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Saturday, 28 March 2015

Holiness : Then - and Now

In days gone by rabbis would use the Shabbat before Passover to deliver a long sermon on the importance of a thorough observance of all the many intricate details and laws of the forthcoming festival. (Traditionally they only gave sermons then, and on the Shabbat between the New Year and the Day of Atonement).

And these laws were almost endless: laws about cleaning the house of hametz (leavened food), laws about what foods can and can’t be eaten, laws about how the seder has to be done, laws about making everything adhere to the highest standards of kashrut. Holiness was in the detail – and the rabbi took it upon himself to instruct his community on how to enact that holiness in the home -  and then the men would go home and make sure their wives did it...
Well, those days are I think long gone, at least in non-Orthodox communities:  not just the patriarchal attitudes, but the stance of the rabbi in relation to the importance of strict adherence to the fine-grained details of the various laws that have accumulated around the festival about what must and mustn’t happen.
For progressive Jews, there has been a distinctive change of focus in relation to holiness. Traditionally, there are two categories of law. The first was called beyn adam la’makom – ‘between a person and their Maker’ – and they were all the ritual laws around food, Shabbat observance, daily practices of prayer-life, the clothes one wore, all the details of festival celebration: no aspect of life went unregulated in terms of ritual. And all rituals were designed to create a life of holiness. Progressive Judaism still pays attention to this category – through with less obsessionality than in the past. But a much greater emphasis is placed now on enacting holiness within that other traditional category of Jewish tradition beyn adam l’chavero – ‘between a person and their neighbour’, in other words in the realm of the inter-personal.
So those aspects of the divine that are connected with justice and compassion and generosity, that we have it in our power to do, to enact, to live, have come much more to the forefront of our thinking as a locus of holiness. How we relate to people – family, colleagues, community, the wider UK community we live in, the world community we live in – this is the forum where we make choices to follow (or not) Jewish teachings about righteousness and charity and care for others; where we try to follow the divine vision of how we are to relate to each other, neighbours and strangers alike, Jews and non-Jews alike.
The idea that holiness adheres to precise attention to ritual law, to doing specific and distinctive rites and practices that only Jews do, goes right back of course to Biblical Judaism. We are reading over these weeks,  in the annual cycle of readings from the Torah, from the book of Leviticus. The laws concerning the priesthood and the sacrificial cult take up a whole book of the five books of Moses - the middle book Leviticus - as if to say: this is the centre of religious life, holy living. And we still read those texts today, even though once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 CE, that  whole world disappeared, never – we hope! – to return. We are left to make of it what we can, to interpret it, or re-interpret it in ways that might connect to our lives today, even though the Temple is no more and Judaism  moved on, transformed by the rabbis into a far more inclusive religion where everyone has their own relationship to God unmediated by the hierarchy of priests with all their sacrificial rules.
Yet the dominance of that kind of religious practice - focused on the observance of precise details of ritual law - still acts as a gravitational force in our thinking about holiness. Consciously or unconsciously it makes us believe – or feel - that holiness is centred on Jewish ritual law of one kind or another. Priests and sacrifices may have gone, but the specific foods you eat still counts in God’s eyes, as does whether or not all the letters in the scroll can still be read clearly within the mezuzah on the doorposts of your homes.  
But what would it feel like, look like - our Jewish lives - if holiness was weighted in the other direction, the inter-personal domain?  If it was about our relationships to each other? If it was about ethics, how we spoke to and about each other, how we behaved with each other, how we acted towards those we lived with and amongst, and those who live far from us, whom we might never meet but who might be looking to us for support and aid and assistance?  
What if Pesach/Passover was a time when at seder night, or during the seven days of the festival itself, as we eat our unleavened bread, the bread of affliction we call it (Deuteronomy 16:3), we really took that message of affliction to heart and saw how the purpose of the festival was to sensitise us to those who are still afflicted, still oppressed, still living in situations of un-freedom?
Sure, this festival is one where the national narrative of the Jews is stressed – we were slaves and then we became freed from bondage, freed to serve God rather than human despots; with the exodus from Egypt the beginning of that extraordinary mythic narrative of a people bound together by a shared experience of liberation, followed by revelation, followed by the long journey into the promised land; this great story of peoplehood which we tell over and over again, as we forge one more link in this glorious chain of memory and history and survival of a tribe who became a people who became a nation, indeed a distinctive trans-national community of shared values – of course Pesach is about particularism, it’s about us, our particular Jewish identity and the celebration of that particular identity.
But Pesach/Passover is more than that. Because as we eat our bread of affliction, that symbolic food doesn’t just point inwards, to our past and our history, it points outwards, it points towards the vision of Judaism that says we Jews have a mission, a purpose in this world, and it is beyond ourselves. Jewish survival is not for its own sake. It’s not a destination for the Jewish journey. It’s  a means to an end. And the end, or the aim, is to bring the values and ethics of holiness into the world, the larger world. There is that traditional phrase, from the prophets, that Jews are to be a ‘light to the nations’ (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). Our particularism is only one part of the story. The other part of the story is our universalism.
Particularism is about survival and continuity and distinctiveness. Universalism is about what it is all for, it’s about purpose. And our purpose is to model and enact holiness beyn adam l’chavero – ‘between a person and their neighbour’. And in our world today, everyone has become our ‘neighbour’. It is only in our own times that we can begin to glimpse the inter-connectedness of all of us on this fragile planet, where all our fates are inter-meshed, where poverty and affliction and slavery in one part of the world has knock on consequences for our lives (and all of these plagues are here in London, and the UK; I’m not naive about this, they aren’t split off from us in some far off lands we can’t even place on a map, they are literally round the corner). 
So when we eat our bread of affliction, instead of complaining about how tasteless it is, how bored we get with it, how it gives us constipation, or the opposite, maybe we can reflect on what the purpose of this act of holy eating is really about, what it’s message to us really is.
Which is to alert us to the need to enact, in our own small way, the mission and vision of Judaism. Which includes addressing those living with affliction, and oppression and lack of freedom. And you don’t have to look far to find causes to support, charities to give money to, issues where your voice can make a difference.  There are so many places where attention needs to go – it might be about the homeless in the UK , or contributing to food banks, it might be about supporting refugees here or abroad, it might be through London Citizens campaigns, or Amnesty, or World Jewish Relief, or Oxfam, or the New Israel Fund.
As you taste that bread of affliction this year, as you crunch on it joyfully or resignedly, here is something else to chew over as it goes down. Are you going to put your money where your mouth is? Are you going to lend a hand practically? Are you going to commit yourself to something new this year as part of your holy living? Because that is where holiness is now, for us, and you can be enacted through tzedakah, money; or tzedakah, acts of tzedek, righteousness. You are free to choose what your new forum for holy activity is. What you are not free to do is pretend that the point of Pesach/Passover is just to make sure that you only eat foods with the right labels on them, and then you are done.
A last few words about one charity in particular that I have developed a  connection to this year. It’s partly for family reasons, but that’s not the point. If you want a new charity to become involved with, if only financially, and you can’t come up with something on your own, have a look at the work of World Jewish Relief  They have a campaign at the moment in relation to their ongoing work with  the Jews of Ukraine and on their website they have a message from their Chair who has just come back from a visit to Zaparozhye in eastern Ukraine where they have been working for the last 15 years. And his report is both heart-breaking and inspiring. They work with Jews and non-Jews there, though their priority is the Jewish community – they have been addressing poverty, repairing homes, finding jobs, helping build up a sense of Jewish community in a remarkable way. But the civil war has had disastrous consequences – there are now a million displaced people in Ukraine. And WJR is looking after 300 internally displaced Jews in Zaparozhye, housing them, making sure they have enough to eat, looking after their welfare, providing medicine (the cost of which is prohibitive), re-training them.
But they can’t address the fears of a young father for example, who fled his home and who is too scared to register for employment in case he is conscripted into the army. "We did not want this conflict. We can't believe it has happened. It was fight against men who, a year ago, were your neighbours in a war for which you feel nothing – it’s intolerable”. Zaparozhye – a European city of 700,000 a couple of hours from Kiev - has received 100,000 refugees in this last 18 months, it’s put an unsustainable pressure on resources, the local currency has been devalued by 300%, and for WJR’s on-going clients life is becoming quite dire.
Pensions and disability allowances barely meet utility bills. Food, especially healthy food, is ever more expensive and, without help those who need medicine simply can’t afford it. These are the descendents of those Ukrainian Jews we are happy to read Hasidic stories about, those dead Jews safely confined to the pages of storybooks and nostalgia. But some of WJR’s clients - Jews in 21st century Europe - will die unless the charity supplements what they receive, which helps buy the medicines that keep them alive.
Anyway, it’s not my intention to create guilt feelings, and what I’ve said is only one side of the story because the Chair also reports on the extraordinary work being done by the inspirational leaders of the Jewish Community Centre there, which WJR built and supports, and is bursting with life and activity, with a strong sense of Jewish tradition and heritage; it’s involved in pioneering work with the disabled and other disadvantaged groups, and is also an active participant in civil society contributing expertise and commitment that others benefit from. The JCC is the only building in the entire region that has disabled access and they are active participants in campaigning to improve conditions for those with disabilities in a place where disability rights are, as the Chair says, in the dark ages.  This is what it means to be  a ‘light to the nations’.
So, in brief, if you are looking for a way this Pesach as you eat you bread of affliction, to do something from the heart, to do something heart-warming - rather than just suffering from heartburn – send them some money, take out a standing order. Or find another charity to support. Holiness isn’t in some remote realm away from daily life, it isn’t confined to the minutiae of Jewish ritual observance, it’s in the down-to-earth everyday choices we make to enact the vision of Judaism beyn adam l’chavero, between us and our neighbours, known and unknown, near and far, Jew and non-Jew alike.  
I wish you a healthy and productive Pesach.

[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 28th 2015]

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