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.

Open Judaism: Challenges and Opportunities (and a JPR report too)

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5775

Shanah Tovah and welcome to all friends, families, members and visitors. Once again it is a delight to be able to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a community in our synagogue and to share it with the seats full and our choirs singing so melodiously. We should be grateful for many things, in spite of the year that has passed and events that seem to be looming in the world.

Last week I was attending a presentation in Camden for the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. The presentation was to an invitation only audience to discuss the findings of some of the latest research into data collected about Jewish Students in the UK. Specifically the impact of Jewish educational initiatives – the results of which I shall comment on in a few moments. However, as I arrived a few minutes early I decided to stroll through Camden Market – the sun was shining and a warm nostalgic feeling overcame me. I had spent many teenage weekends going to Camden Market and being allowed to stay out late to go the Camden Palace. The details are not necessary or befitting such a day as this, but I had spent my fair share of money on jeans, Doc Marten boots and friendship bracelets.

So it was walking through Camden Market again that I reminisced about the confidence of youth and its naivety. Notwithstanding the fact that it seemed to me that some of the stock on the market-stalls seemed to be left over from the early 1990s – I suppose there will always be a market for trinkets and Nirvana t-shirts. But what was really clear to me was that though I felt slightly claustrophobic by the large groups of teenagers roaming around innocently looking for a bargain, I was fascinated by the wild body art, hairstyles, old and new fashions, revealing and concealing. Of course it’s nothing that new, just that I tend to be a little more staid these days preferring a cup of tea and a quiet night with exhausted middle class professionals than the wild youthful exuberance on show here. However, it was completely evident to me that whilst my life is not lived in the same way, there is no place I would rather be than in a country and society in which rebelliousness (even if slightly clichéd) coupled with free choice can express itself so easily. I may not like the clothes or the body art but the open, tolerant expression of individual sovereignty is, I think, never more clearly on show than places such as where I was.

At the heart of it, there is good reason for my feeling inspired by the personal sovereignty on show in Camden. There is good reason why I would prefer a society where exuberance and exaggerated displays of personal expression through youth culture is permitted and not repressed beneath intolerant tyrannical government and oppressive (often state sponsored) religious prescription. I am a Liberal Jew. And to be a Liberal Jew is to accept and sometimes seek a little rebellion; not conserving the status quo or a harsh moral conservatism. We seek openness and tolerance in our religious lives, just as we seek that to be congruent in the society in which we live. That has been the path of what I would call open Judaism.

Oppressive regimes seek to control, preserve and protect from that which is new or different. Open societies celebrate diversity even whilst worrying about what that means for its values. Inward looking closed Judaism seeks to control, preserve and protect from that which is new. Open Judaism celebrates diversity even whilst worrying about what that means for its values. You see there is a connection.

Since the advent of modernity and the emancipation and enlightenment of the Jewish community, there have been many approaches to our view of the world and dealing with our relationship to it.

In the charedi (ultra-orthodox) world, in my opinion, the word conservation seems to be crucial to understanding their society. Albeit, I am not charedi and tread slightly carefully in describing something from the outside. At the heart of the community is a need to conserve a way of life, to protect it from outside influence which could cause harm, and to strictly govern who has access to it. Even whilst this is tempered by an inescapable reality that there is an interaction. So the interaction must be monitored and guarded.

As Liberal Jews we have a very different attitude towards Jewish life and our interaction with the rest of the world. In some cases it is as if the boundaries have been dissolved completely and in others we recognise the boundaries’ permeability, flexibility and that there may be ‘grey’ areas. We acknowledge that we do not want to ‘conserve’ a way of life and religion. Rather, we wish for it to grow, evolve and ‘progress’.

The ‘non-Jewish’ world (which is really an imaginary construction for the purposes of this sermon – I’m not convinced that there is such a clear differentiation)…The non-Jewish world of science, literature, philosophy, technology, ethics has as great deal from which we can learn – not just use. Equally, we hope that our Jewish texts, rituals and values can play a relevant part in the evolution of humankind. I hope and think, we have developed a mature and sophisticated understanding of this interaction, where we do not regard one as influencing the other – but that cultures grow in concert – sometimes harmoniously and sometimes in discord. But nevertheless there is a constant two way flow and most of us have multiple identities – connecting with all of it and none of it. For growth to happen we put ourselves in the heart of the open expression of life and accept that experimentation, even radical experimentation has a legitimate place – all the while the middle aged folk like me feel a bit uncomfortable.

This challenges our sense of self and security in the future. It is the middle open ground that is giving way when we look at the demographics of the Jewish community. We, as Liberal Jews, probably have more in common in this than we give credit with Reform, Masorti and even modern orthodoxy. We are the communities that live in the open world. We are the communities that seek to be exposed to that which is new and that which may change us. Because of that, we live in a world where we are constantly negotiating complex identities. And where the pull away from Judaism is most strong. That is our strength and our challenge. Our identity is not fixed but growing and sometimes morphing and sometimes takes us away from Judaism altogether.

There is not a simple answer to this question – it is exactly the dilemma we must grapple with when we take a stance that is open to the ‘world out there’ and not closed to it. Jewishness or Jewish identity is something that changes, grows and is sometimes full of contradictions and is in dialogue with all our other identities.

Even loyalty to a movement has long since vanished. More and more, people are in search of a sense of meaning, which overrides where they affiliate and whether what they are doing is in keeping with the constructed ideology of where they grew up.

From my point of view this poses a huge challenge to our community. We encourage an open and engaging attitude towards what lies outside the boundaries of our community. I think very few of us would like to see a return to the ghetto or even to the picture of the charedi world I painted earlier – where we ‘conserve’ and avoid change. In which we oppress and repress. We want to see a community where all people and families, no matter who they are or how they are constituted, are welcome and feel at home – which includes race, sexual orientation, even religion. But when we have values and boundaries that are permeable or moveable, or even dissolvable, we must also respond to the challenge of being Jewish: of how to be Jewish and why to be Jewish.

They are serious questions yet to be answered by the ‘organised’ Jewish community. If there is a challenge to our leadership it is not over its stance regarding Israel and antisemitism in recent months (just because your leaders don’t say what you want them to does not mean they are bad leaders).

The leadership question is how we are going to respond as open, tolerant Judaism, a Judaism that Liberal Judaism often spearheads, how we will respond as Jews to the challenge of ‘Being’ in the 21st Century and specifically of being Jewish.

Because lately it seems to me that the solutions offered are ones that pose the risk of turning Judaism into a glorified NGO and a mediocre one at that. This is my worry. It is all very well (and a universal moral duty) caring for these gigantic issues for all of humankind and the world: the environment or peace in the Middle East or economic justice. But you don’t have to be Jewish to be an eco, peace, social justice activist. If we are to start the conversation about these issues as a Jewish community, we first must worry about whether we’re growing into a community that is indifferent to Judaism or at least has no tangible way of being Jewish save some noble values, an ethnocultural affiliation through tv/film/music, bridge and a penchant for certain foods.

And this brings me back to the reason I was in Camden in the first place. The JPR report on Jewish students that has only just been released shows, without a doubt, that the transmission of ‘Jewish identity’ rests most centrally in the home and the family. There is no better vehicle for the transmission of your Judaism than what happens in the home and in families (extended and surrogate). But, now here’s the difficult reading, what the report shows is that the impact of all of our educational initiatives save yeshiva and a gap year in Israel (and even they aren’t that strong) is miniscule. We could read this positively that there is at least a tiny impact of most of our programmes (with some fairing much better than others – the two worst may surprise you), but the report shows that we must do better if we are to sustain a vibrant Judaism in the future. And one that will, without a doubt, be even more embedded in the open society which allows us all to live freely – as Camden punks or genteel rabbis.

As I wrote in my Rabbi’s piece for the October newsletter:

The reason I have been thinking about this question of transmission in Liberal Judaism is because I am concerned that thinking about the vehicles for the transmission of our Liberal Jewish life, there is very little that is tangible that we pass on to the next generation. Values are very weak vehicles for living a Jewish life – and they are hard to pass on from the family or the synagogue at least that’s what I read from the JPR report. 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.

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 all of us who should regard ourselves as responsible. Without us, 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 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 (and I have in my rabbi’s word) – but at the same time, the real answer for YOU is the one that you create – you must author your own set of ideas. And I believe the answer must speak to us for the here and now – why we are Jewish today – but also reflect a vision of the future, our vision for the world and how Judaism fits within that vision. That is something about which I think we speak as a Liberal Jewish community.

It is not something that I as a Rabbi can do alone. It’s something that can only come from within our community. We must strive towards experiencing Judaism that is engaging, serious and meaningful. In my opinion this can only come through the old fashioned but enduring modes of study, worship and deeds. And we can only know what this means if we listen to one another and forge ahead with creativity and openness – even embracing sometimes the equivalent of the rebelliousness of the youth culture of Camden. If we are open to change, to new experiences, to being challenged. But most of all, we must undergo our own journeys of discovering the meaning of Jewish identity in this age when identity is hard to sustain. To answer the question for the future of the enduring value of being Jewish. That is the challenge that I hope we will rise to over this coming year, and again and again in the future. And this is something that is an immensely exciting proposition for us.

Shanah Tovah umetukah – A good and sweet year to you all.