Saturday, 11 September 2010

2nd Day RH Sermon - Tzedakah and This Community

Yesterday I spoke about Israel and relationships.

Today I want to talk about this country, this community and Tzedakah

The good news is I’m not after your money.

Giving away money is tremendously important but Tzedakah is mistranslated as charitable financial giving. It means more than that.

Nor is Tzedakah to be equated with acts of loving kindness - doing nice things for people who need our help is also important, but it’s also not Tzedakah.


Pursuing Tzedakah means we must participate in the creation of a just society.


And the Bible takes the command to pursue Tzedakah so seriously we’re commanded to do something about it twice in one verse.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof demands the Torah

Justice, justice you shall pursue

Why the double use of the term Tzedek, wouldn’t it have been enough to hear the call once?

I wonder if it has something to do with the way Tzedakah makes a sort of land-grab at our lives. It’s a pushy term.

Teshuvah, Tefilah are both so private, so internal, but Tzedakah stretches its tentacles outwards beyond our own lives and into the society we live in.


This has been a general election year and I’ve had three experiences, this year, where as a Jew, a Rabbi, I’ve been invited to become part of the national debate; three invitations to engage with the issue of Tzedakah in the public sphere.


I was invited to Number 10 Downing Street earlier this year, along with a bunch of other Rabbis and Jewish communal leaders to celebrate the launch of UJIA’s myfund initiative.

The idea behind myfund is that teenagers, and those preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, should study a curriculum on Jewish attitudes to justice, charitable giving, chose a project to support and then for every pound they raise to give away UJIA will match them pound for pound.

It’s such a novel – and I think brilliant – idea that the Browns invited a bunch of Jews to tea to talk about it.


I had the honour of taking part in a pre-General Election hustings attended by the then Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. I was one of the co-chairs as Citizens UK put Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Brown through their paces on their commitments to justice; justice for refugees, justice for the low-waged, justice for those unable to afford a home. You may have seen the coverage.


I’ve even been invited to meet with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon at a meeting at Windsor Castle in the run up to the ultimately terribly disappointing Copenhagen Round. And while, in part, averting ecological disaster will require us learning how to depend less carbon - in global terms, thinking about the Environment is an issue of justice.


What is going on?


Well I don’t think it has much to do with me or even the illustrious history of this community. Nor has there been a mass outbreak of Anglo philo-semitism. Our friends at CST tell us the anti-semitic attacks are at an all time high and, let us not forget, Nick Griffin and his despicable British National Party took over half a million votes in the General Election.

It has to be something else.


I want to share three lessons which I think can be learnt from this invitation onto the public stage and the concomitant calls that these lessons make on our lives in the year ahead.



We, as Jews, have a contribution to make.

I want to take just one example of a distinctive Jewish contribution to one of the most important issues of our time – how should we function as a multi-cultural society. And how should the various cultures assimilate into one another.

We are, of course, proud multi-culturists, we’ve been a refugee community. To some extent we are.

When if comes to issues of how our society, should treat immigrants, refugees, economic migrants …. we have thousands of years of experience suggesting how awkward, different, potentially economically challenging newcomers should be included or what happens when they – we – are excluded.

This is our story.

I was at a training with the Community Organizing group Citizens UK when a sixteen year old Somali refugee – a Muslim from the East End – right round the corner from where my Grandfather lived – asked me if I minded him asking me a question.

He wanted to know why there were so many Jews in the media. That old canard. My hackles stood up, but I didn’t feel I could brush him off with the suggestion of his anti-Semitism, actually – coming from where he came from it seemed a reasonable question. I told him I didn’t know why so many Jews were in important positions in media, business, academia or the rest of it, but I did know that the parents or grandparents of these tycoons lived in the same streets as he did, in the same crummy tenements. Thy experienced the same racism, had the same economic disadvantages, the same difficulties in getting health care, education – actually greater disadvantages, but had worked their way out of the ghetto. We ended up having a conversation about learning English, study, family values and the things a person can learn sitting on the edges of a host community.


It could be economics, welfare, ecology, banking, crime any of the big issues facing us today. As Jews, I believe we have distinct insight, we have a contribution to make.

And I believe that society is interested.


The second reason I believe Jews are being welcomed to the top table has to do with a shift in the culture of political philosophy.

John Rawls, perhaps the greatest contemporary writer on justice suggested that if we wanted to know what a just society looked like we would have to erect a ‘veil of ignorance.’ You would have to imagine yourself behind the veil, in a place where you didn’t know if you would turn out male or female, black or white, rich or poor. In that ignorant space we would, Rawls thought, determine a truly fair society because we wouldn’t know how we would turn out once the veil was removed. It’s a mighty idea, but it’s been superseded by the mightier insight that suggests that because I am who I am, it makes no sense for me to imagine myself behind a veil of ignorance. I’m never going to think like a woman, a black person, a poor person, a disabled person, so it’s not particularly useful to pretend that I can.

Instead, say thinkers like Reith lecturer and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, we need to acknowledge we are ‘situated selves’ – we judge society as fair or unfair because we are who we are, in my case male, middle class, white and Jewish. And if we want to create a just society we need proud and clear thinking representatives of the different constituent members in society.

We need women to be women, men to be men. We need black people to be black and rich people to be rich, poor people to be poor. And we need Jewish people to be Jewish. To work out what a just society needs, we need people to speak up and speak from their situation, not pretend they can transcend it.


I believe broader society, political society, is learning to respect the situation of its members, rather than impose on all of us that we enter the public sphere stripped of our selves. More to the point there is a recognition that we are truer to our selves because of our situation and that asking us to lose our situated nature makes us a fraud, a pretend normal person – and that’s not helpful to anyone.

Jews are no longer allowed to enter the public sphere (like Disraeli) on the condition that we reject our Jewishness.

Rather we are welcomed into the public sphere precisely because of our distinctiveness – our Jewishness.


We have a specifically Jewish contribution to make to creating a just society.

And we are being invited to make that contribution precisely because of our distinctiveness – our Jewishness.


And thirdly this.

To my grandparents this was axiomatic.

To my parents’ generation this is still largely practiced.

In the past Jews would ignore what went on in the society around us in the hope that society would ignore us.

‘Keep your head down’ was the motto.

The tale was told of the entirely Jewish jury who, after weeks of deliberating the case of some non-Jew were asked by the judge if they agreed on a verdict.

‘We have, your honour,’ said the foreman,

‘So what is your verdict?’

‘Your honour,’ responded the foreman, ‘we’ve decided we should not mix in.’


But this is just not a sense I feel from the younger generation.

I spoke a little about this yesterday, younger Jews want out of the ghetto of pursuing self-interest to the exclusion of all else. We no longer want to judge every agenda from the limited perspective of how it impacts on the Jews.

Of course we need to support our own, our own Shuls and care agencies, but that’s not enough.

Our tradition teaches that we have obligations towards the poor, the ill and the dead of the non-Jews as well as the Jews because – and the Hebrew term is, I think tremendously important – because of Darkei Shalom.[1]

The term is usually translated as the ‘ways of peace.’

But peace doesn’t convey the true sense of the word Shalom.

Shalom means a sense of completeness.

When we care about the needy around us, when we care about the justice of the society in which we, and our fellows, live. We build a more cohesive shalem society for us all.

It is not a zero sum game.

The more justice there is in society, the better it is for us, as Jews, as citizens.


  • We have a specifically Jewish contribution to make to creating a just society.
  • And we are being invited to make that contribution precisely because of our distinctiveness – our Jewishness.
  • And the more we become involved in creating that broader, more just society, the better it will be for us, as Jews and members of that broader society.


These three insights make three calls on us.



If we have a contribution to make to the issues of justice that surround us we have to understand and demonstrate that insight in our day to day actions.

If we feel that our understanding of Shabbat is a useful counter-voice to the all consuming power of market forces, we need to observe Shabbat.

If we feel that our understanding of what it means to be a refugee gives us a useful voice to share with today’s refugees, we need to volunteer our time, support the work in this community of the Separated Child Foundation or Citizens UK.

We must know our tradition and we must live the values of our tradition with integrity. Otherwise we risk forgetting what we should hold most dear, we risk becoming a fraud.

We should never risk becoming a fraud.


Secondly, if we are welcomed to contribute to the creation of a just society because of our situated Jewishness we need to take care that we retain our distinctiveness. To those of you who struggled to justify taking a ‘second day off’ to stand with us this Rosh Hashanah morning, I salute you.

To those of you who order your way around a restaurant menu because you don’t eat meat out, I salute you.

To those of you who explain to your demanding employers that you need to leave work on Friday evenings, I salute you.

Because it is through these myriad of small actions that we retain and strengthen our distinctiveness – it is through our acts of Jewish engagement and involvement that we are true to our situation – less a pretend normal person.

We must guard our distinctiveness.

We must be proud to be situated.


And, thirdly, we must ‘mix in.’ We must do something just.

I’ve spoken a number of times of the work of Citizens UK. They are the organisation behind the end of child detention of refugees, the campaign for a living wage and other important initiatives creating safe streets, opposing sex-shops and more.

I’ve never encountered an organisation that better understands the values of situated selves. I’ve never encountered an organisation so genuinely open to the contributions of its members.

And I don’t think I have ever encountered an organisation that is as powerful and capable of creating the just society I want to live in.

Of the 150 member organisations of London Citizens – the Churches, Mosques, Residents Associations, Schools and the like there are no Synagogues. We should be members, frankly we should be the first Synagogue to join up.

If you are interested in this work, or other justice work in or beyond this community, please let me know.


The pursuit of Justice requires us to live out the values of our tradition.

It requires us to be situated, distinct and proud of who we are and where we come from.

And it requires us to act Justly in creating a broader more just society.


And while I make no promise that living a life more infused by Tzedakah in this coming year will guarantee us a Gezerah Metukah – a sweet decree.

It will make the world sweeter for others, and that makes us more worthy of being inscribed for the year of health and happiness for which we all dream.


May it come to us all.


Shannah Tovah


[1] Tosefta Gittin 3:13-14, TB Gittin 71a, Mishneh Sheviit 4:3, Rambam MT Hil Avel 14:12, Hil Matanot 1:9, etc.

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