Inside / Outside: Balancing our Priorities

Screen Shot 2016-12-25 at 09.22.24.pngThe Hanukkah lights are traditionally positioned at the window, so that they illuminate the darkness outside of our homes. This mitzvah speaks of  our obligation to brighten the lives of those outside the nucleus of our family and our own community.

The Talmud in tractate Shabbat explains that the mitzvah of Hanukkah can be fulfilled by one person lighting a candle on behalf of their household, but suggests that the optimal ‘mehadrin’ fulfilment is for each individual to kindle their own light. This obligation includes women, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states: ‘women are equally obligated, as they too were part of the miracle’. The formulation in the law of Hanukkah suggests that while we can get away with just one light per household, each individual is nonetheless encouraged to set aside some oil – a metaphor for the energy and passion that fuels our activity – required to kindle their personal Hanukkah light and illuminate the outside world.

This a lofty ideal, but in practice most of us, in particular women, experience an ongoing tension in trying to balance the energy we devote to the personal versus the public spheres.

TheTalmudic sage Rava addresses this tension saying: ‘’If one must choose between a house-light (for Shabbat) or a Hanukkah light, the house-light takes priority’. While Rava speaks of a case where one’s monetary budget doesn’t stretch to buying oil for both Shabbat and Hanukkah lights, we can apply his principle to situations where our time, energy and emotional resources are limited. In such cases our priority should be on the inner circle of our family.

But having clear priorities to our family may not be enough.

While work is permitted on Hanukkah, women have the custom to abstain from domestic chores while the lights burn. According to the mystics, abstaining from work enables us to absorb the holiness of the moment. This custom speaks of the importance of investing in spiritual self-care. Taking time to internalise the holiness of the Hanukkah lights is crucial if we are to illuminate external darkness.  


Beauty in Judaism

fullsizerender-2Today is the 7th Day of Sukkot, our last chance to eat in the Sukkah. I was glad to have the opportunity to start the day reflecting on the meaning of beauty in Judaism in the context of Sukkot and Simhat Torah.
You can hear my discussion with Fern Britton as the faith guest on BBC Radio2 for ‘Faith in the World Week’ (listen from 38 minutes) including a ‘Moment of Reflection entitled ‘The Allure of Asymmetry’.

Cry, Pray, Laugh…

Our matriarchs make fleeting appearances in the Rosh Hashanah Torah and Haftarah reading through laughter, tears and prayer. Sarah laughs in reaction to God’s promise of a son late in life, Chanah prays fervently demanding of God the blessing of a child, and in Jeremiah’s prophetic vision, God offers words of comfort, responding to Rachel’s tears for her exiled children.


The Weepimg Woman (Picasso 1937)

Yet their stories are not reported to us in full. We are left wondering about Sarah’s unmentioned tears over her many years of infertility and Chana’s laughter when rejoicing at her son’s birth. The untold part of the story presents an opportunity for us to try to step into our matriarchs’ shoes, to imagine their experiences and to empathise with their feelings. Perhaps this exercise can sensitise us to the unheard laughters, unshed tears and silent prayers within our own community.

May this New Year be blessed with an abundance of jubilant laughter, tears of joy and prayers of thanksgiving for all.

Mah Nishtanah- What Has Changed?


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At the Seder we ask Mah Nishtanah – ‘what is different?’ but the same words also mean ‘what has changed?’

Following the Hasidic masters, who teach that Pesach is about achieving personal freedom from imposed limitations that inhibit our spiritual growth, I would like to suggest the following symbolic reading of Mah Nishtanah:

Why is this night different from all other nights?

What has changed in our lives on this night as we look back over the past year?

1. On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah.

Matzah represents humility, have we made space for others?

2.On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.

What pain have we experienced and how have we grown from it?

3.On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.

What have we been immersed in and how has it shaped who we are tonight?

4.On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.

Have we taken time to recline, to be mindful of the special moments in our lives?

May we experience a reflective Seder that will inspire much spiritual growth and personal development in the coming year.

!לשנה הבאה בירושלים


from my favorite Art Deco Haggadah, Vienna 1929

Playing on Purity


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Last Wednesday night, instead of tuning into one of my long-distance classes at Yeshivat Maharat, I joined BBC Radio DJ and host Lauren Laverne for Late Night Woman’s Hour.

In a relaxed round table format we discussed what ‘purity’ means for women in the context of food, sex, religion and thought.  Emma Woolf, who chronicled her experience of anorexia in her book ‘An Apple a Day’ spoke about the current obsession for purity in food, Shirley Yanez explained why she took a vow of chastity after a near death experience, and pundit Helen Lewis addressed the subject in the context of political ideas.

My contribution – the religious perspective on purity – was substantially shaped by a recent series of ‘Pastoral Torah’ classes at Yeshivat Maharat that focused on embodied spirituality. Click on the image below to listen to the program:

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Chanukah and Self-Transcendence


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The Rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah demands that every man should light one lamp for himself and his household’. (TB Shabbat 21b)

The formulation of Chanukah lights as a household mitzvah is unique and intriguing.

What is it about Chanukah that demands a household effort?

20141223_183934I have been mulling over this for the last week while preparing various Chanukah shiurim.

Unlike other festivals that begin at sunset, we are required to wait until it is fully dark to light the Menorah and place it near the window, so it can be seen by people passing by. The oil with which we light the Menorah represents comfort and luxury, it symbolizes affluence and satisfaction.

The act of burning the Menorah oil to illuminate the outside is symbolic of a deeper spiritual act we must perform on Chanukah – taking a luxury, and sacrificing it in order to illuminate the darkness outside our home, to brighten the night for strangers passing by.

The Sefat Emet (Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger,1847-1905) suggests the reason this particular mitzvah is a household requirement is because spiritual illumination can be best accomplished by pooling together a family’s energy. This need for family security in order to fully realize the mitzvah can be understood best through the framework of Maslow’s Pyramid.

MaslowrThe American Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) posited a five level hierarchy of human needs. The bottom two levels of  the Pyramid consist of most basic human needs such as food, shelter, health and security. The upper two levels consist of such elevated needs as self-esteem and self actualisation. The middle level, which is the access point to the higher two, consists of love and belonging; needs that are best met in the context of family and close friendships. In other words, being secure in one’s own loving relationships is the foundation upon which the individual can come to the more elevated levels of altruism; extending love and compassion to strangers.

If kindling the Chanukah lights at night represents our responsibility to illuminate the darkness and alleviate the loneliness of those in need, then this can be achieved best when we feel secure within our own relationships. This may be why this particular mitzvah is singled out in its requirement that it be performed in the framework of a household.

This Chanukah, may we all find within the blessing of friendship and belonging the resources to self transcend by alleviating the loneliness, alienation and fragility experienced by those less fortunate than ourselves who occupy the darkening street.


Don’t Confuse Simchat Torah with Shavuot


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Simchat Torah is in three days and I am looking forward to celebrating by dancing with the Torah. Fortunately in my neighborhood there is a synagogue that provides this opportunity. However I am aware that for the vast  majority of women in Orthodox synagogues this is not an option. That is not to say that these synagogues are necessarily ignoring women, on the contrary, many of them have responded to the desire for greater female participation by encouraging shiurim for and by women, instead of Hakafot.

While Torah study is very important and women’s advancement in this area is to be encouraged, I find the replacing of dancing on Simchat Torah with Torah study particularly disturbing.

Let me explain why.

Shavuot and Simchat Torah are the two festivals that specifically celebrate Torah. On Shavuot we immerse ourselves in Torah study all night but on Simchat Torah we rejoice  without even opening the Sefer Torah; we keep it rolled up, covered, we just dance with it.

simhat danceThe Lubavitcher Rebbe distinguishes between these two celebratory  modes.Torah study differentiates between individual Jews. It is entirely dependent  on each person’s intellectual ability. Some will study and understand more, others less. But no one person is able to grasp the infinitude of Torah. Despite our best efforts, our connection to Torah through study on Shavuot remains relatively limited.  

Simchat Torah presents the opportunity for every single Jewish person, scholar or illiterate, to forge a direct, arational, primal connection with Torah. It is precisely because the celebration does not involve study on Simchat Torah, because ‘it takes no brains to dance’, that the ritual of dancing becomes  an equalizer among all Jews. Anyone and everyone can dance and this allows all Jews to forge a visceral connection with the Torah that transcends intellect. Simchat Torah demonstrates the fundamental bond between the essence of the Jew with the essence of Torah.

Embracing the Torah also does something else; It elicits love. A hug is not only an expression of affection, the very act of embracing itself has the ability to generate this emotion. Every parent experiences this truth when they embrace their newborn baby for the very first time. Embracing a Sefer Torah is no different. It engenders a deep love, not just for the sacred scroll itself, but for all that it represents.

This is why I am passionate about celebrating Simchat Torah through the ritual of dancing with the Torah rather than through studying it. I cherish every opportunity to study Torah and do my best to assimilate its wisdom. But once a year I value the opportunity to forge a unique and direct bond with Torah by embracing it. To replace dancing with study is to squander the uniqueness of Simchat Torah and to deny women a most spiritually meaningful and uplifting experience.

Wiping the Slate Clean


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This is dedicated to two dear friends, Rochelle and Alan Bernard of blessed memory who passed away 5 years ago today,  4th of Tishrei (11 September 2010).

Rochelle was like a big sister to me, she listened, had very wise words and I learned a lot from her about true Gemilut Hasadim, altruistic kindness.

Rochelle & Alan Bernard

Rochelle & Alan Bernard

Below is an idea I shared on BBC Radio2 ‘Pause for Thought’, inspired by Rochelle, Rachel bat Moshe.

Wiping The Slate Clean

My memory is pretty good, I can recall books I’ve read, people I’ve met and important dates. But I also tend to remember insults and injuries long past and sometimes I have a hard time letting go. I’m good at forgiving but not so good at forgetting.

Sometimes I wish I was more like my dear friend who had a remarkable capacity to forgive and forget. Several years ago she was betrayed by someone very close to her and although it was obvious to me their relationship was broken beyond repair, she was determined not to let this be the case. She made a conscious decision not to dwell on the pain caused but to let it go, by willfully forgetting the past in order to start a new chapter.

And yet while I admire her greatly, I know I am made of different stuff. I just cannot willfully forget. I will always remember. For me the solution lies not in suppressing memory but in changing the way I react. In this I am guided by a passage from the Jewish daily prayer:

‘My God, to those who curse me, let my soul be silent’

I have learned that silence is an important part of forgiveness. By not responding to hurtful words or talking about a painful past I am able to create the space and the possibility for a hopeful future.

I may not always forget, but through silence I can soften the edges of bad memories until the gradually fade of their own accord making my forgiveness complete and irreversible.