I recently attended a Shabbat service at a large London synagogue. My fellow worshippers were English Jews from all walks of life, but they had one thing in common – an inability to hear the Lord’s voice.
The service was, more or less, Orthodox. Prayers were read in Hebrew, but an English translation was readily available on each page. The congregation knew exactly what they were saying in their heart-felt prayers.
We reached the prayer calling for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. I could almost hear a voice from above call out that Jerusalem has been rebuilt. Even President Trump has understood this and has moved his embassy to honour the dream of a rebuilt Jewish Jerusalem. But the congregation was clearly not going to let facts stand in the way of their prayers and continued to plead with G-d to restore Jerusalem.
A little later in the service we came to the prayer for a return to Zion. Oh Lord, implored the congregation, let us return to Zion. This time the voice from above seemed louder, even a little irritated; surely there must be someone in this devout congregation who could hear it. “Go to your travel agent – buy a ticket. Four, five hours sitting in an aircraft and you’re there. Not a comfortable journey, but you can return to Zion for the price of an EasyJet ticket.”
I was reminded of Saint Augustine of Hippo, “Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” At least he was being honest and made it clear that he was not ready to give up his hedonistic lifestyle, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits, for the somewhat dubious delights of chastity.
After the service, we all met up for a Kiddush in the synagogue’s spacious garden. Over a piece of tasty choleh we all said another prayer “Rebuild Jerusalem, the city of holiness, speedily in our days.” I tried to start a conversation with these English Jews, to give them the good news that Jerusalem had been rebuilt and Zion was waiting for them. I tried to entice them with stories of all the benefits that they would have as new olim – tax breaks, freedom from customs on their goods, Sal Klita, but nobody was interested. They were quite prepared to pray for Jerusalem and the return to Zion, but once the service was over their only response was ‘not yet’. The call for a return to the Jewish homeland was not to be taken literally, there were many interpretations of this very unclear command. It didn’t really apply to them.
Later that day we went out for a meal with some friends from the congregation. The restaurant was not kosher, and I chose to start with a plate of shrimps. My friends were horrified, you can’t eat that, they said, it’s against the commandment to eat kosher food.
It’s all a matter of interpretation, I assured them. Forbidding shrimps was not meant to be taken literally, there were many interpretations of this very unclear command. It didn’t really apply to me. In any case, these are not ordinary ‘shrimps’, they are ‘giant shrimps’ and are not covered by the rules of kashrut.
(Readers will be relieved to know that, in this story, the shrimps are for illustrative purposes only, I actually ordered a salad.)