Friday, 6 May 2011

Associating with Royals, Sacred Time and Israel

Identification by disassociation is the process by which we define ourselves, or those things around us, by what we, or they are not.

I think we, as the New London Synagogue community, as members of Anglo-Jewy and as residents and even citizens of this Great British nation do a lot of identification by disassociation.

We are very good at identification by disassociation. We do it quickly and, I suspect, it is our default setting.

But I don’t like identification by disassociation.

And this is a sermon about its dangers.


The Hebrew word pil is not a table, or a Satsuma, or a rose bush, or calcium carbonate.

And even if you know that a pil is a quadruped you are still not going to be much closer if I tell you that a pil is not a horse, or a mouse, or a dog or cat.

The Hebrew word pil means elephant.

Oh elephant, why didn’t you say so.

It is easier to explain what something is in positive terms, than negative ones.

It’s not only clearer it’s less conflictual.

It’s not only easier for the mind, I think it is also easier for the soul,

You can fall in love with something that a person is.

I don’t think it’s possible to fall in love with the things that a person is not.


It’s a thought that has been going through my mind of late in three ways.

One a week old

One a reflection on the parasha and its relationship to this Synagogue

And one a reflection on a very modern kind of miracle.


A week ago there was a Royal wedding. You might have noticed.

And something odd happened to the British psyche. We seemed to get a little less cynical, a little less busy defining ourselves by what we don’t really care about.

We stopped defining ourselves by how little we consider ourselves Royalists or how much we disagree with Prince Charles opining on this or that, or Prince Harry wearing this or that, or drinking this or that and found a way to smile, be happy, shed a good kind of tear – maybe, or maybe not quite that far.

From where I was looking on, the negative, snippy, association by counter-indication, relationship we seemed to be settling into, when if came to the Royal Family as indeed most other families, seemed to evolve into something more positive.

There was, for a few moments, a softening of the national disassociative traits of cynicism, irony and disassociation.

I don’t know if it will last, but for a moment there, we identified with what moved us, what we shared.

And it felt good, we felt better, brighter, more alive, more human.

I think we are better celebrating than sniping and I think last week demonstrated that.

So much for the event a week ago.


In the parasha we read the story of Jewish sacred time;

Vayidaber Moshe et Moaday Adonai el Bnai Yisrael.

Shabbat, Pesach, the Omer, Shavuout, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succot

And it had me reflecting on how we, as members of this community tend to define our relationship with this majestic cycle of season and soul.

Let me try this experiment – just pause for a second and consider, do you think of yourself as someone who observes Shabbat.

Yes or no,

When it comes to Shabbat are you in or are you out.

I don’t want to ask for a show of hands, I’ll take a guess.

Correct me if I am wrong – and I am sure you will – but my sense is that most of you will have considered yourselves as non-observant, outsiders.

You will have dis-associated

Am I right?

Let me put it this way, you got up this morning, with many other things you could be doing and you came to spend a sunny morning in Shul, praying, listening to Torah and, God help you, your Rabbi.

A privilege for which virtually all of you have membership fees of several hundred pounds.

And you still identified by disassociation.

That strikes me as odd.

I know that some of you may have driven to get here, and I know that some of you may be off to discard the spirit of Shabbat with all kinds of Hillul Shabbas this afternoon, but you are all here.

That’s impressive, it’s enough to make me feel that you, we, should all consider ourselves observing Shababt.

It’s not enough, just being here, but it’s enough to consider yourselves as insiders, associates, not outsiders.

But I don’t think most of us do that, it’s a peculiar tendency, and one that is not at all helpful.

This identification by disassociation creates a gap between the members of the Shul and the Shul itself.

It creates a gap between Jews and their Judaism.

It makes us feel an outsider.

And, and I think this is a key piece, it allows us to stagnate in our relationship with our faith.

We might listen to the siren call of a Rabbi encouraging us to come to a learning session or a weekday Yom Tov service or sell our Chametz and we already have this big wall erected between ourselves and the faith so the calls just dribble away, falling into the gap between where I speak and where so many of you sit.

Why do you think I want people to sit closer?

I wonder if there might be a problem with the way we too frequently identify ourselves as not-Orthodox and not-Reform, disassociating again.

We don’t spend enough time talking who we are.

I was at a meeting of the Rabbis of Masorti Europe this week and one of my colleagues, rightly, became annoyed at the way an argument between became an argument about whether our commitment to tradition or change should take priority.

We are, said Rabbi Gesa Edeberg, not either / or Jews, we are both / and.

We are both traditional and progressive, inspired by truths both modern and ancient. We are insiders in the great chain of tradition, the Masorah, that connects the holy actions of every Jew back through the millennia to the time we first read the words

Vayidaber Moshe et Moaday Adonai el Bnai Yisrael.


Again, I think, the analogy of a romantic relationship is a good one. If we are busy disassociating ourselves from the person with whom we might find ourselves out on a date, the relationship will crumble even if, were we to allow ourselves to be in an associative relationship we could find ourselves sat opposite the love of our live.

And it’s the same person.

There is so much to fall in love with, when it comes to the Jewish cycle of sacred time – the sensitivity to the time of the sunset, the changing seasons, there is a wonderful moment that comes when you first catch sight of the New Moon. Today the New Moon of Iyyar is three days old, have you seen it yet? Just peeking into the sky.

There is the journey from Purim to Pesach from chaos to order.

The journey through the mystical archetypes of the Omer.

The chance to experience what it must have meant to stand at Sinai that comes having spent the night of Shavuot in study and then davenning as the sky turns slowly blue and the birds begin their dawn-time chorus.

I could go on.

But we are only going to be moved by these intensely powerful, spiritual energies if we open up our souls to identify ourselves as committed observing Jews.

And far too often we arrive here in Shul already busy disassociating.

So try this.

Next time someone asks you if you are religious, say yes.

Next time someone asks you if you care about Jewish observance, Shabbat and the like, say yes.

Even if all we did is light a candle.

We should identify ourselves by what we associate with.

Try it.


I said there were three reasons I’ve been thinking about identification by disassociation.

The Royal Family, Moaday Adonai – the sacred festivals of our tradition – and the State of Israel.


In terms of the age of Sates Israel is a teenager.

But that is no reason for our relationship with her to be that of a teenager, all disappointed shrugs and tsking, eyeball rolling, disassociating as if we prove how cool we are by the extent by which we deem the other not cool enough to be worth our time, our love, our charity and our celebration.


Oh I know there are problems, but I choose to associate myself with Israel as a proud Zionist, proud of a Jewish State’s right to exist,

proud of accomplishments commercial and scientific, social and political.

This tendency we have to identify with disassociation has gnawed away at our love of the State in the Land of our Ancestors to such an extent that we are, as a community failing to find it easy to celebrate, love.

It’s that word again, it’s all about love.

We are falling out of love with Israel and the cost, for Israel, but also for our own identities is great.

Here’s an accomplishment of Israel this last year, a year, let it not be forgotten that has seen Bahrain and Egypt and Syria and Libya all quake and shudder.

Moshe Katzav, the President of Israel, was this year found guilty of foul criminal behaviour. He was prosecuted, found guilty by a jury of ordinary citizens and sentenced to jail and went to jail.

Just like that.

No military coup, no tanks rolling in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Someone once told me that the true test of a democracy comes when there is an election, an incumbent Prime Minister loses and just moves out of the way of power.

Here’s another one – sometimes I get sent links to supposedly vicious anti-Zionist articles in one newspaper or another and I can’t help but smile and wonder if these people actually read the Israeli press. If you want to read criticism of Israel’s failings in any of the many great challenges she faces you can’t read anything in the Guardian that matches the ferocity of criticism found in Haaretz – the joys of a free press.

Or the creative energy of Israel’s contemporary artists, the dancers, the painters, the photographers – it’s incredible.

But this is a country that knows it’s challenges, knows them better than we do, and engages with them with a vigour and a commitment to democracy that beggards belief, especially in the context of existential threat and the levels of freedom showed by her neighbours to their own citizens.

Oh I know there are problems and I know we need, as Rabbi Michael Melchior said from this very pulpit, we need a whole new Mishnah to help Israel know how to handle power and statehood some two thousand years after the Roman destruction.

But wow, there is a state, there is a place to run to, flourish in, believe in, fight for.

How dare we identify ourselves through our disassociation with the State of Israel?


Particularly, how sad it is that when we do disassociate with the State of Israel, as I suspect too many Anglo-Jews do,

I suspect that this disassociating has much to do with a prevailing cultural norm that teaches that the snooty put down is worth more than the loving committed word of support.


It’s Israel’s Independence Day this week.

We should take the opportunity to be proud, to associate ourselves as a Zionists – committed to the right of a Jewish state to exist in the land of Israel.

And we should allow ourselves a celebratory falafel, a celebratory donation to an Israeli charity we hold dear, something that opens up our heart, strengthens our commitment.

Yom Holedet Sameach Isarel

A very happy birthday to you.


We have much with which to associate.

‘Associating with’ opens our heart, allows us to experience love, it allows us to be moved and to move – to change, to grow, to be human.

Associating with allows us to experience the wonders and joys of our own Jewish heritage and it can allow us to fall in love, again, with the Jewish State whose Birthday we must celebrate this week – even if we have concerns, even if we face challenges, we should share those concerns, engage with those challenges from within a committed relationship.

Being ever more proud of that with which we associate allows us to be people who stand for things, as opposed to people who stand against things.

And when our time comes to stand before the one who knows the truths of our lives we will be judged by that which we stood for, not by that which we stood against.


Shabbat shalom

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