Rosh Hashanah 5779 - What Sustains Us?

Rosh Hashanah 5779

What Sustains Us?

A red-haired boy sits next to his mother in the psychiatrist’s office. She is describing her son’s problems and expressing her disappointment in him. Why is he always depressed? Why can’t he be like other boys his age? The doctor turns to the boy and asks why he is depressed. In a hopeless daze the boy replies, The universe is expanding, and if the universe is everything…and if it’s expanding… someday it will break apart and that’s the end of everything…what’s the point?” His mother leans over, slaps the kid and scolds: “What is that your business!” (Woody Allen)

Everything is our business. Our own personal lives and how we lead them, the families we love and in the communities we engage with, the cities we inhabit and the countries we call our own.  All of that is our business. Our place in the world. It’s our business. So we check our pockets to see what we carry with us into the New Year. What is mattering to us. The habitual balance suggested by Rabbi Bunam resonates in so many ways. At this time of year we should be aware of our two pockets; in one a scrap of paper should read “I am but dust and ashes” and in the other “the World was created for me”. We should be considered what it means to be a human and what it means to be a Jew. How can we grow deeply into ourselves for this moment without commenting and assessing what is happening around us. The philosopher Jordan Peterson … said to get your own house in order…and then try your very hardest to be the most responsible you can be. Be as engaged and involved and connected as you can be. Load yourself with what matters until you literally cannot take anymore.  what a wonderful way to welcome the new year

The experience as we have had these past few months, spiking to a crescendo this summer where antisemitism is discussed on the front pages of our broad sheets has been quite something. This is surely our business. No just to comment which I will first, but to decide our responses and how they accompany us into the new year.  

If we looked at HOME last night this must be an extension. How has the world we inhabit, the political language around us the landscape that affects us. How has this changed and what does it mean for us? What does it mean that one political party and the weak leadership it currently has, has allowed this conversation to run and run. In the meantime, so many other issues have got lost because this has become so prescient. For us and others too. As fellow Jew, and measured commentator Jonathan Freedland wrote about in July: Jews sharing their fears about this political party they, their parents and grandparents once called home. It’s the same conversation that Jews are now used to hearing, around synagogues, school drop offs and shabbat tables. The cumulative effect of careless comments, silence when outrage is required, and retreat when his members and politicians are waiting for him. In an unprecedented shared front-page editorial published in three leading British Jewish newspapers, declaring that a Corbyn-led government would pose “an existential threat to Jewish life in this country”.

How on earth has it come to this? How have we sunk to the point where it seems so many of the mainstream Jewish community sees Labour this way, and when a longtime anti-racist like Billy Bragg finds himself telling an ethnic minority (the Jewish community) that they have “work to do” if they are to win back Labour’s trust? Finally, Labour has adopted the full text of the near universally accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. But what pain to reach this point, and what damage along the way. Gordon Brown spoke at the Jewish Labour Movement of his dismay of the process…. : "Would you produce a document on sexism produced by men only?

“Or would you produce a document on racism without consulting the black community?

“'Would you produce a document on homophobia without consulting the LGBT + community?"

Of course he was right and how cheering, reassuring and timely to hear a politician, a non-Jewish one, saying these things.  Everyone has a past and things are sometimes taken out of context. I feel keenly this for the challenges Jeremy Corbyn faces. We know better than many that tshuvah, regret and desire to put right is the bravest and most honourable of behaviours.  But we have seen the inability to speak to comments spoken in the past that have caused offence. Nor to engage, reach out or reassure. It has been dismaying and has created a sense, possibly untrue, that he doesn’t care to.  The mural in East London. The offensive and racist comment that British Zionists lack history and irony despite living in Britain all their lives.  The wreath laying at such a controversial ceremony. Just this week Peter Willsman elected to the NEC despite his bullish and outspoken antisemitic views. Every week it has been something else. Leaders have not always been leaders of such a broad community. It seems the case for Jeremy Corbyn, of a politician who has dedicated his life to the Palestinian cause (this in itself is reasonable) and sees no reason to engage thoughtfully, sensitively responsibly now with British Jews who may misunderstand him, or may be hurting. He is the leader of the second party in Britain.

How did we get here?  As we mark the 80th anniversary of Kindertransport, as we watch Jews all over Britain become increasingly engaged in outreach work that helps the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, homeless. So many synagogues are thriving in their religious services and their social justice work. How did we arrive at a place when so many both politicians, journalists and lay folk feel so beleaguered and disenfranchised? One of our younger members wrote a few months ago, it’s very uncomfortable being a Jewish member of the Labour party. Two Jewish Labour Movement members briefed rabbis last week and their task certainly appears challenging and demoralising. In other words, all of this is very much our business.  

Perhaps not everyone feels this. It took me a while to see this hurt. Labour, was traditionally a party that has attracted Jews, always, that led on its almost ‘prophetic’ concern for the marginalised, the poor and the powerless. The voice of the prophets and some rules of torah actually anticipated the welfare state.  Amos’ words…. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). Or Zechariah 7:10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in their heart against their neighbour.” I am indebted to Natasha Collett and Dina Rickman, both members of FPS, for instructive and informative conversations on this. Or Deuteronomy 15:7 “If there is among you a poor person of your congregation, within any of the gates in your land which the Eternal your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide ….”

My grandmother, Alma Birk, worked for the Labour Party all her life. She was given a life peerage by Harold Wilson and continued to contribute to her local authority until she was too unwell. She might also have been the first Champagne socialist, I am afraid to say. She saw no conflict between living a good life and doing a lot of good work. [I treasure a Gucci handbag]. She did fantastic things with the early Marie Stopes organisation, with education for women in prison, for literacy and tried hard twice to gain a seat as Member of Parliament, although Portsmouth South never got to know what she might have done for them. Newspaper editors were interested in Jews in the 1950s and the community, for such different reasons than they are now. Hugh Cudlipp, owner of the Daily Mirror, insisted on including references to the Jacobs Affair (Louis Jacobs excommunicated from the United Synagogue) in his paper. Because it was interesting. She worked in the Labour party in such a different climate. But what might she advise now? So, this is where I would like to pause. 

We are players in various scripts. But today we are reminded we are authors of our own books. We have power in our we make sense of all of this. Hayom Harat Olam we say in the liturgy. Today is the birthday of the world. On Rosh Hashanah the world is created anew. How will we choose to live in that world?  Through what prism might this offer meaning?   

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” 7 centuries later, in the 13th century just 700 years ago, the Meiri stated “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s unjust actions.” So what does that mean for us? Articulate and impassioned Jewish Labour commentators and activists should express outrage. We are delighted I am certain that non-Jewish activities and writers have also  expressed discomfort and dismay. Jeremy Corbyn’s behaviour is disappointing and alarming. What it has opened, we cannot be certain of. But we have a choice.   

We seek balance as Rabbi Bunam calls for. In each of our pockets… a sense of our worth and sense of our fear.  This is our task and our possibility now this Rosh Hashanah.

To negotiate a balance through this.  To reject a paranoia that blinds us to other issues. But to decry the injustices that occur. 

I welcome Gordon Brown’s observations and I am saddened by the silence of Ed Miliband who might have said so much these past few months. But I resist the depiction of our community in an existential crisis as Jewish citizens of Great Britain. I wonder who here in our sanctuary truly is investigating leaving the UK because it no longer feels safe. Who would choose to leave? Jewish Voices Against Antisemitism….is not always helpful either. The knee jerk reaction to the slightest mistake, the over sensitive response does not help, as we navigate the bigger more nuanced issues.  

We can’t rule out larger powers at work. And I fear if Jews, in our tiny minority, are made responsible for the demise/the break/the failure of the Labour Party, that would be unconscionable and terrifying all at once. Being thoughtful is key. We are responsible to challenge and name injustice. We know that well. It’s nice to have early medieval Talmud text remind us that, but we probably don’t need it. We can’t only do that. Calling and noticing when things are wrong. We have a responsibility for optimistic possibility.  We are no strangers to oppression, cruelty and hatred. We know only too well the results of capricious demonisation. We also know, an integrity and resourceful that has flowed throughout generations to work hard at our part in the world. Lord Jonathan Sacks captured a real understandable fear and outrage at those foolish and dangerous comments by Jeremy Corbyn about British Zionists and their lack of history and irony. But a comparison to the insidious Enoch Powell? He who anticipated for blood to flow in the streets and was sacked the next day by Edward Heath for his ‘racialist’ words, and never held public office again? Interestingly it’s another comment of his, then in his role as Chief Rabbi, when he wrote Future Tense in 2009 he addressed the issue of rising antisemitism on campuses. He made an extraordinary gesture and call. He wrote “And now I want you to do the most unexpected thing. I want you to lead the fight against Islamophobia.”

Doing unexpected things often changes so much. We are very human when reminded of our fragile relationships with institutions we had assumed were safer, broader, braver than they are. But we have that choose of how to express anger/outrage/ concern AND to not lose ourselves in the process. But that fear and outrage might just be only one part of ourselves right now. What if we were to continue in our great works? What if we were to insist on reaching out and asking for conversation. The Jewish voice has never been a homogenous integration of everyone’s. We might speak at the outrage that is at our door but not lose the focus on our other tasks. Rosh Hashanah is is a reminder of hope and open-hearted possibilities. We know that to be a Jew, to be a human being, is to be in relation. Martin Buber insisted, beautifully “there is no living without connection”. It would be so easy, certainly less stressful, time-heavy and expensive to live as a sole Jew, under cover and unengaged with our neighbours. but we don’t. As I spoke last night. We live in community. And we, those here today, live as Jewishly-identified citizens. We hold responsibility. We have reasons to stay linked, open and connected. Al Tifros min Hatzibbur says Pirkei Avot. 

Thanks to Rabbi Alexandra Wright for her brilliant article about Lord Sacks September 2018. “I will not step aside; I will not abdicate my responsibility” said Moses quoted in Talmud Berachot, responding to his task after his people dallied with the golden calf; d’var zeh talu’i bi – “this matter is dependent on me.” (Berachot 32a).  And so we might say, each one of us. Refresh and renew our response to what is happening. Our disappointment, our fear, our shame in people and institutions we hope for more from. Oi gevult yidden…."Gevalt Yidden, Seit ich nisht mayesh" - a phrase that the residents of the Bratslav Shtibel had inscribed on their entrance sign in the Warsaw Ghetto -- it means “Jews, you are forbidden to despair.” So should we be forbidden to.

Rabbi Rebecca Birk