What would Judaism be without its prayers and its rituals? Would it be, as a Bar Mitzvah boy said recently in my community, ‘just a big social club’?
It’s true that without prayer and without ritual Jews would still be quite distinctive - we’d still be an ethnic and cultural group, we’d still have an identity. We’d be the people who invented the bagel. (And the people who decided to fill the bagel with smoked salmon and cream-cheese. We’ve exported that around the world). We’d still have our ethnic foods. We’d be the ‘chicken soup is as good as penicillin’ people. So there would be the food. And the humour of course. We do great jokes – because with our history we had to find some way of coping with the tears.
So we’d be a distinctive social club with great food – though everyone would always be on diets, because have you ever met a Jew who’s happy with their weight? Or for that matter how they look? Still we would be a great social club – though we’d have to have another social club nearby that we wouldn’t be seen dead in because they don’t do things the right way there.
OK. Enough Jackie Mason. He was also a rabbi who thought he was a comedian. (We can be quite bitchy too as people – quick to cast aspersions, to blame, to criticise – if kvetching was an Olympic sport, we’d win gold every time. We’re quick to criticise – and slow to admit we are ever wrong).
But of course it’s not just prayer and ritual that define Judaism. In fact some people might say, the prophets of Israel used to say, the essence of Judaism as a way of life isn’t prayer, and it isn’t Jewish rituals and ceremonies. It’s something else. It’s ethics. It’s how we act towards each other. It’s about righteousness and compassion and our passion for justice. It’s about giving to others – our time, our money (charity/tzedakah), giving our energy, our love, our empathy and care. We know all this.
So why does the Torah have to repeat 36 times the injunction to care about the stranger, the outsider, the ones who don’t ‘belong’? ‘That is your story too’, the Torah says, ‘you were once outsiders, strangers, in Egypt; you were once despised and abused because you didn’t seem to fit in, and you had come from somewhere else’. Is that so difficult to get our heads around? Our hearts around? It seems that it is.
Judaism is based on this extraordinary idea of human value, human worth, of uniqueness, preciousness, each person made (in that amazing phrase), b’zelem Elohim, in the ‘image of God’ (Genesis 1:27). It’s a beautiful and poetic image – the picture of human beings having divinity grafted into their souls. And therefore deserving of respect.
And it’s not just ‘us’, in our Jewish ethnic-cultural-religious club, it’s ‘them’ too – whoever the Others are, Poles or Pakistanis or Palestinians. Whether people love us or hate us, Judaism’s greatest challenge to us is: can we see the Other as b’zelem Elohim? In a sense we might say that hatred always involves a failure of imagination. And that includes self-hatred.
So this capacity to act with compassion and enact justice is the ethical and moral heart of Judaism – and without it we are just a big social club that’s given us Hollywood and Jewish humour and food that gives us heartburn. Of course you don’t have to be Jewish, or religious, to dedicate your life to acting with compassion and care, and fighting for justice. But Judaism as a way of life stands or falls on how well we can inhabit and live out its core ethical ideals. I repeat: we know all this.
So why is it so hard to keep on articulating it? And trying to live it out? I’m still mulling over, still stirred up by, what I saw and learnt on my recent trip to Israel with the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights (see February’s blog and www.rhruk.co.uk). On the one hand, Israel does receive a fair amount of critical attention in the media , and some of the perceptions sometimes seem unfair or inaccurate; and yet there are things going on there, within Israel itself and in the Territories, that don’t accord with the highest values of our Jewish tradition. When we hear about discrimination in Israel by the State against the Bedouin, or by Israeli rabbis against Orthodox women, or the authorities against Ethiopian immigrants, or Knesset legislation targeting NGOs and civil rights groups that are trying to defend human rights or promote ethical values, or we hear about the fire-bombing of mosques and the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees or the illegal building of settler homes on land to which Palestinians have documentary proof of ownership – when we hear about any of this we may (and probably should) feel uncomfortable, unsettled, disturbed.
And it matters to us not because we are ethically-sensitive people who might care equally about the bloodshed in Syria or the growing homelessness and poverty in the UK. It matters to us because we feel bound up in a particular way with the living out of Jewish life in Israel.
There is a rabbinic saying that " Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh " ‘all Jews are sureties for one another’ – we have a responsibility for one another, and one of the responsibilities we have is to stand up and say: ‘this act, this practice, this behaviour does not correspond to the highest values of our tradition, we can do better than that’.
That kind of ethical criticism and self-criticism has been in our tradition from the days of the prophets onwards. It’s not comfortable, either to do it or receive it, but unless we are just going to be a big social club, it is a religious responsibility. It’s much easier for us to see ourselves as the victims. We have generations and centuries of experience of that – real experience, tragic experience. It’s there in our minds, maybe at the back of our minds, maybe in the forefront - but unavoidable: the knowledge that hostility has been and is directed against us. That’s not news.
It’s even been grafted into our annual calendar: last Shabbat we read about Amalek, three verses from Deuteronomy (25: 17-19) which describe the way in which the children of Israel, wandering through the desert just after the Exodus from Egypt, were attacked in an unprovoked manner by the tribe of Amalek. These verses are always read on the Shabbat before Purim, our carnival festival when we read in the Book of Esther about the plan by Haman - described as a descendent of a later Amalekite king, Agag - to wipe out the Jews of Persia. A strange people we are – we commemorate an attempted genocide with a festival of frivolity, jokes and drink.
We call that pre-Purim Shabbat Shabbat Zachor , the ‘Shabbat of Remembering’. It reminds us of a grim reading of Jewish history : ‘there is always someone against us, remember that’. ‘Amalek’ is an archetype that is felt to exist in one form or another in every generation. And although this may be a necessary injunction – lo tishkakh, ‘Do not forget!’ (Deut 23:19), don’t forget there are always people who feel hostility towards us - it’s harder to remember something else: that ‘Amalek’ is not just the name for something outside us, but it is inside us too.
When I studied the Amalek text in Israel with some of the extraordinary rabbis and teachers who live there and are battling hard for an ethical Judaism to be enacted in daily life in that country they love, and many of us love, one of the things they all said, in different ways, and at different times, was that there is a battle going on, right now, for the soul of Israel and the soul of Judaism. There are forces around that go in the guise of nationalism or religion (or both), that are anti-democratic (their language, not mine) and contrary to Jewish ethical principles. The enemy, the 'Amalek', the one seeking to hurt and harm and destroy is not just the Other, it’s not about Hezbollah and Iran – that’s too easy to think, and react against. It deflects attention away from something else. No: 'Amalek', they suggested , is an internal experience, it’s part of us, it’s in us . It’s about the hatred and antagonism in Jewish hearts.
That’s hard to hear, hard to say. It’s like saying we Jews are our own worst enemy. We don’t want to know that, think that, hear that.
But it’s what the prophets of Israel kept on saying, and it’s what the modern inheritors of that vision, those brave men and women in Israel battling for civil rights and human rights, it’s what they are saying and putting their bodies on the line for, quite literally - because the aggression of not only Jew-on-Palestinian but Jew-on-Jew is a very real and present experience to them.
What they are saying, and it’s the message they wanted visitors like me to bring home, is that Judaism is not a social club – it’s a way of seeing the world that puts justice and compassion at its very centre. Nothing else can substitute for that. Not even bagels and smoked salmon.
[Extracted and adapted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 3rd 2012]