Thursday, 10 October 2013

Neilah 5774 - Insider or Outsider

Here’s a snap question. Don’t think too much about it; just pick one answer or the other. Do you consider yourself an insider or an outsider to Jewish life? Is this, all this, yours? Or do you feel you can’t make that claim – you don’t want to make that claim, it would be disingenuous to make that claim. Do you feel Judaism is something for other people. Here’s one of my favourite stories of the process of conversion. A woman who – whatever this sentence might mean – a woman who doesn’t look Jewish, still a number of months shy of completing the conversion programme, found herself out at a business lunch. She relayed to me that she was struggling to keep her mind on the task at hand because, from the table just behind, she could hear diners spouting antisemitic drivel. And as the lunch progressed so did the antisemitism until this candidate for conversion excuses herself from her meeting, wheels round to challenge the anisemites on the other table and demands they leave off their offensive jibes. ‘What’s it to you luv?’ they respond, ‘Are you Jewish?’ ‘Why yes,’ the woman responds, ‘actually I am.’ Actually, technically speaking, she wasn’t. She hadn’t come to the Bet Din, yet. But there’s a Talmudic term used to refer to converts when discussing a triumphant response to the challenges involved in a conversion process, ‘atah mekabel otah miyad’ – you receive that person immediately. Because in that moment she got what it means to be an insider. It’s a great story, but not really what I am after tonight, because I’m sure all of us here, in response to antisemitism, would ally ourselves among the insiders to the Jewish narrative, peoplehood and religion. I spoke a little about that on second day Rosh Hashanah, feeling an insider to all things Jewish when the antisemites come knocking is almost too easy, it’s certainly insufficient. And I’m not really after how you feel right now on the cusp of Neilah of Yom Kippur. God help us, if after some 24 hours here beating our breasts in tune to these beautiful Hebrew tunes, if all of this doesn’t open in our heart a sense of being part of this great journey of faith and peoplehood, then maybe all is lost. What I’m really after is how you feel on a normal day of the week, when you get handed the menu in restaurant for the business lunch and your potential client recommends the beef, or how you feel when you’ve a choice to charge home on a Friday evening, or finish just one more email, or when you get up on a Saturday morning and it’s a choice of football in the park or Synagogue. How do you feel then? At those points, do you consider yourself and insider or an outsider? Here’s a text form our tradition; a comment of our greatest of our commentators, Rashi on a verse from Psalms, Psalm 1 talks about the righteous person. Torat Adonai heftzo, uvatorato yehege yomam v’laila I have to translate in gendered language, forgive me. The Torah of God is his delight, and in His/his Torah he immerses himself day and night. Can you see the problem, it’s a floating pronoun. There is God’s Torah, and there is the man studying the Torah, but when the verse says ‘His Torah,’ does that suggest that the Torah belongs to God, or the man? And here comes Rashi to solve our problem. In the beginning, says Rashi, it’s called God’s Torah, but when a person amal bah - struggles with it, it becomes theirs. That’s stunning Rashi is telling us how to own Torah. Mi she amal bah – We work at it and it becomes ours. We leave it there, in the ark, and it will always remain God’s Torah – aloof, foreign, outside of us. That Rashi is one of my desert island pieces of Torah – if I could only take three or four short pieces to a desert island with me, I would take that. You work at it and it becomes yours. But in truth, I’ve been nervous to teach this little vignette from the Bimah, it’s a little technical and I don’t want to lose anyone with the a technicality – on a night such as this. How sad it is that I’m that worried that explaining a Rashi – Rashi – our pre-eminent commentator, commenting on a verse in Psalms – our most treasured Biblical book – might be too technical. That it might distance us rather than help us feel that sense of ownership and insider-ship I’m wishing for us all. We are not, after all, a community that amal ba – struggles with and takes ownership of our tradition. There is no nice way to say this, we are, as a generation of British Jews, and certainly as a community, Jewishly illiterate. How many of us could name all 24 of the books of the Hebrew Bible? How many of us knew there were 24 books of the Hebrew Bible? Our illiteracy doesn’t merely hold us back from appreciating our literary heritage; it alienates us from our Jewish heritage. And so instead of being able to turn to it for challenge, comfort or inspiration, instead of feeling like an insider, we feel an outsider to it. And at this point it gets dangerous, at this point, instead of acknowledging our own shortcomings the massive temptation is to transfer our shortcomings inadequacies onto Judaism. We consider Judaism childish, simplistic and lacking in contemporary relevance when in truth we simply are unable to give the richness of our tradition the informed adult consideration it deserves. Oy. That’s the bad news. But here’s the flip side. When you are an insider to all this no-one and no thing, can take that feeling of ownership away from you. We are coming up to our 50th anniversary as a community and most of us will know we started our life when 500 supporters of Rabbi Louis Jacobs came to his support when he was unable to return to his former position at the New West End Synagogue. But I’m not sure how widely this piece of detail is known. The immediate prompt that left Rabbi Jacobs looking for a new job was the decision to withdraw his certificate of competency by the Chief Rabbi of the time, that’s why he couldn’t go back to the New West End. It’s an extraordinary notion, that you could withdraw a certificate of competency from someone who was as much as an insider into the very heart of what it means to be a Rabbinic Jew as Rabbi Louis Jacobs. It’s ridiculous because you can’t make someone an outsider to something which is inside their hearts. You can’t destroy a person’s connection to Jewishness by tearing down our Temple or tearing up a certificate. You can’t take something away from us, when it’s inside. So this is the invitation I want to make, as the gates swing shut. Just in case you are in the mood to make a promise to yourself about your relationship with Jewish life in this year to come. The invitation is to become more of an insider to your own heritage. The invitation is to feel what is means to have this Torah be inside, intimate, a part of you. Actually there are three invitations. Three learning opportunities, three invitations to become insiders to our own tradition. Two here, one somewhere else most special. I’m teaching a series of classes called ‘The Sources’ on Monday evenings starting on 21st October. There’s some information on a flier in the hall, there will be more in email bulletins nearer the time. It’s an introduction to the what, the why and the how of the great works of our faith. A chance to accustom ourselves with the bookshelf and a chance to delve in and feel these texts from the inside; what are they saying, how do they say it. It’s a chance to become a little more of an owner of our Jewish tradition. If you are interested, please drop me a line and I’ll offer more encouragement nearer the time. And then from January we are going to be making adult Hebrew classes available, on Tuesday evenings. We know many of you have asked for them, nervous that the levels will assume too much or too little. We’ll be offering three classes starting with ‘this is an Alef.’ Again there will be more information later in the year, but let me know by email if you want specific reminders. It was the great Hebrew poet, Bialik who said studying the Hebrew Bible in translation was like kissing a bride through her veil, but the journey into, shall we say it, a fuller embrace is gradual. Every step, every piece of letter recognition, word combination, grammatical titbit and vocab eases that sense of outsiderness. It will bring you closer. The more Hebrew you know, the closer you will feel to your own tradition. And the third offering is in Jerusalem. How do you fancy three weeks in Jerusalem, at the Conservative Yeshiva – one of my favourite places in the world. They have a Summer programme, actually two three week long programmes running from the back end of June to July, or from the middle of July to the beginning of August. You could even do both. Can you imagine sunny skies above a shady courtyard where you’ll get the chance to amal bah – struggle with the great texts of our tradition. Learning some Hebrew, working over a Mishnah, a Chassidic text or a contemporary Halachic challenge in the centre of our Jewish journey. Three weeks – for a pittance of a charge, massively subsidised - to become more of an insider. Maybe you are a student or a teacher and off work at that time of the year. Maybe you can take leave, give yourself this treat. Or maybe, and this is really something I hope a number of members here will consider – you can take what’s becoming called a ‘grey gap year’ or a ‘grey three weeks.’ Maybe after a career of looking after matters professional and financial, you can take three weeks to look after matters of the soul. Again, more to follow during the year, but, again, please let me know if you might be considering that. I want more insiders at New London. I want that because a community needs insiders, people who feel at home and even so much at home that they can provide leadership. But I also offer it as the greatest gift a Rabbi can offer – the gift of the Jewish heritage we have, but too often feel is beyond or other to us. The Sources – a course on the great books of our tradition. Adult Hebrew classes – pulling back the veil on what it means to encounter our own tradition in the original language. The three week summer programme in Jerusalem, at the Conservative Yeshiva. That’s my invitation, my wish and my challenge, And it comes with the blessing that if we can do this. If we can appreciate from the inside what it means to be a Jew it will sweeten and enrich this year for us all. Gemar Hatimah Tovah

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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