If Jews and Judaism disappeared…Would we care? Would it matter?

Mordehay it’s a great privilege to welcome you here this Shabbat with your family as you become Bar Mitzvah. Your sisters Hannah and Seli, I think, celebrated becoming Bat Mitzvah in Israel. But it is our blessing that you are here with us at West London Synagogue. And it was my blessing as I got to eat your father’s home baked delicacies whenever we met at your parents deli/café – Haminados on Chepstow Road. And though my waistline is suffering and I’m not on commission  – they are certainly some of the best mini pain au chocolat, almond croissant, borekas and other pastries that you’ll ever taste. And just like you made me feel at home, I hope that you feel at home here at West London Synagogue because you’re all part of the family now! Mordehay, you talked of your family making a life in Israel a few years ago and the importance that Israel has in your family’s life, and I think we have more languages and countries represented here today than perhaps ever with Argentina, America, Denmark, Israel the UK and I also know your immediate family is very international with Eritrean, Israeli, Sephardi roots.

Mordehay, I think shortly before our last meeting, I had been to France, to Provence to be precise. There I was officiating at a young couple’s wedding. One of the great honours for me in this job is that I get to be on the inside of people’s lives when great things happen, like Bar Mitzvah or a wedding. A summer of glorious hopeful young people, committing to one another in love – what more of a symbol of joy do we need in this world than commitment, hope and love with a Jewish wedding.

So it was that I found myself in Provence in a fantastic place called Saint Remy de Provence. For those trivia buffs this is the location where Van Gogh painted many landscapes as he stayed in the local psychiatric hospital. It’s also the birthplace of Nostradamus – that famous fortune telling mystic. And just outside the town, which is stunning in its medieval glory, there is a Roman victory arch and mausoleum. The scale of these two buildings is impressive. They’re part of the Roman town of Glanum, possibly part of the old town walls. The south of France and Marseille as a port was of great significance and so it is no surprise that we find archeological remains from many periods of history. But these were not hidden in the dirt, they stand tall and proud. Monoliths of a time in the long distant past when an Empire ruled so much of the known world.

But here we were, the Roman Empire is no more and there I was celebrating something truly miraculous – a Jewish wedding. Mordehay you see the significance of these moments I hope. You see a young couple getting married under the chuppah or a young man ascend the bimah to read from the Torah and you realise that Judaism is here, thriving and vibrant.

Only I wondered as I sat looking at these impressive Roman structures. What if things were the other way around. I know it’s a counter factual history game but what if it was Judaism that ceased to exist and it was the Roman Empire that carried on. What would be the gap that the world would feel if instead of finding salvation in our sanctification of time, reading our holy texts and celebrating our community? Would anyone miss us?

Now, of course, this is to presuppose that Rome ceased to exist. When in fact we see the effects of Greco-Roman culture echo throughout our civilisation even today. I understand that Rome did not simply vanish but that aspects of the classical world continue to influence the world around us today. I mean, what have the Romans ever done for us, to paraphrase Monty Python, paraphrasing the Talmud? Apart from the aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, public baths – you get the idea.

And, one other slight caveat is the way in which this juxtaposition presupposes that the two (Rome and Jerusalem) did not influence one another.  However, leaving aside these nuanced qualifications to my argument, it’s not the same as saying there is still a Roman empire, like there are Jews. We’re here and Rome is not. What if the shoe was on the other foot and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Roman exile of Jews was the end?

We would have a few, very small number of Jewish archaeological remains, predominantly in the Middle East. And I suppose we would also have Christianity. We may have Islam as well. Both of these religions being siblings of Judaism and also, to a certain extent, influenced by Judaism. But so what. Mordehay would it matter if you were, to paraphrase my colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin (Putting God on the Guest List), the last Jew?

It’s a question I ask students (adults and children) in my classes a lot. I think it’s in part at the heart of Moses swan song that you read so wonderfully for us this morning. The odds are against us and yet our Biblical leaders keep trying to instil the eternal value of who we are, why it matters and how we should behave. Moses is not going to see beyond the Jordan river, this is his final moment to speak to the Israelites and he wants to them to care.

Mordehay, I care. I care deeply about Judaism and its existence not just for the sake of existing. But because I think Judaism has something to give us as human beings, it has something to contribute to the world and because it is central to who I am. Seeing the families at a wedding or bar mitzvah weeping, dancing and singing is a moment of victory for the enduring value of this incredible heritage that we carry with us, occasionally saddling us with a terrifying burden, but often containing the potential source of inspiration. We have no great mausoleums or victory columns. Even our synagogues are not really the same. We have ideas, texts, values.

The idea of Teshuvah, repentance, which you referred to in your thought provoking davar torah is one such idea. What an incredible gift we have in our tradition, from the Bible, to the rabbis, to the philosophers, until today. The idea that we acknowledge regularly (yearly is regularly for some!) that we are not the centre of the universe, that we must be forgiving and seek forgiveness, that in our sense of the importance of pardon we are able to forgive ourselves for our human foibles and, in that greatest of all human ideas, we can change. That is an awesome idea – in the classic sense of awe – nora.

Mordehay, it goes without saying that the feat of constructing the Roman buildings, seen in Glanum and other places, that some 2000 years later still look in such good condition, is amazing. But more impressive to me is our enduring tradition and the ideas of building a better world. What would be missing from the world Mordehay if Judaism ceased to exist?

This question bothers me because I see our culture thinning out, such as you can lay claim to a definable essential Jewish culture. We are constantly poised on a precipice. As progressive Jews, we know so little about our Judaism, we practice so little of our Judaism that we might just slip into non-existence by accident. To avoid that, we must, as you have done this morning reading from the Torah, encounter who we are from within the literary and oral milieu that has defined Judaism for generations. I’ll be honest – that’s the conversation that I’m petrified that we might be at risk of losing. That’s when we become a fad or a new age chique and then we become a caricature and then we become a memory and then archaeological remains and a subject studied in history classes.

The thickness of our religio-cultural world is becoming thinner. We no longer have sufficient collective memory and we have too little in the way of textual proficiency. Progressive Judaism is in danger of being so thin as to be practically translucent. It’s not enough for any of us to say a few catchy ideas, like informed decision making or ethical monotheism, because they too soon become no more than platitudes. That’s why the course I’m offering – Melton – is really of existential importance. Adults we need to learn, just like Mordehay has learnt for his Bar Mitzvah. There is no excuse any more. You don’t have to be a rabbi, but you do need to have thick conversations about what it means to be Jewish and why it should matter that we’re here and the Roman Empire is not, why it would matter if we disappeared over night.

We all stand on the shores of the Jordan looking into the Promised Land. No one single person is Moses today. We have a collective responsibility for our future. This is our task, to care enough and to articulate why it matters.

Then we will not be a relic of the past, but a vibrant life-enhancing, world changing, crucial part of the fabric of our global civilisation. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.

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Tradition in Dialogue: Inclusion, Exclusion and the Universal from the Particular (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5778)

“It’s ticking the boxes against the disabled, the aged, LGBT, the ethnic communities and the rest of it, and something gets lost along the way.” So was the quote about the National Trust that greeted me in the paper after I returned from a simply joyous few days in Devon and Dorset.

Let me back track for a moment if I may. This year we had a staycation during the summer – deciding to visit various parts of this green and pleasant land. Actually, around the time of Michelle (my wife’s) birthday in early Summer we saw something interesting was happening at Waddesdon Manor – the home of the late Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, last owned by a Rothschild in 1957, now managed by the Rothschild Foundation for the National Trust.  We decided to visit and realised it was more economical to join the National Trust than pay the one-off visitor’s entrance fee.

So we found ourselves proud members of the National Trust about which one friend said to me, “That either makes you a paid up member of the middle class or middle aged.” And then kindly added, “Of course you’ve always been tending towards middle age!”

Our children were amazed by the size of the home and thrilled to play in the beautiful grounds. It was, as we were leaving the tour of the house, that our youngest proclaimed somewhat loudly – as we walked passed a group sitting in the post restaurant enjoying their tea:

“Mummy, I thought that was going to be really boring…but it was really fun.”

Later at the start of school holidays on my day off I took the children on my own to visit Shaw’s Corner – the home of George Bernard Shaw. After which our eldest wondered if the next house was going to be really big like the manor or just small like George Bernard Shaws’? If you visited Shaws Corner it isn’t a manor house, but let me tell you there’s no shortage of space in the grounds!

Our visit to Shaws Corner coincided with the Pride debacle that faced the National Trust this summer. They had expected their volunteers to wear rainbow badges and lanyards in support of Pride and the unwritten stories of LGBTQi people whose lives might otherwise go unnoticed and this also included the ‘outing’ of a now deceased house owner. When we walked into Shaws Corner, a volunteer was overheard telling a couple who were visiting, “No we don’t have to wear the badge, but you know Shaw was very enlightened. He mixed with all sorts of people. You know like Oscar Wilde.”

All sorts of people like gay people you mean.

So now we’re signed up to the National Trust for our summer and visited gorges, forges, manor houses, stone circles, beaches, rock pools and walks on the moors. It was magical for us as a family. And then we returned home to the interview with Sir Roy Strong on the National Trust in which he said, “It’s ticking the boxes against the disabled, the aged, LGBT, the ethnic communities and the rest of it, and something gets lost along the way.” In other words, all these groups are being included and traditional visitors (for which perhaps we might read, white, middle class, C of E, able bodied, straight people and probably women as well) are being alienated. If only the world was composed of only white, straight, middle aged, non-disabled people. The traditional visitors as one news report put it – traditional.

It got me thinking about how this year, Rabbi Julia is driving us as a community and your rabbis to think more about inclusion (you’ll hear more about this in our sermons over the High Holy Days).

Tradition, that often bandied around word, is something that we Jews think we understand well. So when I hear, in the news, traditional values, traditional supporters, traditional morals, I’m interested to know what people actually mean. Tradition is at least a threefold process and does not stand still. Conservatives (with a small c) want us to think that they’re referring to an unchanging preserved relic of the past which they keep alive by slavish allegiance to living ‘it’. At the other end of the scale, the radicals would have us think that nothing has permanent enduring value and there is no such thing as tradition only oppression. The truth for us woolly liberals in the middle is that tradition does exist and is an important part of identity, but it is constantly in the process of being created because tradition requires:

  • A text or cultural artifact
  • A history of interpretation of that text or meme
  • A current generation who are the inheritors of both the history and the text itself and new readers of culture for their own time.

So tradition is an interpretative mode by which we understand ourselves in conversation with the text and its interpreters through time. It does not stand still and is constantly evolving. In this I have much in common with the theoretician Hans-Georg Gadamer.

But even this view of tradition does not deal with a critical issue, which is what we do when the text and history of interpretation excludes key people. Today, in theory, those excluded – like women – are empowered and their voices matter in our time and they start to read again our texts and discover the absence of their voices. This is where the most fruitful conversation today can happen – when those excluded from the past begin to read themselves in the texts and become powerful significant voices and correctives.

Now lest I have lost you in this philosophical journey let me frame it in the context of the National Trust. If we’re looking at tradition and the traditional houses of the National Trust we must ask, who is missing.

Well from 1290 to 1656 – four hundred pretty important years in the history of Britain – we were. Jews. And let’s not forget, for about 1000 years across Europe there were various experiments in trying to rid different countries of their Jews. So, it’s of more than curious interest to me when a Jewish family visits a home like Waddesdon Manor (built by a Jew) or Hughenden (advertised as the first Jewish prime-minister’s home, that is Disraeli). Because this country had, until 150 years before the individuals who owned these houses existed, enforced an edict of expulsion of Jews.

What happens when voices are excluded from the national consciousness because they’re not part of who ‘we’ are, either deliberately or unconsciously? We miss them in interpreting who we are and the way we see the world around us. Tradition is not static. It is a conversation we have with ourselves and the people with whom we share our lives. That’s why the tick boxes become important. It’s about power. Power is who gets to narrate the story, who gets to interpret the story and who is included in the story. The powerless are excluded and it warps our sense of personal identity and national consciousness.

So there we were, and by the way we love the National Trust now – “we thought it would be boring but actually it was really fun”. A rabbi’s kid in conversation with her past (the non descendent of immigrants and refugees from Germany, Poland, Iraq and Egypt past that is). Tradition is just such a conversation. Friends, we’re part of the national conversation now – we’re most definitely included. And as Jews, with our memory, we should never, ever take that role for granted.

We know only too well how the excluded in society are often the isolated and the alienated, the impoverished, despised and the dispossessed. We’ve known exclusion, we’ve lost and gained the passports to prove it. But we also know how to be the ones doing the excluding. Judaism has existed for thousands of years and part of its success, I’m convinced, is that as a community we construct boundaries around ourselves – often at the expense of negative representations of others. Even though we had good reason to do that. The boundaries were always permeable and there is a hierarchy. The elite men who were the rabbis see regular men, women, children and slaves as on a sliding scale of significance in terms of inclusion with non-Jews completely out and people like Samaritans confusing the categories of in/out because they look like Jews, speak like Jews but seem to not be Jews. Before we talk of inclusion, just like the National Trust has to confront its own role in identifying the silenced voices in our national history, we as Jews have to confront our own tendencies to exclude (historically and in present day).

At the moment, I’m teaching in one class a particularly famous series of texts which includes the statement that “If a building fell on a person we can clear the debris” – the mishnah is specifically talking about on Yom Kippur or Shabbat and goes on to state that even when we do not know if they are a Jew or non-Jew we clear the debris. From this declarative statement of law we get the idea that almost nothing overrides the mitzvah of saving a life. But here we have a statement in our mishnah 2000 years ago that seems to imply if we knew for certain that a non-Jew were lying beneath the rubble we should leave them there and not save his life. It’s only in the circumstances that we do not know their identity we should mount the rescue operation.

There’s an uncomfortable conversation for us to confront – but one of many. Now our community is a different community to that of 2000 years ago when the Mishnah was being compiled. How would we take our stand in our own interpretation of such a suggestion? Of course, the value of saving a life has now reached a level of primacy – it’s the guiding principle behind the rapid response teams that the State of Israel sends out to save lives after natural disasters to any part of the world. We have, all but, interpreted the clause out of existence. But there’s that dialogue in tradition again – the interpreter, the text and the tradition of interpretation. If we are going to be true to ourselves as Jews we must be able to study our sources like these to see how the community regarded its sense of self and identity 2000 years ago and pretty much up until the enlightenment and emancipation at the end of the 18th century.

And then, when we look around us, we bring our understanding of texts and traditions and this in turn informs a particular and unique voice to our national conversation. The universal out of the particular.

That is why the Melton course which I run is so important and why I want you to join me on the 25 week learning course this year on Wednesday evenings (sign up on the lyonslearning.org.uk website).

So we must hold our own community to account and be party to the shared consciousness of our society in the way that it excludes or includes. And how that process of inclusion or exclusion is applied to different people.

And it was in thinking about how our Jewish lives, our sources and our community’s presence here in West London is in dialogue with ideas of exclusion and inclusion that I had an encounter. Before the encounter with John (whose name I have changed) I thought I was going to write a sermon about poverty and wealth and Jewish sources related to those themes, but John’s story was more powerful in so many ways.

I met John through one of our programmes here in the synagogue. He’s a refugee – which means he has status, not an asylum seeker. He has leave to remain, permanently here in the UK.

I’ll be a bit vague on details to protect his privacy but here we go. John grew up in one country in Africa and went to study in another. Whilst there, he wrote an article in 1989 about the corruption of his host country’s government. He told me he was naïve and couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He was arrested, jailed and tried. He was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Whilst in prison waiting for his execution someone took pity on him and, in his I suspect rather euphemistic words to me, “left the gate open”. He escaped and came to England where he lived until the late noughties. During that time he had submitted all the papers to the Home Office regarding his trial, his flight from execution and the articles connected to his case. And then in at the tale end of the first decade of the new millenium the Home Office summoned him and told him he had no right to be here. Just think about that – he had lived, effectively in limbo and probably through a deliberate design flaw, left alone for 18 years (after 20 he would, I’ve been told, have an automatic right to remain). The Home Office claimed they had no record of his papers and he needed to leave. Now John is a well-educated man with some legal training from home in Africa. But he had no papers, the only ones he had were with the Home Office and 1989 was pre-Google. So John had to submit a Freedom of Information request which proved that the Home Office did indeed have his papers that they could not find. Now he was granted permanent leave to remain but had not seen his family. He tried in vain to be in touch with them and his twin brother but assumed they had been killed in conflict in his home country. Then one day in 2015, whilst riding a bus in London someone called out to him and said ‘Sam, what are you doing here?’. He replied, ‘I’m not Sam, I’m John’. To which the fellow bus traveller said, ‘What are you saying. You’re not John, he’s your dead twin brother’. Now, if you want to believe in miracles, this is definitely one. The chap on the bus knew John’s family back home and recognised him as Sam’s twin brother. He enabled John to be back in touch with his family nearly 30 years later and see photographs of the empty grave and gravestone they had put up during the funeral for him in absentia some decades earlier. John volunteers with us. He is the human face of the powerless, the voiceless, the vilified. He is why we do what we do every day in the social action team at this Synagogue – with the homeless, the poor, the displaced, the refugees, the victims of Grenfell, and so on. He is part of our ‘saving a life’ in action and we are not interested in what religion you are, just your humanity.

Who is not included in our national conversations, in our efforts to dialogue in tradition? Today we as Jews have ample opportunity. It’s the Johns of this world that need to be given a voice. And by the way, it’s not just refugees. The alienation of white working classes, of the poor, the political expedient to ignore and others are of equal importance and concern. We must look at the sources of power, of voicelessness and of isolation. And we have to also look at our sources that may be driving us to exclude in our community too.

Our community should be a microcosm of the society we want to create. We can be boundaried without excluding. We can be sure of our own identity without denigrating anyone else. We can adapt our identity and count more people ‘in’. We can be confident that our conversations will be enriched if we stop to hear those we have not heard before. If we recognise that exclusion has happened and that our tradition calls out ‘Intepret me’ to everyone on life’s journey with us – commanding us all to take courses like Melton for adults to think more deeply about these and other issues. Then we can also build a community facing outwards in our social action programmes, that demand our society does the same. May this be our prayer and may it be come soon in our days and let us say: Amen