Thursday, 27 September 2012

YK Sermon - Kol Nidrei, Honesty, Science, Ancestors and Descendents

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and say a prayer and what he had set out to perform was done.

When a generation later the Maggid of Mezeritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say, We can no longer light the fire but we can still speak the prayers and what he wanted was done.

Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said, We can no longer light a fire nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs – and that must be sufficient. And sufficient it was.

And when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task he sat on his chair in his castle and said, We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And he had the same effect as the other three.

It’s a well known tale, Gershon Scholem and Shai Agnon have told it better than I.[1] And more than that, it’s a common motif – we Jews are, as Simon Rawidowicz put it, the ever dying people. In every generation it can seem as though we are dribbling away until all that will be left is a story and some ultra-orthodox ghettos.

It’s the sort of challenge Rabbis like me, in a communities like this get every now and again, the sense that there are better keepers of the flame than Jews like us; the notion that if Judaism is to survive at all we ought to lend our support to those who do it ‘properly.’ It’s the sort of challenge that is not always so easy to rebut. We are stronger, as a community, than we have been for decades – over 60 children in the cheder, more weddings, more Bnei Mitzvah celebrations, as vibrant on a Shabbat morning as I could wish. But let’s be honest, for this is a day for honesty. For how many New London members is this whole Jewish thing serious? To measure in perfectly calculable terms, how many New London members took a day of leave to be at Second Day Rosh Hashanah Services? For how many members was the rest of their life too high a priority for a day that, a generation ago, would have been sacrosanct? How many of you here tonight, after work, care enough about their Judaism to be here tomorrow?

Maybe, despite the buzzing on the surface, we, at New London, are watching over the attenuation of Yiddishkeit, as fewer and fewer of us know where to go, how to light the fire and how to say the prayer. Perhaps the problem is that we are too distracted by contemporary culture, maybe Judaism can only flourish in a more secluded protected environment than anything we promote here.

This is the stuff that keeps me awake at night.

And awake at night I caught a recording where an orthodox Rabbi and an atheist physicist debated the relationship between science and religion.[2] It wasn’t actually a debate – all the editorial power in the programme was with the Rabbi. And the Rabbi made his case for the place of religion alongside science and the physicist nodded benignly, ‘as long as it works for you.’ And the interview ended and the Rabbi continues in voice-over.

‘Despite our conflicting views on how the universe was created, we are ...’

And I bolted upright. Did the Rabbi just say, ‘despite our conflicting views on how the universe was created’? I rewound. He did. The Rabbi went to see an eminent cosmologist to discuss the relationship between science and religion and, safely in the confines of the voiceover studio, he said he disagreed with the cosmologist on the subject of how the universe was created. And it didn’t sound like a disagreement based on an interpretation of the latest data from the Large Hadron Collider. It sounded like a disagreement based on what it says in Genesis. In fairness it was a good programme and the Rabbi made some important points well, but this is the point I give up on Orthodoxy.  Despite how nice it might look on one level, it simply isn’t true. If you want me to take you seriously you can’t go around disagreeing with cosmologists on the basis of Genesis Chapter 1. When it comes to the competing claims of religion and science, what I really want to hear, in the words of Gershwin, is that, some of the ‘things you are liable to read in the Bible, they ain’t necessarily so.’ That, if you like, is the calling card by which I know that you are serious about the pursuit of truth. It’s how I know that you aren’t living in self-imposed ghetto, screening out the wisdom of all other sources of knowledge.

The same goes for the so-called perfection of the Torah. I love the Torah, it’s my life, but I don’t think it’s word for word the perfect encapsulation of God’s will. I’ve learnt from Bible scholars and archaeologists and certainly from scholars like Rabbi Jacobs, from this very pulpit, that the Torah has a history.

It is of its time, its various different times, and it shows the finger-prints of humans who are responsible for an attempt to encapsulate a Will that is beyond any form of words. And if you want me to take you seriously, as a religious thinker committed to truth, I want to hear you acknowledge that. It’s the calling card by which I know that you aren’t living in self-imposed ghetto, screening out the wisdom of all other sources of knowledge.


Shabbat has become more and more relevant, the more crazy the world becomes. Jewish conceptions of Justice and decency are more and more relevant, the wider the gap grows between the haves and the have-nots in society. There are so many truths in Judaism that are becoming more and more important. It’s just a shame that there most dominant voice of our faith is engaging with truths that come from outside of Judaism less and less. But when the facts change you have to change too. You can’t keep commanding the tides to retreat when the water laps at your ankles, at least you can’t behave like King Canute and be considered a trustworthy member of society.

And it’s not OK to live and let live on an issue like this. It’s not OK to allow those who won’t admit that the Seven day story is scientifically incorrect to get on with looking and sounding like the future of Judaism will be safe with them. It’s not OK to cede an upper hand to those who claim that the Bible did indeed drop down, fully formed, on Mount Sinai in a singular flash of revelation 3300 years ago. It’s not OK for two reasons.

Firstly allowing this sort of blinkered practice to go unchallenged causes unnecessary pain.

Religion in Israel, God help her, is in the control of the ultra-orthodox. Because of their literalism and closed-mindedness they are currently precluding 300,000 Israelis with Jewish hearts and commitment to the Jewish state, from getting married or even buried in Jewish cemeteries. They are stamped – pisulei hitun – forbidden to marry because of a concern about their status, a barrier that could be lifted so easily if only the Rabbis responsible weren’t so literalist and closed minded. That’s 300,000 people excluded from marriage because of closed minded literalism. Then there are the women, and girls, in ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods who are called on to stand at the back of the bus, even if there are seats at the front, because men get to ride at the front of the bus – a sexism based on a literalism that God cursed womankind to be ruled over by their men. Thankfully that last nonsense seems to be on the wane thanks to groups like the Masorti Movement in Israel, the Reform led Israel Religious Action Committee and the New Israel Fund who have successfully reminded the national bus company that Israel is a country where equal treatment of women and men is constitutionally protected.

And we aren’t so far behind this kind of lunacy in this country, where orthodox Jewish leadership is capable of deeming a person a mamzer – an outsider for evermore, even their children and children’s children. It’s nuts and again based more on a blinkered literalism than any true sense that this is God’s will. And I, as a Rabbi in this community, get to see the results of this blinkered literalism every year – people in pain not because God wishes them to suffer, but because religious leaders won’t acknowledge that the Bible is not a letter-perfect account of the will of God. Of course the Torah touches the Divine at its most beautiful and moving, but some of it is earth-bound. Some of it is time-bound and not for how we live our lives today.

And this is the second point. Judaism has always evolved and to proffer a version of Judaism unchanged by history misrepresents Judaism. When Greek philosophy emerged, Judaism imbued some of the wisdom of Greek philosophers. When we carbon dated dinosaur bones to 200 million years ago, Judaism evolved and that, as the dinosaurs learnt to their cost, is precisely what you need to do to survive. And when Bible scholars and Biblical Archaeologists prove that the Bible has a history, that it is not literally, word for word, the record of the will of God, we have evolved again.

Of course there is a cost, of course when we learn that the God did not dictate word for word the Torah it lessens the levels of blind fidelity you can find in parts of the orthodox world. But that’s not the same as saying that the relationship we have with Judaism is worth less than the relationship of those with blinkered faith. It’s worth more precisely because is it true.  And the developments of the day do not merely weaken Judaism. For the first time in Jewish history there are now significant numbers of women studying and teaching Torah, a vast world of Jewish knowledge and insight is opening up for the first time history. We have a State of Israel – a very modern miracle. And for the first time in millennia we get to understand, and struggle with, what it means to be a Jew living in a land so hungered over and wished for and there is plenty to learn. And we have the web – I can access, from anywhere in the world with a web connection, copies of the Talmud at the touch of a button, even with manuscript variants, in umpteen different languages with hundreds of different commentaries and even audio and video classes. Never has it been so easy to learn more about Judaism. New is not a threat. There is no zero-sum game being played out between Judaism and modernity.

So what about this story of the Rabbis, one generation after another in the forest telling their story, attenuating and dribbling away. The point of the story, I think is not the attenuation, but the perpetuation. It still works, in each generation, even unto the point when there is only a story being told, but for this reason, and this reason only. These Rabbis – they weren’t watching their Judaism gently attenuate. They are all heroes of Hasidim. They created dynasties, they achieved greatness. They weren’t just the descendents of those who came before, they were committed ancestors of those yet to come. And so it must be for us.

If we abnegate our responsibilities to be ancestors of a Jewish future then the Jewish future will not look like us. It will become increasingly fundamentalist and increasingly blinkered to the truths of our time.

But if we take the responsibility for the future of Judaism seriously.

If we commit ourselves to shaping a future for Judaism, it will be so shaped.

And if that future is open hearted and open minded, if we use what we know to care more, to learn more and to do more, we can create an extraordinary future for Judaism.

There is tremendous hunger for a spirituality that can engage open-minded and open-hearted with the world. It’s a version of Judaism that is kind, just and powerful – but it has to be serious. It has to be lived with a commitment to be ancestors.

It’s a hunger that exists within and beyond Judaism. It’s an approach to the glories, and the travails, of our time that a Synagogue like ours, a Masorti Synagogue, with a a membership, like ours we are spectacularly well placed to meet.

So that is my call, that we should become, not merely the descendents of a great Jewish past, but ancestors of a great Jewish future, one that is open hearted and open minded and capable of sharing the tremendous truths of Judaism within and beyond this community.

Shannah Tovah and Chatimah Tovah, a good year, may we be sealed in the book of life.


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