Friday, 29 September 2017

God Optional - Kol Nidrei 5778

God Optional

A long time ago, now, I started thinking about the Rabbinate. There was so much that enticed me; the study of Torah, the majesty of Shabbat, even - I’ll admit it - the idea of having a bunch of people sit and listen to me pontificate for a while - thanks for coming. There was just the one problem - the God problem.

I didn’t really have any relationship with God. I hadn’t heard any voices. I hadn’t spent my life in fear, or in love, with a white bearded deity on a cloud. I’d uttered a bunch of words in shul - I’d even found inspiration and comfort in prayer - but I’d never taken the God-ness of our liturgy too much to heart. And here I was thinking about the Rabbinate - chutzpah, dishonesty or possibly on to something?

We had a visit earlier in the Summer from one of my dearest American colleagues, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavi. Amichai runs an organisation called Lab/Shul - it’s branded ‘God-Optional - Open To All.’ I get what he is trying to achive; saying to people that it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t believe about God. Here’s Judaism, you want it, come on in. Take what you want to take, and leave what you want to leave. Perhaps most of all, Amichai is acknowledging that the G-word is a barrier for many of us. Calling Judaism ‘God-Optional’ opens a path to those who are never going to take seriously something they feel is predicated on a deceit.

So here’s my ‘does it matter’ question for Kol Nidrei - does it matter if you believe in God?

I know it’s easy to insist it is; I can cite Rambam and Rashi, and the rest of ‘em. There is a mighty list of theologically inclined Rabbis who all agree that Judaism without a relationship with God is an impossibility. But I also know the reality of Jewish life in this special community, and many others. There are loads of us busily getting on with Jewish lives; learning, cultural engagement and even prayer - who don’t do God. Many of us are actually quite comfortable customising our Judaism to exclude the God bit. Does that matter?

OK, that’s the question clearly put. And here it gets a little tricky. I occasionally joke with upcoming BMs that there’s a trapdoor under the Bimah, and if they make a mistake in their leyning they’ll find themselves dropping into a piranha pit underneath. I say it with a smile. But this sort of sermon does feel a little like that. I know what’s coming.

The truth is I don’t care much about a person’s use of the G-word. You can tell me you believe in God. You can tell me you don’t. It would figure pretty low on a list of things I would want to know about your qualities as a person and your relationship with Judaism. But that’s not because I’m into what most people refer to when they talk about God-optional in Judaism.

Most people, when they talk about God-optional Judaism, mean that there is a fully realised Judaism that can be lived culturally, with a love of the Jewish people, Jewish history and even Jewish study. And that’s it. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I think Judaism needs an existential component - existential as in - connected to a grand vision of the nature of existence. It’s just that I think that if you connect to three key elements of that existential sense of what I think Judaism has to be about, I would encourage you not to worry so much about the G-word. If you can go along with these three key parts of Jewish life - you’ve already got it.

So these are the three key parts of the existential nature of Judaism.

The first is an awareness that you are not the most central thing in the Universe. None of us is. I’m aware that’s a little counter-cultural. We live in a world obsessed with placing our own needs and desires front and central - a view it has to be said, largely fostered by those making money from exploiting our desires to satiate own needs to line their own pockets. More fool us. But seeing our own desires as not ultimately important is more than a waste of money. It’s shallow and dangerous. Placing self-interest at the centre of our world view, turns the rest of the world, and certainly all the people in it, into the means to our own ends. Seeing our own desires as supremely important empties out an ability to care about anyone or even anything else. It spells disaster for any serious attempt at relationships. It’s dangerous but we all do it, all the time. We judge political parties, friends, professional colleagues, even the ecology of our planet in terms of what they could do for us, rather than see our lives as opportunities to serve, to care and to tend.

Locating ultimacy as beyond self-interest is an essential component of what people who use the G-word should mean when they use the G-word. Belief in God is a training in recognising the power otherness. “I am God,” reads the first of the Ten Commandments, and you are not. Belief in God is belief in there being something more important that anything we could possess, tame or own. It’s a training in humility. It opens us up to realise that what we have is not some kind of right but a gift and a grace.

If you can get to this place of grace, recognising otherness and our relationship to that which is truly important in the work - without the G-word. And there are plenty who do. That’s genuinely fantastic. That’s the first thing.

The second element in an existential Judaism is an awareness that the most important things in life can’t be measured.  This is the thing that most drives me to staggered bemusement when I encounter the blockbuster atheists who seem only to value that which can be measured and double-blind tested under laboratory conditions.
I know measuring is terribly important. I don’t want to take a train across a bridge that hasn’t been measured and checked to beyond any conceivable chance of collapse. Of course measurement is important. But you can’t measure a life in the same way you can stress test a bridge. You can’t measure love, happiness or kindness. Or rather something rather sad happens to these things if we pretend they can be force between callipers. The more we measure the more we turn everything in our life into commodities - just other things in a world of so many things. That’s not the way to treat that which is most important - our relationships in particular.

In one of the most famous tales in the Talmud the great Rabbi, Shammai loses his temper and ends up beating a stranger with a question with the Talmudic equivalent of a ‘2 by 4.’ I wonder if the violent response might be occasioned by Shammai’s profession. He’s a carpenter - indeed that’s what he’s doing with the 2 by 4 in the first place. And carpenters do a whole lot of measuring. I’ve known some lovely carpenters, but I wonder if Shammai was just too used to measuring things, and began to measure people in the same way he measured joists and beams. Hence the frustration with anyone who didn’t come up to the expected height - whack. Hillel - who brings the poor soul under the wings of the Divine Presence - is presses olive oil. That’s a job which entails drawing sweetness from something that seems intolerably bitter. Pressing olives is probably not a bad training in valuing things that cannot be seen and none the less needs to be valued.

My great teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote[1] about the ‘wind that sighed before the dawn.’ He noted that if we treat the phrase as a description, it’s meaningless. But if we consider it indicative - if we think these words point towards that which cannot be accurately pinned down technically, it’s a great phrase. It’s a line from Lewis Morris’ Le Vent de L’Esprit

The wind that sighs before the dawn
Chases the gloom of night,
The curtains of the East are drawn,
And suddenly—'t is light

That’s the sort of stuff that can evoke wonder and drawing from us an amazement that is the greatest achievement of our human grasp.

Believe in the sights that cannot be seen, the sounds that cannot be heard and the emotions that cannot be plotted on some fancy electronic feed that won’t tell you anything about the quality of your love or the wisdom of your soul.

If it helps to count God among the things you value, the things you believe in, that do not belong in the category of things that can be measured, but are still important. Great. If it doesn’t, if the G-word gets you feeling hostile or embarrassed or preferring some quotidian explanation of why we are the way we are, then don’t use the G-word. I don’t mind. Really.

Just don’t consider you are the most important thing in the universe you inhabit, and value the stuff that can’t be measured.

And the third thing.
The third key element of an existentially valuable Jewish existence is to believe that actions matter. What we spend our money on matters, what we eat matters, the way we speak matters, the way we treat people - strangers and friends matter.
We’ll do the prayer tomorrow, the Unataneh Tokef, there’s a reference to a books recalling our every action, even the forgotten one and the Hebrew reads - Hotem Yad Kol Adam Bo - the seal of every human’s hand is within it. You don’t have to believe in literal books. You don’t have to believe in God as some kind of cosmic accountant running profit and loss accounts on our merits and failings. But if you want to be a good Jew - frankly if you want to be a good human being - you need to live as if the actions you take leave behind some kind of cosmic fingerprint. You have to believe that just as the wind sighs before the dawn, you write a book with Hotem Yad Bo - a book sealed in the trace of your actions and inactions.

Here’s the tricky piece - about actions. I think you need to believe that your actions matter even if no-one else sees you doing the thing you do. In fact particularly these things matters; the things you think you can get away with. I was having a conversation with a friend about trolling, and the way the anonymity of the internet seems to have begat an overspill of nastiness into public society. That’s bad. The hidden nastiness has had very public consequences.
The Jewish understanding of the significance of these hidden actions gets its fullest expression in the understanding of a Biblical verse which prohibits placing a stumbling block before a blind person. ­Lo Titen Michshol Lifnei Iver (Lev 19:14). The blind person, of course, can’t see the stumbling block infront of them. And the Biblical verse goes on to say, ‘I am the Lord your God’ which the Rabbis understand to mean - God watches, even if you think God doesn’t.

But you don’t need to bring God into the picture. You can hold tight to a pithy aphorism about butterflies and hurricanes. You can hold tightly to a notion of God who knows and is the force of order in amongst all this chaos. But you have to believe that actions matter.

If you live your life locating the centre of the Universe as ‘not you,’ if you can value the hidden things as more important than the things that can be measured and if can live as though every act is cosmically significant. That’s great.

And that is really what I wanted to say tonight. If there is someone at home who wants to hear what the Rabbi spoke about in Shul this evening, tell ‘em this. Tell ‘em that the Rabbi said that if you lived life with a sense of humility, if you cared about the things that couldn’t be measured and if you lived life as if every action counted then, the Rabbi told you, you didn’t have to worry about the whole God thing in Judaism. Be my guest.

But here’s the kicker. Here’s the bit for anyone still paying attention. You’re a smart lot, you’ve probably figured it out already. The things I’ve been talking about are the very essence of a perfectly noble theology. This is what Judaism means when it talks about centrality of God. This is what I mean when I say I do believe in God. I believe in God as the point of ultimate otherness. I believe in God as the location of ultimate immeasurable value. I deem God as mechanism of record keeping of all actions. Zeh Hu Zeh. This is that. A belief in God isn’t an abdication the belief that science matters. It’s not a foxhole in which to crawl when things get hard. It certainly isn’t a children’s story. It’s a description of ultimacy, value and meaning. Almost a location.

I’m aware this might sound a little new fangled, or heretical, but it’s what the Rabbis of the Talmud, I think were getting at when they began to use the Hebrew term HaMakom as the word they used when they referred to God. HaMakom means ‘The place.’ God is the place where ultimacy resides.

I believe in God. I got over my nervousness and fear of the word, got on with my Rabbinic studies and here we all are. I began to find insight and strength from allowing myself to feel more at ease with the whole God thing - even if my beliefs in how we got to be here haven’t really changed. I used to believe I wasn’t the centre of the Universe, I used to value the things that can’t be measured and I used to take action seriously. I still do. I used not to take the G-word seriously, but now I do. I don’t think it’s as necessary as some make it out to be. It’s not as necessary as some other more important stuff. But it’s not as far away as some would suggest either. It is, in the sense of that extraordinary verse at the heart of my sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, not in the heavens, it’s not so far that you have to leave your senses or your rationality to find it. It’s very close, in your heart. And the pathway to my feeling a relationship with God are these very three elements of a Jewish life lived well.

You don’t have to believe in God. It’s not necessary, but it could be.

Chatimah Tovah

[1] In God in Search of Man p.182
[2] Le Vent de L’Esprit by Lewis Morris

The Bet is Still On - Yizkor Yom Kippur 5778

The best book I’ve read in the last year is an oddly named book by the French writer, Laurent Binet. It’s called HHhH.[1] In part HHhH is the story of the Nazi, Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Butcher of Prague. Heydrich was intimately complicit in Kristallnacht and convened the conference where the Final Solution was most fully articulated.

I’ve read a bunch of books about Nazis. I am sure many of us have. But what makes Binet’s work particularly interesting is that it’s not a book about a Nazi. It’s rather a book about writing a book about a Nazi. Having introduced us to Heydrich’s brutality, Binet steps out from behind the fourth wall. ‘You see,’ he writes, ‘Heydrich is the target [of this book] not [it’s] protagonist. Everything I’ve written about him [to this point] is by way of background.’  And if that sounds a bit arch, a bit - forgive my generalisation - a bit French, bear with me. Because Binet is on to something deeply important.

The book unfolds, Binet recalls the events of Heydrich’s life. He introduces us to his heroes; Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš; two Czech partisans, trained in England and sent by the Czech Government-in-exile to assassinate Prague’s Butcher. On the fateful day, as Heydrich’s car slows - as the assassins knew it would - at the corner where they planned to strike, Gabčík’s gun jams. The plan - so carefully considered - looks to be failing. But then Kubiš has a moment to lob a grenade in Heydrich’s direction and does. It seems to affect only minor damage on Heydrich the target. But then septicaemia sets in and the Butcher of Prague dies an invalid’s death a week later. Binet goes on to tell the story of Lidice, the Czech town of 500 razed to the ground by the Nazi’s as punishment for the assassination - razed on the entirely erroneous notion that its inhabitants had something to do with the plot. And finally Binet recounts the final moments of Gabčík and Kubiš, holed up in the basement of a Prague Church, keeping 800 Nazis at bay [through a day and long into the night], until at last, they too suffer the same mortal consequence that met their target.

And all through this brilliant storytelling, Binet keeps peeking out from behind the fourth wall, asking us, and asking himself - does it matter? In the shadow of the Holocaust, and millions murdered in so many awful ways, does it matter that the butcher Heydrich dies on a hospital gurney while Gabčík and Kubiš die in a heroic last stand. In the face of the impossible awfulness of Nazi brutality does any of this matter?

Back in the earliest pages of the book, as we first meet Heydrich the child, Binet tells us his target grew up in the German village of Halle. He supposes he ought, at that point, wax lyrical about the village, but admits that he doesn’t know which of the two German towns called Halle Heydrich actually was from, ‘For the time being,’ he tells us ‘I’m not sure it’s important.’ Binet asks if it matters that the gun jammed, or if it matters that more Czech’s died because of the assassination that would have died had Heydrich been left to get on with his awful existence.

As the Nazi’s destroy Lidice and every man and most of the women who lived in the town, Gabcik and Kubis hide in a Prague basement, in despair at the wave of Nazi destruction unleashed in the aftermath of their ultimately successful assasination. They knew, they surely knew that their plotting could result in their own death, but did they consider the mass deaths of innocents their actions would provoke? Was it worth it? ‘Gabcik and Kubis weep from rage and powerlessness,’ Binet writes, ‘No one ever manages to persuade them that Heydrich’s death was good for anything . Perhaps,’ he continues, ‘I am writing this book to make them understand that they are wrong.’

HHhH becomes a book about the possibility of meaning, it’s a challenge posed in the face of Nazi brutality. But it’s a challenge, I suspect, we all feel sometimes. Particularly especially at this point on this day, with our memories of those who are no longer here; some taken peacefully at the ends of long fulfilled lives, others taken too early or too bitterly.

Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, a “single event of inexplicable horror ‘has the power to make everything inexplicable, including the most explicable events.’[2]

This is part of the problem of the Holocaust, it can strip us of all understanding, it can make it seem impossible to care about anything anymore.

And here I find myself drawn into the awful debate, now some 30 years old, surrounding the death of one of the bravest souls ever to have looked into the furnace of Auschwitz; Primo Levi. [3] In 1987 Levi was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in his apartment building. Almost immediately Eli Wiesel pronounced, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz ... forty years later.” The coroner in seeming agreement called his death a suicide. The American homme des lettres, Leon Wieseltier felt the loss not only of the man, Levi, but everything Levi stood for. "[Levi],” wrote Wieseltier, “spoke for the bet that there is no blow from which the soul may not recover. When he smashed his body, he smashed his bet.”

There’s a certain dangerous, seductive romance given succour by considering Levi’s death a suicide - the whiff of Juliette, taking her life as Romeo lies apparently dead before her. Here, the Levi, takes his life having completed his last great work, having said everything there is to say about the appalling failures of human possibility.

It’s just that - much like Romeo’s apparent death - this dark dangerous romantic vision of Levi might be quite wrong. In the years since his death the notion that Levi gave up on life as a direct result of his suffering in the camps has taken a battering. For one thing Levi himself is recorded active, engaged and excited by life and the various diary commitments he had set out for himself in the weeks after his death. He told his friends he no longer felt under the weight of the experiences of his formative years. And the fall down the stairs is a strange way to commit suicide - especially for a chemist - who could, surely have found easier paths towards death if that was indeed what he had chosen. Levi’s friend and cardiologist, David Mendel, observed that drugs Levi was taking often lower the blood pressure. Mendel imagines Levi on the point of fainting, reaching for banisters to steady himself and instead toppling.

Maybe Levi didn’t accept that the value of life is always trumped by the power of darkness and death.
Maybe Wieseltier’s bet, that there is no blow from which the soul may not recover, that there is no hell which some element of human virtue cannot penetrate, illuminate and palliate is still on.
Maybe life is still worth living - and living fully and heroically and as brightly as we are capable.

We are teetering on a knife-edge, trying to discover if there is anything authentic to do in a world where human will treat human with such abject violence and hatred; a world where the good and the evil suffer the same inevitable mortal consequence. And we are grasping for something that allows us to feel the bet is still on.

Let me draw one more voice into this conversation - Emil Fackenheim - by some twist of fate or coincidence, born in Halle, Saxony in 1916. That turns out to be the very same village in which the butcher of Prague, Heydrich was born 12 years earlier. Fackenheim, by 1939 a Rabbi, fled the Sauchsenhausen concentration camp in which he was detained in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, to become one of the most significant thinkers in 20th Century Jewry.

To read Fackenheim’s work, To Mend the World, is to feel Fackenheim being eaten away at by the notion that the Holocaust strips the life from ... life. Perhaps everything, he suggests is inauthentic after the Holocaust.

But no. Fackenheim, Binet and even Primo Levi, ultimately don’t suggest life is inauthentic, despite their deep investigations into the very darkest of times. They each emerge, if not with a jolly spring in their step, with a sense of the value of a life lived heroically, frankly, the value of a life lived at all. The stories of those who survived and those who did not, are for each of these three writers, full of authentic responses to the extraordinary gift of life even as their, so often tragically, are cut short. The acts of violence are never recounted as voiding the possibility of finding and creating meaning in these stories.

Fackenheim in particular, latches on to moments of heroism; sometimes the dramatic stories - such as Heydrich’s assassins Gabčík and Kubiš;’ sometimes the simpler triumphs of a survivor like Pelagia Lewinska. Lewinska spent 20 month’s in Auschwitz and her great triumph lay in nothing more than refusing to allow the Nazis to strip from her her belief in the value of behaving with human decency - she’s a hero too. Levi tells stories like these with a cooler spirit, but, I think, with pride nonetheless. Fackenheim’s point is that these  acts of heroism can’t be deemed inauthentic, or meaningless because they were performed in full understanding of the consequences. When a group of German philosophers, called the White Rose, sprayed ‘Down with Hitler’ on the walls of Munich in 1943, they knew they were courting death, and that by a certain standard that their actions would surely be futile. But they went ahead. ‘They knew it,’ wrote Fackenheim, ‘but they did it.’[4] And this, the philosopher writes, makes activism after the Holocaust capable of touching authenticity.

Or try this example, from HHhH. It comes from a section where Binet considers Theresienstadt, the so called ‘model’ concentration camp where the Nazis encouraged Jews to have a ‘relatively well developed cultural life with art and theatre.’ The Red Cross were fooled by the demonstrations of culture on show. But the Jewish residents weren’t. Of the 140,000 Jews imprisoned at Theresienstadt, only 17,000 survived. Binet cites Milan Kundera, ‘They were under no illusions: [they knew] their cultural life was exhibited by Nazi propaganda as an alibi; but should that be a reason to refuse freedom, however precarious and fraudulent? Their response was utterly clear: their creations, their art shows, their concerts, their loves, the whole array of their lives were incomparably more important than their jailers’ macabre theatrics. That was their [bet][5]. It should be ours too.’
Weiseltier’s bet, it seems, can survive the Holocaust because it was undertaken also in the midst of the Holocaust.

At the heart of all these articulations of possibility in the face of death, and in the face of the Holocaust most particularly, lies something irreducibly spiritual, perhaps we might even call it religious. I’m not trying to co-opt any of these thinkers and writers. But, for me, considering art, rebellion and even refusing to lose one’s humanity as meaningful bespeaks our belief that we are not just flesh and bones. We are not just material. We contain something other. We need something more than the material and, most remarkably, we become capable of creating something other than the material. As humans we create something other than material even when we are deprived of all material things; even in the midst of the Holocaust. And the heart of this thing that survives even such darkness as the Holocaust, are stories.

Binet writes that ‘The Nazis kept files, but burnt books.’ Files are the quotidian account of what will pass in time. But books are repositories of our soul, playgrounds for our imagination and homes of our dreams. Of course the Nazis were afraid of books. Of course they sought refuge in the reductive false security of ledgers. But the stories have survived. They have survived because stories of life are more powerful than numbers. The actions of the spirit are more powerful than the losses of the material - as much as the material we have lost hurt us so. That’s, of course, what we are all doing here, at Yizkor, remembering stories, even when the material presene of those we have lost and lost has gone.

As we tell stories, as we remind ourselves of all those we mourn. We remind ourselves of those destroyed by the Nazis and of those who have perished since in ways less brutal. But more than any of this we remind ourselves that life is more important than the material.

We remind ourselves of the value of a life lived beyond the realm of the material.
We remind ourselves that the bet is still on.
We remind ourselves that there is a point to living.
Even - in fact especially - as we consider the lives of those who have gone.
May all these lives be for a blessing.

[1] Originally published, in French, in 2010, and winner of the Prix Goncourt Du Premier Roman of that year. I read it in Sam Taylor’s 2012 translation, published by Harvill Secker.
[2] Cited in Kierkegaard’s name but with no citation in Emil Fackenheim’s To Mend the World, p.191.
[4] MW 266-267.
[5] ‘wager’ in the original.

One More Thing - Neilah Yom Kippur 5778

It’s been a journey. To everyone who has played a part in making these services, these days, so special, thank you. All that is left is one more service. And from me, one more thing. Actually ‘one more thing’ is probably not the best thing to say to a room of Jews. We tend not to be so good with ‘one more thing.’

In fact, our un-easiness with ‘one more thing’ is possibly at the heart of the greatest challenge in contemporary Jewish communal existence. It’s most manifest at the Bar Mitzvah. Mazal Tov, we say, to those who accomplish so much, and now for your future as an adult Jew - as they head away from the Bimah, if not never to be seen again, then only rarely to be seen looking for opportunities to do one more thing.

I’ve a certain sympathy with anyone who feels, certainly at this point in the day, that they’ve had enough already - 24 hours into a super-concentrated dose of doing Jewish. I’ve this sinking feeling that in an hour’s time we’ll toot the Shofar, and too many of you will head away from the Synagogue if not never to be seen again, then only rarely to be seen looking for opportunities to do ‘one more thing.’ But I hope we can do things a little differently this year. I’m a Rabbi, I deal in the commodity of hope.

Maybe it’s taken the journey up to this point to open us up a bit - maybe it’s taken the last 10 days and the last 24 hours to quieten the distractions of the world out there and allow us to appreciate a bit more this - this Jewish thing we are so blessed to have as our spiritual inheritance. I hope you are feeling hungry - aside from the anything else - for a bit more Judaism this year. Ready to give this Jewish thing a chance to occupy one more bit of space in your lives this coming year.

I hope that’s the case because the, ‘I’ve had enough already,’ thing leaves us with a voiceless unlived and unloved Judaism for 10 days shy of a year. And that breaks my heart. We could be so much more.

There’s certainly something to build on. I don’t, in my various conversations over the year, encounter many members of the community who share - “Oh, just this, a bit of RH and a burst of YK, and really, I’m done at that point - see ya’ next year.” I know some people just say nice things to a Rabbi, but I think it’s more than just that. The sense I have is that there is at least a theoretical hunger to know more, feel more and even do more Jewish stuff. Ah, how to convert that theoretical wistfullness into something practical. There’s the rub.

I think there are two things that keep our desires to do one more thing in the realm of theory - for so many of us. I’m going to be doing my best to solve one impediment. The other one - is going to be up to you.

The bit that has to be up to you is this - find the time. I know it’s busy. I know we are all so busy, busy. We like to kid ourselves that this business is some radical new departure from the great flow of history when everyone had so much more time to do things that we would like to do if only we had the time. I’m not sure that’s the case. This one comes from the Mishnah, the time of the Second Temple. ‘Hillel used to say, “Don’t say, ‘When I’m free to study, I’ll study. Perhaps you’ll never get free.’”’[2] It’s as good a piece of advice today as it was 2000 years ago.

I’m not even sure all this business is getting us anywhere; not only the obvious stuff, like missing out on the growing lives of our children, our friendships, a sense of meaning in our lives. I’m not even so sure that all this business makes us better at business. Here’s my best tip - once you start to make time for the stuff, other than business, that you are prepared to value in your life it gets easier you just have to start and then commit. But I can’t magic more time out of your busy lives. You’ll have to do that piece yourselves.

Here’s my side of the deal. I’m not sure we, at New London, have got the offering right. What’s the thing that would give our members the insight and understanding and the opportunity to feel ‘one more thing’ is indeed the step they would wish to take. Sure we put on classes and lectures and meals and talk about the Asylum Drop-In centre. But it’s all too easy to hear an invitation like this and think, ah, that’s not really for me. It’s not going to fit quite right .... Oh I don’t know. We are all so good at these kinds of justifications of not doing, ‘one more thing.’ But I’m sure you are all right. It hasn’t quite been right so far.

So we are going to try this.

I want to make an ask from every member of this community. I want you to join me on a journey called Chai Mitzvah. Chai Mitzvah is a programme a number of my colleagues have been running in the States for some time and I’m excited New London stand to be the first community to bring the programme to the UK. I’m grateful, in particular, to my friend and colleague Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum for putting me in touch with the organisation.

Chai Mitzvah is a way for a group of Jews to go on a journey around the three central pillars of Jewish life; Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasidim - a triumvirate translated as Study, Spirituality and Social Action.[3] The idea is that the group meets once a month for nine months for an evening of study. At some point in the year the group engage in a service project together. And, each member of the group choose one Jewish ritual that they will celebrate for the first time.

That’s it. This is the ask;

Will you be part of the first Chai Mitzvah group at New London? We’ll be starting at the back end of October. Once a month for nine months, a new piece of Avodah and a social action project.

OK, that’s not quite one thing. Depending on how you count it’s ... well it’s definitely more than one. Forgive me, I’ve never been good at maths.

But the point is Chai Mitzvah is designed for the sweet spot I think we, as a community need. It’s sufficiently serious to make a difference, but sufficiently thin and spread out to be manageable.

And it’s good stuff. The study materials are thoughtful, insightful, inspiring.
The new engagement with Avodah - one step on a spiritual journey of connection to Jewish ritual observance - you get to choose for yourself. Is there anything you would like to do, but never done - an Aliyah perhaps, a blessing for your children, something for the Seder? I hear a lot of people share their nervousness about doing the really practical Jewish stuff. We’ll support that journey in any way we can. Cantor Jason’s up for it.
And you’ll get a bunch of me - if that counts as an inducement.

And a project of Gemilut Hasidim - literally a project of loving kindness. I’ve a great one to recommend. I’ve been so proud of our the work of the heroes of the New London Synagogue Asylum Seeker Drop-In Project, now a year old - having helped hundreds of those who have arrived on these shores just a blink of an eye after our own immigrant ancestors. I want to take just a moment to salute and celebrate the hard work and generosity of so many of you here tonight. I am deeply in awe. I love the Drop In, but you don’t have to choose that for your piece of Gemilut Hasidim. You can do anything that makes the world better for someone else, doing it with other people who are part of this community. We would love to support that. It’s a cliché but no less true for being so oft repeated. The best way to feel grateful is to do something kind for someone else.

It’s a simple ask. Will you be part of a Chai Mitzvah group here at New London? I want 100 people.

That’s a good chunk of people here tonight. In other words, this isn’t one of those sermons designed to remind you of all the people you know who should heed its call. It isn’t a sermon about the person sitting next to you. It’s a sermon for you.

I want enough people so we can find ways to schedule the learning and the rest of it in such a way that we all get to be part of the journey.

Are you up for this.

There’s are a couple of things on the table outside as you head for the door.
There’s a sign-up sheet, or three, you can grab a pen - once we are done with the whole Yom Tov thing, leave your e-mail and I’ll be in touch in the coming days.
There are some fliers - you can take one of those and if you are interested, get in touch with me.

I’m giving us two weeks - the weekend after Simhat Torah to get ready for this. There will be more in emails and announcements to come.
And we’ll be looking to start the classes at the back end of October.

So come, join me on this journey towards, ‘one more thing’

As we begin this one last journey through Yamim Noraim, more generally, let’s open our hearts to the possibility of all this making a difference in our year to come.
It would be a terrible waste to have come so far, only to slide back into the world from which we emerged only ten days ago.
Before these gates close, take a leap, make a promise to yourself, one more time, one more thing,
Chatimah Tovah

[1] With thanks to Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum for the inspirtation behind this sermon
[2] Pirkei Avot 2:5
[3] Pirkei Avot 1.2

And a Very Happy New Year to You Too

I spent the afternoon writing in a cafe. A woman, who seemed to have ordered her coffee on an app before arrival, balled out the barista who hadn’t prepared the required beverage in time for her to walk in, pick up and walk out. He’s a bit pompous in telling her to wait a moment and she responds by brandishing her phone, “Well I wouldn’t have used this if I had wanted to wait in line, would I?” It wasn’t really a question.

As I cycled home a man walked into the road right in front of me, I swerve to avoid him and shout out as I pass, “Don’t forget to look as you cross the road.” He tells me to go away. He didn’t really say, “Go away.” And I was a little more patronising than I should have been.

“Hell is other people,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. Well only if that’s the world we want to live in.
There is another way to see “other people;” as colour, experience, a test of our capacity to love and be kind.

Speculations on who is exactly how much to blame in these, or so many other interactions, misses the point. The real culprit is the irritation we all feel at other people getting in our way. The key to this last sentence is ‘we all feel.’ We can do something about that. We have the power to get less irritated. We have the power to find other people fascinating - even if they remain annoying. We certainly have the power to restrain our snippiness. And we certainly should.

Chatimah Tovah

A good ‘sealing’ to one and all. See you in Shul,

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Masorti - Or Not - Second Day Rosh Hashanah 5778

It’s not the same today, as it was yesterday.

Yesterday there were a bunch of people here who haven’t been here since Yom Kippur last year. They were most welcome. I hope they had a serious and positive encounter with what we do and I look forward to seeing them on Yom Kippur. But I want to address this sermon to Mishpochah - the family. This is for those of you who love this community enough to come, if not every week, then frequently enough to be insiders.

And, as you do with the Mishpochah, I want to share the sort of story you don’t easily share with outsiders. I want to take you inside a meeting of the Masorti Rabbinic team. We were discussing who should be able to serve as a Dayan on our Bet Din - a judge on our religious court. We have, as a Movement, traditionally only had male Rabbis sit on the Bet Din. And the question was being put should we, and in what circumstances, have women Rabbis also judge?

Of course we’ve had female Masorti Rabbinic colleagues for some time.
We all agree that women judges, as a matter of Jewish law, could serve as judges on the Rabbinic court, but they, up to now, they haven’t. The issue is that our Orthodox colleagues don’t accept women judges. They rely on a classically tenuous Talmudic semi-proofs[1] and a two thousand year tradition that didn’t imagine women could have anything of value to say from, as it were, the bench.

The conversation was dividing us - that’s OK, we’ve learnt to disagree and still get on. On the one hand some of us felt that only having men sitting on the Bet Din would give our conversion candidates the best chance of being recognised as Jews by the widest number of people - and that that is a core goal. On the other hand some of us felt that a Movement who believes woman could sit as judges, shouldn’t be precluding women from this role because of Orthodox sensitivities.

I have a lot of sympathy with conversion candidates. It’s not easy to go through life fearing someone could at any time turn up their nose at your faith and rejecting your Jewish identity - and those of your children. It would be great to make that problem go away. But let me put aside the question of whether only having male Dayanim on the Bet Din does make our conversions any more acceptable to anyone - I’m not sure that it’s the case. Let me even put aside questions of whether being Masorti definitely means you have to be a supporter of egalitarian roles in Jewish religious leadership for men and women.

I want to focus on, instead, these questions - what should our role be, as members of a broader Jewish community. Should we be looking to accentuate the specific ways in which we are Masorti, or should we fold into the prevailing majorities of Jewish practice, should we be ... in the language of that tick box ...  ‘just Jewish.’ To put it another way; it might be as much as we can handle, this Masorti Jewish thing, but should we be more explicit that there is a gold-standard out there - that would be Orthodoxy - and that our inability to rise to its intense demands is our failure, failure of will and failure of effort?

These are my ‘does it matter’ questions of the day.

It’s a question that’s been rehearsed for some time, here, at New London. When I arrived here as Rabbi - and this is my tenth Rosh Hashanah here as your Rabbi - there was a welcome note on the foyer which read, ‘New London Synagogue is an independent Orthodox synagogue affiliated to the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues’ - good luck to anyone trying to work that one out. I think it means that we wished to self-define as Orthodox, but the United Synagogue wouldn’t stand for it. So we found some similar thinking people to spend some time with while still believing in an Orthodox gold-standard. Actually, I know that’s exactly what the note meant. I knew the man who wrote the note well enough. And I also know what Rabbi Louis Jacobs, of blessed memory meant when he wrote it. He meant that orthodoxy represents Jewish authenticity, and that label - authentic - was one we, as a community, wanted for ourselves.

The first problem is that orthodoxy doesn’t mean the thing we believe in. It doesn’t mean an open-hearted, open-minded engagement with a pursuit for truth and a way to live well as a human, as a member of the Jewish community and ultimately, before God. Orthodoxy is intimately bound up in a theological claim that no-one in this community believes, and it uses that theological claim to justify a range of behaviours that are out of keeping with an open-hearted, open-minded engagement with a pursuit for truth.
As some of you know, my son started in a school under Modern Orthodox auspices this Year. He’s having a great time - thanks for asking. But I was nervous about how these Orthodox auspices would impact on his education. I took up the opportunity to speak with the School’s head of Jewish Studies. What happened, I wanted to ask, if a student’s understanding of Jewish history, indeed world history, led them to believe in a relationship with Judaism other than Orthodoxy? “Well,” said the charming and genuinely engaged Head of Studies, “We would try and explain the Orthodox understanding of these issues.” Fair enough, but what if those explanations failed to persuade a student of Orthodoxy’s validity? “Well,” said the still charming Head of Studies, “then we would have to explain that the school was being run the way the school was being run and the student would just have to accept that.” In other words, there are places a serious quest into the meaning of being Jewish wouldn’t be welcomed. At least I knew where I stood. But I don’t like it. I don’t value dogma above intellectual and spiritual enquiry. And I don’t say that because I don’t care about Judaism, or what God wants of us. I say that precisely because I care so much about Judaism and what God wants of us. I say that because placing dogma above enquiry is, I believe, profoundly un-Jewish and categorically not what God wants of us.

Here’s one of my all time favourite Talmudic passages, from Yoma[2]. In the Amidah we praise God - HaEl Hagadol Hagibur veHanorah. - God the great, mighty and awesome. That’s a phrase taken from the book of Deuteronomy - it appears in Moses’ name. A similar phrase appears in Jeremiah, but here it’s shorter - HaEl Hagadol veHagibur - God the great and mighty. And then there is a yet another abbreviation of the phrase, this time in the Book of Daniel, where Daniel calls God - HaEl HaGadol. How, Rav Mattena asks, could Jeremiah and then Daniel edit down the authentic full version used by Moses? He must be, Rav Mattena reports, that ‘Jeremiah - [prophet of the time of the destruction of the First Temple] said: “Invaders have destroyed God’s Temple. Where are God’s awesome deeds? So he omitted [the word he could not say] - HaNorah - awesome.’ And he continues, ‘[It must be that] Daniel [prophet of the exile of the Jews in the time of Nebucanezzer] came and said, ‘Invaders have enslaved God’s children. Where are God’s mighty deeds? So he omitted [the word he could not, in honesty, say] HaGibbur ‘mighty.’ How, Rav Mattena asks, could Jeremiah and Daniel change a form of words vouchsafed by no less than Moses? It must be that since they knew that the Holy Blessed One insists on truth, they could not pray to God deceitfully.

The point is that you shouldn’t try to ape Moses just because what Moses did what Moses did. The point is that you have to be true to what you believe. You can’t pray to God in deceit. You can’t do Judaism in deceit. If your mind, your soul and your heart tell you something isn’t true, you shouldn’t give it validation and you shouldn’t kowtow to any powerbase held by a movement you don’t believe in, either for yourself, or even for anyone else.

If you believe that the Torah really did come down in one perfect rendition on Sinai, all those years ago, and that the will of God is perfectly expressed in an understanding of Judaism that turned its back on the truths of the modern world at some point in the late 1800s, then you should be Orthodox. Really, with every blessing. Similarly if you believe that the Torah and the Rabbinic tradition is worth studying, but can be, if I decide it should be, reformed based on my own sense of what is right and wrong, then you really should be Reform. Really, with every blessing. But if you believe that the Torah, though imperfect, is the best path we have of understanding how we should stand before God, and as a member of the Jewish people - and if you believe that this spiritual inheritance is a chain, unfolding through the centuries, from our ancestors, through us and towards our descendents then, this is the Shul for you. And please don’t go giving strength and credence to a form of Judaism you don’t believe in.

Because this is what happens if you do.

There’s a tour company in Israel who will take you on a Ultra-Orthodox Neighbourhoods and Bakery Tour. You pay your money and “watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene.”[3] Apparently the tours do well. Yosef Spiezer, the manager of company comments, “People [and I guess by ‘people’ he means Jewish people] want to experience [this kind of Jewish life] because it’s authentic.”

In an article published in The Atlantic, the writer, Sara Toth Stub, suggests that the problem with tours like this is that they lead to a commodification of Judaism. These tours are not about a Judaism that is about us; what we do and how we live our lives. They are about a Judaism we can peer into from time to time - from the outside. We’ve turned Judaism away from being what it wants to be, in the words of the Parasha we read last week, “so close to you that it’s in your heart and in your mouth.”

Instead these kinds of tours turn a Jewish person’s Judaism into the same thing as a Jewish person’s trip to Rome’s St Peters Basilica or Istanbul’s Blue Mosque - tourism cum anthropology. We are in danger of becoming consumers of the very thing that shouldn’t be treated as an object of consumption - the journey of our souls.

Despite what the ultra-Orthodox would have us believe, tt’s not true that Moses wore a streimel. It’s not true that men and women never stood together at the Kottel. It’s not true that conversions have always taken three years of being at the mercy of a Bet Din who never tell you whether or not you are actually making progress. The truth emerges when you read history seriously.

If you want a glimpse into authentic Judaism, don’t look in the ersatz world of 21st century Ultra-Orthodox enclaves. Instead peer into the rubble of the Cairo Genizah. A hundred years ago 300,000 documents, every kind of document, emerged after lying in the dust for a thousand years of the attic of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue. It’s the single the greatest source of information we have about any single Jewish society throughout time. From the Genizah emerges a picture of Jews struggling to make ends meet, some more observant, some less. There are bankers and shopkeepers and poets and accountants and school-kids who doodle in the corners of their work books. There’s the relationship with the surrounding society who sometimes like Jews more, and sometimes less. There are Charitable organisations with too many calls on their funds, and not enough money. And even a Rabbi, trying to work out how to respond to a community who, perish the thought, talk through the repetition of the Amidah on Rosh Hashanah.

And if that sounds familiar, it is because it is. It’s because authentic Judaism is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heave for us and fetch it for us. It is not beyond the sea that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea and fetch it for us.’ Rather is it very close by, in your mouth and in your heart.’
Authenticity comes from aligning one’s actions with one’s beliefs. It can’t be commoditised or franchised out, or performed vicariously by others. The more we pretend it can, the further we get from experiencing Judaism ourselves, as we understand it. The more we locate our personal gold-standard as the right approach to Judaism for ourselves the more authenticity and integrity we have. That’s not to say that our approach is the only approach for everyone. But that we can’t and shouldn’t give up on any element of our own claim to what is right for us.

There is no form of Judaism ‘out there,’ that is right for me ‘in here.’ There is nowhere to go to find a truth that lives in our hearts. We have no other option other than to do this ourselves.

Shannah Tovah

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