Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh
7 May 2016
You shall be holy . . .
Just under a month ago, the European Union for Progressive Judaism held its biennial conference in London for the first time. In the company of over 80 rabbis and rabbinic students, representatives from across the world and leaders of the World Union, some 350 delegates gathered to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in 1926, and the seventieth anniversary of its resumption in 1946 under the presidency of Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, ztz”l.
At the founding gathering in 1926, a handful of congregations were represented from England, Germany and the United States. Ninety years later there were representatives of Progressive Judaism from 29 countries, and if any of those present in 1926 could have been brought back in 2016 I suspect that they would have been astonished by the rabbis, the laity, and the developments in philosophy and theology and their practical expression.
So what of significance has happened since 1926? In very broad brush terms almost everything: the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis; the foundation of the State of Israel; the renaming of some countries and the disappearance of others; the emancipation and liberation of women in the west; the fall of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact and the reunification of Germany; the Korean War; the Vietnam War; the first and second Gulf wars; the Soviet and then the Western Allies’ wars in Afghanistan; the Suez crisis; the Six Day war; the Yom Kippur war; innumerable military adventures by as many countries; genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur; the toppling of dictators; the assassination of one US President and the attempted assassination of another.
The decriminalisation and de-stigmatisation of homosexuality and the lowering of the age of sexual consent; changing mores in many aspects of society, not all of them comfortable. Financial scandals and collapses, globalisation; the growth of fundamentalism, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist; the explosion of radical Islam and its murderous assaults on free societies, the civil wars between Shias and Sunnis; the spread of terrorism and the horror of the suicide bomber.
The ever greater sophistication of international telecommunication, the internet, mobile phones, smart phones and the acceleration and miniaturisation of computing technology; space exploration, human landings on the moon, the space shuttle, the International Space Station, Hubble, Voyager and Cassini.
And I have left out as many and more than I have named.
And through this period the Jewish world has changed beyond all recognition.
The murder of six million not only reduced world Jewry to almost half its pre-war size, it created an existentialist human tragedy, and it had an incalculable impact on Jewish theology and Jewish faith. As the scale of the horror became ever more widely known faith faltered and the death of God was proclaimed; a whole tranche of Jewish secularism came into being across the world and Jews proudly proclaimed their ethnic identity and commonality, and kept God well out of it, even though they still retained synagogue membership. The proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948, seen by some as a sign of divine providence was seen by others as the creation of a bulwark against anti-Semitism, and with the promulgation of the Law of Return every Jew could know that they never need be trapped in another country again, that they would always have a place of refuge. Hebrew became a national modern language, not the preserve of scholars, and Israel’s self-confidence swelled the heart of Jews across the world, regardless of whether they were Zionists or not.
For more than half of its existence the State of Israel has influenced the World Union, and the move of its headquarters from the States to Jerusalem in the 1960s proclaimed an increased identification with and commitment to the Jewish State and changed the nature of the relationship between the WUPJ and its constituencies. Israel might not be the answer to everything but it was the answer to many and the solution to some.
In the same year that Leo Baeck, Lily Montagu, Israel Mattuck and other continental survivor rabbis reconvened the World Union, a small group came together in Dublin to found what became DJPC.
Like the world leaders in London that doughty band of founders were making an act of faith, a leap into a darkened world which only an eye-blink before had countenanced the genocide of the Jewish people. Who could have known that 70 years later both the organisations, the macro- and microcosm, would not just have survived but have grown? The World Union now has congregations on every continent except Antarctica – though that is surely just a matter of time – and DJPC continues to thrive in an Irish Jewish community that has significantly diminished.
Ten years ago, in the service of celebration for the 60th anniversary of this congregation I paid tribute to: the dedication of those who have served it, and led it, and to the Judaism for which it, and they, stand . . .
Ten years later I happily do so again, indeed I do so with renewed vigour as this last decade has seen the amazing people who served the community for many years retire and step aside to allow a new generation to take up the reins and respond to changing times and situations with fresh ideas, fresh approaches and fresh thinking.
But it is not only to its leaders that our members should look with appreciation and gratitude, it is, with a pair of powerful binoculars, across the Irish Sea, to the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, now Liberal Judaism, whose Irish constituent it has been for these many decades, and from which, under no fewer than five Executive Directors and its current Chief Executive, Rabbi Danny Rich, it has enjoyed support, strength, advice and publications, notably the liturgies of which Liberal Judaism is so justifiably proud.
And in this community’s 70th year it is essential to acknowledge another stream of constant support. In September of this year, Leo Baeck College will mark the sixtieth year of its existence, and although it is younger than DJPC it has trained many of the rabbis who have served this community over the years, who have nurtured it, stimulated it and challenged it, of whom my beloved colleague Andrew Goldstein, and my fellow UCL alumnus Alan Mann are two outstanding examples.
This community, and most of the other communities in both Reform and Liberal Judaism in the UK, owe LBC a debt of gratitude for the work it has achieved against all the odds, training nearly 200 Progressive rabbis since the ordination of its first graduates, Rabbi Michael Leigh and Rabbi Lionel Blue.
However as I also remarked in my 60th anniversary sermon, an occasion such as this cannot only be an indulgence in self-satisfaction while looking at the past. It is as essential, and actually more so, not just to look to the future but to try to discern its trends the better to respond to potential developments. For a successful community it can never be ‘my way or the high way’ it must be, in the words of the great sage Hillel, ‘go and see what the people are doing’.
And ‘what the people are doing’ is exciting, thought-provoking and dynamic.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of all is in the area of spirituality. Issues of faith and belief are deeply personal, of course, but there is a trend, I believe, that holds equal amounts of hope and challenge. Unlike their parents and grandparents, there is a new generation of Jews whose relationship with God and their Judaism is not shackled by the Shoah, or constrained by rationalism: it is a modern, 21st century relationship with ancient texts and teachings infused by other ideas and trends from further afield, such as mindfulness and meditation, liberally sprinkled with hints of Jewish mysticism, hasidism, new music and new approaches to services and liturgies.
Undoubtedly in the life of any congregation, let alone one that is 70 years old and has been in possession of its free travel card for a decade, such changes are unsettling, perhaps even frightening There is nothing inherently wrong with that fear, because there is comfort in the old, the familiar, the gemütlich; yet survival these days will not be guaranteed simply by repeating the old ways, it will derive much more from the ways in which ‘community’ can show itself to be open, vigorous and inclusive.
Because although it may seem counter-cultural in this age of the supreme self – I am therefore I am – I remain convinced that there is an incalculable value in both the idea and the practice of community, albeit in the form of a structure unlike that we have known before.
I am convinced that, in a time when more are seeking a relationship with the God of Israel, from within and without the Jewish people, this may best be expressed within community in a collective that strengthens and supports individuals and makes them much more than the sum of themselves.
Ten years ago I also quoted my American colleague Larry Hoffman, one of whose mantras for the Synagogue 2000 project was, ‘If we always do what we’ve always done we’ll always get what we’ve always got’.
I believe in the wisdom of that saying as much or even more now than I did ten years ago and I hope you will allow me a very personal reflection on why this is the case.
As some of you know, like Andrew, Alan and Danny I come from a true Liberal Jewish background. Liberal Judaism is what I was born into, grew up in, and dedicated my life to, as have they. But the Liberal Judaism of my earliest recollections is not the Liberal Judaism of my late middle age. It has constantly evolved, constantly responded to developing modernity, constantly been open to the demands of changing times and circumstances. It is one of the greatest sources of pride I know that my Liberal Judaism, our Liberal Judaism, has changed so many lives for the better, made Judaism more real in irreligious times, attracted excellent and committed rabbis and lay leaders to its ranks and congregations and never stands still.
Yet the most profound effect on me in spiritual terms has come not from congregational life but from my students at Leo Baeck College. Since 2011 we have sought to make our daily shacharit services core to everything else that we do. We hold them from Monday to Thursday in term times and they are usually conducted by the students; it is their chance to experiment with different service styles and approaches. Some broadly work, some don’t; some work for me, some don’t. But whether they work every time or not isn’t really the issue, because every shacharit is led with real sincerity and real commitment, and when they do work they not only set me up for the day ahead they move me emotionally and spiritually.
I have learnt from my students and continue to learn, to open my mind to ideas and approaches that I have not known before, and I believe that this has changed not only my academic life but my spiritual life also. It is something for which I shall always be deeply grateful.
Sincerity, commitment and an open mind – essential not just for rabbinic life but for congregational life as well. We all need to bring these three qualities with us every time we step through the doors of this building, because in so doing lies the path to greater things. We need to think about what we do for this community, and remind ourselves constantly that being a good Jew is about giving not receiving, and that refers to our talents, our life experience and above all our time.
We serve communal life best when we think not of our own needs and self-fulfillment but about that of others, not just about what is right for us now but what will be available to be right for future generations. Doing something for others rather than ourselves runs quite contrary to human nature, but the members of a faith community have a duty and a responsibility to try and buck that trend.
Today we read from the parashah called Kedoshim, meaning in its context ‘holy people’ and beginning with the phrase ‘you shall be holy for I the Eternal One, your God, am holy’. Most of us can accept that God is holy, but how on earth can we achieve what sounds like a quality of the divine?
The answer is simple: the root from which kadosh ‘holy’ derives originally means to set aside, then to be special, and then to be holy. Clearly a course of action which sets us aside from the norm involves us doing something out of the ordinary, something special – and in the context of Jewish congregational life you don’t need me to tell you what that entails!
Like many congregations, DJPC precedes its Hebrew name with the words kehillah kedoshah, meaning ‘holy congregation’. I can’t help feeling that this is a bit previous, because a synagogue does not become ‘holy’ just by being set up, it becomes holy when those who belong to it and work for it distinguish themselves by selfless commitment, by being special, by being holy.
As we celebrate our milestone anniversary let us give thanks for the selflessness of previous generations, but let us not for a nano-second sink into complacency; for us, the merit of previous leaders and members who helped this congregation survive counts for nothing if we do not emulate their acts, build on them and go beyond them.
Kedoshim nihyeh ki kadosh adonai eloheynu: as God is holy so may we too be holy, and by our deeds, our commitment and our selflessness, prove ourselves special, so that others may, in their day, celebrate the Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation’s Centenary in 2046.
Keyn yehi ratzon: may this be God’s will, and let us say – Amen
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