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The Anne Frank Trust and the cities of refuge

The Anne Frank Trust has been through the mangle in recent weeks.

They were attacked for commissioning a poem by well-known Jewish poet Michael Rosen. Then they were attacked for not mentioning that Anne Frank was Jewish (even though they do, very prominently, mention that Anne Frank is Jewish). Then they were attacked for using exclamation marks to refer to the Holocaust. Then they were attacked for allowing a Quaker to be their chief executive because Quakers all hate Jews (apparently there’s nothing remotely ironic about trying to defend the memory of Anne Frank by inciting religious hatred).

These increasingly hysterical complaints are actually masking two more serious issues, both of which are worthy of being, and both of which need to be, discussed:

Firstly, the Anne Frank Trust invited Nasima Begum, an antisemitic poet, to deliver some of its educational sessions. This was a clear and unacceptable failure; the Trust’s omission to carry out a basic Google search, which would have revealed that Ms Begum had a history of posting tweets calling for “death to you Zionist scum”, was unprofessional and simply should not have happened. The Trust’s unreserved apology and commitment to update its due diligence procedures is welcome.

Secondly, there is an interesting wider conversation to be had about the extent to which the Trust’s mission – which is to use Anne Frank’s diary as a tool to educate against all forms of prejudice, rather than restricting its significance to antisemitism alone. Personally I don’t have a problem with that in principle, provided of course that Anne Frank’s Judaism isn’t erased: after all, the Torah tells us to universalise our own experiences of racial oppression. But I absolutely accept that there’s a valid debate here.

However, that debate is not able to take place, because the fanatical and obsessive reaction is taking up the airwaves. There is no opportunity for any trace of nuance while people are screaming for resignations, for the charity to be shut down, and nonsense about misplaced exclamation marks.

In this Shabbat’s parashah, we will read about the cities of refuge. These were six towns in ancient Israel which God commanded be set aside for unintentional manslaughterers to live in: if somebody accidentally killed another, for example in a construction accident, they would move to a city of refuge so as to be safe from their victim’s traumatised and angry next-of-kin (referred to, biblically, as a blood-avenger).

There is an enormously important message here.

People who make a mistake – even a negligent mistake which suggests that they severely disregarded their responsibilities – have to be allowed a safe space to put it right without being attacked and pursued by blood-avengers. We understand the blood-avenger’s concerns: they lost a family member in unspeakable circumstances. But nonetheless we don’t let them carry out their desire for revenge, because that is not how a civilised society works.

There were, though, some very important words in the previous paragraph: ‘to put it right’. The city of refuge is not just a comfy place of sanctuary where the wrongdoer can live in peace. There is a flipside as well: this is a bargain with two parts. The wrongdoer is expected to take their rabbi with them, and continue learning and developing themselves as a person.

If we offer this safe space to those whose error led to the loss of a human life, how much more so should we offer it to those whose blunders were nowhere near as severe.

The Anne Frank Trust has, accidentally but negligently, done wrong. That wrong has caused harm. They have a duty to resolve that harm, and to engage in reflection and introspection to make sure that it does not recur. But they also have a right to do so in a space free from fanatical bullies who, while motivated by an understandable sense of hurt, are seemingly blind to the need to prioritise teshuvah – repentance – and growth over revenge and retribution.

May this Shabbat be a time for peaceful reflection and contemplation, for deep breaths and the release of tension. And may we return to the world of the mundane with a renewed sense of calm, composure and nuance, ready to confront the real issues.

And the only way to end this drash is with an exclamation mark!

I’m officially sort of a rabbi now (in a way)

I sort of became a rabbi this afternoon… while pushing my son on a swing in Golders Hill Park.

The faculty of Leo Baeck College has a three-way machloket (dispute) about the precise moment at which fifth-year students become real grown-up rabbis. One school of thought says it happens at our actual ordination ceremony, which will be on Sunday 3 July. Another says it happens when our ordination certificates are signed, which will happen a few days before that.

And some say it happens when Leo Baeck’s board of examiners makes the formal decision to ordain us – and that decision was taken at a meeting this afternoon. Hooray! Palwin no 11 all round: I was officially told: ”You may now use the title Rabbi, even before ordination.” At least according to one camp…

Pre-ordination Leo Baeck students tend not to speculate about the correct answer to this conundrum, and instead self-identify as an “Erev Rav”, which is a sort of pun.

In the meantime:

There’s a rather niche tradition for rabbis to choose an object as a crest. The Talmud tells us that Rav would draw a fish on offishal documents (see what I did there?) instead of signing his name; Rabbi Chanina would draw a date palm; and Rava bar-Rav Huna would draw a small sailing boat.

This sort of rabbinic semi-heraldry is mildly interesting in and of itself. Rashbam suggests that its basis is as simple as the fact that Rav liked to eat fish and Rabbi Chanina liked to eat dates. But later commentators invest it with a deeper meaning. The Maharshal (who one of my teachers once described as “someone who said what he thought and didn’t care who disagreed – a bit like Gabriel”), writing in the 16th century, argues that, actually, Rav would always by the best possible fish as a way of honouring Shabbat, and he chose as his rabbinic crest the item he used to beautify a mitzvah. In the 18th century, the Ya’avetz thinks that the date palm was a poetic reference to Psalm 92:13: “the righteous shall flourish like the date-palm”.

So what about me?

I’m a sucker for largely-abandoned traditions, and I’m a little bit of a flag/ heraldry nerd too. So I set myself thinking about what I should nominate as my symbol.

Ultimately, I’ve chosen an ox goad.

For those of you who haven’t seen an ox goad in real life (as if!), it’s a wooden stick with a sharp metal point on one end – used to encourage oxen to do their job – and, at least in Mishnaic times, a hoe or blade on the other end to remove tough roots and other obstacles.

What does this have to do with me?

Well, firstly, one of the words the rabbis use for an ox goad is קַנְטָר – kantar. It bears a striking resemblance to my surname.

But, moreover, just like in English, the object lends its Aramaic name to a verb, לְקִנְטֵר. And, just like in English, that verb l’kinteir means ‘to goad’. To chide. To vex. To be a contrarian or to make oneself disagreeable.

Now, you might be thinking, “That sums you up pretty well young man, but why would you want to draw attention to that side of your personality?”

And my answer is: look how the verb is used by the rabbis. It’s used for Mordechai in his steadfast, deeply principled refusal to comply with Haman’s demands for a bow. That, the midrash says, was an example of him קִנְטֵר-ing a corrupt and idolatrous regime. It’s used for the prophet Micah chastising an unscrupulous Israelite people (likewise Isaiah, Kohelet, Amos and Jeremiah). It’s used for Princess Michael resisting her aggressive father. It’s used for Rabbi Yochanan ben-Nuri, who rebuked his friend Rabbi Akiva and was praised for doing so. It’s even used for God sarcastically needling members of a sinful society.

In one particularly fascinating midrash, Rabbi Yehudah bar-Shimon argues that true prophets use creative prayer as a way of קִנְטֵר-ing God for God’s cosmic unfairness and irascibility.

There’s nothing wrong with קִנְטֵר-ing.

Even on a more mundane level, the Mishnah refers to an implement called a קַנְטָר שֶׁל בַּנַּאי, a kantar shel banai, literally translated as a builder’s pointy-stick-thing-that-they-use-to-pull-down-walls-with. Crucially, though, this demolition tool is for the use of builders. The act of building something new includes the act of scraping away anything unhelpful that was there before.

As I prepare to begin work at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, I remember my teacher Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah’s book Trouble-making Judaism. Rabbi Elli persuasively outlines how modern Judaism should be “creative, irreverent, engaged and crossing of boundaries”.

Inspired by her writings and seeking to emulate her example, I am adopting the ox goad as my rabbinic crest, this depiction having been produced by the talented Carys Tait:

Peace out and keep on goadin’!