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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Learning about who we are: Chanukah

This year, the Jewish festival of Chanukah falls at the same time as Christmas. Two different religions, that grew up in similar historical-cultural milieus, with festivals around the Winter equinox both observed on the 25th day of their respective Jewish and Gregorian months. This is a perfect time to reflect on the complex interaction that cultures, religious beliefs and communities have with one another. Anyone with essentialist views of their identity or their ideology and theology should stop and look long and hard in the mirror. We must come to realise that who we are is something that is changing and evolving and, more importantly, the way we view the world is something that can change over time, along with the myths that help us appreciate how our world view and our sense of self are interlinked. Chanukah is a perfect example of that.

In the 2nd Century BC (or as I like to think, BCE – Before the Common Era), a group from Modi’in rose up against the Seleucid Empire to reclaim their sovereignty and rededicate their Temple that had been desecrated with idols. What is sometimes overlooked is that this act of military triumph certainly included a suppression of co-religionists who were Hellenised. The narrative as we have inherited it as Jews is clear – this was a triumph of religious freedom and religious identification, it took the form of military victory over an Empire and less successfully, the exclusion of Hellenism as a normative influence.

Then centuries later, the Talmud, the work of literature that is, more than any other, defining of Judaism post-destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, records a different miracle. The miracle of military triumph is downplayed and a new narrative enters the field – a story of a cruse of oil lasting for 8 days. This Festival of Lights as Josephus, the Jewish Historian to Rome, describes Chanukah, thus becomes a reflection of two narratives: on the one hand, the military victory over the Greeks and the influence of Hellenisation and, on the other hand, the miracle of making a small jug of oil last for 8 days.

We do not know why the Talmud downplays the military victory, though scholars have tried to figure it out. Some suggest that in a time when rebellions against Rome had finally been crushed the celebration of a similar, earlier rebellion, would do much to antagonise the Empire. Others see in the shift to God’s wondrous acts as a turn inwards to a spiritual ideal. No longer does the physicality of war carry the same meaning, rather an inward looking spiritual victory makes much more sense.

Chanukah carries twin narratives, which have been popularised by many historical forces. But when asked as a Rabbi if either of them is true my response is, “what do you mean by true?”. The narratives that sustain the identity that we have as Jews is derived from both stories and the way they weave their importance at different times through Jewish history is self-evident. Are they historically true? – Well to a certain extent that does not really interest me since there is a historical core to the stories but the stories we tell ourselves are much more powerful than truth. Every advertising executive, political activist and charismatic religious leader will tell you the same.

But I say something else too. We cannot risk just telling the stories and appreciating their miracles. To be aware of the history of ideas, to be open to how this history influences how we view the world today, and to be open to change and complexity, these are also important principles. Only a literalist would expect Jews to abandon their sense of meaning of Chanukah because there is a historical process in its evolution, aspects of which may be ignored, downplayed or integrated in creative ways. Equally, only someone with a childish sense of essential truth would ignore the way that understanding the forces that create our religious beliefs and narratives can enhance our celebrations.

Today, most Jews are deeply aware of the way that their Judaism is interacting, growing and changing in a sometimes delicate harmonious way with the wider world. But sometimes it is a non-stop highly charged contest in which ideas vie for attention. That is the same when any cultural memes and values interact, no matter their context or religious framework. Through these moments of creativity the spirit is renewed in each generation. It seems to me that if we all viewed our culture, religious beliefs and identities in this non-essentialist, permeable, mutually influencing way, we might be more open, more tolerant and more willing to grow together.