Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

Why was Spinoza excommunicated?

The year 1656 is known for an event that changed history, when Menasseh ben Israel (1604-57) of Amsterdam, of converso origin, travelled to England to petition Oliver Cromwell to readmit the Jews. His petition was viewed with favour, according to historians, as Puritan England regarded the conversion of all the descendents of the ancient Israelites as a precondition for the Second Coming.


There was also the motive of Menasseh ben Israel. He was stimulated by the arrival in Amsterdam in 1644 of a Portuguese New Christian, Antonio de Montezinos, who claimed to have met a group of Indians in a remote part of present-day Columbia who were descendents of the Biblical tribe of Reuben, one of the ten lost tribes.


This gave a sen… Read More »

Is politics innately corrupt according to Jewish thought?


The recent expenses row of British Members of Parliament stimulates a debate about the nature of politics and the moral status of politicians in the eyes of the public. What once might have been an honourable position in society seems to have become detested and prone to corruption.


It is no secret that politicians have a reputation of corruption and whose words can chronically not be trusted. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) once said a desirable qualification of a young politician is to be able to make predictions and explain afterwards why it didn’t happen.


However, the current scandal of politicians claiming thousands of pounds for expenses they have no right to claim from tax payers’ money raises thi… Read More »

Does scattered ashes of Oxford Fellows pose Jewish problem?

A bid by a devout Hindu for the legal right to be cremated on a traditional open-air funeral pyre has been rejected by the High Court in London.


This story about a devout 70 year old Hindu, Davender Ghai, who requested the legal right to be cremated on a traditional open-air funeral pyre passed me by until I came across just a few days later an interesting question in my Oxford mail box regarding how to deal with requests from relatives of deceased old members of the University of Oxford for their ashes to be scattered in the Oxford College where they were a fellow.


At first glance, there appeared an interesting example of double standard.

Here is the story that appeared in the news about Davender Ghai.


Dav… Read More »

The discovery of the Alfred Edersheim collection of Hebraica in Oxford



Oxford has been synonymous with books and scholarship for centuries, comprising of over one hundred individual libraries. The main Bodleian library, second largest in the UK after the British Library, has 120 miles of occupied shelving, 29 reading rooms and 2,490 places for readers. In addition, every college, 39 in all, has its own library, often consisting of a modern, working library and older collections. From a Judaic point of view, Oxford has one of the most important collections of Hebraica in the world, including rare manuscripts and early printed books, mainly stored at the Bodleian library, collected by its non-Jewish founder, Thomas Bodley, in the 16th century.


The Hebraica collection of the Bodleian … Read More »

The problem with rationalising the prohibition for eating pork

The world is currently under threat of a major pandemic of Swine flu that has been detected in humans across the world. The flu refers to a virus that usually infects pigs and is common in the Midwestern United States, Mexico, Canada, South America, Europe, including the UK, and many other countries. However, transmission of swine influenza virus from pigs to humans is not common and properly cooked pork poses no risk of infection.

When transmitted, the virus does not always cause human influenza and often the only sign of infection is the presence of antibodies in the blood, detectable only by laboratory tests. When transmission results in influenza in a human, it is called zoonotic swine flu. People who work with pigs, especially people… Read More »

The unified theory of Passover


What is the significance of the holiday of Passover? Why is the Exodus so central to Jewish life cycle? The history of the Jewish people has been turbulent with numerous exiles and liberations until today’s times. Why is the story for the Exodus from Egypt so central in Judaism?

In the opening to the Ten Commandments it equates the belief in G-d to the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 20:2), “I am G-d, your Lord, who took you out of Egypt”. The belief in G-d and commemorating the Exodus are equally fundamental principles in Judaism. How is this so?

In the world today there is a perceived widening gap between the person and the cosmos.


According to scientific studies, the cause of global warming is human relate… Read More »

Can G-d's existence be comprehended?

A question that arises after every catastrophe is what logic did G-d use: why did He do this? Therefore the underlying question is, is it possible to apprehend G-d?

In the introduction to the Tikunei Zohar (17a) it quotes a discourse by Elijah the prophet, “Master of the worlds, You are One but not in the numerical sense. You are exalted above all the exalted ones, hidden from all the hidden ones; no thought can grasp You at all.”

This statement of Elijah states categorically that G-d cannot be comprehended at all. Indeed, if Elijah the prophet cannot comprehend G-d the same must be with all of humankind.

Similarly, Moses asked of G-d, (Exodus 33:18-20) “show me Your glory”, and G-d responded, “you cannot se… Read More »

A Jewish view on dreams

What is the Jewish view of dreams? Dreams have always agitated and fascinated people. Indeed, the study of dreams goes back to ancient times. The question that has always existed is whether dreams have any significance?

According to Sigmund Freud in his book The Interpretation of Dream (Published 1900) he claims that all details of a dream even the most ridiculous of them have significance. In his view, dreams represent the subconscious, which the person usually suppresses due to social prohibitions. During waking hours, logical tendencies predominate, not allowing instinctive desires to be expressed and satisfied. According to Freud, these desires are primarily sexual.

Though Freud’s theories have been rejected, psychiatrists and … Read More »

Introduction to the Kabbala


Today we are living in a free world. Whereas once one would be discriminated against for reading the wrong philosophy or a banned religious book, today a person can read whatever their heart desires.


Therefore, the question “should celebrities study Kabbalah?” is almost irrelevant in today’s age. The most one can do is put Kabbalah in its historical perspective and expect people to make their own judgment. What is Kabbalah?


The word Kabbalah literally means ‘tradition’. It is a tradition passed down from generation to generation beginning with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as a method for the soul to ascend unto spiritual heights and connect with its Creator. It was a closel… Read More »

Judaism & Democracy


Living in Britain one grows accustomed to the concept of a monarchy and royal family. Although it does not have the same legislative powers it once had, it is nevertheless indisputably the remnants of a powerful monarchy whose powers ruled the seven great seas. Today, the world is being swept away with the concept of democracy, a delegated government. But from a Jewish point of view, is this desirable mode of government? Based on Jewish teachings what is the ideal mode of government?


The Torah says [1] that when the Jews enter the land of Israel, they shall appoint a king over themselves. Based on this, Maimonides writes [2] that when the Jews entered the land of Israel, they were commanded to do three things: appoint a kin… Read More »

Where was G-d in the Tsunami Disaster? A Study in Divine Providence

The Talmud says that when natural events take place, like lightening, thunder or earthquakes, a blessing is made. This is in recognition that not only miracles but also natural phenomena are a result of the Divine creation of the universe. Sunrise and sunset are also natural phenomena, however Jewish law stipulates that a blessing is only recited when a natural phenomenon is seen at wide intervals, when it becomes a source of great inspiration.  Earthquakes and theirs sometimes devastating effects are in fact part of nature created by G-d during the six days of creation. The question however is, although nature according to Judaism is created by G-d, when a natural phenomenon occurs is it considered a result of direct Divine interventi… Read More »

Introduction to Igeret Taiman by Maimonides


Igeret Tamian was written in 1172 in Pustat, old Cairo, Egypt, to address the concerns of the Taimanite Jewish community. After fleeing Spain, Maimonides first travelled to Fez, Morocco, and then made a very dangerous trip to Israel, where his father, Rabbi Maimon, passed away. When he arrived in Israel he declared the day of his arrival a day of thanksgiving to the A-lmighty for being saved from a terrible storm.


In Israel, the rabbi of Akko Rabbi Yefas, accompanied Maimonides round the Holy Land, where a hostile Christian government was in power and the roads were extremely dangerous. The Jewish community in Israel was small and destitute, relying financially on support from overseas, which made it impossible for Maimonid… Read More »

Introduction to Iggeret Hashmad - Letter of Apostasy by Maimonides in the context of Jewish medieval life in Oxford


The city of Oxford has a very rich Jewish history. In medieval times, there was a prominent Jewish community with a cemetery and synagogue. This community lasted until the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Even before the expulsion, relations between the Church and the Jews were not at all smooth. In 1222, Robert of Reading, who was a member of the Christian clergy, converted to Judaism. He joined the medieval Oxford Jewish community and subsequently married a Jewish woman. His defection caused an upheaval in the Church and he was given an ultimatum to return to the Christian faith or face death. When he rejected  the ultimatum, the Christian Church court put him to death at the gate of Osney Abbey, which today, is at th… Read More »

What does Jewish Humour say about Judaism?


What is Jewish humour?  Despite the many books that have been written about Jewish humour, does it really exist? Humour is the ability to laugh. Nietzsche writes [1] about the virtue of laughter, “…the ‘higher man’ remains within the abstract element of activity and never raises himself, even in thought, to the element of affirmation. There are things that the higher man does not know how to do: to laugh, to play and to dance. To laugh is to affirm life, even the suffering in life. To play is to affirm chance and the necessity of chance. To dance is to affirm becoming and the being of becoming.” In Laughter [2], he writes, “I have canonised laughter; you Higher Men, learn – to laugh!&r… Read More »

Jewish life after the Holocaust & Chabad

The Holocaust was the period from 1939 until 1944, during which the total physical and spiritual decimation of European Jewry that had existed for hundreds of years took place. The most affected place was Poland, the heart of world Jewry with 3,000,000 Jews. In Lodz, before the war there were 233,000 Jews, which was one third of the city population. There were synagogues, yeshivot (Rabbinical seminaries) trade and culture. The Jews were forced into a ghetto on 8 February 1940 and remained there until 1944. Even in the ghetto, Jewish life was vibrant with 45 primary schools, 2 high schools, one vocational school, 5 pharmacies, and 7 hospitals.


As the Germans exerted greater control over the ghetto, conditions deteriorated, to incl… Read More »

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