Monday, 19 May 2008

On Being Inducted At New London Synagogue

The following is the significant part of my address to New London Synagogue on the occasion of my induction.
Actually the thank yous were also very significant, but you know what I mean.

To the task ahead.

What is my job – as your Rabbi, as the Rabbi of this community?

I found, on-line – where else – the results of a survey on what makes the perfect Rabbi.

Those of you who were at my last induction will have to forgive me for reprising it here. But I don't intend doing this whole induction thing again.


The Perfect Rabbi.
The results of an international survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches for exactly fourteen minutes.

They condemn sins but never upset anyone. They work from 8:00 AM until midnight and are also dedicated to spending quality time with their family.

The Perfect Rabbi makes £100 a week, wears nice clothes, spends lots of money on books, drives a decent car, and gives about £100 weekly to the poor.

The Perfect Rabbi is 28 years old and has preached 30 for years.

The Perfect Rabbi has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens.

The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because The Perfect Rabbi has a sense of humour that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work.

The Perfect Rabbi makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.

And the report goes on to suggest
If your Rabbi does not measure up, simply send this e-mail to six other synagogues that are tired of their Rabbi, too. Then bundle up your Rabbi and send him to the synagogue on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 Rabbis and one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this procedure. One congregation broke the chain and got its old Rabbi back in less than three weeks.


The bad news is that I might not be a perfect Rabbi.

But there is something in this survey that bears closer scrutiny.


The very first text the small child would learn in the Yeshivot of Eastern Europe went like this.

שניים אוחזין בטלית--, זה אומר כולה שלי, וזה אומר כולה שלי

Two people come before the court holding onto a tallit, a prayer cloth.

One says – it's all mine.

The other says – it's all mine.


And this is how we begin to train a Rabbinic mind.

Solving problems, dealing with different tugs in different directions.

שניים אוחזין בטלית

Two have hold of a tallit.


I want to suggest what might be thought of as a more Chassidic notion.

I want to suggest that this tallit is us, the New London Synagogue.


And that the two forces tugging at this tallit are our past and our future.

On the one hand we are a shul about our past; our great founding Rabbi of blessed memory, the Jacobs Affair, the appalling way that Louis was treated again and again by the United Synagogue, we are inheritors of a great tradition.

On the other hand we are a shul about our future – today most especially we are celebrating what it is to look forward and play our part in creating a better future.

And this presents a challenge, for me and for all of us.

How do we stay true to our past, to the passion and the commitment that begat the New London, while orientating ourselves for new challenges that face us as a community, as a people, as citizens of a still new century?

Im eshkachech – if we forget our heritage as Louis' shul we abandon a spiritual heirloom almost without price.

But we cannot become hidebound, fossilized, atrophied.


I have reread, these past days, Rabbi Louis Jacob's speech on the occasion of his induction, at the New West End – 1954.

And this is what Rabbi Jacobs had to say about this particular dynamic – the tug between past and the future.


The analogy of the heirloom must not be pressed to far [taught Rabbi Jacobs. An heirloom] is set on its pedestal, admired from afar and only taken down and examined at close quarters at certain well-defined periods. This must never be the fate of the living Torah of Israel. It is not sufficient only to admire Judaism, to pay it homage two or three times a year and to feel somewhat uncomfortable in its presence during the rest of the year.


For a while, it has to be said, this shul felt a little like this heirloom on a pedestal; accumulating dust and gradually withering. But in more recent times our gaze has swung round. We believe in our future, we are living our future and we are working for our future. There is a new lick of paint, we've had a spit and polish. We are ready to play again.


There have been changes, there will be more to come, but we are moving forward tugged by our past, inspired by our past, inspired by our founding narrative, inspired by what it means to be members of Louis' shul.

Between our past and our future

שניים אוחזין בטלית


Another way of looking at this Synagogue as the tallit of that first Rabbinic text.

Between tradition and modernity

Between faith and reason.


On the one hand we are a traditional shul, committed to the liturgical foundation of our ancestors, committed to the traditional observance of Shabbat, of Kashrut, of Torah and Mitzvot.

On the other hand we are a progressive shul, committed to modernity and engagement with the real world; we want to integrate what know from the world of the Academy into our commitment to our Jewish faith.

God created the world in six days – of course we believe in the Creation Story as a foundational part of our Jewish experience, but we also know about quantum mechanics, about astral physics, evolution, genetics.

God gave the Torah to Moses – of course we believe in the Sinai Story as a foundational part of our Jewish experience, but we also know about Higher Biblical Criticism, Lower Biblical Criticism, we know about Biblical Archaeology, anthropology we know about the Ancient Near East.


If, God forbid, we let go of our commitment to understanding science – we let go of our commitment to understand how the world works – we can quickly look foolish, like a pathetic King Canute railing against the oncoming tide.

But if, God forbid, we let go of our commitment to our faith – then we let go of what it means to treat every human being as a creation in the image of the Divine, we let go of the power and beauty of the Shabbat – if we do that we can quickly forget why we are here, we can forget the purpose of existence, we can lose our souls.

So we must hold onto both

Between tradition and modernity

Between faith and reason.

 שניים אוחזין בטלית


So we, here today, a tallit tugged between the past and the future

We are a tallit tugged between faith and reason between tradition and modernity.


Let me do one more tug.

Inward looking and Externally focused.

Being Jewish takes up a lot of time, it consumes a lot of our attention. We are called to rise up early in the morning, to run around like crazy people on a Friday afternoon, to schlep our pots and pans around every Pesach, the list goes on. On the one hand being a Jew is about our own journey as Jews, proud of what we have, perfectly content to see other people pursue other paths, but we tend to our needs. On the one hand we are internally focused.


But on the other hand we believe we have a role in the world out there – in contemporary society ltaken olam bmalchut shadai – to heal the world under the kingdom of heaven.


This is the shul where the Dalai Lama spoke, back in 1972, fresh from his own experience of exile.

This is the shul that begat the Newlon Housing Trust, a charity set up to provide reasonably priced housing for those living in what it's founder, Philip Blairman, called situations 'reminiscent of the worst aspects of nineteenth century slumdom.' The Newlon Housing Trust now provides housing in 7,000 properties.

That is our heritage.


The world is desperately in need of voices able to articulate a compassionate, contemporary religious voice, able to engage with the most dangerous and important issues of our day; from how we treat this planet to how we treat the people who live on it, from matters of ecology to asylum seekers, from Darfur to the Middle East.


Internally focused and externally focused.

Hillel hayah omer im ain ani li mi li,

Uchshani latzmi mah ani[1]

Hillel would say, if I am not for myself who will be for me? But when I am only for myself, what am I?


My inclination, for what it is worth, is to be a little more externally focused. We shall, as shul look to develop a voice that speaks to the most important issues of our day from a place grounded in faith and a commitment to chesed v'tzedek loving kindness and justice.

שניים אוחזין בטלית


There is a tension here, as we held by the various tugs.

Some people don't like this kind of tension; some seem to find this tugged place a little lacking in clarity perhaps, a little inconsistent, nishta here, nishta hair – neither one thing nor another. We are easy to mock.

And instead of holding both sides of the Tallit some of our critics drop one side or the other.

They give in to the call of those who say that the Tallit should be owned solely by one party of the two competing voices.

זה אומר כולה שלי, וזה אומר כולה שלי


And these competing voices are loud and attractive. The fist voice is the voice of religious fundamentalism.

We live in a world where the siren call of fundamentalism beckons both Jew and non Jew.

But those who fall pray to the appeal of blinkered theological certainty are not doing God's will, they are rather shuffling backwards into self-deception and a self-imposed ghetto.

And while it might be more comfortable in such a place, life in a ghetto comes at a cost.

Once inside their ideological hidey-hole these refugees from the real world find themselves under increasing threat from modernity.

The response, and we have seen it time and time again, is to build thicker and thicker walls, to create ever greater distance between their desire for a simple theology and the real all-too-complex world.

That's when religion hurts people;

when Rabbis get treated badly,

when good simple Jews get treated badly,

We've seen it so many times.

It is also when Prime Ministers get shot,

And it is also when planes get flown into towers.

Yielding to the call of fundamentalism, letting go of one tug on the Tallit might appear superficially attractive, but it is intellectually dishonest and worse – it is terribly, terribly dangerous.

We must pledge ourselves to disagree with the first claimant who says

כולה שלי

It's all mine.


And then there is the second claimant who also wants us to let go of being tugged.

The second siren voice is the voice of unbridled consumerism.

We live in a world driven by consumerism.

You are what you can purchase.


We tend the ticker of the stock market with more care than the ticker which is our heart.

We monitor the ebb and flow of our bank balance with greater diligence than the ebb and flow of our relationships to our creator and our fellow human beings.

Yielding to this claimant on our tallit gives us something to measure, but we lose our souls.

We must pledge ourselves also to resist the voice that claims, in their own way

כולה שלי

It's all mine.




Standing at this pulpit is a bit like trying to stand on a tugged tallit, walking across a narrow bridge.

But I am emboldened by this self-evident truth.

There is no better way to live.

More than that this life – balancing on a tugged tallit, navigating this narrow bridge has a vibrancy, it has nuance, it's beautiful, meaningful, bold, passionate, compassionate. Everything that I would want a life to be.




And this is the Shul for this kind of religious life.

This is the community who know, in their very bones, what it means to live with this holy tension.

And that is why I am so excited to be here, to throw my weight behind the sheer importance of this message.

The tallit must always be tugged.

When I stood just there on the occasion of my barmitzvah some years ago Rabbi Jacobs gave me a charge – verses from my portion.


Stretch out the site of your tent [he taught me]

Extend the size of your dwelling.

Lengthen the ropes, drive the pegs firm.[2]


The guideropes of our tent, here at New London, and elsewhere in our lives, must be pulled tight, they must be stretched for in that tug is our greatest strength.

We must never sag, no droop, never let go.

And for my part I commit myself to this holy work.


We must refuse to let go of either side of this Tallit.

We must become evangelists for an approach to religious life that is more nuanced, more complex than that.


This is the path.

This is my kind of Rabbinate. This is the leadership I hope to provide here, at New London Synagogue, my new congregational home.

This is the path of our past and our future.

I hope you will join me on it.


I want to conclude with words from our founder Rabbi's 1954 induction address, because even half a century later I don't think anyone has ever put it better.

I don't expect anyone ever will.


Said Rabbi Jacobs then, and say I now;

I hope that the Judaism I preach from this pulpit will be a courageous Judaism. To the best of my ability I shall see to it that no shallow, spineless Judaism, one demanding no challenge and presenting no sacrifice, shall be preached here. But I hope that I shall also see to it that no harsh, unsympathetic, inhuman interpretation of Judaism is voiced here [either].


'O my Creator, give me understanding that I may transmit your inheritance;

Strengthen and uphold me that I may be far from weakness and fear'.[3]

May You bless all the members of this holy congregation, prosper the work of their hands and bring joy into their lives, and may You always be with us as we continue to labour to do your will in sincerity and in truth.

[And let us say]

[1] M. Avot 1:14

[2] Is 54:2

[3] From the reishut of the shaliach tzibur, Rosh Hashanah

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