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The spirit of our times

14/07/17 14:34:52


In it you can always find a relevant reflection, an incisive contemporary insight, a thought that simply reaches out and talks to your heart. It’s the weekly parasha or Torah reading and Parashat Pinchas is no exception.

Eerily across the centuries come the voices of provocation and passion, of reason and wisdom. Our parasha recalls a tale of zealotry (the actions of Pinchas) but it's also a story of peace. It talks of leadership and succession (Moses making way for Joshua) of women's rights and inheritance (the fabulous daughters of Tzelofchat).

It's the reflections on leadership that really talk to me this week. Sadly, I find my leadership and name impugned on a blacklist I never knew existed for some unknown error I am supposed to have committed. I'm referring to my name on the list of 160 overseas rabbis that came out from the Chief Rabbi of Israel's office. We are all apparently guilty of providing incorrect information regarding the verification of Jewish status for purposes of marriage in Israel.

On one level this is simply ridiculous and Kafkaesque in its proportions. I, for one, am accused of something I was not informed of, on a list I've never heard of, by people who didn't have permission to publish it, from an office that had no idea about it, despite a court demand to release it! I have submitted countless letters of Jewish identification over the past 30 years and can't recall even one being questioned by my colleagues or the Israeli Rabbinate. Some may be concerned that the blacklist implies that a conversion I've supervised or marriage I've performed won't be recognised here or in Israel. Please be assured that this is not the case! Read the article - The Israeli Chief Rabbinate's blacklist: a guide for the perplexed.

On another level it's a damning indictment of the office of the Chief Rabbinate. Leadership, says our parasha, is about respecting differences: "May the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, choose a man over the congregation who will go out before them...". Rashi parses this to mean, appoint a leader who will tolerate each person according to their individual spirit or character. Tolerance, thoughtfulness, respect – if you can't expect these qualities from a body of religious authority it surely brings into question the credibility of the institution itself. It is particularly sad that during these dark days on the Jewish calendar which call for more love than hate, that out of this office comes a vindictive list impugning the good names of so many good men. Indeed reading some of the names which include senior Orthodox leaders from across the USA and Canada, it is an honour to be associated with them! (Read article from Adam Segal).

Of course, the very existence of such a secret list smacks of the Stasi and totalitarian regimes. It's another parasha – Pikudei -which reminds us of the need for transparency and accountability. Moshe carefully details each and every contribution that went into the building of the tabernacle so that he could not be accused of personal gain. The fact that the Chief Rabbi claims not to have been aware of the list or at least that it was going to be published is in itself an indictment of his office. It's of little comfort to me (and I assume others on the list) now that my name has been so tarnished by his office. Libel or מוציא שם רע Motzei Shem Ra is not only a serious legal offence, it's an egregious moral (and Halachik) failure. And it's so terribly hard to escape from the dust of false accusations. Shakespeare put it particularly well:

"Who steals my purse, steals trash

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which enriches him not

And makes me poor indeed"

This list is not only harmful to those on it, it harms those from whom it comes and further distances those who are already sceptical of religious moral authority (especially bearing in mind that the former Chief Rabbi sits in jail for fraud and abuse of his office).

These three dark weeks on our calendar should remind us the Second Temple was not destroyed by the Romans, by our external enemies, but by ourselves, by our thoughtless animosity towards one another. With so many enemies seeking to harm us today it is with sorrow we witness the spectacle of an Israeli government (recent pronouncements about the Wall) and Chief Rabbinate sowing disunity rather than promoting harmony.

Our parasha speaks of the wise and thoughtful ways of the daughters of Tzelofchat. They pursued their case with respect and wisdom. They approached the leadership of Moses with a challenge but did so with a quietly spoken forceful diplomacy. I will take my inspiration from these women. I will also draw my strength not from the tactless and thoughtless but from the countless thoughtful and supportive messages I have received from you, my congregants, and many others in the community. And apologies if I cannot respond personally to each of your wonderful messages. I am also strengthened by the superb letter of our president, Anthony Raitman and the unconditional support of the Shule Board.

May this Shabbat bring a little more peace, tolerance and understanding. I for one, plan to have a relaxing, peaceful Shabbat away, to keep calm and carry on smiling!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780