My sermon for Toldot

This sermon was delivered on the occasion of the final dedication of ‘Seatscape‘ at the LJS – a project to stitch new seat covers for the synagogue chairs, launched as part of the synagogue’s centenary (hence the puns throughout).

Last week I threatened to say something interesting this week about space, the final frontier – in light of the Rosetta mission last week and the rather amusing request, received via a national newspaper, to write a response to the question of Judaism’s readiness for extra-terrestrial encounters on earth. So here goes my attempt to WEAVE a journey through the subject.

Actually it is quite an inspiring topic on which to write, after one of the most impressive scientific accomplishments in space last week with the landing of a craft on a comet. Who knows what next might be in store for us humans! And in truth, I am rather indebted to Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs who covers the topic with typical brilliance in his book ‘A Jewish Theology’. Had the author of the book, whose chapter I was reviewing, taken the trouble to read Jacobs and not clumsily STITCH together Rabbi Google’s answers the chapter on Judaism might well have been worth publishing, but I digress.

My short response can be read on my blog, but for now I want to take us in two different directions. The first is really what do Jews have to say about this question of extra terrestrial encounter? And the second is what happens when we contemplate the meaning of the encounter. To my mind, it has little to do with the theology, philosophy, or halakhic questions.

If you were to ask my generation, as children (when we were under 18), who were the three most famous aliens imagined to be encountered by human civilisation in popular culture (leaving aside the Alien and Predators series as 18 certificate films) your answers would probably include…

Kal-El (AKA Superman, AKA Clark Kent) Superman – the boy who when he reaches teenage years discovers special powers. Must conceal his true identity in order to ‘fit in’ with the wider society (as Jewish comic creators the inventors had been excluded from the industry for being Jewish after all). And secretly he could dominate the world…whoops.

ET (of glowing finger fame) – the invention of a young kid who becomes one of the most successful film producers and directors. The story of the touching encounter between a boy and a friend. A film that brings nearly everyone to tears. The loner, Jewish film director, creates a film that expresses human relationships, acceptance and tolerance for the other on a deeply interpersonal level.

Spock (it’s life Jim but not as we know it) – the one alien crew member on a human ship has uncanny intellectual abilities and a greeting sign rather reminiscent of the Priestly benediction (as described by Leonard Nimoy). The outsider, again accepted on the inside, but always treated with a little suspicion and his ways are never fully understood acted by a Jew. Don’t forget to watch out for the Vulkan death grip!

Of these, the first two are invented by Jews and the last is acted by a Jew. Coincidence? Well if we can leave aside the possibility that Jews own Hollywood or control the world, I think it’s almost certain that it is no coincidence. And for good reason. But let me come back to these guys later.

But before that, my second point – I want to reflect a little on what it might mean for a non-earthling to visit our earth. What might the rich TAPESTRY of life teach to our visitor and to us? The journalist who asked me the question was interested in whether the aliens could convert to Judaism. To which my response would be something along the lines of – if it turns out humans and aliens could fall in love, and it turns out they create homes together, why ever not! Though it requires a rather massive sense of hubris to think that, having travelled light years to get here, any alien is going to be interested in the least in becoming a follower of an earthly and earth bound religion/ethnicity. But we’ll leave that for the aliens to figure out.

SEW, I am personally more fascinated by the classic question, what an alien might observe were they to arrive on the earth and imperceptibly live among us. Since this year was the year in which Robin Wiliams died, I must of course acknowledge my debt to Mork, though perhaps the Solomon family of ‘Third Rock from the Sun’ should be our Jewish point of reference! Are you keeping up by the way?

What would these aliens, extra-terrestrials observe in the WARP AND WEFT of human life? Perhaps, whilst applying the Prime Directive they might witness the incredible cooperative capability of human life. Our uniquely human trait must surely be the transmission of knowledge, of culture and of values. We know animals can communicate at basic levels and one day we might teach a particularly dextrous animal to use an implement like a needle, but would they be able to (a) transmit that knowledge from generation to generation and (b) evolve a mastery of the use of said tool to create visual representations and a sense of art and the transcendent? Who knows, but not yet and for me this is where humans stand out.

Our aliens would be able to draw the THREADS of human advancement together in order to see that in majestic acts of cooperation we are able to send craft on a 6.4 billion kilometres expedition to put a washing machine size lander on a comet. How optimistic the extra terrestrials might think to themselves. And turning to the small acts of cooperation and wonderment they might witness the incredible creativity, commitment, volunteer spirit in something as local as a project to stitch 104 seat covers for a synagogue sanctuary.

And how those aliens might marvel at the sublime impression the seats make. Looking out at the sanctuary, ripples of the light of Torah, or is it the light of the moon, would be seen as if each ‘pray-er’ were wading into the deep, blue sustaining water, and, for just a moment, perhaps remind the extra-terrestrials of their own sublime vistas encountered on their journey through space. Witnessing the names of the 365 different stitchers, one for every day of the year, our new alien friends might imagine that the human capacity for achieving great things is remarkable – we might even be a species worth saving.

So much for the transmission of noble values and culture, the spirit of cooperation and creating something to direct our hearts to heaven and our souls to new depths. For no sooner had our aliens observed the scientific, artistic and aspirational endeavours then they would hear the news from some place – let’s call it ‘City of Peace’ – Ir Shalem – or perhaps ‘Jerusalem’ just to add to their confusion. As if clamouring to be seen above the nobility of humankind, our ET would now hear of murder of four rabbis and a Druze policeman in a heinous act of terror.

Would our alien visitor be totally confused by the ethnic, religious, national, historic identity and enmity? How could a species capable of so much also be capable of such destruction, they might ask? Looking more closely they would see families, friends, communities, peoples, struggling to overcome the pull from progress and embattled against the voices of negativity, depravity and wickedness.

It was as I thought about this that I realised my vision of encounter with ET fell into two fantasies – either ET would be beneficent because they had surpassed negative failings in their ‘space travelling’ endeavours, or they would be unspeakably evil, malevolent, perhaps like the Borg or Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’. I didn’t stop to think that ET might be like us – capable of greatness and evil, wonder and terror. If human life is stuck between these two, maybe our aliens would be too. Maybe, and this is where I found myself realising my Liberal Jewish values were so important, maybe the alien is not quite as alien as a I thought. Perhaps I would be faced with the greatest test of an encounter with the ‘Other’ and perhaps I would discover that our identities as human and alien don’t fit so comfortably into the pigeon holes I was imagining.

That’s the point isn’t it? The reason why all these Jews are involved in acting, creating, representing alien life forms. An alien in science fiction forces us to imagine what it means to be an outsider and an insider. It challenges us to see in ‘the other’ that which we see in ourselves and demands that we don’t commit a Levinas form of violence on the other by imposing a horizon of being on to their defenceless face.

And with that I realised I wanted to be Rebecca in our story today and I wanted to be Jacob and I desperately wanted to be Esau (or at least advise Esau before he gives up his birthright). Our Torah portion is the portion of mixed identities of being the other, of deceiving the other. Everyone wants to be someone else: Rebecca would like to be the father bestowing the blessing on the son she loves, Jacob wants to be Esau (and carries it off in disguise pretty well really), Esau wishes he was Jacob just for a moment if he could be the homeSPUN child and not the hunter. And Isaac, what do we say about Isaac – he is just so DARN willing to allow himself to be manipulated. He’s the only one who is himself and screwing it up.

It is this portion, more than any other I think, which sets in train the rest of our story. We fight, we steal, we are jealous, we give up, we deceive, we are weak eyed, have favourites, and are deeply pained in the loss or even perceived loss of that which we hold dear. God how we wish the plight of humankind were different. If nothing else we must sit with this story and hear the pained voice of the other – the alien to us – we all carry Esau and Jacob in our hearts. Reconciliation is a long way off, Jacob had plenty happen before he is kissed (or is it bitten) by his brother. We have our own journey or reconciliation to travel.

But, and it’s a big but, this story is not all there is to it. אם כן למה זה אנכי – if so why am I thus? Beneath the bitterness is the most profound existential longing for wholeness and for nobility, to walk with God and be perfect. To surpass the pain and the struggle, to gain wisdom.

So we return to our space mission of billions of miles and our seats of millions of stitches. אם כן למה זה אנחנו? If it be so, why are we thus? Because look at what we can also do. This is what we must aspire towards, this is our hope. In our communities, in our national cooperations, in our visions for a better world.

As the children of Israel stood by the shores of the sea with the Egyptians pursuing them, they were full of fear. Yet, the midrash teaches, wading into the sea went Nachshon ben Aminadav. In his steps to freedom, to the future, not zealously but with a spirit of hope, the sea parted. We have our tapestry of the sea before us now, the ripples of the light dancing on the surface. May it inspire us to take the small step to hope every time we sit in this sanctuary. If it be so why are we thus? It doesn’t have to be but we each individually must play our part, as outsiders, insiders and in-betweeners. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.


Community engagement: No easy solutions but some reflections

A few weeks ago my post of the ‘Banned List’ for synagogues was shared and commented upon by many people. A number of comments were sympathetic or felt my frustrations were echoing their frustrations. However, at the same time a number of comments pushed for solutions. It was all well and good leveling a critique but without anything tangible to offer I was verging on unfair cynicism and certainly failing to credit the work of so many people (especially volunteers) in bringing our synagogues to the point they are at today.

So I’m going to list the things that I think are important to how we work in communities. More plans to think about these issues are in the pipeline but this will have to do for now:

1 Self-authorship of Jewish life – CHANGING THE US AND THEM

I’m aware that there have been movements before and there are still some strong tendencies out there for DIY Judaism and grassroots, open Judaism. But this is not a plea necessarily for DIY Judaism or grassroots Judaism (though that may be a piece of it), but rather it’s about the way we have conversations about Jewish life. On the back of an engaging conversation with a Citizens UK community organiser about the Community Organising Iron Rule (never to do for people what they can do for themselves), this seems doubly important – I think we should be saying ‘We can’t do what you can do for yourself’. As a ‘hashkafah’ (perspective) there are at least three or four things that I have in mind:

a) Judaism is all of our inheritance and it is the right of each of us to be its interpreters, to shape and change it and to pass it on. There may be more or less obvious parameters to this, but centrally we as leaders (professional and lay) must not regard ourselves as the guardians/defenders of ‘their’ heritage.

b) There may be many choices and access points, with many routes to the same and different places in Jewìsh life. Theories of adult learning recognise that linear models of ‘input’ and ‘output’ don’t apply and we need to take Jewish life out of the linear ‘hatch, match and dispatch’ old model – whilst recognising that those pivotal moments in life are also core building blocks and opportunities.

c) Expertise does not reside in the old fashion places – such as rabbis, monied philanthropists and other lay and professional activists and learning does not occur (or rarely occurs) in the ‘classroom’. The expertise has potential in every person – it is our job to nurture it and sustain it. In other words we have to enable and empower Jews and their families to see themselves differently in relation to their Judaism and leaders. And we need to be less judgemental about the choices they make – we’re all idiosyncratic and ideological purity is not what it was.

d) Following on from point 3, we (as professional and lay leaders) must give up our power over skills, knowledge and values – otherwise ownership and self-authorship will never truly happen. In other words we have to enable and empower ourselves to see ourselves differently in relation to our Judaism and other Jews. And we have to relinquish control. Don’t think you know what ‘they need’, make yourself vulnerable to the possibility even you might not be needed – in fact make that your goal. At least the goal that what you’re currently doing will no longer be needed and your skills and interests could be invested differently.

Of course, all of this may have implications for our venerable communal ‘bodies’ and movements too.

2 It takes time

When it comes to the things that need to be changed quickly, synagogues are generally bad; they take forever to make decisions – often feeling like turning an oil tanker. However, on the question of building partnerships, leadership, and engagement, synagogues rarely plan in the long term and want results ‘yesterday’. We get it the wrong way around – make key changes and decisions quickly and allow the bits that take time, to take time. By which I mean don’t expect  your success to be measured in cold membership statistics within 6 months. Membership is a useful tool to measure some things but will not tell you about the deep changes happening to relationships, expressions of Judaism and communal confidence. A synagogue is about people – you don’t have a factory to produce your product at greater speeds and efficiencies. You have people – that’s where Judaism is. Allow things to take time (though don’t let that be an excuse for being meandering and unfocussed).

This is close to the top of my list – taking time. Creating sustainability and durability is not something that happens over night. And the development of trust must be gently cultivated to endure. If being genuine and honest is an important value – which I happen to think is key – then understanding one another and really knowing that someone shares those values can take time.

3 Leadership and volunteer development

As a general rule the Jewish community pays lip service to real leadership and volunteer development. Perhaps this is because of the hegemony of rabbis, professionals and a kind of ‘professional volunteer’. In fits and spurts we have invested in leadership programmes (and there are some excellent cross-communal offerings) but we hardly ever think properly about how we nurture and develop new leaders at a smaller scale of the synagogue. This is not just about succession planning – important as that may be. But we either thrust people on to committees and councils at the first whiff of interest (and are then surprised when they get put off or burnt out) or we don’t properly listen to expressions of interest and allow space for people to grow. Remember point (d) above – we have to relinquish control and we have to make space. That’s space for people to learn, make mistakes, learn more and feel supported. In a way, I have always felt there are ample opportunities for me to be in the ‘spot light’ as the rabbi, what I should do is seek ways for others to be in that position. And the mantra then becomes what can I do to support you in making it happen. To do that you must listen, reflect, frame and empower.

4 Get your rabbi out of the office and your lay leaders from committees meetings

If you have a rabbi, think about what they’ve spent all those years learning to do and why you’re really employing them. They may be a fabulous page turner of a prayerbook or brilliant at schlepping chairs, writing minutes or preparing fliers. But you should be asking your rabbis to rethink their roles and the way they do things (and they way they think they are expected to do them). They are the experts, or should be, in synergising life with the streams of Judaism. They are interpreters. They are people interested in people. They may be teachers, thinkers, pastors, preachers, prophets, enablers, empowerers, creators of sanctity and sacred moments. But please don’t let your rabbi become an administrator. Or to put it another way, give your rabbi a healthy expense account and demand to know why it hasn’t been spent on meeting congregants.

Send your rabbi away to seminars, conferences, nurture their passions. This will also create space in the synagogue without them. And go on – ban committees from expecting their attendance too!

Ok – I could go on and it would sound like a stitch up, but you get the idea on this (though I should say that since your rabbi will be expected to be eating out lots, offer gym membership as well (their physical well being will be important in the long run)!)

And since this is also about lay leadership, give your lay leaders that healthy expense account too. They have a ‘ministry’ (to coin a Christian approach) to the community too. Help them identify what it is that they feel strongly about and then engage them in a process of talking with others about the same thing. The worst thing that can happen to an enthusiastic lay leader is that their time and energy is absorbed by committee meetings. At their most positive, committees end up using resources of your leadership that may have been better used elsewhere (particularly time) and at the most negative, committees can be places where there is a lot of ‘talk’ and not a lot ‘do’ (or often the chair and the staff member come away with long lists of ‘to dos’ and committee members come away feeling gratified that they are doing something to help their community). Train and develop your lay leaders and protect them from falling into a trap of normative culture (the mantras of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ and ‘we tried that but it didn’t work’).

5 Be focussed and organised

Of course, being generally organised is useful but actually this is not a call for the visionary to be brought down from the clouds! Rather this is a communal issue of how you go about making decisions and have clarity about what you’re trying to achieve. Too often it has been my experience that councils seem like they have some kind of attention problem – flicking from one issue to another whilst never actually resolving root problems. Then when the surface problem is solved (often leadership succession or financial security) they breathe a collective sigh of relief and forget what may have been the underlying problem also needs dealing with.

But this is also about a longer term perspective. Synagogues are very good at strategising, visionising, missioning and all the other jargon. But very few are able to be practical and get SMART targets. Carried away with a vision of redemption they are consumed with all encompassing ideas, normally delivered in a verbose paper, and resort to a scatter gun effect that exacerbates the ‘attention’ problem I mention above.

6 Community organisational structures

I want to say something about this but what I’m going to say is with broad brush-strokes. The first thing I would say is that you must allow the bureaucracy of running a charity to be done by your board/executive/council but don’t allow them to be programmatic, insist they put good governance, accountability and thinking of the future first. When a council starts programming activities as a council, there is minimal hope of success. When they ensure accountability is a priority along with thinking about the future they are more exciting and feel like they are accomplishing something.

Connected to this, and in continuation of my comments above about committees, reduce your number of committees. Of course don’t lose sight of the accountability issue. If you have time for committee meetings then use that time to do something from the list above instead. Remember that the worst committee is one populated by people interested in talking, as if that were their ‘doing’.

7 Strategy and Vision

You will have already read above that I think sometimes the strategising and visioning can become an obstacle to progress. These processes, of strategising and visioning, are great but they are time consuming and hard to sustain. They can also be used by those unwilling to change as a vehicle for blocking new ideas. Instead just pick two or three things that you want to change together, out of your strategising and visioning process, and be focussed and methodical in making the change. As I’ve said, synagogues can have attention problems, so instead narrow the field slightly. Truth is, if you achieve your ‘three things’ it was probably less important that it was those three and not a different three. What was important was the above.

8 Enjoy and find meaning

Simple: If it is not enjoyable and meaningful for you why bother. And if this is important for you, how much more so for everyone else.

9 Partnership

Creating communities that work is often about the building of partnerships beyond the community itself. Partnerships are not unequal or unilateral. Of course you need to be honest about where the partners have strengths and weaknesses, but there should be equality too. Institutionally they can take time, like the interpersonal relationships take time. You also need to have clear boundaries about the partnerships you create, how long they’re intended to last and be honest with what you hope to get out of them. But synagogues can’t do everything and even if they could the cross pollination is valuable. If you are confident about your own value, then you will never feel threatened in a partnership. At the same time, a little competition can also be a valuable thing – merging and conglomeration does not always lead to greater efficiency or the possibility of articulating nuanced positions.

10 Experiment

So finally, experimentation. The tendency of religious communities is to be inherently conservative even whilst they try and bring salvation to the world. What they all need is an ability to measure risk effectively and then experiment. From my experience most proposed experiments are in reality low risk – they won’t make a synagogue insolvent but they might land on a new approach to something old or an old approach to something new. But you’ve got to try it and be willing to fail. Then you might be able to succeed too.