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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