Rabbi's Blog - January 2011

The Big Questions


Someone asked me the other day why I would get up at 5:30AM for a 6:30 departure to travel two and a half hours by car to Bristol to be there on time to present for the BBC’s The Big Questions. I suppose something of an answer lies in the following emails received by my office:

Dear Rabbi Schochet
I had the pleasure of watching you on TV. Your answers to the various ethical and moral problems were concise, to the point, and full of warmth and empathy that all of us in the community like to see associated with Jewish attitudes.
Thank you.
John H. Quint
Parson Street

…and this

Dear Rabbi
I have just watched a program on the BBC there were several debates. As a non- practicing (but proud) Jew, it was a real pleasure to see a Rabbi debate questions so thoughtfully and openly. I believe you handled yourself incredibly well and I wish that more Rabbis were as eloquent, insightful, and modern as yourself. I believe that Rabbis do let us down and if there were more Rabbis like yourself we would probably find that more fringe Jews like myself would participate more in the orthodox community. Thank you again for restoring my faith in the rabbinical community.
Ori Reiss
EPC Assure

For that alone it’s got to be worth it.




Religious Convictions


I had opportunity last week to participate once again on the BBC’s The Big Questions. The final and arguably most contentious question was “To what extent should I be allowed to uphold my religious convictions.” The debate surrounded the story of the gay couple who were denied entry into a Bed and Breakfast because it infringed on the of the proprietors.

To everyone’s surprise, other than my own and those who know me to be a liberal conservative, I argued that everyone has a right to uphold their religious convictions without compromise. However, what you cannot do is look to impose those on others. That’s religious fundamentalism. I further insisted that a B & B is a public service and if you are providing such a service then you should not be looking to impose your on that public service.

There is however a flipside to this argument which I did not put over, if only because in the short time frame and with sound bite being the essential tool, it is difficult to play both sides of the coin and for people to understand the consistency in the argument.

As wrong as I believe they were in practise, in principle I sympathise with the B & B owners. They were simply looking to protect their own consciences. They got it wrong because there is a law of the land which prevails. They also got it wrong in this instance because ‘condemn the sin never the sinner’ is a paramount principle in religion. It’s not my business to scrutinise the lifestyle of two men checking into my B & B anymore than it is my business to determine of every heterosexual couple whether they are in fact married. I may reserve the right to promote a heterosexual lifestyle and even to criticize homosexual activity per se, if only because my Bible says so. But that someone is gay is no reason to frown upon them, nor is it my business to inspect what and when they are getting up to what my religion and I might regard as “no good.”

But that they get labelled as homophobic on the back of that is just unconscionable. The Bible is not homophobic anymore than it is incest-phobic, adultery-phobic or necrophilia-phobic. There is a Divine value system which religious people subscribe to and which is very much their entitlement. That it doesn’t conform to liberal idealism doesn’t mean that its proponents should be written off as narrow-minded or worse, bigoted.

Even if the proprietors got it wrong in law, and arguably also a religious standpoint as per the aforementioned argument, it appears as though society is waging a war against religious . Liberalism has become the new law, and anyone who stands against it is deemed prejudiced. If I can’t impose my religious on you, then you shouldn’t be entitled to impose your liberalism on me. you choose to label me as homophobic I can choose to label you as Theophobic. Neither can ultimately be correct.

What we need – what we really need – is more of a live and let live society. If you choose to reject religion and lead a gay lifestyle, or conduct extra marital affairs, then frankly that is your business. That I choose to frown upon what you do because my G-d says it is wrong is very much my entitlement. there is a clear conflict of interest as in the Bed & Breakfast case then the law of the land will arbitrate. But just as ultimately I condemn what you do, even as I don’t condemn you, you can rage against my , my Bible, even my G-d, but don’t go condemning me. If somehow we can get that balance right, we would diminish if not eradicate much of the bickering, and humanity would be all the more enriched.




Bored Of The Board:
Not Everything Is Black & White


My first encounter with Vivian Wineman was several years ago when he was part of a minority group seeking to ban the teaching of a Chassidic tract in his synagogue in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was disturbing to consider how a traditional Jew would readily ban any sort of Jewish teaching a synagogue. He and his cohorts argued that the text, the ‘Tanya,’ taught in Jewish institutions around the world, was racist. He arrived at this conclusion without ever having attended a class, researched the subject matter or even asked someone for clarification. I refuted his arguments in a subsequent article in the Jewish Chronicle (see here).

Call it fate or someone having a laugh but one week later I found myself sitting next to him at a communal Jewish function we invariably continued the debate. My conclusion was that this man was clearly erudite, highly intelligent, knowledgeable and entertaining to engage with but who for the most part saw things in black and white. A little while later he was appointed as the next President of the Board of Deputies.

The Board of Deputies has done a sterling job servicing the Anglo Jewish community for more than 250 years, representing them to government and on the international arena. It is there to reflect the view of the people and deal with affairs that might impact on the community. It has to therefore take a very broad view when making decisions on matters of communal concern. It can ill afford to see things in just black and white.

In recent years there emerged a new organization – the Jewish Leadership Council which is essentially a self-appointed group of communal leaders who get together to…discuss matters of communal concern. As much as one can question the validity of a non-democratically elected group, getting key people at the cutting edge of industry and politics together in one room to discuss matters of Jewish importance has surely got to be a good thing.

Lest there be overlap and conflict of interest it only makes sense that the President of the BOD should also preside over the JLC. That’s the way it was since its inception. Which is why I found it curious that one month after Vivian Wineman became the newly elected President of the BOD, the JLC set up an independent executive to be headed by someone else (Mick Davis of the UJIA).

A year into his leadership and Mr. Wineman found himself mired in politics. The Times headline screamed: “Board of Deputies of British Jews has caved into pressure Labour, says Tories.” The article went on to describe the Conservatives venting their fury at the Board and questioning their political impartiality after a letter signed by Vivian Wineman was sent to David Cameron “seeking assurances” on their new allies in the European Parliament.

The Jewish Chronicle also went on to describe the internal rows over the Board of Deputies’ political competence, citing at least one communal figure declaring Mr. Wineman’s position as untenable and even threatening that the JLC was “not afraid to take tough decisions”.

Another commented that Mr Wineman had “any number of superb advisers, all of whom are far more experienced and knowledgeable (than him) about such things; he didn’t speak to a single one”. Not too dissimilar then to the way he approached the Tanya.

Having shot himself in the foot the President and his deputies engaged in a damage limitation exercise and resumed business as normal doing the things they were elected to do.

Now, yet another year on it seems trouble is brewing at the helm once again. This week the Jewish Chronicle reported that the Board of Deputies leaders were left trying to salvage its Israel policy. A resolution, initiated by the executive of the BOD on the support for a two-state solution in Israel was convincingly shot down by a vote on the motion. Former United Synagogue president Peter Sheldon, who stood against Mr. Wineman for election as President of the Board seemed to suggest that this resolution was beyond the remit of the Board. He added that the vote also reflected upset over Mr. Wineman’s intended visit to the West Bank, now since abandoned. Former Board vice-president Flo Kaufmann added to this: “The matter of the West Bank visit had a bearing on the debate. I dont think its appropriate for people who are in the UK to go and negotiate over there. It wasnt clear what the purpose of the trip was.

Meanwhile, amidst this colourful debate, Mr Wineman sees it once again in black and white. He said he had been surprised initially at the result - but not after later conversations with deputies who had felt the motion superfluous or simply too long and wordy.

This debate will probably persist for a little while as the Board and more particularly its President deals with shooting himself in the other foot.

What is clear to me - what really is black and white, Mr. President, is that when you shoot yourself in both feet, you haven’t got a leg left to stand on.


The Power Of The Pen:
John Lewis


Ive only been blogging for a short few months. In that time however some of my blog postings have made their way into national or international press. My piece on Limmud for example was picked up by the Jewish Chronicle while my Chilean minor story featured in the Jerusalem Post. But its my most recent blog piece that leaves me particularly chuffed.

On Friday I was alerted to a fresh off the press news story about the high street chain John Lewis allegedly boycotting certain Israeli products. Because of my previous run in with John Lewis I immediately flagged this in a blog posting (see previous) and giving the store one week to respond. It barely took a day:

A spokesman for John Lewis emphatically denied the claim, stating that while the retailer had stopped stocking Ahava products, it was purely a commercial decision. “To be clear, John Lewis’s decision to no longer stock Ahava beauty products was a commercial decision based solely on the sales performance of the products. “Our buyers regularly review the performance of all our ranges, with new products being added and less successful ones being removed throughout the year.” “I can confirm that the PSC wrote to Andy Street to ask firstly about whether we had ceased to sell Ahava products, and secondly our stance on ethical sourcing. In the content of his letter of response, Andy outlined John Lewiss responsible sourcing policy. This information is entirely unrelated to the decision to cease stocking Ahava products; however the person who wrote the PSC’s press release put the two elements together to create a false and misleading quote. We can confirm that we continue to stock products sourced Israel.

So the PSC lie has been exposed and I am grateful to John Lewis for responding so quickly to clarify the matter. The pen really is mightier than the sword, or in this instance the keyboard is mightier than the malevolent anti-Israel PR machine.


Is John Lewis At It Again?


Back in 2009 I challenged the High Street chain in my Jewish News column because of a letter they sent out to their suppliers querying whether they source their products Israel. To my mind, as I suggested at the time, that seemed to imply that they were pandering to those seeking to boycott Israeli products. If so, “boycott the boycotters,” I wrote. This triggered a viral email and cost John Lewis, according to their sources, several thousand pounds of cancelled sales.

John Lewis issued what some would deem a lame retort insisting that I ought to have considered they were asking on behalf of clients that may want to in fact support Israeli products.

A spokeswoman at the time said, “John Lewis has always been, and remains, a non-aligned organisation that sources products all over the world, including Israel. We intend to continue to source products Israel, and I cannot make it any clearer than that.”

Well then perhaps they can explain this fresh off the press release: (http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2011/01/14-0)

“Ahava’s goods, processed on stolen Palestinian land, are becoming too hot to handle. Leading British retail business John Lewis is now refusing to stock this toxic brand. John Lewis’ decision signifies yet another victory for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Consumers are refusing to buy goods companies profiting Israel’s illegal occupation.

John Lewis’ Managing Director, Andy Street, wrote to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in a letter dated 7 January: ‘As a socially responsible retailer, John Lewis takes very seriously the treatment of workers and their working conditions. We expect all our suppliers not only to obey the law, but also to respect the rights, interests and well-being of their employees, their communities and the environment.’ He ended by stating: ‘In relation to your specific enquiry about Ahava Dead Sea products, I can confirm that John Lewis has ceased stocking these particular products’.

Sarah Colborne, PSC’s Director of Campaigns and Operations, said: ‘PSC welcomes John Lewis’ decision to stop stocking Ahava products. Israel’s continued attacks on the Palestinian population - has led to a seismic shift in public opinion, with the movement for peace and justice for Palestinians gaining massive support internationally… The PSC will continue to ensure that companies which profit Israel’s occupation pay the price for their complicity in Israel’s crimes’.”

The John Lewis spokeswoman challenged me at the time in the Jewish Chronicle: “Had he taken the trouble of asking before publishing his response, we would have been delighted to confirm the facts.”

OK lady, I’m asking. You’ve got a week to answer before I hit the keyboard for my next column and shoppers in turn will hit your tills once more!


De-Con-Struction: Hilarys Big Worry!


Speaking or writing about the Israel peace process is one thing which is always going to prove contentious. Whatever position one takes, there will always be those who stand on the opposite end of the spectrum that will come down like a ton of bricks. If there is one thing I’ve come to discover over the years it is that whenever you articulate a position on Israel, those who disagree will insist that it is not something for Diaspora leadership to comment on. Not, unless of course, what you have to say is in line with their way of thinking. Then it’s usually, “well said!”

The real tensions will emerge whenever Israel gets ready to sign on some dotted line, when everyone will then be voicing an opinion for or against. Until that time it’s all just talk and, let’s face it, the conversation’s been going on for a long time now and will most likely continue for a long time further. So until such point, is there really any point?

Still, every now and then, there is a statement here or a condemnation there which really riles and begs a response of sorts. When Mick Davies condemned Israel and so-called leaders signed an open letter in support of him, I could not help but pen a comment about their double standards (see archive: A Tale of Two Cities). Hence I feel the need to comment once more about a most recent news item.

US secretary of State Hillary Clinton is strongly criticizing Israel for the demolition of a vacant but historic hotel in an Arab neighbourhood of east Jerusalem, saying that the move undermines U.S. efforts to restart stalled peace talks.

The building in question is the Shepherd Hotel, built in the 1930s as the residence of the mufti of Jerusalem at the time, Haj Amin Husseini. Clinton said the United States is “very concerned” about the demolition. Firstly, when a private person buys a private property in a private neighbourhood to do his own development, why exactly does that become the Israeli government’s problem? Secondly, when Irving Moskowitz paid for the land, someone must have taken the money. Start with them!

There are approximately 2 million people that were killed in Darfur in the past 2 years, 50,000 in Zimbabwe. Hands and heads are being chopped off women in Somalia because they’re wearing jeans and makeup. There are currently a reported 121 conflicts that are being waged in different parts of the world - and your big problem is Israel demolishing a vacant building?

Perhaps the real issue lies in the fine print: “In a statement released Abu Dhabi, she is beginning a tour of the Persian Gulf, Clinton said Sunday that the destruction of the Shepherd Hotel to make way for a new Jewish housing development “contradicts the logic” of Israel and the Palestinians negotiating a solution to their differences over Jerusalem, one of the most explosive issues in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

In other words it’s not the demolition that Mrs Clinton and the US government are “very concerned” about. It’s really more the building of a new ‘Jewish’ housing development in an area that some believe might yet become their own capital. Has the US government already made up its mind about something most Jews around the world would never even consider?


Mazel Tov Elton John?


Congratulations are in order to Elton John and David Furnish who had their first baby. Well not really. Surrogate motherhood is a hot potato. Still, notwithstanding the halachic implications when a couple cannot conceive I sympathise even if I dont readily agree with surrogacy. But when they are not a couple in the conventional sense this poses an altogether different challenge.

Once upon a time homosexuality was frowned upon, indeed in many places illegal, because society perceived what the Bible readily declared as an unnatural relationship. Over time, as liberalism crept into the mainstream, it became more of an acceptable norm, and those who still adhered to traditional or religious were maligned as homophobic.

The next point of debate was inevitably going to be about same-sex marriages. Some countries have only in recent times legalised it while in many others it remains outlawed. This, in itself, immediately smacks of double standards. Why did it take so long to bridge the gap between accepting native lifestyles and allowing for them to become formally sanctioned through a marital process? And why indeed does the gap still remain throughout most of the world? To date only approximately 5% of the world’s population live in places that have legislated for same-sex marriages. If homosexuality is socially acceptable then why not immediately entitle them to the same rights as everyone else?

Only last month did the US Senate vote to repeal the DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) policy for homosexuals in the US military. Why, in a world of laissez-faire, did it take all this time to abolish a policy that by social standards is clearly discriminatory?

Lets face it, hypocrisy abounds. Many who champion the rights of homosexuals still condemn extra-marital affairs between two consenting adults and would certainly recoil at the idea of incest. Why? Because your subjective value system says its wrong? Just who decides what is natural and what is unnatural? Society? The same one that agreed almost universally all those years ago that homosexuality was unnatural, the one that until recently defined marriage as only between man and woman, and insisted of military personnel not to disclose their sexual orientation? Isnt it obvious that a ‘value system’ as dictated by society is lopsided and that homosexuality, a societal perspective has nothing to do with right or wrong and everything to do with pragmatic utilitarianism?

This same double-standard is manifest in child rearing as well. Critics of the John/Furnish baby argue that a child should be raised in a family structure that consists of a mother and a father figure. Advocates insist that is nonsense and a further symptom of homophobia. Why can a child not be raised by two loving men? they argue. Who says you need to have a female figure in the equation? Yet many of those same self-serving hypocrites would argue against single-parenthood. Why? Who says you need two figures involved in child rearing? Why isnt one enough? And what if a single man with some money decides to pay a surrogate mother to bear him three children which he would raise on his own? Is that more or less acceptable than two men paying a woman to do the same?

To be sure, I agree that the obsession some people have with focussing on this Biblical prohibition over most others does reflect some kind of homophobia. Why, after all, do they always beat the drum to this law over say, adultery, gossiping, or taking G-d’s name in vein? They are all, after all, the word of G-d.

Moreover, it should be stressed, the approach of some faiths to condemn the would-be perpetrators of such acts also smacks of homophobia. Condemn the act not the individual is a cardinal principle in Judaism. If I know that someone is homosexual I shouldnt be chastising him anymore than I would be someone who eats ham sandwiches. I will frown upon him and his choice lifestyle. But I wont bar him entry into my synagogue lest I will be in violation of the same Bible that tells me, dont do unto others what you would not have done unto yourself.

But to the flip-side, dont go calling me homophobic just because I dont agree with homosexuality, let alone same sex marriages, and just because I believe that it is in the framework of a natural balance of mother and father that children should be brought into and raised in this world. Those that do should take a good look into their own Theo-phobic souls and consider the hypocrisy that is so blatant in their lives.


When Lightning Didn’t Strike


I dare say I did it. I ventured into the unknown and I survived. I lived to tell the tale. I went to Limmud. I am not saying this to gloat or to rub it in my Orthodox brethren’s faces. I am saying it because upon return all I could ask myself was, was I until now?

I encountered Jews all walks of life and countries all around the world. They were all there for but one reason: to learn. Upon arrival I walked into an informative session on the life of Rav Amital. The first thing that struck me was how almost every man in the room was wearing a yarmulke and almost every woman had her hair covered. Wait a minute! This is Limmud! The bastion of pluralism and secularism, no orthodox Rabbi shall dare tread! What are these religious looking people doing here? Was it out of respect for the speaker, the subject matter, or is Limmud really something more – so much more, than otherwise assumed.

My first lecture was on the theme of a Biblical and Kabbalistic perspective on money and materialism. It went to the core of the financial downturn and took a novel look on what should be the Jewish approach to money. Looking around the room, I could again see head coverings in abundance. One gentleman approached me after and identified himself by the shteibel he attends in North West London which is ministered to by a particular Dayan. All I could say was, “better you than me,” then added, “but please do send my regards.”

Let’s call a spade a spade. Limmud has become nothing more than a political football. It’s almost like a ‘bad word’ in certain circles for no reason other than the fact that it is also attended to by Reform and Masorti. When Orthodox don’t want to share platforms with the Reform I get it. I wouldn’t either. That would imply both are legitimate expressions of the Jewish faith, when in reality, neither regards the other as an authentic representation of the faith. (Not to be confused of course with the fact that both are legitimate Jews - a point I made in my second lecture). Moreover, it serves no inherent purpose other than to entertain audiences who are impacted more by image and sound bite than anything else.

But Limmud really is an open market, spread out over so many miles on a magnificent campus with a vast array of sessions ranging Jewish history to art, and Israel to in-depth text study. Attendees are all walks of life and if I feel I can impact someone and touch their lives, even if only somewhat, then why should I be denying them and myself that opportunity?

My second session was on the challenge of the Jew in the 21st century. This was invariably going to be a little more contentious. Word was already out that I was there and this was attended by some leading members of non-orthodox movements. I spoke about what is a Jew, what defines a good Jew, the external threat of Anti Semitism and the internal threat of communal strife.

During the Q & A one gentleman identified himself as a member of the Masorti movement responsible for youth. He said he has a tendency to speak his mind and that therefore his wife did not join him for the session. She, like others who did join him, anticipated that he would get very angry and have a slanging match with me. “But,” he said, “I find myself in agreement with a lot of what you had to say. I want to thank you for coming and I would like to shake your hand at the end.”

Now I know why I came to Limmud. Subject to my wife’s Eilat aspirations for next year, I really hope to be back.

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