctioned and legitimised outlets for their own violence and hatred, for their need to oppress and annihilate. 

If we are to embrace religion in any kind of public way, then I think we have a responsibility to provide a roadmap for how to use the symbols in constructive ways, how to curate the better readings of our myths and to highlight some of the more dangerous and explosive metaphors.

The lecture, together with a fascinating Q&A, can be found here.

Chag Sameach and do be in touch with any thoughts or questions.

Netanyahu, stop telling me where my home is

This originally appeared in Ha’aretz on February 24th 2015.

I do wish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would stop telling me where my home is.

In the aftermath of the Paris tragedy it felt a little bit distasteful and opportunistic. But one was willing to be somewhat forgiving.

In the aftermath of the Copenhagen shootings it feels a lot more intolerable; it seems that Netanyahu really does feel it his place to tell the Jews of Europe how they should live their lives.

What I find particularly bothersome is how Netanyahu presumes to know what being Jewish means to me.

As a Diaspora Jew, I have been forced to do battle with a complex and fragmented sense of identity, and to try to understand what roles, both positive and negative, Judaism might play in that mix. And it is an ongoing struggle, particularly at a moment like this.

While a certain approach to Jewish education in the Diaspora may have contributed to a sense that we are all simply failed Israelis, “armchair Zionists” who chickened out of aliyah, many of us have come to realize that that simply isn’t the case.

At some point this summer, driving on a motorway outside Tel Aviv, the thought crystallized in my mind: I am not an Israeli.

I may love the country and its people, I may stand in awe at some of its achievements, I may be bowled over by the everyday courage and heroism some of its citizens regularly display. I am extremely fond of the time that I spent in the country, and grateful for what I learnt there, and for the positive effect it had on my sense of Jewishness. I have family and close friends who live there, and as someone deeply connected to the culture of the Bible and Talmud it carries a historical resonance which seems unlikely to be re-created elsewhere.

For these and many other reasons I want what is best for Israel, and endeavor to contribute in that direction when possible.

But this is not the sum total of my Jewishness, and it is certainly not the sum total of my humanity.

A rich Diaspora tradition

As a Diaspora Jew I am part of a tradition going back some 2,600 years to the first Babylonian exile. Judaism at that moment ceased to be a national concern and became instead a universal and transportable system of values, a dynamic and evolving way of living.

According to the Bible, a large proportion of Jews did not return to Israel when Cyrus encouraged them to in 539 BCE, nor did they follow Ezra and Nechemia when they “returned” decades later.

In his recent study of the Book of Esther, my good friend Professor Aaron Koller argues that the text may have been written as a statement of counter-ideology to the nationalist and ethnocentric vision of Judaism being preached by Ezra. Mordechai, the hero in the story, represents a different ideal, that of the acculturated Jew, accepted by Persian society, enriched by his surrounding culture, strengthened by his heritage, and through his leverage in the empire able to exert broad influence across the global politic.

Judaism was no longer about Temples or Jerusalem, but about truth and tolerance, about navigating the thicket of identity troubles while coming to accept that one might never quite feel at home in the world.

It is in this sense an extremely modern story, and speaks to an increasing suspicion in today’s world of the idea of “home” as some safe and final resting place, where we will comfortably fit in without jarring incongruence. In a post-colonial world the universal condition is one of exile – the possibility of “home” is a fantasy.

We do what we can to come to terms with ourselves, to make peace with our inner unrest, and we may gradually come to feel comfortable in one place or another. But the idea that there is a singular geographic region, or even a community, which gives us a final sense of home, is misguided and dangerous.

Sense of victimhood

French President Francois Hollande said of the recent desecration of Jewish graves in eastern France that it was “the expression of an idea that corrodes our Republic.” His response was not to tell Jews that they don’t belong, but to make it clear that they do, that they are an integral part of the French nation.

Netanyahu’s response, by contrast, reduces Jewishness to a sense of victimhood and persecution, to never forgetting the numerous traumas of Jewish history. But while anti-Semitism may not have disappeared completely, and may indeed never do so, it is certainly no longer the dominant way of thinking in Europe.

More than this, I strongly doubt that focusing on tragedy is the healthiest way for us to think about Jewish identity. The reason we re-visit trauma in psychoanalysis is to try to free ourselves from the terror inscribed in the buried memories. We thus seek to liberate our creative humanity from trauma’s grasp, not to heighten the fear and deepen the enslavement.

Living in London I feel extremely grateful to be part of a tolerant, liberal and multi-cultural metropolis. These are words which are often mocked, which are equated with weakness and a fear of commitment. But they might actually represent the zenith of human achievement, an awareness that our problems do not lie in our religion, ethnicity or skin color, nor in those of the stranger in our midst.

Resisting the call and calculus of the apocalypse is not a sign of feeble mindedness but a willingness to live in the present, with all of the inevitable uncertainty and unease that it brings. Danger can never be wholly banished; to believe that it can is to abandon reality and enter a delusional world of fantasy.

It is not inconceivable that I might – for positive reasons – one day choose to live in Israel. But for as long as I am living in London and raising my family here, contributing to the Jewish and broader community, I will choose to view this as very much my home. And I will kindly ask Netanyahu to stop undermining and delegitimizing this choice with his negative and fearful rhetoric.


If you’re interested in learning more about the book of Esther, I’m teaching about it on Sunday 1st March at 8pm at jw3 in a class called ‘Purim for Atheists‘.  

Can the Israeli Army talk about God?

This article was published on November 25th 2014 on Haaretz.  It is an attempt to consider a form of religion that might work in a modern state, and that would neither inflame internal or external passions, nor lead Israel into a religious war.  

On heading into battle during Operation Protective Edge, Colonel Ofer Winter invoked the “God of Israel” to bolster the fighting spirit among his troops. This provocative gesture, echoing something from a Biblical narrative, generated huge controversy and could become the undoing of his career.

Israel Harel defends the colonel in an opinion article for Haaretz, and my first instinct was to disagree and say that God should have nothing to do with the army, that religion should be a private matter. Harel’s history as a founder of the settler movement surely highlights the dangers of fusing religious ideals with the national project.

Harel’s presumption of moral superiority is also galling, particularly his assertion that the religious right’s teaching “the values of Judaism, Zionism, love for the Jewish people and love for the land, fill them” – a vaguely defined leftist coterie, one presumes – “with anger… and envy.”

All of that said, it’s perhaps not so simple. For Colonel Winter and many like him, one imagines that preparing for battle is one of the most challenging and difficult moments in their personal lives, as well as having a more obvious national dimension. The personal and the national cannot always be neatly kept apart.
And at moments like these people turn to God, to the personal God who dwells in their depths.

The question then becomes: is it possible for an army colonel to speak about God in a way that is non-problematic? Can a private God be called upon who is different from the nationalistic God who is invoked to justify territorial ambitions and violence?

On one level, it feels like an injustice to deny Colonel Winter the right to connect with his own framework for courage, with his own deepest roots, with his sense of his place in the world.

He makes such a case in his statement that ‘“When a person is in a life-threatening situation he connects with his deepest internal truths, and when that happens, even the biggest atheist meets God.”

The challenge is to find a less inflammatory way of doing this, to be able to speak of God without taking us down the dangerous path of a religious war. In the State of Israel, we must make room for more than just the God of the Bible. We need a God that is a universal and humanitarian force, connected with liberal tolerance and personal strength.

The philosopher Paul Tillich is famous for developing the idea of God as a personal force who provides us with courage. Writing in 1952, he speaks of an existential encounter which replaces anxiety with the courage needed to live with integrity.

But, as Europe lay in ruins, he was very conscious of the dangers of nationalism and was aware that it can provide an easier answer than that of genuine courage. The pressure of the collective makes it harder to stand firm as an individual, to resist the mentality of tribalism which gives us a clear and easy sense of purpose.

Returning the insight to our military situation, we might set up the following opposition to clarify our possibilities:

God can give courage through promising to get involved, through assuring us – in spite of Bob Dylan’s query – that He is on our side.

But God can also give us courage through enabling us to access reserves of strength we never knew we had, through helping us attain a level of moral seriousness which might otherwise escape us, through helping us remember the values that run most true and deep in us. He can help us to wrestle with our fears, and to find a better way of living side by side with them.

It may not be easy to cry out to the God who answered Abraham and Moses, David and Daniel, without calling out to a force with a vested interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without presuming that He prefers one outcome over the other. It seems hard to evoke these names as mythical legendary characters, without implying a Divinely mandated plan for history.

It feels like it would probably be safer to speak of a purely personal God, to take some quiet moments of reflection and commune with the ineffable presence, who remains wholly ungraspable, beyond the ken of mankind. Whose shadowy hints we may encounter in our depths, but whose explicit intent we affirm as inscrutable.

I suggest that we might approach God as a soothing mother, without needing Him to don His armor and intervene in our world like a violent father.

And if the two cannot be kept apart, if my personal invocation of God must necessarily lead to a mindset which values certain pieces of territory and certain sacred sites, then perhaps God is, indeed, best left out of the conversation.

If we are all – soldier and civilian alike – able to transition into thinking about the personal and non-partisan aspect of God, then we might approach the situation with courage and hope. But if we continue to be bound up with the God who gets physically involved, then we play right into the hands of those looking for a war of religion. And in doing so, we relinquish the moral and religious high ground that we might have once occupied.