Blog posts

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’!

My Pesach is only six days long

Towards the end of last year’s Pesach, I wrote:

I had thought that today was the seventh day of Pesach, and was getting all psyched up for a nice bowl of pasta, when my friend and colleague Daisy pointed out that it’s actually only the sixth day.
But I’ve decided to eat some pasta anyway. Because this has been a really rough year…
I cannot put into words how much I miss being in synagogue. It’s my natural habitat. I want to sing with other people again. I want to pray with other people again. I want to read from a Torah scroll again rather than from Sefaria.
We’re told that the punishment for eating chametz is karet: spiritual excision, being cut off from the Divine. Frankly, I feel like I’ve been somewhat cut off from the Divine since last Pesach.
This terrible time will soon, please God, be over. But it’s going to leave its mark. I’ve lost a year of my spiritual life. And I want a way to reflect that, and to remember the pain of being cut off from the holy spaces I love.
So I’m going to cut a day off Pesach. One day for one year.
Maybe I’ll keep this up; I’ve been excluded from synagogue for well over 365 days, and even if I live to be 100, trimming one day off Pesach each year will hardly equal that. Maybe this is my way of saying that karet goes both ways, that the relationship isn’t one-sided.
For now, at least, I’m decided. I’ve stayed away from leaven for six days. I’m grateful to have been redeemed from Egypt and excited to be redeemed from lockdown. But my Pesach 5781 ends today.

Over the last year, things have improved massively. Synagogues have reopened. I’ve been able to cuddle a sefer Torah. I’ve sung with congregants. I’ve enjoyed latkes at kiddush.

But I am still bitter about all that time during which I was excluded from holy spaces, and I have indeed decided to “keep this up”, and to end my Pesach this evening, after just six days.

Here is a midrash I put together to explain:

וַיִּשְׁבְּתוּ הָעָם בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי – And the people rested on the seventh day. Almost-Rabbi Gabriel says: do not read וַיִּשְׁבְּתוּ, rested, but rather וַיַּשְׁבִּיתוּ, caused to disappear.

What did they cause to disappear on the seventh day? Their observance of Pesach’s dietary restrictions, for the same word appears in relation to the removal of leaven: תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם – Make all the leaven in your houses disappear. This verse comes to teach us that the people observed Pesach for only six days.

Why did they do this? Because of the closure of their synagogues and the abolition of their joyous, prayerful singing: זְקֵנִים מִשַּׁעַר שָׁבָתוּ בַּחוּרִים מִנְּגִינָתָם – The elders have disappeared from the gate, the young men from their music. The closure of their synagogues: this refers to the great pandemic which began at Pesach in the year 5780. For the gematria of the words וישבתו העם is the same as for כשיש דבר – ‘at the time of plague’.

To what may this be compared? To a king who agreed with a band of minstrels that they could rehearse their music in his courtyard on condition that they abstain from drinking wine. One day, the king locked up his courtyard and the minstrels had nowhere to rehearse. They said to themselves: Why should we continue to abide by the king’s prohibition when he is depriving us of the music that warms our hearts? So they caused his prohibition to disappear, and drank wine.