Sunday, 2 October 2016

Port Jews - A First Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Here’s a question.

Suppose Sarah looked out at her child, Isaac, and Hagar’s child, Ishmael, playing and said, ‘Awh, isn’t that cute?’ Suppose she smiled as the boys played on - instead of heading to Abraham and insisting he kick Ishmael out of the camp. What would have happened if Sarah had just let them play together?

I know there is a Rabbinic commentary that suggests Ishmael was trying to kill his half-brother, but the verse says ‘m’tzachek’ - they were playing. Let’s suppose they were indeed just playing, as kids do. What would have happened if Sarah had let them play? The boys might have learnt to get along and how might a warm playful relationship between the descendents of Ishmael and Isaac make so many things different, so many years later?

It didn’t happen, of course. Sarah went to Abraham, Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael, and here we are so many thousands of years later. But can you hear the wistful whisper of the father of both boys in this Rabbinic commentary on a verse we read tomorrow? ‘Take your son, the one you love’ God instructs Abraham. And, in the mind of the Rabbis, our patriarch responds ‘Isn’t there a limit to the heart’s ability to love both?’[1]

The question is whether having someone else around is a threat, or an opportunity. The question is - how do I respond to a world populated by people who are not ... me, or - to be more precise - me or mini-versions of me?

Theodore Zeldin, the historian of human emotion, is quite clear about the way to go. We need other people for our own growth, claims Zeldin. Left to our own devices, sealed in private prisons of self-interaction, we will never solve any of the challenges that face us in our life. Without different perspectives, without a genuine interest in other people’s points of view, how will we understand anything we do not already understand?

The greatest problem of our age, Zeldin argues in his book, The Hidden Pleasures of Life, is a clash between those people who want to live in a fort and the people who want to live in a port.

Fort dwellers want a thick impregnable wall to keep the outside ... outside; fort dwellers perceive what lives beyond the wall as a threat and prepare to repulse any threat to their dream of security. But port dwellers want to live in an ever-shifting milieu of exchange where the more stuff that comes inside the greater the possibility of enrichment.

Zeldin recasts the struggle of our age as a struggle between those who want to live in a fort and those who want to live in a port. And I think that’s brilliant.

So which are you; a fort dweller or a port dweller, a fort Jew or a port Jew?

Actually it turns out there is a niche field of academic study into the life of Port Jews. My friend Jon Boyd put me onto a book I had to call up from the bowels of the British Library. According to David Sorkin, writing in Port Jews: Jewish Communities in Cosmopolitan Maritime Trading Centres, 1550-1950, there are several characteristics of the Port Jew.

Port Jews, wrote Sorkin, departed the most traditional Jewish communities, the ones that insisted on obeisance, and instead sought out voluntary affiliation to Jewish community. Port Jews questioned what it meant to be Jewish, but displayed nonetheless ‘strong markers of Jewish identity.’ They were ‘enthusiastic about Jewish education and engaged in vigorous intellectual debate among themselves and [even non-Jews.]’

Port Jews, wrote Sorkin, tended not to struggle with the oft-posed, ‘Jewish Question’ because they weren’t burdened by their own, or others, baggage regarding what it meant to be Jewish. They just got on with it. Another scholar writing in the same volume suggested Port Jews felt no need for the great transformations promised by Reform Judaism because, in the open market-place of the port, the port Jew was accepted for who they were and they just got on with it.

So here I am, reading about the Jews of C16 Trieste and it feels like I’m reading about C21 New London Synagogue. I feel like I’m reading about myself.

I’m a Port Jew. I think we all are.

To be a Port Jew is to be grounded in a sense of what it means to be Jewish, while still engaged in the world beyond the walls of the Synagogue, using values and experiences from one place to enrich our experience of the other, and vice versa. To be a Port Jew is to understand Judaism well enough to strengthen our experience of the outside world, and understand the outside world well enough to strengthen our experience of Judaism.

I’m not going to live my Jewish life in a fort. It’s too late. Frankly, it’s been too late since Adam and Eve had the opportunity to stay in the fort-like Garden of Eden and risked to know more. We all know too much. None of us is going back.

Actually I don’t even believe life in a fort is as safe as it’s cracked up to be. That, I think, is one of the messages of Jewish history.

One of the classic reasons given for the significance of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to remind us that walls are an illusory source of security. The inhabitants of Jericho hid behind walls, Saadiah Gaon once noted, but when the sound of the Shofar came, the walls came tumbling down. As walls always do, eventually.

Once upon a time, we, as Jews, built our Temples behind the strongest of walls and the Romans still came and tore it all down. So we learnt, and created a Judaism that was more flexible, less centralised, more port-like - more portable - instead. Abraham Joshua Heschel observed that our Temples made out of time are perhaps the principle reason for Jewish survival. Life in a port may sound more risky than life in a fort, but here we are, so many thousand years later.

Brexit looms as I write this sermon. It looms over us all. There were plenty of reasonable reasons to vote ‘Leave’ but so much of the ‘Leave’ campaign focussed around offering the illusory security of a fort. But we can’t go back. Nor should we want to. We know our economy does better in an open-market. We know science does better when knowledge is shared. We know art is more sophisticated and powerful when cultural interchange is possible. We even know comedy is funnier when outsiders get to look in and point out our absurdities. Economy, science, art, comedy - all areas where, as Jews, we have thrived, maybe precisely because we know, as Jews, how to function in a port. We’ve worked out how to thrive in ports; moving inside and outside, a bit of give, a bit of take, we’ve learnt much, and shared much from our port life.

It’s not just Brexit, there is so much politics in this idea of fort v port; the US Presidential Campaign with its Mexican wall and the Calais Jungle and other challenges related to immigration. There’s Black Lives Matter and the rise of the Far-Right across Europe. There’s even Shul politics, for questions of same-sex marriage and how often women should read from the Torah also have something of this fort-port dynamic.

But putting aside all the politics what I’m most interested in is the personal level; what it means to encounter life, encounter other people who seem to threaten my comfort. Because down here, on the personal level, while I see myself as a Port-kind of person, I’m throwing up walls all the time. On the personal level the distinction between the port Jew and the fort Jew is too black and white for my heart. My head might get it, but sometimes the cacophony of the port is too much and I want just to retreat. My experience of the clash between port live-ers and the fort live-ers is less about one political movement against another and more about the inside of my psyche, it’s about the day-by-day and even moment-by-moment.

And the heartbreak is that, in my shakier moments, the tendency to retreat and hide behind a wall swells up in my soul and closes me down to experiencing something new at precisely the moment when I would most benefit from an infusion of the new. I know, intellectually, that I would do better beyond the walls, but I’m not brave enough to live as a Port Jew in all ways, at every moment.

Actually maybe it’s not just a lack of bravery. A life lived with no sense of wall, no sense of fort, is probably foolhardy. Embracing the openness of the port only works if the port is a regulated place of safe, vibrant exchange. You don’t deal with ISIS by opening up your borders and welcoming all and sundry to come on in and do their worst. And to those of you who have given of your time to stand guard and protect us so we can muse about the relative values of forts and ports - thank you. This most definitely is not a sermon about not taking our physical security seriously.

But this is a plea for the value of a port-centred existence, both personally and as a sacred community. I believe we, at New London, are uniquely placed to understand what it means to be a port-Jew, and to reap the incredible benefits of a richness inspired by a committed Jewish life lived in actively engagement with the world out there. This is certainly the Torah I preach and we practice week in and week out. And if you want to know more about that, come back tomorrow, come back next week, the week after or the week after that.

Perhaps most of all this is a call for the value of openness. In the way we do business, in the way we do politics, in the way we do Judaism, in the way we encounter friends and strangers. It’s a call to be brave and not hide behind walls that offer only illusory security. It’s a call to open the walls around the heart letting in some of the scarier stuff, believing we will be better - inspired and indeed safer - by living our lives as port Jews.

Rebbe Nachman was right when he suggested the world is a narrow bridge, and right again to insist the most important thing is to have no fear. For with an open heart, an open mind, courage and curiosity we are ready, ready to greet this New Year with optimism, confidence and hope. May it come to us, to all we hold dear, in sweetness, in joy and in health.

Shannah Tovah - a Good Year to all.

[1] Bereishit Rabba 55:7

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