LIVING AS A JEW IN A MULTI-CULTURAL SOCIETY
A Bar or Bat mitzvah at this synagogue is always deeply moving to witness – and very impressive. I am always impressed by two things, in particular: how each Bar or Bat Mitzvah stands in the pulpit and summons up the courage to lead the congregation in prayer and to read the sacred scroll of the Torah for the first time; and what they have to say, when they comment on their Torah portion. I’ll never forget, for example, what Jacob Swirsky said in his D’var Torah six months ago (13.03.10), when, reflecting on the setting up of the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Va-yakheil-P’kudey – Exodus 35-40), he talked about belonging to several different communities – including the shul community. It was a fact of his life that he was sharing with us, and it was also a very profound insight: We all inhabit different communities – although, we may not always recognise and acknowledge that we do. We inhabit the community that is our family of birth or our family of choice – or both. We inhabit the community of our friends. We inhabit the community of the synagogue – and may be part of several sub-communities within it. We inhabit the community of our neighbourhood, our city, or town, or village. We belong to the wider Jewish community of Brighton and Hove, of Liberal Judaism in this country, of British Jewry as a whole. Some of us choose to belong to a variety of other communities of shared activity as well – from our workplace, to the bowls club, to the orchestra we play in, the political party we support, and the causes and activities we are committed to. The list is as long and varied as all the different people gathered here today. For many of us, daily life is a complex nexus of connections, and of journeys that take us in different directions.
So, how do we make sense of our personal identity in the midst of all this diversity and plurality? What does it mean to be a Jew, who carries the experiences and history of our people together with her or his own particular bundle of life experiences and personal history, and whose personal bundle may also include experiences and legacies that are not Jewish? Complicated, isn’t it? Quite apart from all our individual differences, it’s not as if ‘the Jewish people’ is singular: our people, inhabiting, for thousands of years, so many different geographical settings and cultures is also extremely complicated. When my partner, Jess, and I were living in Israel for four months during 2006 – 2007, what struck us most was how incredibly culturally diverse a place it is. Of course, the history of that land has made it so: shaped, as it has been, by its millennia long experience of occupation by successive empires, including, most recently, the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century and the British in the 20th century. And then, there are the different people, who live there: the Muslim and Christian Palestinians, the Bedouin and Druze communities, as well as the various Jewish communities, with roots, not only in the land, but also in, Germany, France, Eastern Europe, Russia, North Africa, Iraq, Syria, the Yemen, South and North America – and many more places besides these. While we were in Tel Aviv, we used to make a daily visit to a greengrocer nearby to where we were staying. High on one of the walls of his shop he had a large, colourful poster with pictures of all the different fruits, which grow in Israel. On the day we were leaving Tel Aviv, we went into the shop and asked him if he knew where we could buy the poster. His response was, simply, to take it off the wall and give it to us. When we got it home, we noticed that in addition to giving the Hebrew names for each fruit, the names were also printed in Arabic, English, and Russian. Framed and now hanging in our kitchen, the poster reminds us of all the wonderful, varied ‘fruits’ of Israel – both actual and symbolic – and of what a complex society it is.
So, what are the implications for this congregation, and for our Jewish practice, of all the diversity that we encompass between us as the members and friends of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue? BHPS is proud to be a constituent of Liberal Judaism in Britain, and founded 75 years ago in 1935, was part of the first generation of congregations in this country, offering a distinctive Liberal approach to Jewish life. The first members of the synagogue were mostly exiles from Orthodox Judaism, attracted to the radical tone of the new movement; the way it promoted universalist values, and put an emphasis on reason, sincerity and integrity. The founders of this community, following in the footsteps of the founders of Liberal Judaism, were keen to preserve only those rites and practices that clearly expressed and enhanced the ethical spirit of Judaism, and to discard those that did not.
But 2010 is not 1935. Rather than rehearse again all the different ways in which Jewish life has changed and diversified since this congregation was established – influenced by so many factors, including the devastating impact of the Sho’ah and the establishment of the modern State of Israel – I want to look at where we are now as a Liberal synagogue today, from a different angle; from the perspective of the individual on his or her own journey, whose travels bring them here. So many different people have come to see me over the past decade since I became Rabbi of the shul: secular Jews, lost Jews, marginal Jews, patrilineal Jews, new Jews, who have recently discovered their Jewish inheritance, ex-Christians, looking for God, ex-atheists looking for spiritual meaning; long-time searchers, who have explored many religious paths and have not yet found a home; non-Jews, whose journey to Judaism began several years earlier, when they first learned about the Sho’ah; non-Jews, who are simply drawn to Jewish life and want to become part of it: each person, with a unique history and set of experiences, and with very particular needs and questions. But, curiously, significantly, they have all shared the same, basic quest: having approached our synagogue because they already knew that there was a good chance of receiving a warm welcome – having heard about us from a friend, or checked out our website – they want to experience the distinct qualities of Jewish life, and participate in the particular ways of Judaism. Of course, it’s important to them that BHPS is liberal, progressive, inclusive, egalitarian, and open to, and engaged with, the wider world – that’s why they approach this congregation, and not the other synagogues in the area, or, in some cases, come to us having tried one or two of the other shuls. But what these seekers want more than anything else is to savour and explore all the particular elements that make Jewish life, Jewish. So, they have made their way here – and most of them have stayed.
There has been much debate in recent years in Britain about the pros and cons of living in what is called a ‘multicultural society’. Multicultural obviously means ‘many cultures’: a multicultural society can only be genuinely multicultural if each one of the many cultures it encompasses, is distinct, active, and vibrant. And so, alongside all the other cultures which inhabit these shores, we Jews face the challenge of making our own particular contribution to the mix. For Jews who define themselves as Orthodox, the challenge is simpler because their principal raison d’être is to follow the traditional teachings first formulated by the Sages centuries ago in the pre-modern world, and to continue the practices that have been enshrined in the halachah, in Jewish law, for hundreds of years. For Liberal Jews, on the other hand, the challenge is more complex: having defined ourselves as the children of the Enlightenment, and embraced the gifts of Emancipation, and become passionate exponents of the values of the modern world, like, democracy, freedom, and equality, we have often also defined ourselves against the Jewish traditions of the past, and, indeed, rejected, both, the worldview of pre-modern Jewish life, and those rituals, such as kashrut, the dietary laws, which set us apart from other peoples.
So how do we, who call ourselves ‘Liberal Jews’, express the Jewish dimension of our identity? An easy response to this question is that we simply adopt only those Jewish practices that cohere with our commitment to Liberal principles, or, at least, don’t conflict with our Liberal principles. But nothing is ever easy. This year is the 200th anniversary of the first ever Liberal service, which took place on July 17th 1810 at the Temple of Jacob in Seesen, Westphalia, in Germany – the country which was the first home of Liberal Judaism. Curiously, while keen to excise those Jewish traditions, which were out of step with modern ideas, many of the pioneers of the new movement, nevertheless, wanted to keep the practice of circumcision*. Why? I don’t have the space or the time here to explore that question, but what is clear from the early debates among Liberal Jews back then, is that ‘reason’ and the other Liberal criteria did not always win the day when it came to deciding which practices should be maintained and which should be rejected. The example of circumcision is obviously quite extreme. The point is that Liberal Jews aren’t motivated to maintain less controversial rituals, like candle-lighting and making kiddush on Shabbat and festivals, because these rites express Liberal principles, we continue to do them because they express what is distinctive about Jewish life and make us feel Jewish.
Not long after I first came to the shul, I produced a booklet about celebrating Erev Shabbat in the home, which includes explanations and annotations, as well as the text in Hebrew and English accompanied by transliterations. I give it all the seekers who come and see me, who want to begin to engage in Jewish practice. I also put it out every Erev Shabbat at kiddush, when I’m leading the service. It has proved to be the most popular resource I’ve ever produced in my 21 years as a Rabbi. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to re-photocopy it because it has run out; and we don’t get that many people here on Friday evenings! So, Liberal Jews want to engage in Jewish practice as Liberal Jews – and, interestingly, one of the most popular pamphlets produced by the rabbis of the movement in recent years is Ethical Eating written by Rabbi Janet Burden, which provides guidelines for eating Jewishly, which encompass fairtrade, ecological concerns and animal welfare.
Clearly, the time has come for Liberal Judaism to explicitly articulate our commitment to maintaining and developing Jewish life in today’s multicultural society. What do I mean by this? I am suggesting that in addition to continuing to promote and champion the universalist agenda that is so in keeping with our Liberal ethical stance, and continuing to encourage Liberal Jews to participate in social justice activities, we also champion our Liberal approach to the particular concerns of Jewish life, and encourage Liberal Jews to participate in distinctive Jewish acts as Liberal Jews: I am suggesting that we do both and we value both, equally.
Interestingly, there is an important rabbinic precedent for this approach, which precedes the development of all the different denominations of Jews by 1600 years. We read in Pirkey Avot, The Sayings of the Sages, which is appended to the Mishnah, the first Rabbinic code of Jewish law edited around the year 200 (1:2):
Al sh’loshah d’varim ha-olam omeid – The world stands on three things: on Torah – Teaching; and on Avodah – Divine Worship; and on G’milut Chasadim – Loving Deeds.
And then, a few paragraphs further on, we read (1:18):
Al sh’loshah d’varim ha-olam omeid – The world stands on three things: on Din – Justice; on Emet – Truth; and on Shalom – Peace.
The world stands on these six pillars; these two sets of three; what a wonderful idea! Without them, the world will collapse. And: both sets of three are needed; the three pillars that uphold the core features of Jewish life are not complete without the three pillars that express more universal values.
I prefer to think of these two sets of three, as two interlocking triangles, forming, together the ‘six pointed star’ we call the Magein David, ‘the Shield of David’. During the Sho’ah Jews were forced to wear the ‘yellow star’, a badge of shame that set our people apart as shunned and despised, and facilitated our persecution. Since that devastating time, the Magein David has become a badge of pride, emblazoned in blue on the flag of the modern State of Israel, and worn by hundreds of thousands of Jews across the world, who are proud, once again, to claim their Jewish identity. But as yet, the ‘six pointed star’ that has become so familiar as a sign of Jewishness, has not been invested with a universalist meaning alongside its particularist meaning. Living as we do now in a multicultural society, participating as we do in the wider world, hasn’t the time come for the Magein David to become a symbol of the complete interconnectedness of universalist and particularist concerns that are, after all, as our Sages taught us, the foundation of the world? And: who else to proclaim those two interlocking triangles of commitment than we Liberal Jews?
The portion from the Torah which we will be reading in a short while begins (Deuteronomy 29:9a):
Atem Nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem lifney Adonai Eloheychem.
You are standing today, all of you, before the Eternal your God.
The Torah usually uses the singular form when addressing the people, but in some places, as here, it employs the plural – again:
Atem Nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem lifney Adonai Eloheychem.
You (plural) are standing today, all of you (plural), before the Eternal your (plural) God.
Kul’chem – all of you: that is, each one of you – and to underline the point, the passage goes on to make a list: ‘your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your offices; every man of Israel; / your little ones, your wives, and your stranger, who is the midst of your camp; from those who chop wood until those who draw water’ (29:9b-10).
Today that ancient text from the book of Deuteronomy is addressed to us: we are standing today, all of us, before the Eternal; all of us; each one of us. Each one of us will have our own reasons for being here today; and each one of us, will have a different sense of understanding of what it means to be standing in the presence of the Eternal. For some of us, perhaps, the Eternal means God; for some of us, perhaps, the Eternal represents Eternity; for some of us, perhaps, the Eternal is unfathomable, and we have come here today to touch a mystery; for some of us, perhaps, the notion of the Eternal is not meaningful, but we have chosen to stand here today, nonetheless.
All of us are here together, with all our differences; individuals on a journey; compatriots and fellow- travelers. Just as our ancestors, with all their differences, including their different backgrounds – some, b’ney Yisrael, the descendants of Jacob, some, descendants of the erev rav, the ‘mixed multitude’, who escaped slavery in Egypt with the Israelites (Exodus 12:37-38) – came together as a people in the wilderness, so, too, this motley crew gathered here today; here we are, coming together as the Jewish people. We have work to do now; each one of us: the work of examining our lives and our deeds, acknowledging our mistakes, and recognising the ways in which we have hurt others and ourselves. But we are not doing that difficult and challenging work on our own, and as we engage in it, our prayers and our sacred readings are continually reminding us that our personal stories, with all their complexities, are part of the great, continually unfolding story of the Jewish people, which is also a tale of complexity. As we go on our journeys today, may we find our own ways of embracing the complexity of our lives, and resolve to re-commit ourselves – as individuals and as a congregation – both, to our people and to our world. And that is say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom V’rei’ut
Yom Kippur Shacharit 5771
18th September 2010 – 10th Tishri 5771
* See Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism by Michael Meyer, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.190; p.211.