24th February 2018
Sermon for the Council Service
Sue Head, LJS Chairman
I am going to talk about God. It may not be what you were expecting from the synagogue Chairman (we are the LJS after all), but I think God is important and we don’t talk much about God.
We are much more comfortable talking about social responsibility, about community, about art and music. And we are very good at these things, here at the LJS.
If we do talk about God, we often speak in vague terms and we can be somewhat apologetic if we admit that we believe in God’s existence.
But some idea of God lies at the heart of what we say every Shabbat and in our festivals.
Judaism is also a religion, and although it is other things as well, its most basic affirmation is the existence of God. This is the imperative which begins the Ten Commandments and from which our moral behaviour stems.
So let’s think about God this morning, even if this is a concept we ultimately reject.
And let’s also think about the language we use to describe God and how that affects a concept of God and the moral obligation which is fundamental to us.
One issue is that Judaism does not have a Creed, in the way that Christianity does.
For Judaism the emphasis has always been different, much more on what we, as Jews should do, rather than on what we should believe.
I want to look first at the Shema, which is as near as we get to a statement of belief and which encapsulates the monotheism of Judaism and which we all join in saying, ‘Shema Israel: Hear O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God is one’.
What do we mean when we say this? What sort of meaning does it have for today beyond being a rallying cry to all Jews to confirm their identity, but which says nothing about modern beliefs?
At the heart of the Shema are the well-known affirmations of belief from the Torah and which are repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible: Deuteronomy says, ‘Know then this day, and take it to your heart, that the Eternal is God in heaven above, and on the earth beneath; there is no other’.
John Rayner wrote that the Bible is largely ‘a record of a long drawn out, but ultimately successful, struggle for the allegiance of the Jewish people to the purest monotheism’.
But even in the time since John Rayner was writing, our thinking and understanding of the world has changed.
Part of the problem in discussing God is the language which we use to do so. The language defines the concept of God and this language comes from another age and from a patriarchal, tribal society. As a consequence, the language traditionally used for God is gender specific.
In our prayers we often call God, ‘Adonai’, as we do in the Shema. Prayer book translations frequently use ‘Lord’ as a translation, although in our Siddur Lev Chadash we do not.
When we use this language, Adonai, Lord, we do two things. Firstly, we picture a deity who is male and secondly, by doing that, we anthropomorphise God… we give to God human emotions, characteristics and motivations.
It is no wonder that 21st century progressive Jews reject this concept. We have made huge advances in the fields of science and technology, but we have kept ourselves as infants in the way we think about God.
Clearly this language and this concept are not right for now, they come from a particular time and place which are not ours.
Now, as I mentioned, Siddur Lev Chadash attempted to do something about this by reinterpreting some of the Hebrew of the prayer book.
In our Siddur we neutralise the gender language. So, in the Shema we do not use a literal translation of Adonai, but instead try to capture the meaning: Adonai is translated as ‘Eternal One’.
How should we direct our thinking now, in 2018?
LJ is working on a new prayer book, in which some of the prayers will use the feminine article to refer to God. Our student rabbi, Igor Zinkov, in his sermon a couple of weeks ago, gave us an illustration of how the feminine person will be used in some of the blessings. For example, instead of addressing God as we do now, ‘Baruch attah, Adonai’, God will be addressed, ‘B’ruchah at’. The female pronoun has replaced the male.
Now you may think this makes no difference at all. But I question whether this a good way forward or is just an attempt to be politically correct without thinking of whether it means anything in terms of defining God.
To me this is just returning to the past and keeping us with a narrow, personified image of God who now is given ‘female’ human qualities.
My view is that we should now be developing a more mature idea of God (even if we ultimately reject the concept) and that the new prayer book misses an opportunity to take us out of the dark ages of our thinking of God. It appears to me that all it is doing is substituting one set of gender specific language for another: the female taking the place of the male.
And God is not a human being! Look how clearly this point has been made throughout the Hebrew Bible. God is shown as transcending the universe and this lies at the heart of religious Judaism.
The book of Job demonstrates the difference between God and humanity. God asks of Job, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determines its measurements, surely you know!’
And in the book of Isaiah, God says, ‘I make light and create dark; I make peace and I create evil. I am God who does all these things’.
In both these passages God as seen as omnipotent, all-powerful.
Also, think about the meaning of the medieval poem, the Adon Olam, which we sing on most Shabbat mornings. Consider the opening words: ‘Eternal God who reigned before your will had caused the world to be’ and in verse 3, ‘And you are one, there is none else… without beginning, without end’. The description of God is of a transcendent God.
We are therefore missing the point in tweaking the language of the prayer book, playing gender games with how we address God, rather than considering a wider concept of God, a God who is beyond definition.
That God is unknowable has always been at the heart of Jewish ideas of God. The story of Moses at the burning bush emphasises this. Moses asks, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’
Here Moses reflects beliefs of the time, that to know the name of your tribal god would give you power over him. But Israel’s God cannot be named, or tied down, or closely defined. So God’s reply to Moses doesn’t provide a name, and doesn’t define him.
I am going to turn to the moral imperative, which, for Judaism, arises out of belief in God: it is much more important to behave well, to live a life which does good. From ancient times, our scholars, teachers, rabbis have wrestled with this question from Deuteronomy: ‘And now Israel, what does the Eternal your God require of you?’
The answer has always been to do with right behaviour and social justice. This is our essential tradition and the reason that Judaism can include those who believe in God and those who do not.
The prophets in the Bible, who we call the eighth century prophets, condemned religious rituals and worship which are not accompanied by ethical behaviour.
Amos has God saying, ‘I hate, I despise your feasts… I will not accept them’. And then these well-known words, ‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream’.
Or Isaiah, ‘Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to Me. I will not listen; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression.’
The LJS has always responded to these calls to create a better society, whatever our views on God. Look at the work of our volunteers: the Out and Abouts, for example, or the Asylum Seekers Drop In, Restaurant Tuesday, the committees and the LJS Council, who you see taking the service today.
So what do these considerations of the concept of God mean for us as progressive, thinking Jews?
In my view:
We should avoid linguistic games which turn back the clock in our thinking and alienate people by close definitions of a personified figure who is easy to reject as being a naïve concept.
We need to become more adult in our concept of God and not try to involve God in the gender equality argument in terms of God’s existence. We need to apply thought to what we mean, in the same way that we apply our thinking in other areas of modern life, in developing modern technologies, in advances in science.
This is where I take us back to the beginning and say again that we should talk about God and develop a better understanding of what we mean: not some humanised figure that is called father or mother, but a concept that is more fitting for 21st century people and one that helps us live life today in the right and ethical way.
Rosh Hashanah 5778
Shanah Tovah: a very warm welcome to members, friends and guests who have joined us here at the LJS for this Rosh Hashanah service b’yom ha-zikkaron u’v’yom ha-din – on this day of remembrance and judgement. It is the theme of remembrance that gives rise to our Torah portion for this morning, Genesis 21, not only God’s remembrance of Sarah as promised – V’Adonai pakad et Sarah – ‘And the Eternal One remembered Sarah’, but – with the arrival of Isaac – the promise of one family’s hope and the Jewish people’s future.
At the heart of this reading is the story of a birth, a son born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. Isaac brings laughter, (Yitzchak, Isaac’s Hebrew name, comes from the root meaning to ‘laugh’) – the laughter of joy at the prospect of a future secured, but also laughter at the absurdity of the circumstances of his birth – his parents well past the initial age of collecting their pensions, Abraham 100 and Sarah a mere ninety! God’s early promise to Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and that Sarah will give rise to nations, although not quite fulfilled, is at least partly accomplished.
But the arrival of Isaac and the attention devoted to him is not straightforward. For Abraham has an older son by another woman, the Egyptian maidservant Hagar. It is Sarah, herself, who suggests to her husband that he consort with her maid at a time when she has yet to bear a child: ‘Perhaps I shall have a son through her,’ she says to Abraham, words that I cannot now read without thinking of the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision of the future in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ We are told that ‘Avram heeded Sarai’s request.’ These words are to return to haunt Abraham later on, as God tells him to ‘listen to Sarah’s voice’ and expel Hagar and her son, Ishmael.
Of course, we know in which direction this story is going; for it is our story – the story of the Jewish people who trace their text-line back to Abraham and his descendants, Isaac and Jacob, whose descendants will be expelled by Egyptians into the wilderness of Sinai, the very inverse of Abraham and Sarah’s expulsion of the Egyptian handmaid and her son. Ishmael, himself, will become the father of the Arab peoples and history will take him in a different direction. But the truth is that the human dimension of this story is indecent and humiliating and Abraham knows this, for as we are told: ‘The matter distressed Abraham greatly for it concerned his son’ (Genesis 21:11). There is cruelty in the way both Hagar and Ishmael are treated; their expulsion into the desert will almost certainly result in their deaths once food and water have run out.
We can understand Sarah’s possessiveness and jealousy on behalf of her son, Isaac; comprehend a surrogacy that goes wrong; forgive the dysfunctional family that does not blend well and we can empathise with Abraham’s conflicted feelings as a father of two sons, whose futures will take them in different ways. Sarah’s concern is to maintain rights for herself and her son, while Abraham considers not only his fatherly duty, but his duty to a greater Cause.
This is the Cause, taken up some twenty-five years earlier, a Cause that seems repeatedly to ask that he upset or break the human relations he has with his family: first to leave behind his parents and homeland and move to another place, then to eject his firstborn son and Hagar into the wilderness. And this is going to happen again, when that Cause tests him further and asks him to offer up his younger son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
Family relations are sacrificed on the altar of – what? Is it Abraham’s relationship with his faith that requires an unmitigated sense of duty and obedience? Or is it an as yet unformed vision of a larger family, a community, a shared history and destiny still yet to unfold through the pages of the Torah and history of the Jewish people?
Last year, a new teacher joined the staff of Rimon, our Religion School, a young man in his early twenties, who had been brought up within the strictly orthodox Satmar sect in Stamford Hill. The eldest of ten children, highly intelligent and curious, he describes himself as a rebel, with a questioning mind. Growing up within the confines of the sect, he was forbidden to read any kind of secular literature or to engage with any aspect of non-orthodox life. At eighteen, he left his family, the community, the God they worshipped and set out on his own, teaching himself English in a year and gaining the necessary GCSE’s and A-Levels to secure a place to read Philosophy and Politics at Bristol University. For the few who break away from Haredi sects, the break is emotional and painful. Izzy says he is fortunate; ‘My parents are good people,’ he told me. Unlike many who have left the ‘path’, he meets regularly with them and his youngest sister, who is not yet aware of her eldest brother’s ‘apostasy’. But he has not seen any of his remaining siblings to whom he was close, or his grandparents since he left the sect. I mention this because the fundamentalism and closeted nature of strictly religious groups exemplifies this conflict between ideals that we see in Abraham: the loyalty and love for family and his obedience to a Cause or a Truth, which had called him to move away from the homeland and idolatry of his parents.
Abraham and Izzy, to an extent, are transitional figures. Abraham, if we can refer to him in such terms, is trying to find a culture that gives life a divine value; Izzy is working out a different relationship to his Judaism and to his future, asking himself how he can be a Jew within a secular framework, among those whose way of life and attitudes are different from that of his birth community. Abraham may still be caught between an idolatrous world where women and children have little value, on the one hand, and on the other, a new world in which he attempts to shape a new expression of religion and faith.
How do people like Abraham or Izzy, living in times of personal or global transition, standing at the liminal edges of their communities, frame their future? Although some of us may not have made such dramatic moves, we are living in a period of great upheaval and transition. Earth, oceans and weather systems surge tempestuously with tragic consequences, the political and economic outlook lurches from one day to another, terrorism crushes our spirit and fractures hope. A hope that requires us to ask the question: what do we want our values to be in twenty or forty years from now? How do we want to see our Jewish existence? How do want to maintain and renew our communities so that they remain vibrant and relevant for the next generation?
I spoke recently from this pulpit about the report by the Board of Deputies and Institute of Jewish Policy Research, published this year and entitled, ‘Synagogue membership in the United Kingdom in 2016.’ Without repeating the fine details, this significant and disquieting report, reveals an overall 20% loss of Jewish household membership of synagogues in the last 25 years, a reduction from 100,000 households, to 80,000. While ‘Central Orthodox’ remains the largest denomination, claiming 53% of all household memberships, it has nevertheless declined by 37% due to ageing congregations and what the authors of the report call ‘leakage’ to non-orthodox congregations as well as non-affiliation. Reform synagogues represent 19% of all membership, Strictly Orthodox 13%, Liberal 8%, Masorti 3% and Sephardi 3%. The most staggering statistic is the growth of Strictly Orthodox households by 139% since 1990, due to the birth rate among Haredi families.
8% is a small figure in the great scheme of things and some would say that Liberal Judaism punches above its weight. But the figures, as I indicated a few months ago, do not allow us to be complacent. For while the data indicate that a significantly higher number and proportion of mainstream Orthodox affiliated Jews have moved ‘leftwards’, towards more non-Orthodox or progressive movements, they are not swelling our numbers, because we are still losing those who no longer wish to be affiliated with us.
The demographic landscape of Anglo-Jewry could look very different in 20 years if the Strictly Orthodox sects continue to grow at the same rate, central orthodoxy continues to shrink and Liberal Judaism fails to push up its numbers. And that means that the values that we hold dear as Liberal Jews, the questioning, open, inclusive, imaginative, dialogical form of Judaism that we embrace, will become driven to the margins, because the dominant expression of Judaism will be the orthodoxy of Izzy’s parents, content to educate the rest of their children in schools that fall under the radar of the local authority, where children emerge without qualifications to enter the job market and are too inward looking to engage with anyone beyond their own families and communities.
The growth of our synagogue and movement may be a strategic aim for us in this coming year and further on into the future. But growth in numbers needs to be accompanied by something else. Because whatever we do or don’t do will shape Judaism for the next generation and if we don’t do something, then, as my colleague and friend, Rabbi Willy Wolff has said, it will go off in a direction that we may or may not like. The future is always unpredictable.
Abraham’s cause was his faith in a commanding God, whose vision for the Jewish people was a covenant, a binding contract of loyalty and love to be a ‘kingdom of priests, a holy nation’. For some of us, that faith and covenant is still an immediate and significant part of our lives – a voice of conscience that urges us to engage in issues of social justice and action; a sense of amazement and wonder at the intricacies and beauty of the world, a profound appreciation of our Jewish heritage. God is not a word that I find helpful for the breath and vitality of humanity, for the heartbeat of the earth, for our connection and love for each other, for the privileged astonishment I feel as I stand with you here to celebrate these Days of Awe that stretch back into our history as a people. But it will do, because whether this force, this breath, power and vitality, this Eternal Presence is part of your life or not, it does not take away the very fact of our Jewish existence and our survival.
For Izzy, by his own admission, there is no God, but there is a rich and growing Jewish life that he is discovering as a self-confessed secular Jew, alongside his new-found knowledge in art and literature, music and maths, physics and philosophy. His loss of faith in that ancestral God of Abraham has not meant a desertion of Shabbat or the Chaggim, life cycle events or community life. He remains passionate about Jewish learning and observance, ardent in wanting to pass on a more open expression of Judaism to his young students.
If we care about the shape of Liberal Judaism into the next century, perhaps we need to think a little more carefully not about our rights, as Sarah did in relation to herself and her son, but our duties, as Abraham did as he accompanied Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. We have a duty to cherish our family and friends – that goes without saying – but we also have a duty to cherish our community here at the LJS. For there is a bigger picture beyond the immediate present – a world and a future – that, I believe, require our passionate and necessary contribution: to ensure that our shared spirituality and creativity survive, that we nurture a passion for exploring Jewish traditions, texts and values to be passed on to and to enrich future generations, that the obligation to live ethically and to build relationships, with all the challenges and turbulence around us, remain foremost.
At the beginning of this New Year, may each one of us take upon ourselves the duty and responsibility to sustain and develop the sacred task of the Jewish people: to be the spiritual architects of a moral, ethical and Jewishly observant future in our own homes, in this congregation and to add what we can to create a just, compassionate and peaceful world. Keyn yehi ratzon. Amen.