It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the identity of religious groups, political groups, family groups, social or cultural groups, ethnic groups, national groups, international groups – the same core questions keep arising: Who is in? And who is out? Who remains – and who has to leave, or wants to leave?
And once you start asking this set of questions you realise that there’s another set of questions fused to them: it isn’t just who is in and who is out. It’s who decides who is in and who is out, who decides who remains and who leaves? And also: who makes up the rules in the first place? and who administers the rules, who polices the rules? So issues about identity are fused with issues about authority.
In Judaism, traditionally, rabbis decided who belonged and who couldn’t belong. It was through the maternal line; or through a conversion process and a Beth Din. And it wasn’t too complicated. In Britain nowadays, there are complex government procedures to determine who is a British citizen and who can’t have a British passport. Every group – from synagogues to golf clubs to nation states – has their rules as to who is allowed to belong and who is defined as ‘not one of us’.
Of course in Judaism, what for 1800 years was a straightforward question about belonging has in the recent past become much more problematic . Because now the old question of defining who is a Jew has been replaced by the question ‘Who is a rabbi?’ – who has the authority to decide who is in and who is out? Is it Orthodoxy, or Reform, or the Chief Rabbinate in Israel? And is that the Ashkenazi rabbinate or the Sephardi rabbinate? Whether you belong or don’t belong to any club is all about the authority of who is doing the asking and who makes up the rules, and who polices the rules. This is how questions of identity and questions of authority become fused. And confused.
This week we read in the Torah a rather simplified picture about this question of belonging or not belonging. As the people of Israel start off on their great journey through the desert, with the Sanctuary in their midst, certain people are set apart: they aren’t left behind, but they aren’t allowed to remain in the body of the community, they are judged to be blemished, or tainted in some way – temporarily – and are excluded. Those with indecorous, anxiety-producing skin-conditions, and those in recent contact with a corpse (Numbers 5:2) – they are excluded. And who decides this? Who has the authority over this, and administers the system? It’s the priests, the cohanim.
The symbolic purity of the group – those who belong, those who are part of ‘us’ – can only be maintained by having a group who are not ‘us’, who have to be quarantined as ‘other’ than us. It’s as though if ‘we’ and ‘they’ were allowed to rub shoulders together, as it were, something nasty might happen. It’d not just be confusing, but dangerous.
You can see a fantasy in play that something would happen to the community’s sense of itself if ‘we’ and ‘they’ got mixed up together. In any group, mixing too freely with those thought of as ‘other’ - and managing the differences that arise - is often seen to be too threatening : either to our inner sense of who we are, or who our group is, or our country. The moral, or material, well-being of our group is felt to be at risk; or our physical health; or our ‘cultural’ health. Sometimes it’s our very freedom that is felt to be at stake – or our ‘sovereignty’.
You can tell what I am pre-occupied with at the moment. Rumour has it that a rather big question about our country’s future is on the horizon. As we drift towards this fateful day when we will decide whether to remain or to leave the European Union, the seas are quite choppy, turbulent. These are not calm waters we are floating in. Some people in the boat are struggling to row us in to the shore – and others are just as furiously trying to keep us from, as they see it, crashing onto the rocks.
Closeness – or distance: which do we want? We know that beyond Europe there are storms brewing, the global weather is unsettled in unprecedented ways - and I’m talking economic uncertainty and political upheavals as well as environmentally - and the question is: are we going to be safer in the harbour next to the shore – or safer further removed, adrift from the mainland.
It probably won’t surprise you that I am going to vote Remain. There are many reasons for this but I want here to say something of how my Yes is informed by my understanding of Judaism, and Jewish values. You might not think that this is a decision in which Jewishness makes any difference to your vote - but I do think there is a Jewish perspective on the referendum.
For me, it consists of two parts. The first is historical, the second is ethical -though the two parts intersect, as they often do in Judaism. If you are Jewish and reading this I’d imagine that most of you have your roots in Europe, one, two, three, four generations ago: Central or Eastern Europe, or what are now the Baltic States, or Western Europe (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain) – this is where our roots are, historically. And although Europe has been the home of longstanding anti-Semitism against Jews – which is possibly why our predecessors left their countries of origin and sought a new life in this country – European Jews have always had a sense of belonging to a trans-national community. They were loyal citizens of their host community but aware of a larger identity, and the strength that comes from a larger identity of belonging.
You could go into any synagogue in any country of Europe, wherever the borders were and however often those borders changed over the centuries, and you would find a home, be at home. You were at home in the community as a Jew, you were at home in the texts, you were at home in the liturgy, you were at home in a shared identity, a shared history, a shared set of values that did not depend on nationality, but on your trans-national identity as Jew. You could open your page of Talmud in any community you visited and there was the same text: and side by side on the page - the design of which was laid out in Venice - was the Rashi commentary written in France, next to the Ibn Ezra commentary written in Spain, which nestles next to commentators from Vilna and Germany. The Talmud was a Euro-text centuries before the European Union was dreamed up.
This is just one way in which Ashkenazi Jews are historically, in their bones, in their souls, part of a wider European consciousness. We in the Reform movement have inherited that European identity in our liturgy – open the pages of the Shabbat prayer book, or the High Holy Day prayer book, and you find representatives of almost every European country past and present in its pages and in its anthologies: Franz Kafka from Prague sits next to Freud and Herzl from Vienna, next to Germany’s Moses Mendelssohn and Glueckel of Hameln, and the UK’s Louis Jacobs and the eastern European Hasidic masters rub shoulders with Spain’s Judah Ha-Levi.
Jews were originally known as Ivrim – Hebrews: the word, just to remind you, is from the verb ‘to cross over’, to cross boundaries, ‘to migrate’. Jews are those who live in countries with boundaries but know no boundaries in their hearts. Proud in the sovereignty of our separate identity we diasporic Jews glory in the way in which that identity is not limited by nationality: we know that to belong to something larger, more collective, something that transcends the insular, is a source of strength not something to fear.
Take the example of the Rothschild family: since the 1760s, when Mayer Amschel Rothschild established his banking business in Germany and through his five sons instituted a revolutionary international banking system embracing London, Paris, Naples, Frankfurt and Vienna, diaspora Jews have recognized the economic, social and political limitations of nationalism.
All of this is second nature to Jewish self-perception, all of the above is part of the historical case for saying Yes as a Jew to Europe – it’s historical, it’s spiritual, it’s psychological, all together. It’s ingrained in our heritage. This is where we belong.
And that’s leaving aside the more obvious historical rationale: that 70 years ago, from the midst of the rubble and ruin and wretchedness of a devastated continent, a grand vision arose: to ''make war unthinkable and materially impossible''. Nationalism had proved a dead end, literally and metaphorically. The dream of a supra-national union of states based on close economic ties and treaties was born. It was an extraordinary and moving vision of a way of living together peacefully with our differences.
I feel blessed that I am part of a generation - and have seen the next two generations grow up – freed from the terrible burden of war. After the bloodshed of the 20th century it is no small thing that the European Union has ensured that no blood has been spilled between its members. Nobody has had to die because of ancient or nationalistic hatreds. If Yugoslavia had been part of the European Union twenty-five years ago we would not have had a Bosnian war with all its suffering.
And it’s not part of so-called ‘Project Fear’ to recognise that the breakup of the European Union becomes more likely if the UK leaves than if it stays. To say nothing of the breakup of the UK itself. If someone is wanting to jump off a cliff and their friend described the consequences of doing that, you wouldn’t respond: ‘Oh you’re just trying to frighten them!’
God knows, there are multiple ways in which the EU is a flawed arrangement - but informed scepticism about the limitations of this complex transnational project can be combined with a commitment to adhering to the vision that inspired its founders. Are we really as a nation going to cut ourselves adrift from the protections that accrue from belonging to this club – of human rights, employment rights and the rest – along with the benefits of trans-national co-operation on terrorism, the environment, scientific research, cultural projects, and so on? Maybe we are. Maybe the anti-establishment rage that is fuelling American politics, channeled through Donald Trump, will win the day here.
The UK is simmering with anger and frustration: social grievances that successive governments here have failed to address are leading to much bitterness over the lack of affordable housing, the decline in secure jobs, and underfunded public services (the NHS and mental health services, schools, social care for the elderly, the disabled). And in relation to all of these grievances, symptoms of a felt sense of deprivation, or a decline in the quality of living – there isn’t a single one of them that can’t be blamed on immigrants. And this is where , from a Jewish perspective, history and ethics/moral values, intersect.
Swirling around Europe, with a toxicity that has become part of this Referendum debate here, are strands of xenophobia. It is most obvious in France and Hungary and Austria and Denmark - but that anger against immigrants is being stoked up here too. And a Jewish contribution to this debate is to call out the fraudulence of this. We Jews who have eyes thousands of years old and know how minority groups can become the scapegoats for social ills, the victims for prejudices and hatreds which have nothing to do with them, and everything to do with governments who fail to care for the well-being of poor and rich alike, we Jews have the experience and the insight to see it when it is happening. And it is happening in this Referendum debate.
Issues to do with immigration have become a very convenient framework narrative to speak about economic and social insecurities. It’s the prism through which Farage and the Daily Mail (amongst others) see everything. People’s insecurities are real – and need to be addressed – but blaming immigrants for them is morally suspect, and thinking you can protect yourself from these insecurities by isolating yourself from the rest of Europe is just deluded thinking.
But once this virus of prejudice is released in a society and legitimized as just another aspect of a national debate, it won’t just go away - whichever way the vote goes. The ancient Hebrews had rams they could sacrifice, to gain atonement for wrongdoing committed against fellow human beings (Numbers 5: 8). We as a society no longer have the rituals to atone for such wrongs. We have different collective rituals – voting is one of them – but whichever way this vote does go, it won’t deal with the ‘sins’ this Referendum campaign has unleashed. And we are all impoverished by that.
[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 11th 2016]
On Shavuot, the symbolic commemoration of the giving of the 10 Commandments, here are 10 reasons to say Yes to Europe.:
Certain problems and threats we face as a country can only be addressed through working closely with others:
1) climate change and the collapse of eco-systems
3) health issues to do with epidemics, smoking, obesity, diabetes, alcohol, air pollution
4)antibiotic resistance research
5) limiting the power of transnational corporations to further enlarge the gap between rich and poor
6) The humanitarian crisis concerning refugees in Europe can’t be addressed by closing our borders
7) Objective views of the economic benefits of remaining seem comprehensive
8) The protection of employment rights
9) The protection of human rights through the European Court of Human Rights
10) cultural and educational projects that depend on the free movement of European and UK citizens