Muswell Hill Synagogue
Metzora + HaGadol 19/20 April 7.49pm 8.56pm

Rosh Hashana Day 1 Sermon – Believing in Humanity

I have to tell you all that I have had a most gratifying year. Obviously at the top of the list was seeing our oldest daughter Hodaya reach Batmitzvah a few days ago. A moving, emotional and exhilarating family experience and I am sure you will all agree that Hodaya did so well! Another gratifying experience high up the list is the studying of a Masters degree in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies. Although I must say that I have read, researched and studied a lot more about conflict than about its resolution. It could be quite demoralising at times to learn about how many deep conflicts exist and how difficult it is to solve them. In fact many conflicts reduce in their intensity simply because both sides are either tired, or have no interest in continuing. We called this a mutual hurting stalemate – if you are interested.
But one overarching inspiration that I have gained from the Masters, among many inspiring facets, is the importance of widening my view as a Jew, as a religious Jew, outwards towards humanity. I have had to look into and research many different conflict situations involving many various cultures, ethnic groups and religions. From Bosnian Muslims in the mid 1990’s, to the Shia and Sunni splits in Lebanon and around the middle East. From understanding the Greek and Turkish battles over Cyprus to looking at why Rwandan Hutus would look to kill en masse fellow Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus.
And I don’t intend by the way to give another sermon on the importance of balancing particularism and universalism, between being true to one’s identity and not rejecting the other. I think what I want to say stems from something more, something in some ways simpler but extremely important, something that needs to be said, and something that needs to be thought through Jewish texts and ideas. It is this: We are a religion that believes in humanity. If we lose faith in humanity. If we disconnect from humanity, then I feel that we lose our essence as a religion.
So I want to do three things over the coming High Holidays. Today I want to lay out this theory of human inclusivism from Jewish sources. Tomorrow I will accept that having an identity puts barriers in the way of accepting this idea and how we can deal with these barriers. And on Kol Nidrei night, I will look at how we can transform relationships and the importance of remorse and consequent forgiveness to allowing others to remain a part of humanity.
I want to take you back to Avraham, Abraham, at one of the earliest points in our history as a group with an identity. I don’t believe Avraham was the first Jew. But God had certainly communicated to him that he would be different and his descendants would become a nation. We are also told that Avraham will become the father of many nations. Just at the moment when Avraham is separated from others through his monotheism, he is reconnected in a fatherly way to the rest of humanity. God makes a covenant with Avraham and commands his and his sons’s circumcision. But then God seems to set a challenge to Avraham. Sedom, Amorah – two towns that have destroyed their own moral fabric will be destroyed by God along with all their inhabitants. What is interesting here is that God seems to toy with the idea of concealing his plan of destruction from Avraham. But God then retorts:
‘Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am doing – and Avraham will become a great and mighty nation and all the nations will be blessed in him’.
No – I cannot conceal this plan from Avraham – as he is someone who will be a channel of blessing for all of humanity. In fact Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin in the 19th century clearly sees this point in his introduction to the Book of Bereishit. In his introduction he makes the point, that one cannot be religious, and scrupulous in Jewish law – and at the same time feel hatred and disdain for those outside our religion. He lauds Avraham as one who prayed intensely for Sedom, and in the Netziv;s words:
‘Even although he hated them (that is the people of Sedom) because of their evil, he desired for their continued existence’
This characteristic, of wanting and desiring the completeness of humanity was something that followed down to the other forefathers, Isaac and Jacob.
Look at how Jacob was dealt harshly by Laban – and yet according to the Midrash he at times appeases his father in law instead of dealing with him harshly for his treatment.
The acts of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were local acts, standing up for the existence of people where they lived. But what Rabbi Berlin, the Netziv learns from this is that we should stand up for the existence and integrity of humanity and not let the immorality that exists turn us away from it and turn us against it. There is a value clearly present here, to want people to remain within the realms of humanity and not without.
And this idea, of having faith in humanity, of praying for its existence is something that we learn from the Almighty. It is the lesson that God teaches Jonah, the prophet, who is fed up with the idea of people sinning and then being accepted back into the human community so to speak on repenting. God teaches Jonah that we should give people a chance and not look to punish so soon.
Look at the words of the repetition of the Musaf Amidah we are about to sing together. After we sing the famous words ‘UTeshuva, UTefila, UZedaka’ – we then say these words:
‘For you do not desire the condemned man’s death, but that he may come back from his ways and live. To the very day he dies you wait for him; and if he comes back you welcome him at once’
Avraham’s attempt to pray for humanity, to plead for those who may have failed morally, is only echoing the way of God – waiting for someone to return until they pass on from the world.
There is actually a dramatic legal application of the importance of being compassionate for the very definition of being Jewish. The famous Maimonides discusses different characteristics in a possible marriage partner that may suggest that they are not actually Jewish. I said it would be dramatic – maybe controversial is a better word. In amongst these characteristics, Rambam writes that
‘Anyone who is arrogant, cruel and hating of people, and is not able to be kind to them we are extremely worried about him…because the signs of the holy Jewish nation are being modest, compassionate and kind’
It is not only desirable to show compassion to all – and Rambam uses the word ‘Briyot’ which is a wider use of the term people, not just our own faith – but it is central to defining who we are as Jews.
I feel that there is a great responsibility for us, as Jews, to be sensitive, considerate, compassionate and at least aware of the human ramifications of what goes on in our world. It is too often the case that we let the politics of identity and even the politics of security and protection get in the way of our commitment to humanity. We worry about our own community, we worry about anti Semitism, we worry about anti Israeli sentiment and anti Zionism. And all these worries are real and understandable. We are a people that has suffered, and so we need to be aware of what is going on around us, and not be naïve. And with that I would like to show appreciation for the CST and for the tireless work that they do in ensuring our safety and representing our worries to those with influence.
But our situation today, especially in Diaspora communities such as the UK, the USA and yes, in France, is a far cry from the terrors of late 1930’s Germany. And so we have space within our society to express the compassion that is so much a part of our essence as a people.
One example of this is the sense of humanity attached, or not attached to migrants who seek asylum away from war torn countries. This has been an issue that we have seen plenty in the papers this year. The refugee numbers are extremely high with one in four refugees in the world originating from the tragic and cruel wars in Syria. Refugees from places such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan will often be given asylum in countries in their region. Turkey has over 1 and a half million Syrian refugees and in fact 86% of the worlds refugees are in developing countries. One of the worst aspects of the present crisis is that many hundreds of migrants from Africa and the Middle East have died on their way through journeys at sea to Europe. The island of Lampedusa is becoming known now as a place where many migrants do not reach and die in tragedies at sea.
The world of politics and the media has its own way to react. Politicians attempt to read the feelings of the public and play off them to win support for their political agenda. And it has been clear for many decades that the British public have negative feelings about immigration. In fact there is evidence from the early 1900’s that there was a fear of large scale Jewish immigration from the Russian empire. This fear seems to be an old fear. What is interesting is that the immigration issue, according to opinion polls has become more of an issue for the British public over the past 15 years. So it would be naïve to expect that a political party will take a more positive and inclusive attitude towards immigration and asylum.
But the question is this – should we follow this negative approach to immigration. Listen to the words of the Pope in April after he had heard of the death of hundreds of immigrants off Lampedusa:
‘They are men and women like us – our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war’
I admire those words, and they are words that we need to be saying ourselves in such situations. We cannot avoid politics and the sometimes cruel prioritisations that go with it – but we can as Jews ask if enough is done in order to remove the suffering that can be eased. An approach that says – ‘well there is suffering in the world, we just have to accept it’ is just not acceptable to me.
I have also had the pleasure of sitting on a cross communal Rabbinic body called Tzelem, echoing of course the idea of Tzelem Elokim, the image of God. The idea of Tzelem is to bring Rabbis together to campaign around issues that are real today in society. One issue we have worked hard on is indefinite immigrant detention a growing problem in the asylum system. We are realistic regarding the affect that we will have – but it is important that there is a Jewish corner to such campaigns as this, and others such as benefit caps and benefit sanctions, child poverty reduction and more.
It is this sense of compassion, this rachamim, that should drive us to build relationships with those of other faith.
In 2004, the Rabbi and thinker Natan Lopez Cordozo wrote about the onset of the American and British invasion of Iraq to topple the regime of Sadaam Hussein. He stated that
‘As the winds of war with Iraq draw closer, despite our understandable concern with our own security, committed Jews have a special obligation to think about what others might not wish to think about: the enormous loss of life that this war is surely going to cause among those who are not on our side of the conflict’
These are great words. Rabbi Cordozo goes on to quote the opinion of Rabbi Berlin that I explained earlier, written in his introduction to Genesis. Rabbi Cordozo did not deny the possibility that the war was necessary, but he felt that like Avraham, we should be able to ‘pray for those wicked people who are not a direct threat to us’.
As Cordozo concludes, ‘one of the great lessons of Jewish tradition is that all human beings carry the dream of God that one day they may become righteous’.
This in fact is our dream on Rosh Hashana. We will pray together soon that ‘the nations of the world will be bound all together as one to carry out your will with a perfect heart’, as well as praying that ‘injustice will have nothing more to say and all human evil will fade away like smoke’.
So I am not advocating naivety. I am not saying we should ignore threats to us as a people and a nation. We need to stand up for the idea of a Jewish state. We need to work to rebut the claims of the BDS movement. We need to recognise anti Semitism wherever it may be.
But we must not spend all our time in the pursuit of protecting ourselves. We must also not abandon our responsibility to humanity.