Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.
You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.
There’s a phrase in the Book of Jonah that intrigues me….well two phrases, but now I’m not talking about the ambidextrous Ninevites or cattle, but Jonah’s reply to the sailors: they ask him his occupation and home address and nationality and he replies: “Ivri anochi, …I am a Hebrew and I fear the Eternal One, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” A Hebrew, of course he was, but the rest just demonstrated his hypocrisy…for, if he feared God he would not have run away, and if he believed God made the sea and dry land he would know he couldn’t escape by boat or camel train. But then maybe we are all a bit like Jonah, making claims about our identity that sometimes fall short of the mark.
How do you define yourself: a Jew? Suddenly it’s just a tad uncomfortable owning up in certain circles. Tell people you have a brother living in Israel and you risk a pitying or hostile glance. I hear reports of Jewish children being verbally abused at school by non-Jewish pupils, not because they killed Christ, but because they are responsible for the attack on Gaza. Maybe better to say : “I’m a Hebrew”. At the end of the 19th century Jews called themselves Israelites or Hebrews to hide the anti-Semitic slurs of being a Jew. Hebrew was the fashionable word. Ravel composed “Deux Mélodies Hébraiques”, Byron wrote, in 1815, 30 poems entitled “Hebrew Melodies” set to the music of a Jewish composer Isaac Nathan and Heinrich Heine borrowed the title for his long poem, now re-issued with brilliant illustration from our friend Mark Podwal. It may be the Jewish Free School down here but my primary school was the Birmingham Hebrew School and the orthodox shul was officially, the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, though most know of it by its location : Singers Hill. I suspect none of you claim to be Hebrews but do you hide your Jewishness or proudly proclaim it? What’s in a name: British theatre critic John Gross writing of his childhood in the East End of London in the early 1940s as the Nazis flourished on the continent said Jews began to change their names. But he pointed out: “names like Conway and Ross and Stone and Gould came round again and again. The effect was to create something of a secondary tier of Jewish names. In time Bernard Kaye or Sidney Lewis sounded almost as Jewish as Benjamin Cohen or Sam Levine.” My father in law Harold was advised to change from Spegelstein to Stone on getting called up for the army.
What’s in a name? Our Movement started life 119 years ago as the Jewish Religious Union. It then became the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues and now just “Liberal Judaism”. A lecture could be given on the philosophy behind changing names: why drop Religious, why is Progressive in then out? We don’t like Unions! Some time about 1970 we changed the name of our congregation to: Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue…now it’s the Ark. Understandable when devoted regular attenders of our services and education courses live in Mumbai or Cape Cod rather than Northwood or Pinner and the Ark certainly describes the all-embracing welcoming sanctuary Rabbis Aaron & Lea, and Ruth with the music and Richard and our tech wizards,, have developed. But for now I ask quite simply: why are you a Liberal Jew, a member of this Progressive community, and what sort of a Jew are you, that’s if you claim that name or are associated with it?
In the book I referred to earlier, Gross goes beyond names to try and define his family’s identity: “Judaism has many shades. My family belonged to the category which I believe sociologists of religion call ‘residual Orthodox’. They were consistently observant in some respects (they would never consider eating treif), fitfully observant in others (they remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy, to a point) and completely relaxed about ignoring a whole range of lesser regulations.”
I suspect that if you are listening to this sermon you are not a residual Jew, you are either lucky enough to be sitting in this sanctuary in Oaklands Gate because you are a member of the choir or a Torah reader, or you have logged on at home….yes at 2 pm on a Thursday afternoon, hopefully not by mistake. And I know some of you are not formally Jewish, but either on the way to becoming a Jew or supporting somebody who claims that name. All are welcome in our community that’s why it is an Ark.
I assume you are Liberal…not talking about your politics, but Jewishly and intellectually, believing in inclusion and equality, in an open and questioning mind about what it means to be a Jew…where a belief in God fits into all this, and how to picture God. And if, you actually define yourself as Orthodox or gentile and tuned in by mistake…you are very welcome to explore Judaism with us. Jewish Religious Union…are you religious? Well that’s a word we could discuss until next Yom Kippur, but you are with us and to some extent I feel you are connected with the Jewish religion, even if religion is not your thing.
OK, we’ve sort of covered key words: Hebrew, Jew, Liberal, Religious and finally one more: Progressive; and this, I believe, gets to the heart of why we are here today and this brings me back to Jonah the hypocritical Hebrew. Even in the belly of the whale he demonstrated again his hypocrisy and his rigid nature. He promised God : “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I will sacrifice to You with grateful voice; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Eternal One.” But no sooner is he delivered than he abandons God, is angry with God, and denies his mission and true identity. He fails to change, despite the dramatic lessons, despite his promises, he fails to change and ends up a sad failure hiding under a withered bush. This surely is the essential lesson of this Day of Atonement….it demands we try to tell the truth about ourselves, to learn from our mistakes and move on, to progress, to change, not our names but our characters and behaviour. Yes become Progressive Jews.
Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote: “Our life is fulfilled by what we become, not what we are at birth. Endowment and heritage mean much and then again nothing; the essential thing is what we make of them.” May the concluding services of this day, as you reflect on the past and the future, confirm your resolve to try, this coming year, to make even small changes, to move on, to be a better person, a better and more active Jew or Hebrew or whatever you call yourself, and may God bless your resolution and grant you a good, healthy and contented New Year.