HHD Sermons: Rosh HaShanah
Our Judaism and the Oxymoron
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777 – 3rd October 2016
City life has been described as ‘millions of people living alone together’. Unsuccessful jokes can be met by a deafening silence, while a good comedian might be described as seriously funny. A one-man band could sing “The Sound of Silence” and in doing so evoke joyful sadness.
The term oxymoron is a combination of two Greek words meaning sharp and dull, and is itself oxymoronic. In many ways, I wish to suggest to you all today that Liberal Judaism requires us all to ‘square the circle’ and to combine seemingly paradoxical opposites. Indeed, the best, perhaps only, way to make sense of the barrage of confusing, upsetting, over-stimulating, heart-stopping, gut-wrenching images and information to which twenty-first century life subjects us, is to adopt the oxymoron.
Some might argue that Liberal or Progressive Judaism is an oxymoron. Surely, the nature of religion is to preserve a status quo, to reinforce established authority, both of God and His – I use the masculine term deliberately here – appointed representatives. This is all innately conservative and sees its logical revelation in the shape of the Catholic Pope, the Anglican Archbishop, the Islamic Ayatollah, the Charedi Rebbe, and the Chief Rabbi – no matter how personable Ephraim Mirvis himself is.
Progressive religion challenges that conservatism and looks beyond the established sources of power and authority to affirm deeper and often conflicting values that we choose to hold together. We have come here as a community today with each of us having individual autonomy, a concept not really known in biblical times, but integral to western societies since the age of the enlightenment and the transformations caused by the American and French revolutions and the spread of emancipation.
Not only that, but Judaism has never fitted into the compartmentalised, mainly Western, definitions of ‘religion’. Indeed, as Israel Zangwill remarked: “The Rabbis were deeply religious men, yet they had no word for Religion.”* Their Jewishness and ours is a ‘way of life’ as much as a faith. To be an Israelite is to wrestle with God and even the concept of God. The late, and much mourned, Shimon Peres talked of how: “The Jews’ greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction! We’re a nation born to be discontented. Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better.” So, one might argue that Jewish faith is itself an oxymoron.
Even though the votes just over a week ago went resoundingly in favour of the formation of a new joint Liberal Jewish congregation in this part of the world, there are plenty of people who feel that bringing together Bet Tikvah and ourselves is something like an oxymoron. Can our new community be traditionally forward looking? This morning, I’d like to offer a few oxymorons that I believe we need to accept into our vocabulary, which might help us on our journey over the coming months and years.
Liberal Judaism’s place in the array of Jewish denominations is to be securely edgy. Our task is to be comfortable with being at the leading edge. This has included leading the way on matters of equality – the role of women, inclusion of all regardless of their sexual preferences, acceptance of those who wish to transition from one gender to another, and so on. We have been the ones lobbying Parliament, piloting new rituals and adapting old ones. We are the ones taking risks in pursuit of higher goals.
This leads me to a second oxymoron – being definitely uncertain. The realm of absolute certainty is the realm of the fundamentalist. They can be of any religion or of none. The absolute certainty of Richard Dawkins that there is no god and that anyone who believes otherwise is delusional is secular fundamentalist arrogance. The absolute certainty of Daesh or certain evangelical Christian groups or certain Charedi Jewish groups that their way is the only way acceptable to God is equally a fundamentalist arrogance.
We, in contrast, will be definitely uncertain. If, at some point in the future, I experience definite proof that Mohamed is the ultimate prophet or that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, then I will adapt myself to that new reality. Until then, and I’m not holding my breath, I am entitled to live my life according to my traditions, laws and rules. Until then, I expect anyone and everyone to allow me to do this, and I will allow anyone else to live their life their way, as long as they don’t unfairly impinge or impose their beliefs and practices on to me. I remain definitely uncertain. I am willing to learn from anywhere how to be a better human being, and I assert my pride in the Jewish heritage that provides so much wisdom and stimulation to me. I will not be pressured into any change, but I will yield to better principles as and when they emerge. For that reason, I am definitely uncertain.
The origins of Liberal Judaism placed ethics above ritual. However, recent generations have increasingly affirmed the value of rituals in life. Bar and Bat Mitzvah have re-emerged from the 1960s onwards, weddings continue to be wanted and I have, on behalf of this synagogue, officiated at seven weddings or blessings during 2016. We are also enjoying sharing special birthdays with fellow congregants in a ritual that many of us don’t describe with that term. So, my next pair of oxymorons for Liberal Judaism and our new community are for us to be ethically ritual and ritually ethical. We will create or adapt rituals to align with our ethical precepts. For example, as soon as Liberal Judaism adopted same-sex marriage, the question arose that if there are two grooms or two brides under a chuppah, who breaks a glass? The obvious answer is either or both can do this. Then, we started to realise that the option should be for both partners in any couple, same or opposite sex, to break one or two glasses to ritually mark the break with the past that a wedding ceremony represents. That is about being ethically ritual.
When the terms are reversed, being ritually ethical involves for example making a ritual – a regular ceremonial – of something ethical that we wish to do. We might include our commitment to being a Living Wage employer, to Mitzvah Day or to Fairtrade Fortnight in this. Both remind us of something that ought ethically to be in our consciousness all year round. Just as the fact that we can repent at any time of the year does not rob this season of its importance, so we need other rituals to reinforce our ethical focus. However, we should note that there is no blessing for any ethical behaviour, while there are blessings for every ritual, such as the blessing we will say before hearing the shofar in a few minutes. I would argue, as any rabbi should, that attending Shabbat services sustains any individual’s clarity of thought. It is an investment in our long-term well-being. As Liberal Judaism and as Woodford transitions into being a part of the new community, we will seek and find ways in which individuals and the synagogue as an organisation can be ritually ethical.
Progressive Judaism has always held a duality between being a particular religion, focussed on the unique covenant between God and the Jewish people, and being universalist in seeking to engage with and improve the wider world. The oxymoron of being particularly universalistic involves us in sharpening our definition of who and what we are as Liberal Jews, of educating ourselves better in Judaism and Jewish literacy, while also increasing our engagement and interaction with the communities around us. My hope is that we will, during 5777, contribute to a multi-faith effort to
support asylum-seekers, many of whom live in East London. We will also build on Rabbi Hulbert’s fifteen years of experience in leading the Redbridge Three Faiths Forum – he leads another multi-faith trip to Israeli and Palestinian sites of interest later this month.
As we accelerate our progress towards January’s launch of the new community, a further oxymoron will, I hope, hallmark our journey. We will be decisively involving. The decision reached on 25th September was a democratic one. The new community is going to stand or fall on the overall number of active volunteers helping to run its activities – to “do” Judaism in the manner that was set out in the Torah portion we shall read on Yom Kippur morning. There, we read, that the teaching is in our hearts and our mouths that we might do it. Involvement means avoiding the temptation to “do it better myself”, accepting that more, much more, can be achieved if lots of people each do their bit. Quick decisions reached by an individual give the illusion of progress. By being decisively involving, our new community will be stronger and do more good for our members and for others.
I come to the last two, for this morning, oxymorons – for this is, after all, a provisional list. Firstly, our new community will continue the mission of Liberal Judaism to be what I shall call respectfully radical. Here I wish to mention Betty Benscher, whose death nearly three months ago was tragic for Peter and their family and robbed us of one half of our Life Presidency. Betty enjoyed studying and learning. As her sight worsened, the sharpness of her listening increased and she was never afraid to voice an opinion and contribute to discussions. But, she also loved being surprised by something she’d never before considered and the freshness in her voice when she expressed that joy is etched forever in my memory.
Our oldest member is 98. Our youngest is but a few weeks old. Ours is a community for all these age groups and we shall be respectful and appreciative of all those, from Harry z”l and Eileen Wayne through to Ezra, Sasha and Isabelle who are our newest Cheder teaching assistants, who have contributed and currently contribute to the work of our community. Further, we will continue to base ourselves on the wonderfully rich array of Jewish texts and teachings and determine to contribute to the Jewish library on paper and in ebooks. For all this respect, we will never let our past with all its glories get in the way of our future – as the late Debbie Friedman put it in one of her songs “I cannot have a future ‘til I embrace my past. I promise to pursue the challenge…” Let us be respectfully radical in the way we think about everything to do with the new community we will build – from the nature and type of building or buildings that will be our synagogue to the way we interact with the wider community around us.
And finally, I want this journey that we are embarking on to be seriously enjoyable, just as Liberal Judaism must continue to be both fun and rigorous. If we are to count anything apart from ensuring the finances are in order, let’s count the quantity and quality of the laughter we share over coming years. Despite the fact that this is a season of repentance, our wish to each other is for a good and sweet year – a shanah tovah umetukah. May it also be a seriously enjoyable year for all the seven hundred or more souls who will form our new community, whatever its name will be!
May this be God’s will and ours, Amen.
*Cited by Rabbi Louis Jacobs in Aspects of Liberal Judaism.