Open Judaism: Challenges and Opportunities (and a JPR report too)

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5775

Shanah Tovah and welcome to all friends, families, members and visitors. Once again it is a delight to be able to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a community in our synagogue and to share it with the seats full and our choirs singing so melodiously. We should be grateful for many things, in spite of the year that has passed and events that seem to be looming in the world.

Last week I was attending a presentation in Camden for the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. The presentation was to an invitation only audience to discuss the findings of some of the latest research into data collected about Jewish Students in the UK. Specifically the impact of Jewish educational initiatives – the results of which I shall comment on in a few moments. However, as I arrived a few minutes early I decided to stroll through Camden Market – the sun was shining and a warm nostalgic feeling overcame me. I had spent many teenage weekends going to Camden Market and being allowed to stay out late to go the Camden Palace. The details are not necessary or befitting such a day as this, but I had spent my fair share of money on jeans, Doc Marten boots and friendship bracelets.

So it was walking through Camden Market again that I reminisced about the confidence of youth and its naivety. Notwithstanding the fact that it seemed to me that some of the stock on the market-stalls seemed to be left over from the early 1990s – I suppose there will always be a market for trinkets and Nirvana t-shirts. But what was really clear to me was that though I felt slightly claustrophobic by the large groups of teenagers roaming around innocently looking for a bargain, I was fascinated by the wild body art, hairstyles, old and new fashions, revealing and concealing. Of course it’s nothing that new, just that I tend to be a little more staid these days preferring a cup of tea and a quiet night with exhausted middle class professionals than the wild youthful exuberance on show here. However, it was completely evident to me that whilst my life is not lived in the same way, there is no place I would rather be than in a country and society in which rebelliousness (even if slightly clichéd) coupled with free choice can express itself so easily. I may not like the clothes or the body art but the open, tolerant expression of individual sovereignty is, I think, never more clearly on show than places such as where I was.

At the heart of it, there is good reason for my feeling inspired by the personal sovereignty on show in Camden. There is good reason why I would prefer a society where exuberance and exaggerated displays of personal expression through youth culture is permitted and not repressed beneath intolerant tyrannical government and oppressive (often state sponsored) religious prescription. I am a Liberal Jew. And to be a Liberal Jew is to accept and sometimes seek a little rebellion; not conserving the status quo or a harsh moral conservatism. We seek openness and tolerance in our religious lives, just as we seek that to be congruent in the society in which we live. That has been the path of what I would call open Judaism.

Oppressive regimes seek to control, preserve and protect from that which is new or different. Open societies celebrate diversity even whilst worrying about what that means for its values. Inward looking closed Judaism seeks to control, preserve and protect from that which is new. Open Judaism celebrates diversity even whilst worrying about what that means for its values. You see there is a connection.

Since the advent of modernity and the emancipation and enlightenment of the Jewish community, there have been many approaches to our view of the world and dealing with our relationship to it.

In the charedi (ultra-orthodox) world, in my opinion, the word conservation seems to be crucial to understanding their society. Albeit, I am not charedi and tread slightly carefully in describing something from the outside. At the heart of the community is a need to conserve a way of life, to protect it from outside influence which could cause harm, and to strictly govern who has access to it. Even whilst this is tempered by an inescapable reality that there is an interaction. So the interaction must be monitored and guarded.

As Liberal Jews we have a very different attitude towards Jewish life and our interaction with the rest of the world. In some cases it is as if the boundaries have been dissolved completely and in others we recognise the boundaries’ permeability, flexibility and that there may be ‘grey’ areas. We acknowledge that we do not want to ‘conserve’ a way of life and religion. Rather, we wish for it to grow, evolve and ‘progress’.

The ‘non-Jewish’ world (which is really an imaginary construction for the purposes of this sermon – I’m not convinced that there is such a clear differentiation)…The non-Jewish world of science, literature, philosophy, technology, ethics has as great deal from which we can learn – not just use. Equally, we hope that our Jewish texts, rituals and values can play a relevant part in the evolution of humankind. I hope and think, we have developed a mature and sophisticated understanding of this interaction, where we do not regard one as influencing the other – but that cultures grow in concert – sometimes harmoniously and sometimes in discord. But nevertheless there is a constant two way flow and most of us have multiple identities – connecting with all of it and none of it. For growth to happen we put ourselves in the heart of the open expression of life and accept that experimentation, even radical experimentation has a legitimate place – all the while the middle aged folk like me feel a bit uncomfortable.

This challenges our sense of self and security in the future. It is the middle open ground that is giving way when we look at the demographics of the Jewish community. We, as Liberal Jews, probably have more in common in this than we give credit with Reform, Masorti and even modern orthodoxy. We are the communities that live in the open world. We are the communities that seek to be exposed to that which is new and that which may change us. Because of that, we live in a world where we are constantly negotiating complex identities. And where the pull away from Judaism is most strong. That is our strength and our challenge. Our identity is not fixed but growing and sometimes morphing and sometimes takes us away from Judaism altogether.

There is not a simple answer to this question – it is exactly the dilemma we must grapple with when we take a stance that is open to the ‘world out there’ and not closed to it. Jewishness or Jewish identity is something that changes, grows and is sometimes full of contradictions and is in dialogue with all our other identities.

Even loyalty to a movement has long since vanished. More and more, people are in search of a sense of meaning, which overrides where they affiliate and whether what they are doing is in keeping with the constructed ideology of where they grew up.

From my point of view this poses a huge challenge to our community. We encourage an open and engaging attitude towards what lies outside the boundaries of our community. I think very few of us would like to see a return to the ghetto or even to the picture of the charedi world I painted earlier – where we ‘conserve’ and avoid change. In which we oppress and repress. We want to see a community where all people and families, no matter who they are or how they are constituted, are welcome and feel at home – which includes race, sexual orientation, even religion. But when we have values and boundaries that are permeable or moveable, or even dissolvable, we must also respond to the challenge of being Jewish: of how to be Jewish and why to be Jewish.

They are serious questions yet to be answered by the ‘organised’ Jewish community. If there is a challenge to our leadership it is not over its stance regarding Israel and antisemitism in recent months (just because your leaders don’t say what you want them to does not mean they are bad leaders).

The leadership question is how we are going to respond as open, tolerant Judaism, a Judaism that Liberal Judaism often spearheads, how we will respond as Jews to the challenge of ‘Being’ in the 21st Century and specifically of being Jewish.

Because lately it seems to me that the solutions offered are ones that pose the risk of turning Judaism into a glorified NGO and a mediocre one at that. This is my worry. It is all very well (and a universal moral duty) caring for these gigantic issues for all of humankind and the world: the environment or peace in the Middle East or economic justice. But you don’t have to be Jewish to be an eco, peace, social justice activist. If we are to start the conversation about these issues as a Jewish community, we first must worry about whether we’re growing into a community that is indifferent to Judaism or at least has no tangible way of being Jewish save some noble values, an ethnocultural affiliation through tv/film/music, bridge and a penchant for certain foods.

And this brings me back to the reason I was in Camden in the first place. The JPR report on Jewish students that has only just been released shows, without a doubt, that the transmission of ‘Jewish identity’ rests most centrally in the home and the family. There is no better vehicle for the transmission of your Judaism than what happens in the home and in families (extended and surrogate). But, now here’s the difficult reading, what the report shows is that the impact of all of our educational initiatives save yeshiva and a gap year in Israel (and even they aren’t that strong) is miniscule. We could read this positively that there is at least a tiny impact of most of our programmes (with some fairing much better than others – the two worst may surprise you), but the report shows that we must do better if we are to sustain a vibrant Judaism in the future. And one that will, without a doubt, be even more embedded in the open society which allows us all to live freely – as Camden punks or genteel rabbis.

As I wrote in my Rabbi’s piece for the October newsletter:

The reason I have been thinking about this question of transmission in Liberal Judaism is because I am concerned that thinking about the vehicles for the transmission of our Liberal Jewish life, there is very little that is tangible that we pass on to the next generation. Values are very weak vehicles for living a Jewish life – and they are hard to pass on from the family or the synagogue at least that’s what I read from the JPR report. Secondly, I think we have not sufficiently answered, as Liberal Judaism, why it is important to pass something on, for Judaism to exist in the future as different, unique and important in the global civilisation in which we find ourselves today.

What is transmissible? This is most certainly not a call for reactionary traditionalism – enacting rituals for the sake of ritual, authenticity or superstitious misplaced hope for Divine intervention and other such anti-Liberal sentiment. Rather a more sensitive question about how we go about defining a public and private expression of Liberal Judaism for the 21st century. In every generation we receive our inheritance from generations of Liberal Jews that have preceded us, we become the guardians of that inheritance. Yet we are also its interpreters and we are entrusted with conveying it on to the next generation. It is all of us who should regard ourselves as responsible. Without us, Judaism will not continue – dinner tables in homes that have no Jewish learning, Jewish ritual or Jewish engagement with social action, will not sustain Liberal Judaism for the future – all of the evidence points to that.

So I come to the second point – of how we answer the question for ourselves and the next generation which really boils down to ‘Why be Jewish at all?’. To a certain extent I can and must offer leadership on that question (and I have in my rabbi’s word) – but at the same time, the real answer for YOU is the one that you create – you must author your own set of ideas. And I believe the answer must speak to us for the here and now – why we are Jewish today – but also reflect a vision of the future, our vision for the world and how Judaism fits within that vision. That is something about which I think we speak as a Liberal Jewish community.

It is not something that I as a Rabbi can do alone. It’s something that can only come from within our community. We must strive towards experiencing Judaism that is engaging, serious and meaningful. In my opinion this can only come through the old fashioned but enduring modes of study, worship and deeds. And we can only know what this means if we listen to one another and forge ahead with creativity and openness – even embracing sometimes the equivalent of the rebelliousness of the youth culture of Camden. If we are open to change, to new experiences, to being challenged. But most of all, we must undergo our own journeys of discovering the meaning of Jewish identity in this age when identity is hard to sustain. To answer the question for the future of the enduring value of being Jewish. That is the challenge that I hope we will rise to over this coming year, and again and again in the future. And this is something that is an immensely exciting proposition for us.

Shanah Tovah umetukah – A good and sweet year to you all.

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