Monday, 21 September 2009

On Religious Community

We’ve had 85 new adult members in the year just past. In other words something like 15% of our membership is new.

Shabbat morning services are transformed. They are warmer, more dynamic, far busier and with a far broader spread of age groups making up our regular prayer community.

We had 25 kids in our last Shabbat Children’s service of the year. That’s more or less a ten fold increase on where we were 18 months ago.

We’ve had to put a halt on registrations for the youngest classes of our Sunday morning Cheder as registrations passed 60. That’s double where we were a year ago.

We officiated at seven weddings last year and the year before, but have double that number of bookings in the year ahead.

I’ve lost count of the number of baby blessings we’ve done; somewhere between 25 and 35, and it’s been a very long time since that was the case at New London.

Lastly and perhaps most significant of all, we have the largest conversion programme in Britain, again doubling in size this last year.


In difficult economic times,

Against the backdrop of statistics announcing the atrophy and death of Anglo-Jewry.

And coming on the back of a series of challenging years for this community,

That’s not bad.

Not bad at all.


And it’s not just numbers, I am continually staggered by the quality of new Jews, new members, members of long-standing, young members and older members who are making their Jewish home at New London and lifting our community with the quality of their presence, contribution and commitment.


All this makes for a sense of warmth and welcome in the community.

A confidence in the community.

A sense of community in the community.

To those of you, many, many of you, who are engaged week-in week-out in this enriched sense of what it means to be seriously engaged with our communal life at New London, I want to thank you for your efforts this part year and urge you, urge all of us, to keep our feet firmly planted on the accelerator, there is much more we have to do in the year to come.

But I suspect the regulars here will already know the answer to my major question on this most holy day. So I hope you will forgive me if I address this sermon to the rest of us.

And in particular to those of us navigating the edges of this community, I want to invite you also to step a little closer.


My question, my questions are these

Why should a person be engaged in a Jewish community?

Why should a person be engaged in this Jewish community?

Why is it worth caring for, giving up time and money for.

What do you get in return?


It’s not obvious.

We live in a world which increasingly confuses freedom and maturity with isolation and individualisation.

We’ve a confused sense of freedom which means we distrust commitment.

We’ve a confused sense of science which means we distrust faith.

And we are all just so busy, busy, busy.


Why should a person be engaged in a Jewish community?

Why should a person be engaged in this Jewish community?


I want to give two answers, one political, the other personal.

There is a third answer, of course – theological, but I’m not going to address that today.


The political first.

Politics – from the Greek, politicos – of citizens or of the state.

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at the St Ethelburgas Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in the City – St Ethelburgas was in large part destroyed by the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing of the IRA and has risen from the rubble as one of the most important centres for inter-faith dialogue and peace building in the country.

I was asked this question –


Since so many of the conflicts and troubles of the world can be blamed on religion, why don’t we give up on organised religion and commit instead to becoming generally decent and ethical?


It’s a question I hear frequently.

There are however at least three reasons why this invitation, despite its simplistic appeal, needs to be rejected.


Firstly, if you want to blame of the woes of the world on religion, then I would insist that you give religion the credit for its contributions.


Democracy and human rights are both intimately bound up in what the outside world calls Judeo-Christian morality – what I would call a belief in the creation of every human btzelem elohim - in the image of a one true God.

If you want to pin the IRA on religion, then give religion the credit for universal suffrage and the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.


Try imagining any of the glorious liberation struggles of modernity without reference to the tale of Exodus  - yetziayat mitzrayaim.

If you want to pin Osama Bin Laden on religion, then give religion the credit for the Rev. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.


And what of the calls of the great Hebrew prophets to care for the unvoiced, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry?

If you want to pin the Taliban on religion, then give religion credit for leading the work to write off Third World debt and give religion the credit for every life saved by Christian Aid, Islamic Aid, World Jewish Aid, American Jewish World Service and all the rest of them.


If you want to blame religion for her failings, then she deserves credit for her extra-ordinary and unmatched successes.

That should even up the scales somewhat.


Secondly, the suggestion that religion is to blame for the woes of the world is easily made, but the evidence hardly compels. It’s not clear to me that religions can be blamed for the evils of Nazism or Stalinism or Maoism, Darfur, Rwanda …

277 young men and women lost their lives to knife crime in England and Wales in the year last year, but I don’t think organised religion should be blamed for any of those deaths, or the burglaries, beatings and abuses of contemporary society.

In fact it may be that organised religious communities are the best agents for supporting young people to turn away from gangs and street violence, restoring on our streets and in our homes values of respect, decency and kindness.

Sure there are some religious bigots and idiots out there, but the notion that religion is somehow behind the troubles of the world is lazy and unbefitting the scientific mind.

It needs to be rejected.


And thirdly, forsaking religious distinctiveness is not going to help. I am forced, by faith, to appreciate how every human being was created in the image of God even though every other human being was created differently to me with different beliefs and different ethnic and national proclivities.

We are not going to solve the problems of the world by ‘getting over’ who we are, whether we are black, white, Jew or Muslim.

I’m a Jew, by birth, by choice, by heart and by soul. I’m not going to find peace by forgetting that my ancestors fled Egypt with unleavened cakes baking on their backs. We are not going to solve the problems of Israel and Palestine by pretending that Jews and Arabs are just the same really or that one side or the other doesn’t care about the things we so self-evidently feel so deeply about.

As a Zionist I trace my engagement to the Land and the State back to Biblical times; as do my Palestinian cousins. We have to accept, listen even value to these claims. They can’t be ignored.


Jews can’t be told to ‘get over the Holocaust,’ just as Blacks can’t be told to ‘get over slavery.’ We need to find ways to grow and engage with one another because of our stories and histories, our passions, our strangeness and our dreams. Stripping us of our customs and narratives from us doesn’t make for a true meeting of souls. It makes rich colours dull and grey.


The suggestion that the world would be better without religion not only implies a drastic refusal to give religion the credit it deserves, it also involves a blinkered willingness to subsume all of society’s ill onto a convenient aunt sally. And most of all it forgets that religion isn’t a bolt on extra that can be deleted from its adherents, it’s a part of the soul of a person – delete that and you lose a person’s passion.


The problem isn’t organised religion.

The problem is our ability to articulate what being religious truly means.

Religion means being a son, a daughter of our holy tradition, understanding our place in community and in society, fighting injustice, speaking up for the unvoiced, taking steps towards an engagement with the awesome truth of creation.


And that is what we do here.

This is our heritage not only as run-of-mill, standard-kind of Synagogal Jews, but most particularly because we are New London Jews.

We stand for the open minded engagement in a tradition of tremendous richness and value.

And our voice is becoming ever more desperately needed and ever more valued in contemporary society.

In the last two week’s I’ve been invited to speak on BBC, and at the Muslim Council of Britain, I’ve been to Number 10. I’ve been trying to play my role.

Together with colleagues in this Synagogue and other partners in my sister Masorti communities we are at the heart of every major debate where religion should be playing its part in the healing of the world; ecology, poverty, inter-faith, education, evolution.

There is a political reason to be part of the community – politics – of citizens or of the state.

The reason is that our fellow citizens and our society need our contribution.

They, we, need our voice, the voice of open-minded engagement with an ancient tradition of holiness to be strong, particularly now. Particularly in the year we begin today.


So much for the politics.

The other reason to be part of religious community, this religious community, is personal, individual.

Each Shabbat I look out from this pulpit at the members I know well and I see stories, some hidden, some known, some in between.

There are those who are fighting cancer, those who are mourning, those who care for sick partners, sick kids, miscarriages, bankrupt businesses and broken relationships.

Each Shabbat I look out from this pulpit at the members I know well and I see the joy.

There are those in love, those expecting, those celebrating.

And we all shuffle in bringing our celebrations and commiserations, our gratitude and our grief and we prayer as a single community - together.

I was hugely struck by an extract from Alain de Boton’s book, Status Anxiety. He talks about Christian experience, but the analogy will do for us here too.


We might imagine [says de Boton] joining an unfamiliar congregation within the walls of a cathedral to hear Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Much may separate us; age, clothes and background. We may never have spoken to one another and be wary of letting others catch our gaze. But as the Mass begins, so to does a process of social alchemy. The music gives expression to feelings that had hitherto seemed inchoate and private … the composer and musicians [make] audible to us … the movement of our souls.

Furthermore, [he continues] the public nature of the performance helps us … realise that if the others are responding as we are to the music, then they cannot be the incomprehensible figures we might previously imagined them to be. Their emotions run along the same track as do ours, they are stirred by the very same thing, and so whatever the difference in appearance and manner, we share a common cause, upon which a connection can be forged and extended for beyond the performance of the Mass itself.[1]


This is our Cathedral.

And this chazzan, this choir; they are singing our version of that Mass.

Congregational prayer is Jewish alchemy that turns us from individual players, wandering our lonely way across the stage of life, into a full corps, a massed choir in which every note makes up a symphony greater, truer and more resonant than any solo narrative.


When we stand together, in this glorious vaulted prayer space of ours we stand on giants shoulders. And the differences between us melt before forces and powers far greater than any of us.


So if you have celebrations. Come and share them with us. Come and lift up our spirits.

And if you are mourning, come and share with us. Force us to know the realities of this world where good people suffer and pain is only ameliorated by companionship and love. If you are mourning, let us stand beside you, sing with you.

Because we are more powerful standing together.

And whether you are marking the passing of a week, a month or a year, come and share with us. Allow yourselves to become part of the great symphony we perform week-in week-out.


The door is open, the welcome is warm, our task is holy and vital and if you do join us, as you do join us, you help us stand together with you, and you stand together with us.


This is what we do,

This is the point of religious community.

And this is no ordinary religious community. Aside from our history and all our various qualities, this is our religious community, this is our shul.

It is where we need to come to fight the fight, to spread the messages of our faith.

And it is where we come to sit together and pray together, in our moments of celebration and our moments of loss.

It is a place to come to for politics and for people.

For great big reasons and for a vast host of tiny reasons too.

It is my honour to serve this community as your Rabbi and I look forward to our steps forward in the year to come.

May it come to us all in peace, health, joy and sweetness,

Shannah Tovah.

[1] p. 260

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