Progressive Judaism – has the rabbi ‘do’ Judaism too often (and the reason why is counter intuitive)

I’ve just finished studying Mishnah Rosh Hashanah with a group through the Lyons Learning Project and had not noticed the literary quality of the ending of the final two chapters until now. Chapter three concludes with a reflection on who is qualified to perform a mitzvah and, in so doing, release the obligation to do the same mitzvah in others who witness/hear it performed. Whereas chapter 4 notes the Shofar service of the ‘Shaliach Tzibbur’ (emissary of the community in performance of the liturgy) also releases others from their obligation. (For more discussion of these mishnayot see my teacher, Dr Josh Kulp’s brilliant exposition of every mishnah including these for the Conservative movement).

The whole massechet (Tractate) of Rosh Hashanah in the Mishnah moves geographically from the Temple to a Synagogue based religious world. At the same time, rabbis assume overall power instead of the Priests. And it is in these circumstances that the role of the ‘masses’ shifts from testifying regarding the new moon (about which there is a great deal made in the mishnah of not doing anything that might discourage witnesses from travelling to testify) to the hearing of the shofar.

It seems to me what we see here is an overall shift in the religious practices – the mishnah already indicates the evolution in the setting of the new moon, the format of Rosh Hashanah liturgy and so on. But it also points towards the maintenance of the hierarchy of Jewish leadership, whilst offering a new function for the rest of the Jewish population. In a sense the role for the ‘Jew in the pew’ contracts and becomes more passive from testifying regarding the new moon to hearing the shofar blown on your behalf by someone else.

It’s this that go me thinking as we concluded our study of the massechet. And here I’m drawn the innovation in liturgy that occurs in the 19th century in what becomes Reform Judaism. Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet writes:

A variety of issues affected decisions about Reform liturgy in the 19th century. The external one was the consequence of emancipation and the desire to become accepted as full citizens of European societies. This meant bringing the actual service into conformity with contemporary Christian ‘models’, including greater decorum, aided by the introduction of musical accompaniment; a shorter service, by removing repetitions; reading prayers in unison instead of individually; and the introduction of a sermon addressing contemporary issues.

The move to unison and increased conformity was later followed by a move to greater participation accompanied with a shift away from expecting someone to perform rituals in public and thereby release you from the obligation for them. The corollary of this is also the increase in musical accompaniment and the ‘participatory performances’ which summer camps have engendered in progressive synagogues today (though the most classical of progressive synagogues favour decorum over participation in their music, with professional choirs and organs). For more reflections on synagogue changes in music and services Larry Hoffman has a very accessible description in the book ‘Sacred Strategies‘.

Overall the theory, at least, is that everyone fulfils their obligation themselves and is not dependent on a shaliach tzibbur. So in theory, Reform Judaism should be full of people who are expert in praying – well I suppose we have developed many experts in singing the prayers but I wonder if there’s a difference.

Anyway, here’s where I got to in my reflections on Mishnah Rosh Hashanah – what if these trajectories towards notional ideas of democratisation, participation and ‘you have to read it together because no-one can say it for you’, has counter intuitively failed to produce expert participants. Progressive Judaism, with some wonderful and significant exceptions, has a rabbi ‘do’ more Judaism for their congregations than I suspect other philosophical perspectives – to the extent that in more than one community I have felt like a very over qualified page turner and reader of the siddur – five years of rabbinic training and I’m reading out loud to adults.

Of course this is slightly polemical – I doubt it is the case that there are ‘lots’ of Jews in other denominations all literate and expert in the liturgy able to be shlichot/shlichei tzibbur (emissaries for the community). That’s the romantic picture. But the counter-intuitive position does work both ways to an extent – in a community where there is a designated person who does something and releases you from that obligation there seem to be more people willing to take up that role and the rabbi is not the one who is always required to take up that function. The liturgy has a sense of being something obligatory and therefore you become skilled in it and it becomes second nature to the extent that you could lead the davening with little problem.

I wonder what other people think? And what the solutions might be?

(And I’m not looking for everyone telling me how great/rubbish their or someone else’s denomination is or isn’t)

As a post-script – we do have some confusion in progressive synagogues since some things are still performed by ‘someone’ – the shofar blowing for example. You can see the curious way this manifests itself in many synagogues where the whole congregation will participate fully in the singing of kiddush on Friday night and then respond with a hearty ‘amen’. I remember a conservative rabbi admonishing his congregation – if you said the blessing (the b’racha) you don’t need amen…one or the other!

Rosh Hashanah 5777 (sermon)

I told some of you a couple of weeks ago in my sermon about our family visit to Portsmouth, where we visited the historic dockyards and had the wonderful opportunity to see the Mary Rose, the tudor flagship and the HMS Victory and HMS Warrior flagships. It made me think about flagships closer to home – having worked in the two flagship synagogues of the progressive movements in the UK. Whilst thinking about flagships our summer took us from Portsmouth to Portugal.

In Lisbon, Portugal, I had been invited to join a family, some of whom are members here at WLS, to officiate at a couple’s blessing. The warmth of the Lisbon community is something to behold, our host family treated me like one of their own. As we took a day trip up the coast I realised that just as one of the greatest chapters in this community’s history was coming to an end, with the Inquisition, the Western European world was voyaging on new journeys of discovery. Often from the port of Lisbon. Vasco de Gama navigated on his route to India around the southern tip of Africa and of course, though he didn’t leave from Lisbon, Columbus’ return from his Westwards journey took him via Lisbon. And Magellan was, of course Portuguese though circumnavigated the globe under Spanish authority.

It goes without saying that these journeys of discovery are in part the legacy of colonialism, slavery and Christian missionizing that we still have to come to terms with. But they are also indicators of something else. One cannot possibly be at Cascais, West of Lisbon, and look out to the Atlantic without realising that the vast expanse of the oceans was simply begging explorers to come and find out what lay beyond the waves. A great story of human discovery and endeavour. In fact, just like the imagination of the Rosetta space mission which came to an end this week with a 12 year journey into collision with a comet, the story of the great 15th and 16th century explorers are filled with imagination.

We know for certain that the astronomical charts that carried Vasco de Gama safely on his journey were prepared by a rabbi. A court Jew who now has a crater on the moon named after him – Abraham Zacuto. Proof that Jews experience the world and contribute to the world in unique ways, that the passage of history is one we have influenced and been affected by at every turn.

So my summer moved from the dockyard of Portsmouth to the idyllic shores of Cascais and the generous and warm hospitality of the Lisbon Jewish community. This was a summer of the sea, of looking out to a world that once dominated the imagination of explorers. And I realised how intrepid and how visionary these journeys must have been. The human story is punctuated by moments of terror, but it is also punctuated by great visionaries who have carried our world forward and summoned the future beneath their flagships with determination, fortitude and belief.

This is really how we must confront our future as we enter the year 5777.

Not Zacuto the court astronomer but a different Abraham is our focus. Abraham in our rabbinic midrash is described as a flagship of God. In a brilliant play on the words of the first verse of our Torah reading tomorrow – the test of God (nisa) is that he turns Abraham into a flag (nes), an ensign beneath which the faithful will be gathered in their belief. Abraham is God’s messenger for the world in the very act of the Akedah, he takes a leap of faith, or as Kierkegaard might say, becomes God’s Knight of Faith.

So this is my theme for Rosh Hashanah and for 5777. Faith and hope in humanity, in the human endeavour and imagination.

I grew up, as a teenager, in a time of relative optimism, we thought the old ideologies were being smashed to pieces, like the Berlin Wall, beneath a new post-modern age and religion would lose traction. Little did I appreciate as a teenager that my adulthood would see the return of pessimism, of ideologies in new forms, a curious post-factual political discourse and an unpredictable return to theological fundamentalism, scriptural literalism and politicised religious fascism.

No one trusts politicians, no one trusts ‘mainstream media’ and very few of us trust clergy. There is a deeply held suspicion of people around us – like refugees, those of other faiths and, pretty much anyone who looks or thinks differently to us. We must find a rejoinder to the pessimism of our global climate. We must hoist our flag in opposition to this and do it now.

We must counter the cynicism of how we view our fellow human beings. Your rabbis can tell you, we meet thousands of people a year. Almost without exception, everyone we meet is brimming with the splendour of humanity. Now of course, we are all possessed with those parts of our lives which let us down – whether it is greed, egotism, striving for power at the expense of others, jealousy, presumptions of other’s intentions. But, I have never met someone who is not actually in search of fulfilment, safety, peace, companionship and parnasa (a livelihood). Every one of us, every person on the street, is actually in search of this. It is the crooks, the psychopaths and sociopaths, the perverts, the ones who get off on violence, who have ruined our vision of humanity. We must not let them sully our vision. Our counter to their perversion must be to renew our faith. But a faith with nuance.

Judaism has a gift to offer this renewal of faith. Judaism relays the story of humanity in a very particular way. From the moment of Adam and Eve, our Torah tells us that we are capable of making choices, of being endowed with the ability to decide how we act. How else are we to read the sin of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? We are not born into sin, we are born into freedom. And so we turn to Cain and Abel – the midrashic reading of this moment reveals the great fall of humanity in just one generation. Riven with jealousy, with pride, with religious hubris and with greed, the midrash describes the fight that led to Cain’s murder of Abel. Human beings may be endowed with the freedom to make choices, but they are certainly experts at choosing destruction over harmony. The widespread failure of human choices are finally sealed with the story of Noah in which God is so regretful of creating humankind the whole world is destroyed to, effectively, start again.

But out of the destruction and the rebuilding by Noah we meet our Knight of Faith. Or perhaps, to continue my metaphor, the Admiral of Faith. Abraham, we are told in the rabbinic telling of his childhood, realises that there is a world beyond himself. He asks, surely there is something bigger than the idols we worship? He becomes the individual through which God resolves the world will be saved. An individual who suddenly discovers that perhaps there is something more majestic and great of which we are meant to be a part – even amidst the palace in flames.

Judaism you see has an urgent message for our understanding of humanity. We cannot have an unadulterated optimism, a crass naivety that we are not full of complex and competing forces and ideas. But Judaism demands of us that we remember the individuals who have struck out for the betterment of the world in which they live. Judaism recognises that people endowed with freedom can make the responsible choice, if given the right set of circumstances. That the human imagination can cause us to see a world beyond our own tiny existence. Whether that’s Abraham on his first journey from his birth place, the explorers of the 15th century, the Rosetta mission to space. We can believe in humanity. We can have faith.

And, mark my words, that faith must be, in fact there is no other way, it absolutely has to be forged out of a gentle, compassionate, values driven faith in our ability to choose the right way. In our ability to create an environment for positive choices, for mutual salvation and not surrendering to the forces of destruction.

And God, and you may be surprised to hear the rabbi say this on Rosh Hashanah, has nothing to do with it. What else can we take from our story of Abraham on Rosh Hashanah. Today if we were told to sacrifice our children, “one by one”, in the words of Wilfred Owen, because God told us to, we would ‘laugh’ in God’s face. God does not speak to us in such terms. God does not speak to us directly, at all. God is not in the literal reading of sacred texts, nor in the will to murder for one cause or another, or the clamouring voices of suspicion of the other. We are, to all intents and purposes, on our own with our choices. The Admiral of Faith of our age must be able to synthesise everything good and noble from this momentary human existence on our tiny planet and set sail for a vision of the future.

The urgent message of Judaism is that human beings can be destructive, on massive proportions (and as Jews we have suffered at the hands of humanity’s wickedness more than most). We are riven with errors and misjudgements. We are selfish and egotistical. But this can be balanced by the constant drive in Judaism to look out. To think beyond oneself, to better the world. Yes, my rabbinate has been one only in the shadow of destruction, terror and the rise of religious theology and political ideologies that we thought were dead and buried. But we are still free. We are capable of seeing our fellow as our equal, of caring for a world for the greatness of something that will outlive us.

Judaism says on Rosh Hashanah we are not tied to one destiny. Our future is open for discovery. The flag we choose to wave aloft, the values, the deeds, the words we utter will create our world and we are sovereign over that. As humans, as Jews, as members of WLS, we have to avoid being dominated by suspicion of our fellow humans. Our faith and hope rests in humanity and nowhere else.

Saul Tchernikovsky wrote in his now famous poem, Sachki Sachki, quoted by President Reuven Rivlin at the funeral of the late dreamer and optimist, former President Shimon Peres:


Laugh at all my dreams, my dearest; laugh, and I repeat anew

That I still believe in mankind as I still believe in you.

For my soul is not yet unsold to the golden calf of scorn

And I still believe in man and the spirit in him born.

By the passion of his spirit shall his ancient bonds be shed

Let the soul be given freedom, let the body have its bread!

Love at last shall bind the peoples in an everlasting bond.

In that day shall my own people rooted in its soil arise,

Shake the yoke from off its shoulders and the darkness from its eyes.

Life and love and strength and action in their heart and blood shall beat

And their hopes shall be both heaven and the earth beneath their feet…

Our particular Jewish story is intertwined with the great voyage of discovery that is the story of humankind. We are not just court Jews, astronomers to the crown, we have a flag to wave aloft from our flagship here at WLS. That we will dream, we will believe in humankind and the spirit born in us. Our hopes shall be both heaven and the earth beneath our feet. Let that be the flag of hope for this Rosh Hashanah and the message for our new year of 5777. I wish you a Shanah Tovah, may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. And may this be the will in heaven and ours on earth. And let us say: Amen.