Doing what is Right And Good
Speaking at the Bar Mitzvah of Ezra Nathanson-Parry, I reflected on recent events in Orlando and Yorkshire, as well as the forthcoming EU referendum.
In my sermon I spoke about the difference between: Doing what is right; Doing what is good and Doing what is right and good!
I set out four tests or questions to ask before taking action:
Is it the truth?
Is it fair to all concerned?
Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Please take the time to read my full sermon Doing Right And Good
20th June 2016
Summer Fare, Fayre, and Fair
One of my favourite desserts has been regularly made for us by a member of our sister Liberal congregation in Reading, and it is a Summer Pudding. The lovely flavours of summer fruits – usually those which have genuinely and naturally ripened in her own back garden – invariably contributed a tasty end to our meal. Summer foods, at their best, echo the brightness that should be providing our vitamin D and a natural darkening of our skin that is also preferable to any fake tan.
One of my favourite events during our fiftieth anniversary celebrations actually saw me having wet sponges thrown at me! I enjoyed the event – and even the sponges – because during the afternoon I could mingle with all ages, from the newly born to those in their ninth decade. More important than that, I could stand back and see them mingling with, and enjoy being with, each other.
One of my least favourite memories of 2011 is the morning of 8th August, when I walked Hannah to the charity shop where she was volunteering. On the way, we saw the evidence of the looting and vandalism of the night before. On that terrible Sunday night, nameless people had attacked shops owned by people they did not know, they had threatened the well-being and the work-places of people they didn’t care about.
One of my favourite teachings from the rabbis is one attributed to Hillel, and so it comes from just about 2,000 years ago. The timeless advice is: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” It seems on first reading to be not that important, but the more I ponder it, the more I realise its profundity. When we become detached, and other people cease to be known to us, then it is impossible to have the empathy and sympathy for the other. Hillel’s better known statement – “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.” – then becomes much easier to break, because you have lost any sense that the ‘other’ is actually ‘you’.
Life, civilised life, and Judaism teach us that if we lose connection with the community, if we detach ourselves, then we dismantle society. Some people do it by creating gated, detached (in every sense) ‘communities’ (in olden days, these were sometimes called ‘ghettos’). Some people have it done to them by being labelled ‘scroungers’, ‘good for nothings’, and so on. Some of those people will then come to believe that they are what they’ve been described as – the power of labels, the power of words.
One of my favourite themes returns yet again – community building takes time, skill, and energy. Communities cannot be built in an instant, but they can be destroyed that quickly. You, if you have read this far, will appreciate that you have it in your power to either contribute to building the sort of community you want to see, or to allowing society to disintegrate. You don’t have to smash windows to assist in the destruction of community, you just have to fail to help the building work. You just have to ‘separate yourself from the community’.
So, please re-join our community by actually coming and enjoying being with others. Come to services and chat over Kiddush. Come to learning events and chat over tea. Come to the Summer Fayre on 15th July, enjoy our summer fare, and help to make this a lovely, communal, fair summer.
What does ‘Equal’ really mean to us?
I write this the day after our very successful Communal Seder, for which our thanks are owed to a team of people who helped to organise, set it up, serve, and clear up for the 90+ people who attended. During the evening, I was asked about the orange we place on our seder plate, and I explained that it has become a symbol of the need to include everyone at our seder, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, who are sadly unwelcome in other strands of Judaism.
Reflecting on that explanation, I am reminded of the fact that the government sent out a public consultation in March on the proposal to introduce gay civil marriage, a full equality not currently allowed by British law. Nationally, there have been quite a few headlines prompted by this and, locally, a number of religious leaders wrote to the Ilford Recorder (22 March edition) setting out their opposition to the proposal. At the time of writing, a letter I co-wrote with my friend and colleague Rabbi Larry Becker of Sukkat Shalom Synagogue has not been published. In it, we made clear that we, and both the Liberal and Reform movements, not only support the concept of marriage for all, but also seek the right of those religious groups who so desire to be able to officiate at such marriages.
I know this is not a comfortable topic for some people, and I will confess to being very unsure of my opinions eighteen months ago when the subject came up for discussion. Part of me felt that marriage must be between one man and one woman, while another part of me felt that any two people in a committed relationship deserve to have the affirmation and security of a legal and moral relationship, which we have always called marriage.
As the matter was discussed by the Rabbinic Conference, in November 2010, I learned a lot from listening. For many heterosexual women, marriage is deeply flawed in that, for most of history, the married woman was her husband’s possession. Marriage for a heterosexual couple has only comparatively recently in the liberal democracies become a joining together of two equals. This equality is not available as yet in many countries of the world. There is a strong argument in favour of a civil partnership option for heterosexual couples, just as there is a strong argument in favour of marriage for homosexual couples. I drafted a position statement on behalf of our Conference, which was approved in February 2011. It stated clearly and unequivocally that Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference will lobby for the law to change so that any couple who are in a committed and exclusive relationship may have civil marriage or civil partnership. This we are doing during the consultation period.
If you and I say that we value equally each individual person according to their behaviour in society, then we have to adapt and update some of our archaic laws and mechanisms accordingly. This sometimes forces us to realise that we have been carrying round prejudices and we have to do something very difficult. We have to change our opinion, because someone else has shown us that we were wrong.
What I learned from the listening and from doing this, is that being willing to change my mind is very energising and refreshing. So, I encourage you to be willing to refresh yourself by changing your mind when the information suggests you should. As our prayer book Siddur Lev Chadash says (p. 297): “From prejudice preserve us, from hatred redeem us, and from self-righteousness defend us.”
WHY A SABBATICAL?
I write this about six weeks before you’ll read it. At the time of writing, I’m breaking off from preparing a sermon for another congregation, one for which I don’t have the warm connection that we have developed over the past four and a half years since I became your student and then ordained rabbi.
It’s a different, and far less satisfying experience, as Judaism – at least Judaism the way I interpret it – is all about relationships. It is the ability within a relationship for two parties to become familiar to each other, and yet retain the ability to surprise, challenge, and hopefully delight, the other.
When I was interviewed for the post of rabbi to this synagogue, your representatives and I soon agreed on the nature of the initial ‘project’ for my rabbinate. This was to unite and energise this congregation, and develop a real sense of community. My feeling is that we have, together, made substantial progress in our journey towards an idealistic dream and that many people are the better for our collective achievement.
Our prayer book reminds us: “May we never be too mean to give, nor too proud to receive, for in giving and receiving we discover You, and begin to understand the meaning of life” (Siddur Lev Chadash page 122). Arguably, this first project reached some sort of conclusion, evidenced by the strong Friendship Club, the regular phone calling done by the Woodford in Touch volunteers, the eighty people (Yes – 80!) gathered on the Shabbat morning sandwiched by Children in Need and Mitzvah Day, the 350 food items we donated to Redbridge Night Shelter, the range of new sacred books that illuminate our Torah readings, the return of a repaired Torah scroll, the new and inspiring Torah mantles, and so many other signs. We could have gone our separate ways, saying ‘job done’ to each other.
However, a synagogue should be a place where we target the highest ideals and in which we model the sort of society we wish to live in, not the one in which inequity is rampant and it takes the ‘Occupy’ movement to shake us all out of our sleep-walking. Courageously, we have decided to commit to each other and pursue these higher goals, to extend the relationship into a new and as yet unknown phase. We ALL need to assist in this mission if it is to break through and transform our lives. And our lives need this – there is no doubt the capitalism is in crisis and that the international mess we have made is going to take a lot of painful effort to correct.
We are powerless to change the country or the world, but we can be powerful to change what we are like as individuals, families, and as a community. Community-building, indeed life, is not a ‘spectator sport’, if we don’t help build, we actually contribute to the decay!
Bishop Stephen Cottrell argued that religious leaders should ‘Hit the Ground Kneeling!’ By this he means we must seek a clarity of purpose that he and I might call divinely inspired. During my two months of sabbatical from 8th January to 6th March, I will be learning, teaching, writing, reflecting, and experiencing prayer in other congregations.
When I return, I hope to engage with as many of you as wish to be involved, so that, together, we create an oasis in the desert, a watering hole for those who are made thirsty by the woes of the world. I hope you will, during these two months, determine to contribute in whatever way you can to this shared task, and I look forward to working with you when I return.
Calendars, Years and Perspectives
I have a rabbinic colleague who, when anyone said to him “Chanukkah’s late this year,” would reply “No it’s not, Christmas is early!”
Now you may comment that this is just a ‘smart-Alec’ rabbi (yes, this one was male!), but his response hints at a deeper truth about the brilliance of the generations of rabbis and scholars who formulated our calendar.
I am writing just after a very rare calendrical event, which will have been completed by the time you read this piece. The first day of the Hebrew month Av coincided with the first day of the Islamic month of Ramadan, and both coincided with the 1st day of the Gregorian calendar month of August.
August is named after Augustus Caesar and was fixed in its current position when Pope Gregory adopted a suggestion for calendrical reform in October 1582. To correct the accumulated anomalies of nearly 1600 years, which saw Easter drifting into the summer, that year lost ten days! We owe to Pope Gregory the fact that there was no leap year in 2000.
The Islamic calendar, of which Ramadan is the ninth month, consists of twelve purely lunar months and a year is usually 254 days. This is why Ramadan moves forward when compared against the Gregorian (Christian) and Hebrew calendars, something which means the fast can become very difficult for Muslims in countries further away from the equator. The origins of the Islamic calendar pre-date Islam itself, and owe something to the pre-existing Hebrew calendar.
Islamic years started to be counted in 4398 (by the Hebrew calendar or 638 CE), which became the year 17 AH (years after the Hijra, when Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina).
The Jewish calendar alone is based on three astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the Earth about its axis (a day); the revolution of the moon about the Earth (a month); and the revolution of the Earth about the sun (a year). In the fourth century CE, Hillel II established a fixed calendar based on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This calendar, still in use, standardized the length of months and the addition of months over the course of a 19 year cycle, so that the lunar calendar realigns with the solar years.
This is why my colleague says that Christmas is early! It’s all a matter of perspective – as the saying goes “Your point of view depends upon your viewing point.” So September comes early this year, and Rosh Hashanah is still on the 1st day of the seventh month, Tishri, just as it has been since before other calendars began. We can be proud of our predecessors and the cleverness of their scientific work.
We can also resolve this year to look at the world from a clearer Jewish perspective, refined by our time praying together at the High Holy Days, so that we add a moral and progressive voice in shaping the future. Whilst we improve the quality of our perspective, we also have a duty to improve our willingness to accept that other perspectives are valid, too. There are many rich heritages in this world, and I, for one, thank God that we don’t all see everything the same way.
L’shanah tovah umetukah – Lyn and the family join me in wishing you all a good 5772. May it be sweeter because of the diverse perspectives around us.
Rabbi Richard Jacobi
When Good People Do Nothing
This morning, I walked my daughter to her voluntary job at our local Cancer Research charity shop. I don’t normally feel the need to do this, but this is the morning after the riotous night before. Last night, streets we walk down, shops we buy from, restaurants we eat at were featured on national news.
The charity shop was untouched. Three doors down, the local jeweller, who has been there as long as I can remember, had had his shutters raised, windows smashed, and interior obviously raided. Many other shops and offices had smashed windows. Sections of the town centre were cordoned off, with police officers stationed outside vulnerable buildings. None of this was caused by people exercising their right to protest for or against anything.
On Saturday evening, we had gone as a family to our neighbours’ house-warming. Everyone was saying what a nice street we lived in, and what a quiet area this is. Twenty-four hours later, we were feeling that we had mis-led these new residents. Yet, the truth is that we hadn’t – this is a nice area, with a fair amount of neighbourly concern shown.
During Sunday early evening, rumours of what had already happened were abounding. I felt two instincts – those of flight and fight. The first urged me to ensure my family was at home and stayed here. This was obviously shared by pretty much everyone else – the evening was much quieter than normal, except for the sirens going regularly, the almost constant noise of helicopters overhead, and, just occasionally, audible shouting.
My other instinct, which I now feel guilty for having suppressed, was that there was a short window of opportunity while it was still light. If we could stir 300+ citizens of Enfield quickly enough, we could have re-claimed our town centre. The more of us who were there, the less possible it would have been for those who sought confrontation, violence, damage and theft to do what they went ahead and did. In the end, I did nothing, and stayed at home with my family.
Today, my wife and a couple of friends are due to go into Enfield Town. I will encourage them to go and, if necessary, escort them. At least we can ensure that those who provide goods and services to the good people of Enfield will feel just a tiny bit less exposed.
The police fear that the violence will surface again tonight; my guess is that their concern is also about where it will appear. In the meantime, we must not do nothing! We can show our support for the shop-keepers by going and telling them, even if we don’t need to buy anything. Perhaps we can muster the hundreds of people to make it clear that violence is not an acceptable approach to us.
What keeps coming back to my mind is the saying, mostly commonly attributed to 18th century politician Edmund Burke “All it takes for evil to flourish is that good people do nothing.” No doubt Burke was influenced by the Biblical teaching – in Leviticus 19:16 – that we must not stand by while our neighbour’s blood is shed. Two verses later, we’re also told not to take vengeance or bear a grudge, but ‘love your neighbour as yourself.” Let’s show this in practical, kind and constructive ways this week.
Rabbi Richard Jacobi
9th August 2011