Elli to Andrew:
Andrew: It is an honour for me to share this dialogue sermon with you. The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Breaking Down Walls’, as Liberal Judaism continues to explore ways of making our movement as inclusive as possible. After a lifetime of service to Liberal Judaism, you are President of the movement, and having been a complete outsider as a lesbian and a feminist when I was ordained 32 years ago, I have just retired after serving Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue for 20 years. So, we are an interesting pairing for a sermon conversation!
I think it would be good to confound any binary assumptions about us, so I would like to begin by asking you to share the ways in which you feel you have been an innovator as well as a guardian of the tradition in Liberal Judaism.
Thanks Elli; in some ways we are so different, but we both have a deep passion for Liberal Judaism and I hope that Liberal Judaism will always be a tolerant home, as I think it has been, for Jews holding different views on many positions. I suppose I am now seen as an insider but originally, I felt an outsider coming from Birmingham and, I’ll be honest, never feeling completely accepted by the then London hierarchy. But I supposed I toned down my Brummie accent and got involved. The rabbi of my childhood and youth was Bernard Hooker and Birmingham Liberal Synagogue of those days was classic Liberal…85% English services, no head coverings or tallus’s, and deepdown I’m still an old-style Liberal Jew.
What does that mean? As a guardian I think it means not adopting customs just because “they are traditional”, for there are also Liberal Jewish traditions to respect. For instance, I think it makes much sense to honour the key statement of our religion, the Shema, by standing for it. I’m not happy when the full Amidah is said silently, forgetting that “traditionally” it is then repeated out loud. I would never omit the Kaddish or not read the Torah scroll, because there was only 8 people present. I could never understand why it was treife to sing a Psalm in English when one has just read one in the vernacular. And as well as guarding the values of Liberal Judaism in the UK & Ireland, I have been privileged to work over the past 40 years in helping Progressive Judaism to thrive on the European continent, especially the Former Soviet Union. And here I have tried to insist that patrilineal or equilinial descent is the only ethical definition of Jewish status.
But that does not mean that Liberal Judaism should not be innovative and reconsider its attitude to traditions earlier Liberal Jews abandoned. The late great Rabbi John Rayner rediscovered Tikkun Leyl Shavuot and Selichot services and I reckon his rediscovering led to Orthodox communities reintroducing them. And though, as a child we said, Happy New Year I am more comfortable saying Shanah Tovah or Gut Yontif. Times change and Liberal Jews who never want to change are not Progressive.
The aspect of my rabbinate that gives me most satisfaction was Kadimah Summer School Sharon & I founded – 50 years ago. And it was there that we introduced Birkat Hamazon after each meal (I’ll be honest and say except breakfast …still asleep!). Nowdays there would be a riot if it was missed out. We introduced Havdalah that for many is the most moving moment of a Conference and I note that during the pandemic many congregations have an online Havdalah when they never had one before. Strange really that such a touchy feely ritual works on line…for this we must thank the Debbie Friedman lai lais.
I could talk about liturgy, a real test of the changing nature of Liberal Judaism, again aiming to be inclusive and up to date. I was honoured to be part of two generations of changes : removing thee’s and thou’s and then the Lord and gendered English, and now learning to say Berucha At Shechina and Mecheletet Chaim. But let me wrap up with the thought that our founder Lily Montagu is associated with the phrase Prophetic Judaism……if I have any influence left, I think it vital we stress both words…prophetic, yes, fighting for social justice, inclusion, equality. But we must also stress the need for Judaism, for ritual, prayer, Shabbat observance, study and peoplehood.
Andrew to Elli:
I’m not sure I have answered your question, but maybe you can give me your answer: how do you feel? You’ve certainly been an innovator and broken down many walls and given the lead on so many contemporary issues as well as making us think about our relationship with God with your Compelling Commitments and so a guardian too?
I think that for me the powerful need for inclusion that brought me into the rabbinate has always involved a combination of being a guardian and an innovator. I felt compelled to actively engage in my Jewish life and in the life of the Jewish community, both, because as the child of a Viennese refugee, I took to heart Emil Fackenheim’s additional commandment, not to give Hitler a posthumous victory, and because rather than continuing to live on the margins, I wanted to find a way of including myself, and others, who felt and were excluded – lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people (we didn’t use the acronym LGBT back then) – in the life of the Jewish community. I remember my final interview at Leo Baeck College and the chair of the Committee, Rabbi Sydney Brichto, sounding perplexed and rather irritated, asking me how it was that as a lesbian and a radical feminist, I was so traditional?
Hitler didn’t just destroy 6 million individual Jewish lives, Nazism destroyed tens of thousands of Jewish communities. After the Sho’ah we have a responsibility to revive Jewish communal life; but not by going backwards or mimicking Orthodox Judaism. We are not Orthodox; we are Liberal, and so committed to responding to the needs of the age, as Lily Montagu put it, and to the needs of people. The only way we can genuinely ensure a vibrant Jewish life and a vibrant, living Liberal Judaism is, in the spirit of the parashah, T’rumah, at Exodus chapter 25, by inviting individuals on their journeys to bring their precious gifts together, their unique qualities and skills, for the development of the community, so that Jewish communal life encompasses all our lives and all of who we are in all our glorious diversity.
And of course, the content and the tone and colour of that communal life needs to be Jewish. What do I mean by Jewish content? That we draw on the Torah and rabbinic literature as we create new interpretations that inform our practice as Liberal Jews. And Jewish tone and colour? That we incorporate traditional as well as contemporary liturgical melodies and rituals as we interweave the heritage we have received, with the materials of our lives today.
During the 32 years that I have worked as a rabbi, I have met with scores of individuals, who, approaching the synagogue because of their longing to belong and feel included, wanted to engage in Jewish learning and live Jewishly. More than anything else, it has been listening to the stories of individuals and their desire to participate as themselves in the life of the congregation that has propelled much of the innovation that I have introduced: my weekly Access to Hebrew and Exploring Judaism programmes, the diversification of Shabbat services, including a monthly Beit Midrash Shabbat morning service focussed on the parashah, the empowerment of lay readers to lead services in their own way, the invitation to the congregation to sit or to stand as they choose and as they are able. And so, for example, when we rebuilt the synagogue, as an eco-friendly, inclusive space, we decided not to have a bimah to ensure maximum accessibility, both, physical and psychological. For me, inclusion has always involved enabling all those who wish to be included to live as Jews, as Liberal Jews, committed to equality and justice for all, who are nourished and sustained by Jewish teaching and practice.
Elli to Andrew:
So, Andrew, what lessons do you think can be drawn from our practice as a rabbinic guardians and innovators for enabling Liberal Judaism to be a truly inclusive movement?
Andrew to Elli:
Listen to all of our members, both the radicals and the dinosaurs like me.
But let’s end with the path that we both encourage… our Jewish tradition… the Sedra… the Festival code in this week’s parashah, Emor… a reminder that in our Judaism practice: we celebrate with the community but also as individuals within it.
Yes, Andrew, we return, as Jews always do to the weekly Torah portion that structures Jewish liturgical life and reconnects us week after week, year after year, in an eternal cycle, to the source of Jewish teaching and practice: the Torah.
How fitting, as you say, that this week’s parashah is Emor, where we find in Leviticus chapter 23, the festival cycle as observed in Temple times, and are reminded that Shabbat is the first festival, the model for all the others: mikra kodesh, a ‘sacred convocation’; literally, a sacred ‘calling’ of the community together, which is what all the festivals are about: the community gathering, as we are doing today.
Of course, a calling of the community together assumes that we gather in one place. Nevertheless, the calendar of sacred days is fundamentally, just that: it’s a cycle of time. Today, on Shabbat, and throughout the conference, the community, the family of Liberal Judaism, is and will be sharing sacred moments in time. And yet, as we do so online, we are in different places, and that is important because it reminds us of our diversity; it reminds us that we are called to acknowledge and honour the different spaces that we occupy in our lives; our different backgrounds and circumstances, our different experiences and ways of being in the world. And so, we are called, not so much to break down walls as to open doors; the doors of the chambers of our hearts; the doors of our synagogues – and to set up a metaphorical tent, a mishkan, that extends across space and encompasses us all.
Shared ‘sermon’: Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein and Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Liberal Judaism Biennial, Shabbat Morning Service
1st May 2021 – 19th Iyyar 5781