“Why and What” or Thoughts on transmission of Liberal Judaism and the question of why be Jewish

This is my Rabbi’s word for the LJS October 2014 Newsletter:

Recently I have spent quite some considerable time thinking about the transmission of Liberal Judaism from one generation to the next. Judaism is a religion of transmission, or put differently the handing on of our heritage is central to practically everything we do. As a faith community we invest incredible amounts of resources in the systems of education – for both young people and adults. Often we undertake this education with the object of passing on Jewish thought, belief and practice to others. It is because of this investment in ‘transmission’ that Rabbi John Rayner (z’l) wonderfully explored the role of memes in Judaism – that is the units of expression of culture which can be passed from one person to another. These memes might be the cultural and religious artifacts, the rituals and behaviours that express Jewish culture and in our case, Liberal Jewish culture.

The reason I have been thinking about this question of transmission in Liberal Judaism is because I am concerned that without these memes, these vehicles for the transmission of culture, there is very little that is tangible that we pass on to the next generation. 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.

Let me go into a little more detail on these two points. The first is a question really of 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 for you and me, not just the rabbi but every Jew who should regard themselves as responsible. Without you, 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 here are some ideas: we should celebrate and commemorate with ancient rituals where they are, ideally, able to elevate the spirit and our faith or sustain our moral perspective. We should invent and experiment with new ritual for a new age. We should do more to understand how the rhythm of the Jewish year and the cycle of life can be a powerful source of strength and inspiration throughout our lives. We should study our texts ancient and modern, regarding them as some of the most incredible literature in the world. To do that we should learn Hebrew, the language that has conveyed our culture for millennia. We should widen the scope for understanding the ethical imperative and how the interpretation of our faith can be incorporated into the significant moral questions of our age. We should learn and celebrate our history, sometimes even ritualising the memory of the more recent past. We should work harder to celebrate the 21st Century as a time in which the community and the home continue to be the bedrock of civilisation and part of that celebration should be in seeing that relationships may be more varied and families more diverse than ever before. We should be at the heart of conversations about the future of the Jewish people, presenting the important Liberal Jewish perspective, that happen between Jews from all streams of Judaism and in all parts of the world including the USA and Israel.

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 – after all I am one of the rabbis at the LJS! But at the same time, the real answer for YOU is the one that you create – you must author your own set of ideas which the memes then transmit. And I believe the answer must speak to you for the here and now – why you are Jewish today – but also reflect a vision of the future, our vision for the world and how Judaism fits within that vision.

I’m going to try and give you my answer in just four sentences. We can expand on it in conversations together and perhaps I should write more, but treat this as my ‘capsule’ response:

I am Jewish because I am part of the most beautiful civilisation and culture that has been passed down to me and is my gift to the next generations – it is mine to interpret and to change for my time, to celebrate and with which I often struggle. It connects me to my past, my history, and the threads of the future as yet unknown and this gift also grounds me in relationships to my family, community and people and the land of Israel where this gift was forged. Through Judaism I am able to sanctify time and life, reaching out to the ineffable and see the world without me at the centre, celebrating the best of the human spirit and finding consolation in darkness. In my Judaism I have my own vocabulary and language for expressing a vision of the world in which, whilst every person, race and religion is distinct, we are able to live in harmony and peace and my Judaism gives me the ethical imperative and tools to work for that vision of the world redeemed.

It’s clumsy, a little rushed in the midst of the High Holy Day preparation, but put on the spot, this is why I am Jewish. But now we all must answer that question too. My request, my challenge, is twofold: For you to share this question at your dinner table and let me have your answers, send them to me at the synagogue, bring the discussion to life. Secondly, in my long list of ideas for how we might transmit our Judaism – pick one or think of your own. Something that you do not do at present but which you think is important…if only you had the time. Make the time for it this year and let me know that is what you are doing so that we can share our ideas together and sustain the motivation for it.

Address at Interfaith Chanukkah Lighting at the LJS

Last night the LJS hosted 250 people of all faiths and none, including: the local MP, Karen Buck, Westminster City Councillors, representatives of the Israeli Embassy, members of the clergy and congregations from our local community and further afield, including representatives of Christian communities, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Hare Krishna. Interfaith networks, including the Council of Christians and Jews, the London Society of Jews and Christians, and the Joseph Interfaith Foundation. Members of local charities and societies and teachers and students from local schools. And members and representatives of charities with whom the LJS has a connection: Langdon, enabling independent living for young people and adults with learning disabilities; Freedom from Torture providing support to victims of torture and promoting and protecting the rights of survivors; Salusbury World providing educational, social and emotional support for refugee children and their families.

These are the words of welcome I gave at the start of the event:

The story of Chanukkah is briefly summarised on the service sheets that were on your seat this afternoon. In brief though, the celebration of Chanukkah extends back more than 2000 years and represents the celebration of freedom to practice one’s own faith and redemption from oppression and intolerance. Later, the emphasis moved from military triumph to the victory of light over dark – the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights inspired the lighting of our candles each night of Chanukkah for eight nights.

I want to dwell just for a moment on this theme of light because it is on that theme that our readings have been chosen which will be read out by our faith representatives in a few moments.

There is a very famous story (Bereshit Rabbah 39:1), in Jewish circles, that asks the question – Why was Abraham chosen by God to begin his journey towards faith. Suddenly, out of nowhere he is called to leave his family home and go to a new land and to be a blessing. But why? What merit did Abraham have that he was worthy of this Divine task?

The answer given, in one commentary, is that Abraham can be likened to a person who was travelling from place to place when he saw a palace full of light, or perhaps a palace in flames. Is it possible, he asks himself, that there is no one who cares for the palace? Imto; the owner of the palace looks out at him and says, “I am the owner of the palace.” Similarly, Abraham wonders, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ At which God looked out to him and said “I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the world”. Now go forth.

In other words, Abraham is worthy because he has a realisation of the world. I’m not the first to say *this, but his realisation of the world can be interpreted in two ways. A flame has at least two properties – on the one hand it gives light, like our chanukkah candles, but on the other hand we know that a flame can be destructive and damaging.

When we look at the world we can see it is in flames – it is need of our care and attention. There is unimaginable horror in the world, there is insecurity, fear for one’s life and one’s family, devastation wrought by human hand and suffering that we ignore. I know that many of you who share our celebration with us today have experienced and sometimes continue to experience the inhumanity one person is capable of showing to another. You may have experienced the disadvantage that is entrenched in society’s attitudes and behaviours because it furthers the selfish interests of others. The world is aflame with violence, with prejudice and with suspicion.

And yet, Abraham understood that the world was also a palace of light – of wonder and amazement. Just like a candle, a flame that can burn, also gives light. What made Abraham worthy was that he also understood that it was his responsibility to make a difference – to give light and not to destroy.

We sit here today, an example of what is possible, a light, a beacon. We must tell our friends, our coreligionists our neighbours, “Do you know today we sat in friendship and harmony – a group of people of different faiths and none, people of all ages, of all races and of many different nationalities. No one’s background or faith was denigrated or ignored. We celebrated the Jewish faith’s festival of light, but do you know what, it was really a celebration of the human spirit.” I am delighted to welcome you all and, with a little bit of chutzpah (of cheek) let me demand that we share this example of what is possible.

Notes

* See this brief reading of Heschel’s commentary, which is found in his book, ‘God in Search of Man’ and is, I think, misrepresented in Sack’s book ‘Radical Then, Radical Now’. I think Heschel is more circumspect about the role of humanity in putting out the flames than Sacks, but his idea seems more realistic and noble, “The world is in need of redemption, but the redemption must not be expected to happen as an act of sheer grace. Man’s task is to make the world worthy of redemption. His faith and his works are preparations for ultimate redemption.” But my issue with Sacks is really that he appears to be unaware that Heschel uses the term ‘Palace full of light’ and ‘Palace in flames’ (see page 53 of Radical Then Radical Now).