Prelude to Hope – A Yom Kippur Sermon

sermonlanestpauls

It felt like it would be the last summery day of the year last weekend, as we set off as a family into London. Our children, now back at school, were in need of some good parental attention and let’s face it, I’m not at my best in these few weeks. I can’t speak for my colleagues but I don’t think it’s a rabbi’s most sociable period of the year.

We arrived in the City of London and promptly pretended to be the lady sitting on the steps of St Pauls feeding the birds in one of the girls favourite films – Mary Poppins. (I do a mean ‘Tuppence a bag’ by the way).

The World in Union?

We were actually en-route to the Millenium Bridge and the Tate Modern and so, as some of you who know the area well, we turned down Sermon Lane. I’m not a great believer in omens but without a sermon for this morning, standing beneath the imposing St Pauls Cathedral on Sermon Lane, I was hopeful inspiration would be forthcoming.

As we approached the Millenium Bridge the Salvation Army were playing, “I Vow To Thee, My Country”. I suppose it fits for the Salvation Army, but it of course tied in with the thronging rugby fans who had come for the World Cup – much more in keeping with my interests as a former scrum half (yes there was a time when I had a scrum half physique, thank you!).

As I’m sure you know, the song World in Union is sung to the same hymn, ‘Thaxted’, as I Vow to Thee My Country. And it has an undeniable optimism. Actually it verges on the point of a caricature of optimism for humanity. Here are the words:

It’s the world in union

The world as one

As we climb to reach our destiny

A new age has begun

Holst composed The Planets one hundred years ago, in the midst of the First World War and it was first performed in 1918 shortly before the end of the War. It was only in 1921 that Holst adapted the music from Jupiter to work with the lyrics of the poem by Cecil Spring Rice, I Vow to Thee, which was reworked also during the First World War. The incredible sense of positivity from the movement of Jupiter is apt for the poem which rocks us from the devastation of loss of life in warfare to the final verse and final lyric from Proverbs which is a central feature of our Torah service:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

“Her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17).

דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום

Thus I found myself just off Sermon Lane, hearing the sounds of a century old piece of music. The children were enthralled as the brass band played this hopeful hymn. I discovered that Holst did not like the Planets suite to be played only partially, ending on the movement for Jupiter as sometimes requested, for a happy ending was unrealistic since, in his words, “in the real world the end is not happy at all”.

He’s right of course. And I think few amongst us today would be in any doubt of that fact. The end, well even if we just stick with the now, is not happy at all. The idea of a World in Union is patently a naïve fallacy. We have been plunged into a world in which millions of people have been displaced from their homes with nothing, the world struggles to cope with the mass movement of people through continents seeking better lives, or simply just to live, the ravages of war, hatred, religious fanaticism and corruption flood our news daily. This is not the world in union we seek.

And Yet

Optimism has almost certainly been supplanted by pessimism. We would be forgiven for thinking that things are no longer getting better and our need for escapism has never been felt to be more profound. Yet I want to shift the way we speak and think. The terminology is all wrong. For our common use of optimism suggests that things are not as bad as they seem, or perhaps will turn out right in the end.

But Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck z’l, known to many in our congregation I’m sure, writes in a very short work, “God and Man in Judaism” an idea of Jewish optimism:

“It cannot but be at times pessimistic at the thought of things as they are in the world, but what is peculiarly Jewish in this pessimism is that it never leads to resignation or indifference toward things as they are. It is only the ‘No’ that is the downstroke of the ‘Yes,’ the negative side of the optimism, the courage that is determined to ‘prepare the way.’ This optimism is the steady setting of the will toward God: it is the ‘and yet’ of faith in the meaning of life. And in it we hear the voice of the new principle that in Israel’s religion has become world history.” p.70

I rather venture to suggest that this is what we call faithful hope. Hope in humankind and in our relentless striving. Judaism is a religion of hope, not of naiveté. Within the dream of the messianic age, so often heralded in the last two millennia, we have learnt that the world will be set right, but ‘not yet’. Because it is ‘not yet’, Judaism has historically been conscious that anyone with a messiah complex is not worth listening to – whether that’s a millennia or two ago, or your rabbi! It is in our hands to deliver the world, to focus on the here, that’s why we finish planting our trees before running to the messiah when told she has arrived.

As Rabbi Dr Abraham Joshua Heschel z’l writes:

Hope is not cheerfulness, a temperamental confidence that all will turn out for the best. It is not an inclination to be guided by illusions rather than by facts. Hope is a conviction, rooted in trust, trust in Him who issued the promise; an ability to soar above the darkness that overshadows the divine.

Our people were not carried away by despair because Jewish faith is not simply faith in a supreme being called God. Our faith is trust in Him who is in need of man, involved with all of us, remembering and waiting for His promise to come to pass. (Heschel, Israel and Echo of Eternity, p.94)

Grounds for Hope

Now, I know it is verging on the precocious to talk of hope from this pulpit. I knew Jackie Gryn before coming to West Londony Synagogue through our shared interest in the Leo Baeck Education Centre in Haifa. She gave me a copy of the edited collection of materials of Rabbi Gryn z’l “Three Minutes of Hope” beautifully edited by Naomi and the piece that lends its name to the title is well known to me having read it often. It includes the advice given to him by his father after the failed attempt to light the margarine for Chanukah in Liberose in 1944:

“You and I,” he said, “have seen that it is possible to live as long as three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope!”

So I know it’s chutzpah to speak of hope from this pulpit. I who have not experienced first-hand the depravity of man against man cannot possibly speak in the same way as my teachers. Yet now as the dark shadows settle on the world once again we must find the resources within to galvanise our hope. This will be the true test of the human spirit for my generation.

Rabbi Dr Israel Mattuck z’l one of the founders of Liberal Judaism writes in 1953, in similar fashion to Baeck, with a theism that some of us may feel uncomfortable with, about the conflicted nature of religious optimism:

“If humanity’s future depended only on men, there would be no ground for hope; on the contrary there would be too much ground for despair about the future. Men are capable of the blackest cruelty, the vilest inhumanity. Without God there is no reason, only sentimental wishing, to expect good rather than evil. The optimism of the Prophets, which has become the optimism of Judaism, issues from the faith in God’s concern for this world and this life.” (Mattuck, The Thought of the Prophets, p.166-167)

Insatiable Appetite for Hope

And so I’ve come to think that the most audacious act of all must surely be the act of prayer. What hope lies beneath the hallowed words which we repeat over and over again? I was stunned this year by the liturgical boldness that is really bubbling beneath our prayers. I’m not a theist, caste of the same mould as Rabbi Mattuck. My confidence is anything but so sure in God’s will to offer us hope. God’s intervention is, though you might argue it is difficult for a rabbinic mouth to utter, somewhat subdued. Nor do we really think our lives literally hang in the balance at this time. Far from it. Would we to even hint there is a truth in anyone dying in the next year as punishment for their sins, I would, I hope, be hounded from the bimah. It is simply not the case that we think the prayers should be read literally.

And that’s the point really. Everything points towards a renewal of life after today. We who sit together now are of the community with an insatiable appetite for hope. What else are we to think when we say repeatedly:

For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

It would be scandalous to go through all this ritual if there was not a hope for us and the world. Prayer is a prelude to hope, a movement of music guiding us towards a vision of a world that might be better if only we were to make ourselves a partner in making it so. Imagine praying just the words:

Our Father our King, answer us with Your grace, for we lack good deeds; deal with us in charity and love, and save us.

The hope is that we will go forwards from this moment, this sacred day to build a life of good deeds. That in asking to be treated in charity and love, we will treat others around us with charity and love. We are filled with hope: things are not great; our lives are filled with deep cracks in our relationships and our inability to be our best; yet with our work and our striving, we know it is possible to build again. We are not divine interventionists. But we are believers in human striving to make it better, even against all odds we are believers in human striving. We are faithful to humanity, faithful to our covenant with God and faithful to the triumph of the noble over the savage. Judaism does not ask us to sit and wait for salvation. It demands that we are part of the story of all nations, that in spite of adversity we will not stop seeking.

Seeking to fill our lives with good deeds. To treat others charitably. To reflect the transcendent holiness of this day tomorrow, the day after and the day after that. We can, against all odds, find hope in the possibility to restore relationships, to change our behaviour, to seek to make the world a better place. We are damned if we let anyone judge our lives and outlook by the short term naïve optimism or pessimism.

Hope of Israel

The very last sentiment of the massechet of the Mishnah on Yom Kippur (Yoma) reads:

Rabbi Akiva said, Happy are you O’ Israel!…God will cleanse you….Hope of Israel, the Holy one ever to be praised is to cleanse you. (mYomah 8:9)

It’s incredible, the hope of Israel, the words of the prophet Jeremiah, is the renewal of relationship. A sense of self, connection to the world around us, inner world of the spirit. The Hope of Israel is narrowed to a point of its ultimate intensity on this sacred day. Our atonement is a miraculous declaration of hope, powered by these words of Jeremiah (17:13).

Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck writes:

“The religion of Israel thus proclaims how the merciful pardoning God, the God of righteousness and of love, receives back man thus reconciled. But this reconciliation is not conceived as being exclusively the work of grace. It means here more than a miracle of deliverance wrought for one of the elect. It lays the emphasis on the decision made by man and on the path that he now treads. It was his sin; it is his return….A leader of Jewish thought in the early years of the second century [Rabbi Akiva] said, ‘Blessed are ye, sons of Israel! Who is He in whose sight ye purify yourselves, and who is He who purifies you? He is your heavenly Father.’ The Jewish religion was proclaimed to be the religion of reconciliation and reconciliation was proclaimed to be the ultimate meaning and goal of humanity.” (Leo Baeck, God and Man in Judaism pp.49-51).

We pray that all our ways, in the family of nations, will be ways of pleasantness, all our paths, wherever we are, the world in union, will be paths of peace. We pray for reconciliation, for ultimate meaning. We know that in faith we can bring this to pass. This is the meaning of our Hope of Israel on this holiest of days. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.


 

After I had almost finished this sermon, I read the wonderful sermon of my colleague, Rabbi Lea Muhlstein, on a similar theme. You can read it here.

Lord Rabbi Sacks has also written on the subject of optimism and hope, though I venture to suggest he and I read the optimism of Baeck and Mattuck in different ways and I’m probably more in tune with the enlightenment values than he is – for some obvious reasons.

Finally, my colleague Rabbi Charley Baginsky sent me a brilliant sermon on hope that I think may be published in due course which I also read after writing most of my sermon (she has a better reference for Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck describing Judaism as ‘ethical optimism’ in an essay entitled “Morality as the Basic Requirement of Judaism” in The Foundations of Jewish Ethics).

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Wearing a Kittel at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Recently, I was asked to give a bit of background to my wearing of a kittel at services last week. This is a brief explanation of the custom and insight into my rationale as rabbi:

During my time as a Liberal rabbi, I have always worn a kittel during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. A kittel is a white burial garment which it has become customary for some to wear during the services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In fact, though I hope my kittel wears out in my lifetime, there is every possibility that the garment I wear at the High Holy Days will be the same garment in which I will be buried. So why do I wear a kittel during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? More specifically, why did I wear it and will I wear it at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue this year?

Well, I should state at the outset that it is not an attempt to undermine the Liberal Jewish values and principles of the community in which I work. The Liberal Jewish Synagogue is the flagship community of Liberal Judaism in the UK and I am honoured and privileged to serve as rabbi of the synagogue. The ideals of Liberal Judaism which I have in mind are those such as: Torah, in the widest sense of the word, is the product of a people’s struggle to understand their relationship to the world and to God; ethics are more important than ritual; we are not slavishly obedient to custom and practice just because it has always been done thus; we are outward looking, inclusive, progressive and modern; Judaism is a religion that has never stood still and its evolution continues today. Liberal Judaism in its own words “reverences Jewish tradition, and seeks to preserve the values of the Judaism of the past while giving them contemporary force. It aspires to a Judaism that is always an active force for good in the lives of Jewish individuals, families and communities today, and equally makes its contribution to the betterment of society.” (www.liberaljudaism.org)

When I was a rabbinic student, my first pulpit over the High Holy Days was in a community where the rabbis always wore white during the period. I was told that I would be expected to either wear a kittel or a white robe on the bimah. My initial reaction was one of incredulity, since I had never worn a robe or kittel in the past. However, some time before Rosh Hashanah, I went to a local Judaica shop and purchased a kittel. It was not particularly cheap and today I sometimes joke that I intend to get value for money out of it, since only using it at one High Holy Day pulpit and in the grave is a bit infrequent for my liking. But this is a joke, much like when I describe it as my ‘nightie’. I try and use humour to be a bit disarming; whilst I have decided to wear the kittel as a result of serious consideration, I am aware that it looks odd, strange, perhaps a bit disconcerting, to those unfamiliar with the garment and I’m not afraid of laughing at myself. After all, I can be fairly irreverent about ritual generally – I don’t think God particularly cares what I’m wearing, I wear it for me not the Holy One.

After using it for the first time, I recognised that something happened in my understanding of the significance of the Ten Days of Repentance (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur), something occurred in my sense of leadership of a community through some of the holiest of days in our calendar. Even more significantly for a congregational rabbi, in those years when adequate introspective preparation eluded me due to unexpected communal duties or personal travails, the kittel was an aid towards feeling immersed and ready for the Days of Awe. As a result, I continued to wear it in every congregation in which I was the service leader. Since ordination, I have served three Liberal communities during the High Holy Days and at each one I have worn my kittel: Finchley Progressive Synagogue, Lincolnshire Jewish Community and Peterborough Liberal Jewish Community. I was completely aware of the example I was setting and often wearing the kittel prompted questions from congregants. I also became part of the communal expression of our yearning for wholeness and repentance during the period – just as we exchange the Torah mantles for white ones.

So, what are the interpretations offered for the meaning of wearing a kittel. I can cite three primary interpretations:

1) White is a symbolism of purity and hope. In the book of Isaiah 1:18 we read of atonement and restoration of a relationship with God in the following way: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…” White, in this sense, is symbolic of our forgiveness and of the possibility for our repentance to succeed.  In fact, in the Palestinian Talmud (some 1500 years ago), we read:

“Rabbi Simon said, it is written “For what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgements so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:8). Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hoshaya were arguing. One said: who is a nation like this nation. In the rest of the world it is customary for a person who knows that he will be judged to wear black and black robes and grow one’s beard, for one does not know how the judgement will turn out. But Israel is not so, rather they wear white and white robes and shave their beards and eat and drink and are joyous. They know that the Holy One who is blessed will perform miracles for them.” P. Talmud Rosh Hashanah 1:3 57b

This gets codified later in the Tur (a 14th Century code of Jewish law), “…it is the practice of the world that a person facing judgement wears black and black robes, grows his beard and does not cut his nails, since he does not know how the judgement will turn out. But Israel is not so, for they wear white and robes of white and shave their beards and cut their nails and eat and drink and are joyous on Rosh Hashanah, since they know that the Holy One who is blessed will perform a miracle for them. Therefore, it is customary to cut one’s hair and wash the day before Rosh Hashanah.” (Orach Chayyim 581)

In other words, a feature of Jewish custom as early as the first centuries of the common era was the wearing of white clothes as a representation of the relationship to God – in terms of purity and of our aspirations for that relationship. As I mentioned, even the Torah mantles are changed to white during this period as part of the representation of our longings for the outcome of the day.

2) The Kittel is a symbol of equality. As many people will know, the attitude towards Jewish burial is that equal we come into the world and equal we leave – in other words we are all equal at death, hence the simplicity of the coffin and the fact that we’re all buried in simple shrouds. This equality in death is an important aspect of the High Holy Days when we all, regardless of status, money or power, are equal before God. In the Mishnah, a text from the first couple of centuries of the common era, we find mention of Yom Kippur being a time to wear white (Taanit 4:8):

“Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: there were no better festive days for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, for on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go forth dressed in borrowed white garments, so as not to embarrass those who did not have any.”

In other words, to ensure the women all were regarded as equal to one another in public regardless of wealth, everyone borrowed white garments; consequently it was not clear who was from the ‘haves’ and who was from the ‘have nots’. At least economic disadvantage could not be a factor that divided the community at these joyous times. The kittel serves a similar function – it is a simple garment, in which we are buried; its simplicity is part and parcel of our focus on the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.

3) Finally, the Kittel reminds us of how we stand between life and death in this period. On Yom Kippur in particular, but during the whole Ten Days of Repentance (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur), we stand with our lives in the balance. I do not believe in a God who will literally write us in the book of life or death, but I do believe in holding my life to account. During some of the holiest days of our calendar it is as if we are in limbo – we stand outside of day to day life (hence one reason for the fast at Yom Kippur) and we confront our own mortality. We only have a finite number of days on earth and the Days of Awe compel us to think about the choices we make, the opportunities we are presented with and what we can make of our lives before we are brought to our final resting place. We face our own death throughout the day and, right before the concluding service, we remember those who shared this world with us in years gone by in the memorial service. The word ‘liminality’ sums this up for me, we stand on the border between life and death. Moreover, the fragility of life hammers down upon us as we recite the names of loved ones, so this liminal experience is both figurative and literal. The kittel makes it personal, it is not just those around me praying in the pews or listening to my sermons, it is me too.

As I don the garment in which I may be buried, I experience a moment for a completely personal identification with the day – a moment that no-one else shares with me as I fasten the buttons in my office. I confront the day of my death and pray that I have many opportunities to make something more of my life in the days to come, for me and for my family. I pray that I may lead the community with sincerity and devotion, knowing that I too am guilty. Therefore, wearing a kittel may be a selfish choice, but I hope it also enhances my ability to lead the prayers in a genuine way and steer the community in their own spiritual search.

For me, there are some rituals which provide a vocabulary for connecting with the great questions of life, that point towards meanings on which we cannot always put our finger, that join us with generations of Jews in time and across the world. The kittel is just such a personal ritual object that I hope also points towards something for the community too. On days when we fill our time in the sanctuary with words of our machzor there remain ideas which words cannot always adequately express – the kittel reflects just some of those ideas. However, let me also be clear that this is not a fundamentalist position, I don’t want everyone to wear a kittel, wear white or, God forbid, believe the same as me. I don’t want you to change your custom nor do I hope for a gradual creep towards everyone wearing white. I make no judgement of others who do not wear a kittel or white robe and I am humbled when I am joined on the bimah by colleagues and members who express sincerity in their engagement with the ideas of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and who do not wear white or a kittel. There are plenty of ways we can bring the message of the High Holy Days into our lives – repentance, prayer and tzedakah being just three. Wearing a kittel is a personal choice that reflects a personal search for integrity as a religious leader during the Days of Awe and I hope this brief-ish article goes some way to explain my choice and the background to the custom.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for goodness in the year ahead.

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If you want to read a couple of other rabbis and colleagues writing about the Kittel look here:

Rabbi Josh Levy: http://bit.ly/OeWhfuhttp://bit.ly/PtemmX

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson: http://bit.ly/S7Jkiq