Rabbi Rebecca’s sermon on the occasion of Ollie Pelham’s Barmitzvah 23rd June 2018

On a hot and humid Cincinnati evening in July 1883, over 200 distinguished guests, Jews and non-Jews alike, gathered at the exclusive Highland House restaurant to celebrate a milestone in the history of American Judaism: Hebrew Union College, which Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise [nearly four decades after his arrival in America from his native Bohemia] founded, had just ordained its initial graduating class. America had finally produced four homegrown, ordained rabbis. It was also the eighth annual meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the first association of American Jewish synagogues, with much excitement the banquet was served to shocked rabbis.  The MENU included amongst other things;

razor neck clams, shrimp salad, soft shell crab, fillet du boeuf, ice cream and plate de fromage

It’s a great story and it’s true. Controversial and provocative. It was never known if Rabbi Meyer Wise knew of the menu, had been sabotaged by more radical colleagues, or indeed who had arranged it. The Treyfe banquet, as it became known changed Progressive Judaism forever. Whilst it took place in the U.S. It influenced the audacious changes that ULPS were to consider and sometimes make here 20 or so years later. Although the early founders embedded as they were in traditional families were a little more sensitive. Liberal Jews were as brave and principled when it came to change. Following the idea from the American Pittsburgh Platform…..

[rules about diet are] entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. Indeed [laws of kashrut] are apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.

Whenever I hear of anything audacious and provocative I think of your father David.  To be honest, if LJ hadn’t already existed I can imagine David creating it. …. he liked to challenge, question, occasionally be stubborn in his highly intelligent way.  He had a clear eye for what was meaningful. So I like that you asked For your Bar Mitzvah question Why food is important to Jews and if the laws of kashrut have a place for Liberal Jews today?  All our B’nei Mitzvah kids ask something they are interested in or bothered by. 

The truth is Torah gives clear but rather unexplained laws; we know the.  Animals must have a cloven hoof, chew cud, blood is considered the life force, “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk”, fish need fins and scales. Rabbis mostly reinforced this and made comprehensive rules, indeed by the early common era the need to be separate, eat separately, build homes separately was paramount. So intricate dietary requirements helped that.

But there were hints of questioning well too. And this well before Progressive Judaism was so iconoclastic with the treyfe banquet & additions of ULPS just twenty or so years later.  Bereshit Rabbah in the 4 CE asked; What does God care whether we kill an animal this way or that…the important issue is to refine our souls. make us thoughtful and considered…

Philo of Alexandria who lived from 25 BCE to 50CE, always anxious to present Jews in a good light, focused on the spiritual benefits and concerns of kashrut … he suggested; chewing the cud encourages us to consider and chew over our lives and our study and we don’t eat carnivorous animals or birds to demonstrate our commitment to lovingkindness and gentleness.

Everyone was concerned by kashrut. BUT OLLIE. In Liberal modernity KASHRUT has been considered inappropriate and outdated… not in the spirit of openness to the world we live in. We desire to eat with others now not seclude ourselves from them. The laws of kashrut have diminished in importance for many. In a principled and thoughtful fashion many Liberal rabbis have discarded the laws. (even as some with traditional leanings and concerns for community KLAL Israel have kept to them.) My internship in my 4th year at Leo Baeck College began on a Friday night at my new mentor rabbi’s home. Dinner was spaghetti carbonara! We followed it by an enthusiastic and religiously uplifting Shabbat service. South London Lib synagogue made the recent decision not to use kosher wine as its strict rulings on Jews alone, allowed to be part of production did not feel ‘kosher’ for them.  So Liberal Jews negotiate a different set of food concerns. It’s thoughtful. What allows us to feel Jewish but not be at odds with our values for the world.  Rabbi John D Rayner, z’l wrote memorably about being kosher:  Is it worth it? After all religion is not primarily concerned with eating habits, to create the impression that this is one of Judaism’s chief preoccupations is to debase it in the eye of the Jew and the non-Jew

So Ollie, kosher laws have been given the same treatment as all other traditional laws.  Do they stand the test of time? Do they, as they stand, offer any ethical benefit? Is organic and free-range meat more ‘kosher’ than traditionally kosher meat? Are Fairtrade bananas more kosher than others? Is seasonal produce more kosher than fruit available all year round? Eating as a Liberal Jew still requires thinking about food.

But the JOY of food remains the same for all of us. What Jewish function from committee meeting to study session is without nourishment? There’s a multitude of words to reinforce food’s enormous importance. From Pirkei Avot eye kemach ayn torah. no bread no Torah   To Michael Kagan, Nowhere does the Torah say, “Invite your guest to pray”; but it does tell us to offer them food, drink…” or "Eating is the best of prayers.” Fran Lebowitz “Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying. " ~~ "There can be no joy without food and drink.  Talmud, Mo’ed Katan  

In that way your home is a very Jewish home indeed. It’s welcoming, always with good food….when offered a food rota during those dark days last Autumn Ann was insistent, with gratitude, there was no need- ‘food is something we can do well ..’ And I hope you, Ollie, continue to value its importance but also to be thoughtful about what you eat. Be iconoclastic but know you are being so. Channel your dad.

David feels very much with us today; having planned so much so meticulously with Ann.  Your parents booked your date for today more in advance than any family I have encountered in my 17 years as a rabbi! And you have now been called to Torah, led us in prayers, read, translated and brought so much of yourself with such poise. I can imagine your Dad saying, as he did many years ago to Jacqui Bernard in shock , GOOD GOD he does know Hebrew.  And you do Ollie. You have been dedicated and committed in your learning-it helped I know your Hebrew teacher being John and a Spurs fan at that. But you are a so much a child of this community; and you have grown into the pleasure that might bring as well as its demands! So many here are so proud of you for getting to this moment and being so fantastic.

I love when I have witnessed your ambivalence as well as your enthusiasm. Your Dad would have approved of both.  You spoke with a profound poignancy of Moses missing entering the Promised land and David just missed seeing you become Bar Mitzvah. He’s here in so much-the choice of scroll, Ann’s gracious poise, Shabbat Resouled. (Perhaps the only service he genuinely liked). You were named ….Ollie after your grandmother Olive, James for your grandfather…for peace. So much was anticipated and hoped for your life and these 13 years as an ‘ok’, baby, an ‘ok’ toddler & child and now a teenager you have realised that hope.  The peaceful comfort I think you have brought in these past months has been noted as well. Whether you're playing rugby, baking cakes or RELUCTANTLY playing FIFA you have brought normality, routine and courage to Christchurch Avenue.  You are fortunate to have the mother you have who’s worked with you always. And Poppy whom I'm surprised Ann didn't create a policy for being here at FPS. always prepared. with her eye for detail. And never without her dry sense of humour. Strong, brave and loving. I love her being part of our synagogue and becoming more involved.   This is L'dor V'dor – From Generation to Generation. We talk of a river of tears flowing at Bar Mitzvah, joyful, positive tears. This is no exception. The river today flows from ….. Spain, through the North of England, to Finchley. L’dor v’ Dor.

Rabbi Rebecca Birk