From Rabbi Rebecca - Mishpatim 2017, God & Jewish Book Week

It’s not easy work being a Jew.

Of late I have often felt a responsibility to address matters of the world. The state of anxiety many of us find ourselves for the values we have worked hard for.

I have spoken of Brexit- is it good for the Jews? I’ve spoken of the motivation I felt as a Jew to lead us as a synagogue in doing something for the refugee crisis. I have attempted to comment on the hugely dramatic events in the US and the mood it has created world wide. I am aware of the discontent amongst our own voters and feelings of disenfranchisement; For instance, I learned yesterday that salaries full time in Stoke on Trent 20% lower than average elsewhere.

This week I stood outside House of Lords echoing the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury that our government has no right to be cynical about child migrants. Unaccompanied minors travelling here - sending your child alone is no easy task. The appalling and shameful fact we and other religious institutions have to have a food bank and that good men and women have to rely on food handouts in this developed land of Great Britain.

These are the issues that concern us.

But what about why we come here every week? Why we identify as Jewish?

And yet looking internally for a moment, I find myself gripped by what we are as a synagogue and group of liberal Jews? What are THE JOYS AND TROUBLES of our congregation, how we operate and what brings us here, when we do come? What animates our desire to be a part of this congregation and to call ourselves Jewish.

Tomorrow I facilitate a session at Jewish Book Week, a fabulous event that extends itself so widely with authors and ideas. I have been a firm fan for years, my highlight might have been Judith Kerr when she signed our copies of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and Tiger Who Came to Tea.

This year I was asked to interview Shuelm Deen. An inspired choice perhaps to have a liberal rabbi interviewing the author of a memoir about leaving the Charedi world and losing his faith. All Who go Do Not Return…a phenomenal book -  delicately nuanced and incredibly generous observation of a closed Charedi world that is sad and abusive at times. He speaks of it with love, affection and empathy. He describes his loss of faith as just that; a terrible and bereaving loss of something that held and structured his life, relationships and soul. He explained in this book;

Even asking questions was forbidden. “Isn’t Judaism all about asking questions?” People would later ask. “Isn’t the Talmud filled with questions?” The Judaism of our ancient text allows for questions, true, but they must be of a certain kind, and they must be asked just so…If one is plagued by question for which there are no answers, it is not the fault of our faith, but the fault of the questioner who has surely not prayed enough, studied enough, cleansed his heart and mind enough so that the wisdom of the Torah might penetrate his soul and make all questions fall away. ― Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return

What characterises this extreme branch of Judaism is community, commitment and also a fear and abhorrence of questions. Such a different way of understanding Israel. The one who struggles with God.

I quote Deen again:

Said Reb Noach of Lechevitch: “Where is the Jew who has studied haskalah enlightened where is that one who seeks God? The answer, of course, is that he is nowhere.” The Psalmist had asked a rhetorical question because enlightened ones do not seek God. They seek only to destroy the faith of those who do. “They merely question,” one of my teachers once said of the Maskilim, the enlightened Jews and the reformers who studied science and philosophy and attempted, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to create a new Jew for the modern era. “In their questions, however, lie their malevolent intentions. They seek to destroy faith, not to uphold it.
We discussed this idea at our very lively Lunch and Learn class this week. We knew we were the Jews the rabbi referred to. Unkosher, unreal even, dangerous. We turned the questions towards ourselves a room full of Jewishly thoughtful folk who ranged from theists to atheists; pork-eaters to those of more traditional palates. One class member asked, But are we Jewish , are we Jews as understood by the generations that precede us? By these Charedi Jews who keep every minute of laws and the fence they erect as mishnah avot commands to protect them. Our questioning, challenging, renewal of revelation and laws, is it Jewish?

If we like him… we don’t characterise God as an omnipotent commanding creator. Why do we bother with this religiosity?

Talking to Deen Thursday night on Skype, we discussed this reality. The joy of Judaism that he discovered is that there is not one kind, and no-one need have the monopoly over it. But for me, he said, the loss of faith in God, the loss of family because of it, the liberation from the confines of it, has meant he is alone and separate from it. I have no faith and therefore the ritual is pointless for me. Any of it. As we spoke I caught sight of a havdalah set sitting on his bookshelf… oh I noted; you make havdalah? No, he responded, my girlfriend does but I do not.

It was Fascinating.

And I thought of us and of this morning at prayer together with our own Dean and his guitar and our car park full of engines that brought you here, of our children learning, writing and drawing. I thought of tonight gathering as a community for havdalah, for the music that follows it and the completion it brings at the end of an intense FPS Shabbat. Unkosher…? Perhaps but also profoundly kosher?

Why do we do it? For God? For ourselves?

As we consider our siddurim, our services, our liturgy we consider our relationship to God and the literalism or metaphorical value of our prayers we offer.

I find myself always as I pray and lead prayer taking refuge in Kaplan’s words - Mordechai Kaplan, conservative rabbi and Jew who rocked his world by rejecting a personal supernatural god whilst holding tight to divinity…and prayer. These juicy expressions characterised Kaplan’s deconstruction like this;

"It is because God is to me the warm personal element in life’s inner urge to creativity and self expression that I can conscientiously employ the name Y H W H when praying.”
“God is that aspect of reality which elicits from us the best that is in us and enables us to bear the worst that can befall us.”

Or again in the force that animates good and words he shared in 1972,

“God is the assumption that there is enough in the world to meet men’s needs but not their greed for power and pleasure.”

Is that what we pray with?

Is that what gives us reinforcement and commitment to stand proud as Liberal Jews, not secular humanist Jewish folk, but Liberal Jews who want to hold onto the religion in its rituals as well as its prophetic social justice. Do you know we have as many come to prayer as to cooking at the Homeless Shelter, and intriguingly some overlap?

God or an attempt to express God characterises us.

Rabbi Eli Tikvah Sarah, of Brighton and Hove Liberal Synagogue has wrestled as a contemporary Liberal rabbi with what motivates our Judaism? I see her as one of our theologians. I quote.

I, for one, could not be a religious Jew and could certainly not be a rabbi if I thought about God as [the tyrannical controller we see in Torah]. So, most of the time [– not only at Pesach –] I find that I’m at odds with the God portrayed in the Torah, in the Bible, in much of rabbinic writing, and in much of the liturgy. And yet, I am a religious Jew – and a rabbi. How is this possible?
In my view, it is impossible to delete God from the picture of Jewish life. But that doesn’t mean that one is forced to subscribe to traditional conceptions of the Divine. So, what difference might it make if, instead of focusing on belief – and nonbelief – in God, we spoke of a commitment to Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, ‘The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One’,[6] in these terms:[7] The commitment to explore the meaning of existence, to journey, to search and to listen out for the voice of the Eternal, who calls each Jew to become part of Am Yisrael, the people who ‘struggle with God’, and to strive to sanctify Life each day through our actions and our relationships.

And what about for me, standing before you?

I long ago like Deen lost the [childish] sense of the omnipotent, omnipresent god who intervenes in our world and individual lives. But I have not lost a sense of God. Post holocaust theology was consistent in all that went before it, that an intervening god who chooses not to, is not a god to comprehend. The tyrannical creator who makes miracles was important at one time in comprehension of the world but not now. So not where was God at Auschwitz…but where were we? Where was humanity?

And the challenge to continue the struggle for meaning and affect in our lives, for maintaining the legacy we have chosen, and received and now renew, refresh and reframe makes sense.

There are many ways to do good in our world. Not everyone necessarily needs the synagogue to make a difference in the world. But we who believe in our Jewishness who find the sense of continuity, community and contribution it offers us can experience the joy it brings.

ashreinu ashreinu mah tov mah tov helkeinu…. as the psalmist cried.

How happy are we? How happy… How good is this portion and legacy… (creative translation)

This is the work of integrating Judaism into our lives.