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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Confronting terror on Tu B’Av

(This will be my sermon tonight)

The day that has passed was supposed to be a special day in the Jewish calendar.

We’re in the seven weeks of consolation after the commemoration of Tisha B’Av.  On Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the rabbis assert that various events all happened – including the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem and Betar was conquered.

The truth is that the correspondence of dates is actually more a rabbinic matter of convenience, rather than an accurate record. The dates approximately coalesce around the ninth of Av, but this is religious symbolism not historical fact – none of our sacred literature is interested in history after all.

Since we have entered the seven weeks of consolation – which lead us all the way to Rosh Hashanah – it would not come as a surprise if there were historical events which offer hope to the people and indeed, today (Thursday night-Friday) was the fifteenth of Av or Tu B’Av.

We’re told on Tu B’Av and on Yom Kippur the daughters of Israel would go out and find a husband by dancing in the fields in white as described in the Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8. In the Talmud (Taanit 30a-31b) the list of what occurred on this date continues includes the permission to bury the dead who fell at Betar in the Bar Kokhba revolt.

The Bar Kokhba revolt (132–136 CE), was the third major rebellion by the Jews of Judaea Province against the Roman Empire and the last of the Jewish-Roman Wars. Simon bar Kokhba, the commander of the revolt, was acclaimed as a Messiah, a heroic figure who could restore Israel. The revolt established an independent state of Israel over parts of Judea for over two years, but a Roman army made up of six full legions with auxiliaries and elements from up to six additional legions finally crushed it. The Romans then barred Jews from Jerusalem, except to attend Tisha B’Av.

Simon Bar Kokhba took the title Nasi Israel (prince [lord, president] of Israel) and headed a functional public administration over a mini-state that was virtually independent for two and a half years. The “Era of the redemption of Israel” was announced, contracts were signed and coins were minted in large quantity in silver and copper with corresponding inscriptions (all were struck over foreign coins). In fact, Yigael Yadin the archaeologist, in excavating caves in which were found coins and other artefacts from the revolt, records presenting his findings to Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the modern State of Israel, and beginning his presentation with the words, “Mr President…the last president of Israel”.

The incident of burying the dead at Betar – the last stronghold of the rebellion (something that legendarily was prohibited by the Romans for 17 years), is described in more detail in the gemara and is the source of the fourth blessing in Grace After Meals.  As it says:

…R. Mattenah said: Tu B’Av is the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried. R. Mattenah further said: On the day when permission was granted for those killed at Betar to be buried [the Rabbis] at Yavneh instituted [the recitation of] the benediction, ‘Who is kind and deals kindly etc.’

Even in the face of the exile and the failed last stand of the rebellion by Bar Kokhba, the failed redemption, the rabbis instituted, according to legend at least, this blessing.  A blessing of hope, as if to say, all may not be well at the moment and we may sometimes feel despair, but there is hope for the future.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes:

After the collapse of the Bar Kochba rebellion, when Jews were no longer permitted to be at home in their own land, Zion – Jerusalem – did not simply linger on as a vague memory of distant past. Zion, Jerusalem, continued to be a presence in our lives. Wherever we lived, the sky was above us, and the thought of Jerusalem in front of us. (Abraham Joshua Heschel – “Israel: an echo of eternity” p.58-59)

The message of this day of Tu B’Av, the hope of ‘Jerusalem in front of us’, has been sullied and trampled enough. Not least with the acts of terror on this Tu B’Av just passed – the stabbing of 6 people in the Gay Pride march yesterday evening and the arson attack on a Palestinian home leading to the death of a baby last night.

The acute pain of this devastation feels beyond repair. Friends described being unable to breathe this morning on hearing the news of the attack in the West Bank carried out in the name of their, of our, religion. Rabbi Benny Lau publicly condemned and asked forgiveness for the attack on Gay Pride.

We know too well that religion can be used to serve vicious and horrendous acts. It is a gross act of denial to think that our own religious texts and beliefs, yes even our own (not just ‘their’s), cannot be interpreted as a cover for hate and violence. They can. We have to confront this scourge. No wonder that people think religion is such a negative force in the world. They’re right. Were I not aware of the deep pain, solidarity with the grieving, anger at the perpetrators and compassion for fellow human beings, I too would give up now.

Forget it all because whilst human knowledge seems to progress, religion too frequently is sending us back in to past times of bigotry, ignorance and destruction.

But I can’t give it up. My friends of all faiths who are compassionate, who stand up for goodness and justice and peace are proof of the goodness that we can bring to the world. The voices and acts of love must be triumphant and Judaism, my religion gives me, should give all of us, the strength to persevere and build a better world.

And so it felt fitting that I should conclude my sermon today with the words of the blessing traditionally attributed as a response to the burial of those killed in Betar who had lain on the ground or a year. In long form it is the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon. A blessing which we must remember is intended to give hope, even when it seems hope is gone and God’s care is absent from our lives.

The shortened version is recited on hearing good news:

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם הטוב והמטיב.

We praise you, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe for You are good and beneficent.

In times of despair, recovery after loss, rebuilding post-devastation, may we be blessed with strength to see goodness and the power to bring that goodness to all. God, we need that strength now more than ever. May that be God’s will and let us say: Amen.