Friday, 9 May 2014

Sermon Notes on the 50th Anniversary Celebrations of New London Synagogue

Very first sermon preached by at New London Synagogue on parashat Behar.

And the newspapers – back in the days when a Rabbi’s choice of a lectionary made the newspapers – reported that Rabbi Jacobs gave the sermon on that day on part of Leviticus 25:10 ‘ukaratem dror ba-aretz’ – and you shall proclaim freedom in the Land.

He said, and the Jewish Chronicle reported

‘we had to move from our home because we believe it is more important for men to speak their minds than mind their speech.’

Now what amazed me, as I prepared my words to share today, fifty years later was the context around the phrase that provided the grist for that first sermon.

Let me share the full phrase around Rabbi Jacobs’ choice of a lectionary.

Vkidashtem et shanat hahamishit, ukaretem dror baaretz

And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim freedom in the land.

The verse is about the fiftieth year.

It’s not about the first year.

It’s about today.


Would have loved to have heard that first Rabbi Jacobs sermon at New London, but in many ways, already can.

It would have been a sermon about the ability to think what one needs to think.
To express the thoughts one needs to express.

Even if such honesty comes at a cost, even if others find this honesty uncomfortable.

When I spoke on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Rabbi Jacobs’ book, we have reason to believe I spoke about a very special piece of correspondence between two brave giants of 20th Century Judaism; Shlomo Goren and Shaul Lieberman.[1] I want to share it with you.


You might be able to picture Rav Shlomo Goren. You might have seen David Rubinger’s famous photograph of Goren; eyes ablaze, a shofar in each hand, being carried shoulder high by paratroopers to the kottel in the midst of the Six Day War.

Well that Rav Goren, Chaplain to the Israel Defence Force, became the Chief Rabbi of Israel – a big bauble for a guy who thought being devout didn’t mean could absent yourself from military service. Well Rav Goren got the big bauble and he threw it away.

He was approached by a brother and sister who were being classified as mamzerim – illegitimate Jews by the haredim.

Goren came to their aid. He published a monumental teshuvah to try and explain why, despite every appearance to the contrary, these poor yiddim should not be treated as mamzerim. And the haredim mocked him.

Goren personally served as the mesader kiddushin ­– he officiated at their weddings. And the haredim excommunicated him – they excommunicated their own Chief Rabbi.


The other party in this correspondence, Shaul Lieberman was, like Rabbi Jacobs, a product of the pre-war Lithuanian Yeshiva world. Lieberman was an absolute giant of Talmud study, one of very few Rabbi Jacobs himself would acknowledge as a far, far greater Talmudic scholar than he. And while personally Lieberman was a man of impeccable orthodoxy he decided to pursue his professional career at the Masorti affiliated Jewish Theological Seminary. And for this he too felt the fire of the haredim. He too was excommunicated. His name has been gently, if deceitfully, edited out of haredi scholarship.

There is something of Rabbi Jacobs in each of these two men.


And when Lieberman heard what was happening to Goren he wrote to Goren offering support.


Goren wrote back, gracious for the collegiality, especially from one who understood what it was to have the haredi Rabbinate turn against him. That’s the first paragraph of the letter.

It was the second paragraph that caught my attention.


That said, I’m delighted to note that I have never felt myself so free to deliberate, to teach, to make legal decisions as I see them, according to my own deliberations. I have been set free, blessed be God, from all the impure notions that they continually pursued me with – what would this one say, what would this lot say, or that lot – now I am fulfilling the Gemorah which states that Rabbi should judge only on the basis of what their own eyes see.[2]


The cost of refusing to bend to the religious deceit of those who wish to preserve dictatorial autocracy is that you lose the baubles of polite religious society. Rabbi Jacobs knew that cost, he paid that cost. But there is also great reward for refusing to lie. As Goren put it, you are set free from the ‘all the impure notions that they pursued me with always – what would this one say, what would this lot say, or that lot.’


Of course Rabbi Jacobs was right never to cavil, never to apologise for what his own eyes saw, never to grovel to the haredim, because they would never have given up. When you give up your integrity you walk forever with a stoop and a twitch, you spend the rest of your life looking over your right shoulder in case they come at you again.

This, for Rabbi Jacobs, was the meaning of Dror –  the freedom spoken of in this week’s parasha.

It was a freedom he enjoyed at this very special pulpit, the freedom I enjoy and a freedom I will endeavour to protect on behalf of whoever – at some dim and distant point in the future – shall take on the Rabbinic leadership of this community.


Freedom of speech, freedom to say the things that hold important is a vital piece of who we are, but it’s woefully insufficient.

Again, the context is important.

Actually two pieces of context


Vkidashtem et shanat hahamisim

And you – and here the Torah uses the plural pronoun, it’s all of us, not just a Rabbi – shall sanctify the fiftieth year.

The task of this community isn’t to support a single individual saying what they feel.

That’s insufficient.

The task of this community is to be a community.

To work together to sanctify, to make holy, the world in which we live.

At the heart of the idea of Jubilee, the 50th year, is the same notion of restraint that illuminates the Jewish concept of Sabbath.

Pause, don’t just chase more and more material, financial stuff.

Stop, acknowledge what we have, acknowledge the obligations we have to share and support those who have not.

Stop chasing after more and more and focus on becoming better, create possibilities for quality, not just quantity.

Someone sent me a blog post – handsfreemama

Trying to parent with something – usually a phone in our hands.

Put it down.

One day in the week.

Vkidashtem – sanctify,

Restrain and through that elevate our relationships with one another and with God.

That’s something we don’t do enough of here.

That’s a weakness in our sanctification of the 50th year.


Ukaratem dror baaretz lchol yoshveha

And proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants.

Reference to the notion of freeing indentured slaves.

If so broke that had to sell oneself into slavery, would work until the 50th year, but then would have to be freed.

Now Rabbi Yehoshua Falk, 17th-18th century, a Rosh Yeshivah in Lemberg  had an excellent query on this verse.

If the indentured slaves are the ones going free, why does it say that all the inhabitants of the land – kol yoshveha – get to proclaim liberty.

A society in which there are slaves is a society which affronts every one of its inhabitants, taught Rabbi Falk, Masters as well as slaves are the beneficiaries when the slaves are set free.


The freedom of the Jubilee is not just about my freedom.

It’s about the freedom of others.

Now I could make an internecine point and suggest that there is a problem with other Rabbis, other Jewish communities where people still aren’t able to speak their mind in the way Rabbi Jacobs, Rav Goren and Professor Shaul Liberman did. And that is certainly true.

But there are much more obvious problems of suffering in this world, and even in the broader community surrounding us here in leafy St Johns Wood.

Extraordinary inequalities of wealth.

Tremendous poverty, even among the working

Proud that we employ at a Living Wage, but it would be wrong to say that this community engages actively in bettering the lives of those beyond our four walls.

A society in which there are slaves is a society which affronts every one of its inhabitants, taught Rabbi Falk, Masters as well as slaves are the beneficiaries when the slaves are set free.

We need to do more for those outside this community before we can truly proclaim our freedom.


Before we can truly proclaim freedom we, the plurality of all of us, need to take more seriously the task of brining sanctity to our lives.

We, the plurality of all of us, need to make a space in our life to acknowledge what we have and focus on the truly important relationships in our lives.


And we need to recognise that our freedom cannot come at the expense of others. True freedom comes only when we work to bring freedom to others.


Then and only then can we truly proclaim freedom on the occasion of our fiftieth year.

We’re doing OK so far, but much more to do,


Shabbat shalom,


[1] Published in M.B. Shapiro Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox (University of Scranton Press, Scranton NJ, 2006), Hebrew section p. 9.

-[2] BT Sanhedrin loc cit.

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