[Sermon] Why be a Jew?

Rabbi Lea Mühlestein
Yom Kippur – 9 September 2019

 
A number of years ago, the Jewish Museum in Berlin staged what would become one of its most controversial special exhibitions, entitled: ‘The Whole Truth: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Jews.’ The aspect of the installation, which captured news headlines around the world, was the exhibit where a Jewish man or woman sat in a Plexiglas container and answered questions from visitors, which was immediately dubbed the ‘Jew in the Box.’

But when I visited the exhibition with a group from West London Synagogue, I was struck by another exhibit. It was a small box equipped with a microphone and a speaker, which invited visitors to press a button and say the word ‘Jude’ or Jew – and all that would happen is that the speaker would play back to you the words you had just spoken. It was simple and innocent.

And yet, none of the members of our group could bring themselves to try it – for some reason it felt wrong to say the word Jew out loud and even worse to have it played back to you.

Now these were all fully committed members of the Jewish community, all proud of their Judaism, so why did it feel so awkward to say the word Jew?

A friend of mine, the Russian-born German Jewish author Lena Gorelik captured a sense of this awkwardness in the title of her book dedicated to her first-born: “Dear Mischa: …you, who were almost named Schlomo Adolf Grinblum, I’m sorry I couldn’t spare you from this: You are a Jew.”1

As we are gathered here, as the longest day of the Jewish year slowly draws to a close, we must ask ourselves: Why be a Jew? In our additional service, we recalled the centuries of persecution and while we did, I am sure I was not alone in also reflecting on the growing number of cases of antisemitism in our own society and across the Western world. And so who could blame us for asking, is it worth it?

Rabbi John Rayner, of blessed memory, suggested in 1971 that “perhaps the answer to the question, ‘Why be Jewish?’, is to be found, paradoxically in anti-Semitism [sic.]. Surely the only self-respecting response to those who wish us to disappear is to assert our Jewishness all the more stubbornly.”2

Rayner quotes the Jewish post-Holocaust theologian Emil Fackenheim who proposed that after Auschwitz Jews need to impose on themselves an additional commandment: “You shall survive; you shall not hand Hitler a post-humous victory.”

Rayner acknowledged that this argument might not convince the doubters – well, it appears I am one of them. As compelling as Fackenheim’s argument might be, it simply isn’t enough for me.

On Rosh Hashanah I invited you all to embark on the journey of finding your why. I spoke about the importance of holding ourselves to account not to some lofty goals for humanity but whether we lived lives that enable us to fulfil our very own why propositions. With that in mind, any answer to the ‘Why be a Jew’ question must be one that can resonate with each of us personally. Just like we do not share exactly the same why, we will each place a different emphasis on the various answers to the question why be a Jew. But I would suggest that, if we cannot find an answer to the question which can help us to fulfil our very own why – to deliver on the contribution that we want make to the lives of others and the impact of that contribution, we haven’t yet found the right answer for ourselves.

For me, WHY be a Jew is deeply anchored in my belief in community. To be a Jew is to be part of a community of destiny. Ever since Sinai, the Jewish people have been united within and because of the covenant which binds us to God, God to us and us to each other.

We cannot choose who else is part of this community of destiny and, as history has taught us, we oftentimes do not have a choice to opt out of it. Being part of a community is both a challenge and an incredible opportunity. My teacher Rabbi Sheila Shulman, of blessed memory, highlights the power of community in particular on Yom Kippur in being able to stand as witnesses for each other: “for the reality of each other’s need, for the seriousness of each other’s intention, for the intensity of each other’s longing for wholeness, for reconciliation, for the integrity of each other’s struggle to be honest with themselves.”3

It seems almost impossible to imagine, how we could stand the scrutiny of Yom Kippur all by ourselves without the presence of community. For community at its best has the power to transform. As our siddur puts it: we come before God surrounded by members of our community. With them we share our happiness and it becomes greater; our troubles, and they become smaller.4

Isn’t that the true power of being a Jew? To know that we will show up for each other?

Ever since Abraham’s first hineini – Here I am, Jews have answered hineini, a phrase, which the medieval commentator Rashi describes as being marked by humility and readiness.5

To be a Jew means to show up, humbly recognising that we cannot always fix things but we are always ready to make our contribution – as Pirkei Avot puts it:
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

    You are not required to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.6

To be a Jew means to answer hineini whenever we are called: to share the happy and the sad times, to be companions and witnesses to the ups and downs that we face throughout our lives.

We are called to answer hineini when we see suffering and injustice even outside the boundaries of our own community, not to close our eyes to the suffering of the other.

We are called to answer hineini when we witness the destruction of our world. As Adam, the first human being was warned by God in Ecclesiastes Rabbah: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.”7

The covenant places upon us the responsibility to lift up our eyes – eisah einai, to respond to the call, to understand that we cannot just leave things to God but must be partners in renewing the work of creation each day.

We are called to answer hineini even when we doubt – not to suspend our doubt but to embrace it. Our sacred texts are filled with stories of struggle and examples of good people losing faith.8 And yet, at the time when an individual’s faith would falter, there were others there to carry the person along: to provide strength and courage and hope, even when all looks bleak.

To be a Jew is to be part of a community, part of a people. Although some of the founders of progressive Judaism might disagree with me, I firmly believe that a close reading of the history of our people reveals that Judaism as a religion emerged from Jewish peoplehood rather than the other way around.

Jewish peoplehood is what allowed our religion to survive until today – a community of people committed to each other and challenged by the realities that our people faced throughout the ages, requiring from the people a willingness to change.

And so I believe that Jews have always recognised, what Lily Montagu formulated so strikingly in her essay ‘Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism To-day [sic.]’: that “we are required to use in God’s service all the gifts of mind and heart which he has granted to us, since it is a form of blasphemy to conceal or to pervert truth, in order to render our service of God acceptable to him.”9 Or as Lord Danny Finkelstein put it at the recent book launch for Rabbi Bayfield’s book ‘Being Jewish Today’ at NPLS: “We cannot pray for 3,000 years and gain no wisdom.”

It is peoplehood, I believe, that has allowed us to commit to progress while also embracing tradition. It has allowed us to hold firm to our values, challenged us to evolve our practice and at the same time maintain rituals even if they cannot withstand intellectual scrutiny. Rituals can provide a sense of what is so hard to imagine – that there is something bigger than oneself, rituals can bind us together in community and serve as a reminder that we should live humbly and ready to respond: Hineini… Here I am, because I am a Jew.

And so let me end with one of my favourite passages from our Machzor, the quote from the French poet Emmanuel Eydoux:

    To open eyes when others close them. To hear when others do not wish to listen. To look when others turn away. To seek to understand when others give up. To rouse oneself when others accept. To continue the struggle even when one is not the strongest. To cry out when others keep silent. To be a Jew is that. It is first of all that. And further, to live when others are dead, and to remember when others have forgotten.10

As we transition from the solemn period of the day, from a focus on remembering, into the open gate of N’ilah, back into the world, we prepare ourselves, as Jews, to say hineini, to show up for each other so that together we can each make our contribution to renewing the work of creation day by day.

Ken yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will.

1 Lena Gorelik, Lieber Mischa: .. der Du fast Schlomo Adolf Grinblum geheißen hättest, es tut mir so leid, dass ich Dir das nicht ersparen konnte: Du bist ein Jude, Ullstein Taschenbuchverlag 2012.
2 John D. Rayner, ‘The Importance of Being Jewish’ in A Jewish Understanding of the World, Berghahn Books, 19998, p. 9.
3 Sheila Shulman, ‘To be a Witness’ in ‘Watching for the Morning: Selected Sermons’, BKY 2007, p. 87
4 SLC, p. 122
5 Rashi on Genesis 22:1
6 Pirkei Avot 2:16
7 Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13
8 E.g. the story of Elisha ben Abuya losing faith as recorded in Yerushalmi Hagigah 77b
9 Lily H. Montagu, ‘Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism To-Day’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Jan., 1899), p. 225
10 Emmanuel Eydoux, from ‘La Tour de Feu’, no 103, Sept. 1969, translation by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet.

Share this Thought for the High Holy Days