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

The Dignity of Difference

So yes, you will have noticed that the title of my piece this Rosh Hashanah is using the title of one of the most well known books that was written by Chief Rabbi Sacks in 2001. And there is good reason for this too. Rabbi Sacks really had a positive influence on the way I think as a religious Jew – and this book, and even more specifically Chapter 3 were of massive importance. The words that Rabbi Sacks wrote were to be honest liberating. Our specific mission was to be different, and to teach all other people about the dignity of being different. Our religious reality was not one that was an exclusive one – one was not only ‘saved’ by being Jewish. One could reach spiritual attainment through other religious existence.

This was of course controversial to many.  To me and I know to others, this work made us think and analyse the space that exists between the particularistic nature of Jewish Law, and the universalist message that also exists clearly in the Torah. We were elected in some way, but in no way did God give up on the rest of the world. It was a book therefore that rather than giving answers, laid down a framework for thinking about being Jewish in today’s world. And for that we have a lot to thank Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as he moves on from his position. We wish him much luck and blessing.

My recent experience with the local Bravanese Muslim community was a great example of how I had felt guided by our Chief Rabbi. When I heard that the Bravanese Centre in Muswell Hill had been burnt down I went to the site itself and in a short space of time had met the chairman, Mr Abubakar Ali. It also became clear very soon that the Bravanese were both a very religious group (they had clear religious dress, clear separation of men and women) but that they also eschewed extremism and preached a more reconciliatory mode of Islam. The pinnacle of our relationship in the wake of the arson on their centre was of course the amazing Unity Walk that we arranged one Sunday in June to which nearly 350 people attended. We now have the opportunity to bring together faith leaders from the Muswell Hill community and organise in the future such events.

But two other events stick out in my memory. Firstly, I invited members of the Bravanese leadership to our house one Shabbat afternoon to discuss the situation. This quickly turned into a fascinating dialogue based on Torah and Islam – don’t worry, I was not converted! But the discussion was so rewarding, so respectful and I know my daughter Hodaya found it fascinating. It was a dialogue of respect based on difference. We both had what to bring to the table – we were both talking and conversing from positions of knowledge. Secondly, when I brought together twenty local faith leaders to our Synagogue to talk over how we would run the Unity Walk, one suggestion was brought up that we run a Ramadan session, or breaking fast of one of the days of Ramadan (Iftar). I and a number of those attending felt that this may not be appropriate and simply may not work. To me, it is important in inter faith work that a desire to be together with the other, to commune with the other is not taken too far. In order to teach respect for difference, we need to maintain difference and maintain our separate ritual spaces.

Now you may disagree with what I have just said, and that is of course alright…and will not be the first and last time someone has disagreed with their Rabbi. But what I am more interested in is the framework of thinking, the balance of the particularistic and universalistic and the understanding of the consequence of one conquering and dominating the other. It is this self reflecting approach that we can use to relate to others with confidence.

Rosh Hashanah may be a Jewish festival, but it is one that impacts on the whole world. Not because it is a New Year and other religions and cultures celebrate new years; but because we believe that on this day God judges the whole word. And in our prayers on Rosh Hashanah we relate not just to all individuals in the world, but all nations that exist in this world. Not only will people across the globe be judged, but all nations as well.

The Zionist thinker Leon Pinsker wrote a book called AutoEmancipation in the later 1800’s in Russia. In it Pinsker explained that emancipation as a solution of the Jewish problem would not work. We would not be able to eliminate in the eyes of the non-Jew, our real ethnic and religious differences. As a result, Pinsker advocated a return to Zion as an alternative solution to the Jewish problem.

But Pinsker’s solution cannot work for those of the Jewish people who still live outside Israel. We yearn for the redemption and a total return to Israel. But today, Zionism is not the Jewish answer. Torah learning is. Acquaintance with our Jewish texts, what they say, what ideas can be drawn from them and the arguments that surround their interpretation. That is what we sorely need at the moment.

When I attended the end of year event run by the Bravanese community at the end of June, I was amazed at the number of children aged 12, 13 who could recite copious passages of the Koran and who had learned half of or the whole of the Koran off by heart. It may be an older fashioned means of educating, but it is a great basis for further investigation. How many of us can recite the whole Torah, let alone know what is in it?

Our Chief Rabbi inspired respect for difference based on being and recognising our separateness and difference. Maybe the challenge now is to use the basis of the last twenty years in the UK to create a more scholarly and learned community.

Wishing you all a Shana Tova from myself, Elisheva and the kids.