Tradition in Dialogue: Inclusion, Exclusion and the Universal from the Particular (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5778)

“It’s ticking the boxes against the disabled, the aged, LGBT, the ethnic communities and the rest of it, and something gets lost along the way.” So was the quote about the National Trust that greeted me in the paper after I returned from a simply joyous few days in Devon and Dorset.

Let me back track for a moment if I may. This year we had a staycation during the summer – deciding to visit various parts of this green and pleasant land. Actually, around the time of Michelle (my wife’s) birthday in early Summer we saw something interesting was happening at Waddesdon Manor – the home of the late Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, last owned by a Rothschild in 1957, now managed by the Rothschild Foundation for the National Trust.  We decided to visit and realised it was more economical to join the National Trust than pay the one-off visitor’s entrance fee.

So we found ourselves proud members of the National Trust about which one friend said to me, “That either makes you a paid up member of the middle class or middle aged.” And then kindly added, “Of course you’ve always been tending towards middle age!”

Our children were amazed by the size of the home and thrilled to play in the beautiful grounds. It was, as we were leaving the tour of the house, that our youngest proclaimed somewhat loudly – as we walked passed a group sitting in the post restaurant enjoying their tea:

“Mummy, I thought that was going to be really boring…but it was really fun.”

Later at the start of school holidays on my day off I took the children on my own to visit Shaw’s Corner – the home of George Bernard Shaw. After which our eldest wondered if the next house was going to be really big like the manor or just small like George Bernard Shaws’? If you visited Shaws Corner it isn’t a manor house, but let me tell you there’s no shortage of space in the grounds!

Our visit to Shaws Corner coincided with the Pride debacle that faced the National Trust this summer. They had expected their volunteers to wear rainbow badges and lanyards in support of Pride and the unwritten stories of LGBTQi people whose lives might otherwise go unnoticed and this also included the ‘outing’ of a now deceased house owner. When we walked into Shaws Corner, a volunteer was overheard telling a couple who were visiting, “No we don’t have to wear the badge, but you know Shaw was very enlightened. He mixed with all sorts of people. You know like Oscar Wilde.”

All sorts of people like gay people you mean.

So now we’re signed up to the National Trust for our summer and visited gorges, forges, manor houses, stone circles, beaches, rock pools and walks on the moors. It was magical for us as a family. And then we returned home to the interview with Sir Roy Strong on the National Trust in which he said, “It’s ticking the boxes against the disabled, the aged, LGBT, the ethnic communities and the rest of it, and something gets lost along the way.” In other words, all these groups are being included and traditional visitors (for which perhaps we might read, white, middle class, C of E, able bodied, straight people and probably women as well) are being alienated. If only the world was composed of only white, straight, middle aged, non-disabled people. The traditional visitors as one news report put it – traditional.

It got me thinking about how this year, Rabbi Julia is driving us as a community and your rabbis to think more about inclusion (you’ll hear more about this in our sermons over the High Holy Days).

Tradition, that often bandied around word, is something that we Jews think we understand well. So when I hear, in the news, traditional values, traditional supporters, traditional morals, I’m interested to know what people actually mean. Tradition is at least a threefold process and does not stand still. Conservatives (with a small c) want us to think that they’re referring to an unchanging preserved relic of the past which they keep alive by slavish allegiance to living ‘it’. At the other end of the scale, the radicals would have us think that nothing has permanent enduring value and there is no such thing as tradition only oppression. The truth for us woolly liberals in the middle is that tradition does exist and is an important part of identity, but it is constantly in the process of being created because tradition requires:

  • A text or cultural artifact
  • A history of interpretation of that text or meme
  • A current generation who are the inheritors of both the history and the text itself and new readers of culture for their own time.

So tradition is an interpretative mode by which we understand ourselves in conversation with the text and its interpreters through time. It does not stand still and is constantly evolving. In this I have much in common with the theoretician Hans-Georg Gadamer.

But even this view of tradition does not deal with a critical issue, which is what we do when the text and history of interpretation excludes key people. Today, in theory, those excluded – like women – are empowered and their voices matter in our time and they start to read again our texts and discover the absence of their voices. This is where the most fruitful conversation today can happen – when those excluded from the past begin to read themselves in the texts and become powerful significant voices and correctives.

Now lest I have lost you in this philosophical journey let me frame it in the context of the National Trust. If we’re looking at tradition and the traditional houses of the National Trust we must ask, who is missing.

Well from 1290 to 1656 – four hundred pretty important years in the history of Britain – we were. Jews. And let’s not forget, for about 1000 years across Europe there were various experiments in trying to rid different countries of their Jews. So, it’s of more than curious interest to me when a Jewish family visits a home like Waddesdon Manor (built by a Jew) or Hughenden (advertised as the first Jewish prime-minister’s home, that is Disraeli). Because this country had, until 150 years before the individuals who owned these houses existed, enforced an edict of expulsion of Jews.

What happens when voices are excluded from the national consciousness because they’re not part of who ‘we’ are, either deliberately or unconsciously? We miss them in interpreting who we are and the way we see the world around us. Tradition is not static. It is a conversation we have with ourselves and the people with whom we share our lives. That’s why the tick boxes become important. It’s about power. Power is who gets to narrate the story, who gets to interpret the story and who is included in the story. The powerless are excluded and it warps our sense of personal identity and national consciousness.

So there we were, and by the way we love the National Trust now – “we thought it would be boring but actually it was really fun”. A rabbi’s kid in conversation with her past (the non descendent of immigrants and refugees from Germany, Poland, Iraq and Egypt past that is). Tradition is just such a conversation. Friends, we’re part of the national conversation now – we’re most definitely included. And as Jews, with our memory, we should never, ever take that role for granted.

We know only too well how the excluded in society are often the isolated and the alienated, the impoverished, despised and the dispossessed. We’ve known exclusion, we’ve lost and gained the passports to prove it. But we also know how to be the ones doing the excluding. Judaism has existed for thousands of years and part of its success, I’m convinced, is that as a community we construct boundaries around ourselves – often at the expense of negative representations of others. Even though we had good reason to do that. The boundaries were always permeable and there is a hierarchy. The elite men who were the rabbis see regular men, women, children and slaves as on a sliding scale of significance in terms of inclusion with non-Jews completely out and people like Samaritans confusing the categories of in/out because they look like Jews, speak like Jews but seem to not be Jews. Before we talk of inclusion, just like the National Trust has to confront its own role in identifying the silenced voices in our national history, we as Jews have to confront our own tendencies to exclude (historically and in present day).

At the moment, I’m teaching in one class a particularly famous series of texts which includes the statement that “If a building fell on a person we can clear the debris” – the mishnah is specifically talking about on Yom Kippur or Shabbat and goes on to state that even when we do not know if they are a Jew or non-Jew we clear the debris. From this declarative statement of law we get the idea that almost nothing overrides the mitzvah of saving a life. But here we have a statement in our mishnah 2000 years ago that seems to imply if we knew for certain that a non-Jew were lying beneath the rubble we should leave them there and not save his life. It’s only in the circumstances that we do not know their identity we should mount the rescue operation.

There’s an uncomfortable conversation for us to confront – but one of many. Now our community is a different community to that of 2000 years ago when the Mishnah was being compiled. How would we take our stand in our own interpretation of such a suggestion? Of course, the value of saving a life has now reached a level of primacy – it’s the guiding principle behind the rapid response teams that the State of Israel sends out to save lives after natural disasters to any part of the world. We have, all but, interpreted the clause out of existence. But there’s that dialogue in tradition again – the interpreter, the text and the tradition of interpretation. If we are going to be true to ourselves as Jews we must be able to study our sources like these to see how the community regarded its sense of self and identity 2000 years ago and pretty much up until the enlightenment and emancipation at the end of the 18th century.

And then, when we look around us, we bring our understanding of texts and traditions and this in turn informs a particular and unique voice to our national conversation. The universal out of the particular.

That is why the Melton course which I run is so important and why I want you to join me on the 25 week learning course this year on Wednesday evenings (sign up on the website).

So we must hold our own community to account and be party to the shared consciousness of our society in the way that it excludes or includes. And how that process of inclusion or exclusion is applied to different people.

And it was in thinking about how our Jewish lives, our sources and our community’s presence here in West London is in dialogue with ideas of exclusion and inclusion that I had an encounter. Before the encounter with John (whose name I have changed) I thought I was going to write a sermon about poverty and wealth and Jewish sources related to those themes, but John’s story was more powerful in so many ways.

I met John through one of our programmes here in the synagogue. He’s a refugee – which means he has status, not an asylum seeker. He has leave to remain, permanently here in the UK.

I’ll be a bit vague on details to protect his privacy but here we go. John grew up in one country in Africa and went to study in another. Whilst there, he wrote an article in 1989 about the corruption of his host country’s government. He told me he was naïve and couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He was arrested, jailed and tried. He was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Whilst in prison waiting for his execution someone took pity on him and, in his I suspect rather euphemistic words to me, “left the gate open”. He escaped and came to England where he lived until the late noughties. During that time he had submitted all the papers to the Home Office regarding his trial, his flight from execution and the articles connected to his case. And then in at the tale end of the first decade of the new millenium the Home Office summoned him and told him he had no right to be here. Just think about that – he had lived, effectively in limbo and probably through a deliberate design flaw, left alone for 18 years (after 20 he would, I’ve been told, have an automatic right to remain). The Home Office claimed they had no record of his papers and he needed to leave. Now John is a well-educated man with some legal training from home in Africa. But he had no papers, the only ones he had were with the Home Office and 1989 was pre-Google. So John had to submit a Freedom of Information request which proved that the Home Office did indeed have his papers that they could not find. Now he was granted permanent leave to remain but had not seen his family. He tried in vain to be in touch with them and his twin brother but assumed they had been killed in conflict in his home country. Then one day in 2015, whilst riding a bus in London someone called out to him and said ‘Sam, what are you doing here?’. He replied, ‘I’m not Sam, I’m John’. To which the fellow bus traveller said, ‘What are you saying. You’re not John, he’s your dead twin brother’. Now, if you want to believe in miracles, this is definitely one. The chap on the bus knew John’s family back home and recognised him as Sam’s twin brother. He enabled John to be back in touch with his family nearly 30 years later and see photographs of the empty grave and gravestone they had put up during the funeral for him in absentia some decades earlier. John volunteers with us. He is the human face of the powerless, the voiceless, the vilified. He is why we do what we do every day in the social action team at this Synagogue – with the homeless, the poor, the displaced, the refugees, the victims of Grenfell, and so on. He is part of our ‘saving a life’ in action and we are not interested in what religion you are, just your humanity.

Who is not included in our national conversations, in our efforts to dialogue in tradition? Today we as Jews have ample opportunity. It’s the Johns of this world that need to be given a voice. And by the way, it’s not just refugees. The alienation of white working classes, of the poor, the political expedient to ignore and others are of equal importance and concern. We must look at the sources of power, of voicelessness and of isolation. And we have to also look at our sources that may be driving us to exclude in our community too.

Our community should be a microcosm of the society we want to create. We can be boundaried without excluding. We can be sure of our own identity without denigrating anyone else. We can adapt our identity and count more people ‘in’. We can be confident that our conversations will be enriched if we stop to hear those we have not heard before. If we recognise that exclusion has happened and that our tradition calls out ‘Intepret me’ to everyone on life’s journey with us – commanding us all to take courses like Melton for adults to think more deeply about these and other issues. Then we can also build a community facing outwards in our social action programmes, that demand our society does the same. May this be our prayer and may it be come soon in our days and let us say: Amen


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!