This was a sermon given in February 2022 with the conflict in Gaza raging and the chances of any kind of reconciliation seemingly impossible. The weekly Torah portion was T’tzavveh, part of the list of details for the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness. I was in Edinburgh, as a guest of Sukkat Shalom, the Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community and Rabbi Mark Solomon. 

When the Torah portion is merely a list of materials and measurements, one feels the need to look elsewhere for inspiration for a sermon. And I’m indebted to my partner Fiona who is, among many other things, a reader of The Forward, the online manifestation of Forverts, the Yiddish newspaper that began life in New York in 1897, but has now been reduced to a monthly online publication.

There are words in Yiddish that can express things that other languages are incapable of conveying. We Jews are fortunate to have this capacity somewhere in our psyche or our genes: an ability to use words from an almost defunct language to articulate particular emotions, give voice to particular expressions or idioms that still remain almost subconsciously in our everyday language.

A trivial example. How many of us have, when inviting a friend to join us in an activity or venture, asked ‘Are you coming with?’ I have been berated by friends for what is regarded as inaccurate use of English when making such a statement. My knowledge of language has told me that this is an anglicisation of the German ‘Kommst Du mit?’ But why would I be using German idioms in my everyday speech? Answer: because of the Yiddish influence. Both my great-grandmothers on my mother’s side, whom I briefly met when I was very young, spoke only Yiddish.

But this isn’t about my personal history and why I have German as a second language. It’s about the editorial of the latest issue of The Forward. The heading of the article is ‘The Hebrew Word we Need Right Now Doesn’t Seem to Exist.’ It exists in Yiddish of course. It’s the word kneytsh. Not knish, though perhaps we’ll enjoy some of those at kiddush later. And not kvetch either – we’re all pretty good at the art of complaining about anything.

The word kneytsh, highlighted in the article by Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of The Forward, manifests itself in various ways: in Klezmer music it is used to describe “the sound of a voice catching as it sobs.” It can also mean the particular fold in the black hats some Orthodox men wear that indicates which rabbi they follow. Nowadays it is generally translated as ‘nuance’.

‘Nuance,’ writes Jodi Rudoren, ‘as in, subtle differences that can only be discerned with careful attention but often have great meaning. As in, the hallmark of excellent journalism that helps people navigate our complicated world. As in, a key ingredient in understanding — and ending — all the horrible things happening in Gaza and Israel right now.’

And there is no word for it in modern Hebrew. The best that modern Hebrew linguists, whom the author of this editorial consulted conceded that the best Hebrew word to match what she was looking for was ניואנס noo-ance – and no one really knew what it meant. One expert found a listing in the Academy for the Hebrew Language reference to גונית, gonit, a term added in 1955 that seems to have its roots in music, but said: “I’ve never heard this word being used in my life.”

The Hebrew linguist Shmuel Bolotzky, an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts, explained that this word — which nobody knows — is connected to the word גון, gaven, which means hue. He also mentioned the phrase “hevdayl dak,” or slight difference, but said “noo-ANCE sounds better.”

And the same is true of Arabic. The best equivalent translation that could be found by the author of the article was “fariq baseet” — slight difference. The same as the Hebrew “hevdayl dak,” but both are slightly different to the word nuance.

The rhetoric surrounding the current catastrophe that continues to unfold in Gaza is equally incapable of discovering any nuance. The arguments, whether in Israel, in the Arab world or just about anywhere are completely polarised. If you’re pro-Palestinian then you’re anti-Semitic. If you’re pro-Israel then you’re a colonialist supporter of a genocidal state. There is no nuance in the conversation, no common ground, no possibility of dialogue.

We’ve all seen – and, I suspect, been alarmed at – the placards, the flags and the chants for jihad at so many of the pro-Palestinian ‘peace’ demonstrations in various cities since last October. And next weekend in Glasgow there is going to be a rally decrying the massive increase in antisemitism that has blighted the UK and the whole world, along with a demand that the hostages still held captive in Gaza be released. Vital and important demands. I’m not suggesting that we should stay silent in the face of this increase in antisemitic rhetoric and incidents. But they’re only part of the story, and when confronted and addressed in this way, they run the risk of adding to the polarisation of the arguments and increase the chasm that already exists between the two sides of this bitter argument. No nuance. No recognition that the different perspectives to this conflict need to be acknowledged. We need more voices that address all elements of this conflict, that speak of compassion and conciliation. But right now it seems like it’s always either or, never both and. No nuance. No kneytsh.

I’ve just finished reading Colum McCann’s book ‘Apeirogon’. Its two main characters are an Israeli man, Rami Elhanan whose 14-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber in Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and an Arab man, Bassan Aramin whose 10-year-old daughter Abir was killed by a rubber bullet fired at her by a trigger-happy Israeli sniper. The two of them have toured the world speaking of their experiences, working together with many other similarly-minded Israelis and Palestinians under the auspices of The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization of over 600 families. ‘Apeirogon’ is a mathematical term for an object of an “observably infinite number of sides”, a shape that serves as a model for a new way of thinking about a conflict that is too often reduced to simple, opposed positions. A perspective that has nuance. An approach that cannot be expressed in either Hebrew of Arabic. A way forward that has to be adopted that involves kneytsh, the ability to see the situation from a whole variety of perspectives, not just the entrenched positions that are so easily, simplistically assumed.

Both Rabbi Mark and I have added our names to a statement signed by 40 Progressive rabbis and cantors in the UK. It begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes:

‘A time for silence and a time for speaking.’
Kohelet 3:1, 7


We, the undersigned, Progressive Jewish Rabbis and Cantors, embrace an expression of Judaism that values pluralism and affirms the strength of diversity within and beyond our communities. We attempt to live our lives according to prophetic teachings of justice, compassion, truth and peace. More than anything, we want to avoid the terrible destructiveness of war and its consequences. We know, as well, that there are times when competing concerns come into play – issues of security of a sovereign state that needs to maintain the safety of its citizens.

We are compelled to speak out at this time and to say that the death and suffering endured in both Israel and Gaza must come to an end.


A terrible massacre occurred in Israel on 7 October – brutal murders and abductions, unspeakable violations that transgressed universal human values, the continued captivity of hostages and displacement of thousands of families and individuals from their homes in Israel, and the relentless bombardment of enemy rockets against Israel’s population.

How can a country and its citizens recover from the trauma of a pogrom that raises spectral memories of past genocidal acts against the Jewish people?

In Gaza, tens of thousands have been killed, and even more injured. Many lie buried under the rubble of destruction. Whole families and communities have seen their homes, schools, mosques and hospitals destroyed. More than one million exhausted, hungry and sick Palestinians, who have sought safety in Rafah, are now no longer safe there.

As the humanitarian crisis deteriorates further, the threat of a ground offensive in Rafah will have a devastating impact on vulnerable and traumatised civilians caught up in the futility of a war without end.

As Progressive Jewish clergy we have always worked towards a two-state solution, which enables both Israelis and Palestinians to enjoy sovereignty and security, and where peace and relationship building can thrive.

The war in Gaza, and the continued captivity of the hostages, threatens the possibility of such a future.

Yet, despite these bleak and dark times, we continue to apply ourselves to the hard work of listening to each other across divides, with humility and empathy. With Antisemitism and Islamophobia increasing in the West, we commit ourselves and entreat others to act with civility and to rise to the challenge of working with people of different beliefs.

We urge that all steps are taken, as soon as possible, to end the bloodshed and to bring the hostages home.

We recognise that the pathway towards a political solution will be painful. But creating a road map to something different is utterly necessary, so that Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace. We pray in sorrow, but also with hope that universal and humane values will prevail. Now let there be a time for peace.’

Wishful thinking, perhaps. But a vision that recognises and embraces the need for nuance, for kneytsh. May such views find their way into the dialogue that must surely one day emerge from this disaster. Perhaps our Torah portion, with its focus on intricate detail and close attention to specifics actually has something to tell us after all. In order to create something meaningful, precious and durable, all the minutiae must be worked out and attended to. Without that thoughtful dedication, nothing permanent and worthy can emerge.

May the leaders of our troubled world rediscover compassion and commit themselves to dealing with all the minute details, the nuances, the kneytsh needed to construct a lasting just and peaceful solution to this catastrophic mess. And may we each, in our words and deeds, make our contribution to that possibility. Amen.

February 2022