Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Letting Our Ears Hear What Our Mouth Says

If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Num 30:3)


I'm reminded of what is probably the greatest of all rabbinic tales – the tale of Abraham destroying the statuary idols of Terach his father.

What have you done?

Asks Terach.

Abraham concocts a ridiculous story of statues come to life and fighting.

His father isn't having anything of it

א"ל  מה אתה מפלה בי, וידעין אנון?!

Are you kidding me, he responds – they are statues, they have no awareness!

א"ל says Abraham  ולא ישמעו אזניך מה שפיך אומר, [1]

Don't your ears hear what your mouth says –

How can you sell idols when you know full well they are just statuary.

How can you let your actions betray what you know to be the case?

How can you let your actions betray the words of your mouth?

It's a challenge to which Terach has no answer – but then neither, I claim, do we as a community.


I spent a day, this week, looking at the future of the kind of Judaism we believe in.

Up in Anglesey 140 madrichim, youth leaders, are preparing for the arrival of 800 Masorti kids who will spend two weeks on Summer camps in Wales, France and Israel.

These camps are the largest and most effective way we have of sharing of vision of Jewish life with the generation to come.

Today I want to look at the difference between the way this new generation attempts to foster a Jewish future and the way the generation, one or two generations older than I, attempted to foster Jewish life in their time.


In December a group of young Noam members passed a motion at Veida, their annual conference, asking that all Noam youth leaders should not ea non-kosher meat when in restaurants.

The problem, apparently, was that young Noam members would be in restaurants, studiously avoiding eating non-kosher products on the menu and their youth leaders would be seen … not.

Personally I am less interested in how terrible it is, or isn't that some Noam youth leaders are eating not-kosher.

I'm more interested in this idea about setting out standards.

I'm more interested in the notion that say, 'here is a line, below that line of Jewish ritual behaviour, just isn't good enough.'

It's not the only time Noam have done something like that.


If you want to be a Movement Worker at Noam, you have to keep Shabbat – no driving.

If you want to be a senior Youth Leader, you are strongly encouraged to spend some time at the Conservative Yeshiva – you are supposed to know how to read a Mishnah.

If you want to lead a Summer Camp, you have to know how to lead a prayer service.


Lines are drawn, explicit, judgemental, clear lines as to what is and what isn't good enough to be a good Jew.


And one of the remarkable things to notice, in these precarious times for young people, is that Noam is thriving.

More and more people want to be part of it.

More and more people are committing to going on a journey of personal Jewish growth.

Noam is the fastest growing Jewish youth movement in the country and this is the key thing.

It is taking responsibility for the training and development of its own future.

And its doing it by being clear about what it takes to be a committed Jew.


It's not a narrow list, a commitment to Tikkun Olam – social action

And a commitment to personal development, creating a supportive and kind atmosphere for everyone is central too.

But this goes along with a commitment to Jewish learning, Jewish life, Jewish community and Jewish commitment.


Another story, one I have been thinking about ever since I first heard it.


The story goes that when Rabbi Jacobs used to live on the other side of St Johns Wood High Street he would walk back from Shul not along the most direct route, across the High Street, but he would take a circuitous route so as not to embarrass any congregants who might be out shopping, on Shabbat.


It's a very Rabbi Jacobs story, a very New London kind of story.

It's about not making explicit calls on us, members.

It's about Jewish leaders getting on with living lives of decency and observance, but not making explicit demands on the community to grow, to develop, to take more levels of observance on themselves.

Or perhaps, to be more exact, to hope that people did develop and grow, but to be so opposed to any threat of causing discomfort in members that these hopes were always kept simmering, on a very low heat.


And this, very New London story, gives us an insight into the hole in the middle of this community.

There are plenty of members who joined in the first days of this community, when to join New London meant something.

It meant standing up to the United Synagogue and joining a brave new vision.


And there are plenty of members, on a day like today, who have joined recently, younger members mostly.

People beginning their adult lives, particularly converts beginning their lives as Jews.

But in the middle there should be my generation – the sons and daughters of founder members, people whose parents joined New London in the sixties and seventies.

But we aren't here.

Very very few of us are here.

And admittedly some have joined New North London or other communities, and that is fine, but my sense is that all too many of my direct contemporaries in the Cheder at New London, a cheder that contained 120 children, drifted away because no-one made any calls on them.

We were, as a community, too committed to skirting around the outskirts of the St Johns Wood High Street.

And the children of the founding generation of New London left.


There is a danger, of course, in making calls on us to do more, do better.

And that is that we might begin to feel uncomfortable.

And it's important that members of this Shul feel comfortable.

Indeed, this trend of making calls, making explicit demands, at Noam, led one member to ask if they still had a place at Noam.

My answer to him was this.

'You still have a place if you can cope with the notion that you are not perfect in every way. Wonderful, yes, perfect no.'

Of course I value people, members and non-members whether they observe Shabbat or not, whether they keep Kosher or not.

I only ask in return, that you, that we, accept that not doing, not observing is falling short – and that the demand is that we do more.


I spoke, several weeks ago, about the need to take Shabbat more seriously, as a community.

Actually it was the first sermon I gave having been inducted, having got my feet under the table, as it were.

And one member came up to me at Kiddush and told me that Rabbi Jacobs gave them a personal exemption on one particular piece of Shabbat observance.

I'm not quite sure what Rabbi Jacobs, of course, said, but as a Rabbi I don't do papal dispensations.

I can't make something the halachah says is not possible, possible.

And I would rather we get used to falling short of standards, than pull down the standards to a level where we feel so totally at ease with them that there is no danger of our doing better.


Shortly, at Kiddush, we are going to intone the words of the Book of Exodus

Zachor et yom hashabbat lekadsho – six days you shall do your work and the seventh day is a day of Sabbath rest to your God.

But we fall short when we don't take this call seriously.

When outsiders, visitors, guests, look at our community they don't see a community who fulfil the command to zachor et yom hashabbat.


Our actions belie our pious words.

And this is where the great dream of New London went amiss.

What I am about to say is, I think, the most important, and certainly the most controversial thing I have said since my appointment here.


Our actions belie our pious words.

And this is where the great dream of New London went amiss.

Rabbi Jacobs' dream was to publish enough, give enough public lectures and cite enough Rabbinic texts that his theology, our theology would become acceptable to the mainstream Jewry.

And it cannot be that Rabbi Jacobs failed in publishing enough, in citing enough footnotes or even in giving enough lectures.

The problem is that when mainstream Jewry looked at us, looked at New London, looked at Masorti Judaism, they didn't see us taking it seriously enough.

They didn't see us rising up to the challenge of Jewish observance, Jewish learning and Jewish commitment.

They saw a Synagogue where too few people came to make up minyan on Sunday mornings, where too few people knew how to read from the Torah.


And this, more than anything else, is the reason why Rabbi Jacobs was never accepted back into the fold of mainstream Judaism.


Whenever I get into discussions, usually with Orthodox people, about theology or the development of Halachah over time, I know            I'm safe turf – I can out argue and win these arguments.

But when the argument turns to the question  - where are our living communities of observance and commitment or

How many people in your shul can do X or do Y

I start to shift a little uneasily.

Because I know that I have no good answer other than this.


Too share with you, friends, members of this community.

That we need to do better.

I talked about this on erev Shavuot when discussing the appalling treatment of our converts by mainstream Judaism.

They need to be more observant to be taken seriously, and we, as a community, need to do a better job of creating an observant community they can feel comfortable in.


There is, of course, a better reason – two better reasons – to take our oft-voiced commitments to Jewish life more seriously than merely making things easier for our converts – though that is important.

The first reason is this.


Our commitment to Jewish life gives us our authenticity.

It is the grounding for everything we say Judaism is.


We are only allowed to say that Rabbi Louis Jacobs was right, right about the historical development of Torah, right about the possibility of holding together both modernity and tradition, if we live out the life of one who is committed to that vision of Jewish life ourselves.

Our living a Jewish life – walking the walk – gives us the ability to talk the talk.

It permeates every part of our Jewish lives.


If I give a sermon on ecology – that is because how we understand and live Shabbat.

If I give a sermon, as I did last week, on the returning of the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, that is because of how we understand the laws of pidyon shvuim – the return of captives.

If I give a sermon about … anything – it is because of the Torah, the Mitzvot – they are the bones and flesh of the body of Judaism.

And we cannot pick and chose, pulling out only the calls on our time and soul that we find easy enough, or gentle enough not to get in the way of the rest of our lives.

That's a Reform theology.

Our position is that the tradition needs to be taken with all its challenges and opportunities.

Authentic Judaism cannot be like picking cherries where we do and don't do what we feel like.


This is the first reason to take observance more seriously – without it we are inauthentic.


The second reason is this.

Without taking observance more seriously we can't understand what Judaism is really about.

The laws of Shabbat don't make any sense until they are lived.

And then, I believe, they begin to give of their truths.

From observance comes insight.

The Rabbis have a term for this process - naaseh vnishmah first we do, then we come to hear – to understand.


The first thing I say, when I rise in the morning is modeh ani – I am grateful to you, Living and Ever-sustaining Ruler –

And it shapes my day, it makes me, I hope, a grateful person, a person aware of the gifts I have been given, it seeps into the way I treat others.

And it's not a piece of wishy-washy self-help

It's a tradition that goes back to Sinai, and beyond.


A story is told of a Professor of Ethics who was a well known nasty person (most versions of the story don't use the term 'nasty person'). Eventually one of the professor's students plucks up the courage to ask him how it is possible for him to teach ethics and be such a nasty person.

The professor answers, 'What if I taught geometry would you want me to be a triangle?'

This sort of disconnect between behaviour and professed interest might be possible in a University, but it can't be a Jewish way.


The Jewish leader must be actively involved in Jewish 'do'

And we need to do better.


[1] BR 38:13

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your entry has taken the words out of my mouth.

I have belonged to a Masorti community for several years now, myself being admittingly only vaguely observant in my private life. While my community is most friendly and welcoming, I have become quite disillusioned by the poor attendance at services, and lack of serious commitment of its members, other then by a committed few.

When I approach these matters I am reminded of Orthodox communities where the situation is little better", it's true, however there is a difference, people are usually born in to the United Synagogue, and stay with it, just because it is familiar to them, or a lack of inclination to look for something else.

While Masorti members have often seek ed out a community which upholds standards they do not adhere. I must of course include myself with that charge")

I feel able to articulate my reasons for not belonging to the US, but find my self using semantics , when explaining my objections to Reform.

I might return and say more on this at another time.


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