On Rosh Ha-Shanah we were summoned to ‘remember’ by the shofar blasts of zichronot, ‘remembrances.’ One of the names given by the first rabbis to the New Year is Yom Ha-Zikaron – the Day of Remembrance. We remember the past in order to acknowledge the present and move forward into the future. I’ve been doing a lot of remembering over the past aseret y’mey t’shuvah, the ten days of returning – no doubt, many of us have. Sometimes memories seem to pop into our heads, and at first it’s not clear why. During the past week, I remembered something very particular that, at first sight, seemed to bear no relationship to this sacred period dedicated to reflection and repentance.

So, it was the summer of 1990 and I was waiting in the arrivals hall at Heathrow airport’s Terminal 1. Rooted to my spot at the barrier, I noticed a young Japanese family of three – a couple with a toddler. I guessed they were Japanese because a flight was due in from Tokyo. I wondered who they were waiting for, and imagined that perhaps, they were expecting the arrival of parents, whom they hadn’t seen for a long time. Looking up at the arrivals board, I saw that the flight from Tokyo had landed, and the slightly delayed flight I was waiting for was expected to arrive in a few minutes. Around 20 minutes later, the passengers from that Tokyo flight began to walk towards us. And then, I spotted a Japanese couple, who looked to be in their 60s. Of course, the family of three standing beside me had spotted them, too. Expecting them to slip under the barrier, run towards them and embrace, I was astonished by what actually happened next. Yes, they did slip under the barrier, but then the young man put up his hand to signal to the arrivals to stop, where they were. He then sent the young woman and the child forward, and told them to stand on either side of the older couple, while he took out his video camera and proceeded to film them. When he was satisfied with the images on his viewfinder, he put his video camera back in his bag and beckoned them to move towards him, as he began to move towards them. Finally, they all embraced.

I was not only astonished; I was shocked. I had never witnessed anything like that before. As I imagined my own soon-to-be reunion, I was also a little outraged that their reunion captured on film, had been so interrupted, manipulated and denied. Of course, the interruption only took a couple of minutes but it was a rupture: in place of a spontaneous meeting between loved ones, an arrangement of their bodies for the camera and a broken moment. I wondered whether, when they looked at the film later they would notice the person who was missing from the picture and recall that he was behind the camera.

I have never forgotten that incident. From time to time, I have recalled it. I think it has come into my mind recently because it seems to me that it signalled the beginning of something that has now become ubiquitous, with the revolution in technological devices during the past 25 years, in particular, the development of the smart-phone. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, the impulse is to record it. But every time we take out our phones to capture the moment, we interfere with the experience, which then eludes us. Of course, we have the image preserved, but there is something essentially artificial about it. A few weeks ago, I heard a well-known singer songwriter complain that the last time he did a concert people were so busy waving their phones in the air that they failed to clap. As it happens, 25 years ago I was among the very first rabbis to have a mobile phone. My up-to-the-minute synagogue chair at the time insisted on it: it was an unwieldy, heavy object I could barely hold in one hand, which had to be charged on a cumbersome charger. I felt very ambivalent about it. On the one hand, since my congregation at the time spanned Walthamstow in East London through Epping Forest and beyond, and I was often on the M11, it was good to know that I had a phone on me, should I break down. On the other hand, the fact that I could be got at any time – including when I was driving – was very disconcerting.

Of course, technology is not all bad, and many of the technological advances of recent years have enhanced our lives – in particular, the lives of those who are housebound, who can now Skype and email and order their shopping online. I am not a Luddite. Indeed, over the past 5 ½ years since developing RSI in both wrists, I have benefited from ‘voice recognition’ technology. This sermon – and everything I ‘write’ (in inverted commas) – appears across the screen by dictation. The technology as such is not the problem. The issue concerns how we relate to it, and the extent to which we now seem to mediate our lives and relationships via technology. Another incident, I’ve remembered, that also startled me at the time, and seemed to be prescient. It was 1994 and I was in Tel Aviv on R’chov Ben Y’hudah, one of the main thoroughfares in the city, sitting in a cafe that was so popular with gay people that on that particular day, on the eve of the Pride March, there was a stall outside selling badges, flags and T-shirts. Sitting at a table, I noticed two good-looking young men arrive. They had no sooner ordered, than they both took out their mobile phones and proceeded to speak animatedly. I’d never seen anything like it. I watched in fascination, and then began to feel quite nonplussed as their separate conversations continued for several minutes, and did not stop even when their coffees arrived. Eventually, with their meals set out before them, they put down their phones, and said a few words to one another before they began to eat.

I’m sure we’ve all got anecdotes we could share. But there is something deeper going on that I would like to explore with you this evening. An entanglement around what it means to be an individual. Since the days of the French Revolution, in 1789, which brought the ancien regime in to its knees, individuals in Western Europe have been progressively liberated from communal control. In the feudal order, an individual’s life was completely dictated by their place in the family and in the social hierarchy, from birth until death. The concept of individuals making decisions and choices for themselves simply did not exist. Progressive Judaism – the now global movement that encompasses national movements, like Liberal Judaism in this country – is a product of Enlightenment and Emancipation. Progressive Judaism champions the liberation of the individual. One of the core defining elements of Progressive Judaism is the notion that rather than bearing what tradition describes as ol-ha-mitzvot – ‘the yoke of the commandments’,[1] individuals are empowered to make ‘informed choices’ about their Jewish practice.

The impact of the liberation of individuals from communal control – which came to the fore again in the late 20th century, with the collapse of the Former Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe – is wonderful and has transformed the lives of millions of individuals of all backgrounds and circumstances. Let us hope that, as individuals in many parts of the world remain crushed by tyranny and authoritarian regimes, the process of Emancipation will continue. Far be it from me, as someone who continues to participate in liberation movements, and who has benefited personally from the struggle for liberation, to introduce a ‘but’…. And yet, we all know that there is a difference between the utter necessity of liberation for each and every human being on the planet, and narcissistic individualism, which new forms of ‘smart’ technology can encourage and exploit.

I am thinking in particular, of course, of the so-called, ‘Selfie’, a word that has now entered the English Dictionary. We all know how to define the word: a ‘Selfie’ is a photograph we take of ourselves against the backdrop of whatever we’re doing and whoever we are with at the time. So, here I am in this breath-taking landscape with so-and-so, or in such and such an art gallery in front of a magnificent painting. Taking a Selfie takes the obsession with capturing our experience, like a butterfly in a jar, to another level. Now, with our smart phone, perched on the end of a pole, it’s possible, not simply to interrupt and rupture the moment by taking a picture of it, we can put ourselves in the centre of it: here I am with the Mona Lisa. And so, with our smart phones at the ready, a visit to an art gallery, for example, need no longer involve looking at any of the exhibits, or taking time to examine the work of creativity that lies before us, all we need to do is reassure ourselves that we were there by taking a Selfie – and move on. Of course, that process is not fully complete until we post the photos on Facebook, and let everybody else know that we were there, too.

I seem to be suggesting that the advent of the Selfie indicates a kind of narcissistic self-obsession, but it also seems to be aiding and abetting the suppression of true self-realisation and self-actualisation. Taking a Selfie has very little to do with paying attention to our individual needs or asserting our autonomy and self-determination. And when we think about Facebook, it is clear that the photos people post – in particular, young people – have very little to do with themselves and everything to do with how they want to be seen and regarded by others.

Could it be that the self-centred, self-promoting Selfie is little more than a distracting device for avoiding ourselves and denying ourselves? That question assumes a ‘self’ to be avoided and denied. How many individuals know themselves? Know who they are? And is it really possible? For Emanuel Levinas, there is no such thing as an essential self. Challenging the 17th century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who asserted the individual’s ‘right to existence’, Levinas argues that ‘the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world.’[2] For Levinas our responsibility towards the ‘other’ is primary: the self emerges in relation to others, to whom we bear an obligation that defines our existence. For Martin Buber, on the other hand, while the self, the ‘I’, only realises itself in relation to another self: a ‘Thou’,[3] nevertheless, the self can engage in self-reflection and find a way to towards others. Freedom is a challenge. In a frequently quoted passage, Buber imagines the individual’s anxious ponderings:[4]

What am I to choose my particular way for? What am I to unify my being for? The reply is: Not for my own sake… to begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself; to start from oneself, but not to aim at oneself; to comprehend oneself, but not to be preoccupied with oneself.

Buber’s words remind us of the pertinent questions asked over 2000 years ago by the sage, Hillel, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’[5] Like Hillel, Buber connects the individual to others, but he also addresses an important challenge for the individual as an individual: ‘to begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself … to comprehend oneself, but not to be preoccupied with oneself.’ That is at the heart of our task today, as we confess our failings in an effort to renew our lives, and also points the way from today to tomorrow, when we will journey again in the world, and face our obligations towards others. Life is not a Selfie. Life is a gift received by each and every individual. Acknowledging ourselves as individuals with choices and decisions to make can be as demanding as being a captive or a slave. Each of one of us is challenged to engage in inner work and in outer work; to reflect and to reach out to others. The disciples of Simchah Bunim of Peshischa in Poland, an influential Chasidic rebbe, in the late 18th-early 19th century, recalled the teachings they had received orally from him, which were later written down. We read:[6]

Our master taught:  Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying:  “I am but dust and ashes”.[7] In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying:  “For my sake was the world created”.[8]

Quoting our ancestor Abraham, in the Book of Genesis, on the one hand, and from the first code of rabbinic law, the Mishnah, on the other, this teaching holds together twin perspectives which we find throughout the Jewish source texts. As we read in the eighth Psalm, included in our musaf ‘additional’ service on Yom Kippur:[9]

When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is humanity that you are mindful of us, human beings that You have taken note of us; Yet you have made us little less than divine, and adorned us with glory and majesty.

Each one of us, whatever our life circumstances, is called to this awareness: to the humility that leads us to undertake cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally, ‘an accounting of the self’; an accounting of ourselves and our deeds, and to the confidence that enables us to go out into the world in the hopeful expectation that we can make a difference to the lives of others.

There is no contradiction between acknowledging ourselves as individuals and engaging in the world. In her recently published book, A Magna Carta For All Humanity. Homing in on human rights,[10] a magnificent and meticulous work of analysis that traces the development of human rights legislation, Professor Francesca Klug challenges the individual versus community binary, demonstrating that humans are ‘social beings’[11] and ‘responsible beings.’[12] She quotes the thesis of Alan Gerwith: ‘the concept of human rights … entails a mutualist and egalitarian universality… [because] each human must respect the rights of others while having his [sic] rights respected by all others… By the effective recognition of the mutuality entailed by human rights, the society becomes a community.’[13]

On Rosh Ha-Shanah, I invited us to see in the Exodus passage describing the wonderful varied gifts brought by the ex-slaves, by each individual, whose ‘heart was willing’, for the building of the mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, a model of an inclusive rainbow community.[14] During this long day of Yom Kippur, we will read from the Book of Deuteronomy, situated in the 40th year of the wilderness wanderings, which also reminds us that community encompasses individuals. Here is a literal translation:[15]

Atem nitzavim ha-yom kull’khem lifney Adonai EloheykhemYou are stationed today, all of you, before the Eternal your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; /your little ones, your wives, and your sojourner, who is in the midst of your camp, from those who chop wood to those who draw water; / to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God and into His oath which the Eternal your God is making with you today…

Atem nitzavim – ‘You are stationed’. The Hebrew root Nun Tzadi Beit, implies, not simply the physical state of standing up, but standing in readiness. We might picture a unit of soldiers standing to attention. But the particular use of the language here also implies everyone’s individual responsibility to stand themselves’ up, as well as a collective endeavour. In the second half of the verse, the message, kull’khem – ‘all of you’ – is underlined by setting out a list that suggests total inclusion of all those who are part of the ‘camp’, of all ages, including those who are not Israelites. Atem [‘You’ – plural] nitzavim [‘are standing in readiness’], kull’khem, [‘all of you’] – that is, each one of you.

Of course, a close reading reveals that ‘all’ are not equal in this list. It is clear that the plural subjects, Atem, ‘You’, who are being addressed, are the male Israelites: ‘your little ones, your wives and your sojourner’ (29:10). So, kull’khem – ‘all of you’: each and every individual – but not on equal terms. This is not surprising. The passage reflects a patriarchal, hierarchal society. Today, these patriarchal assumptions no longer reflect the community we are creating here at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, in which each individual has equal value – regardless of gender and sexuality; those who are single, widowed or divorced alongside those who are married or partnered. The synagogue is for everyone, who wants to find a place for themselves and participate in our communal enterprise. The synagogue is a context for individuals to realise and express themselves as individuals, and contribute to the well-being of others. In another of his works, Buber distinguished between collectivity and community. He writes:[16]

Collectivity is not a binding but a bundling together: individuals packed together, armed and equipped in common… But community… is the being no longer side by side but with one and another of a multitude of persons. And this multitude… experiences everywhere a turning to, a dynamic facing of, the other, a flowing from I to Thou. Community is where community happens.

Today, during the unique moment that is Yom Kippur, as we sit side-by-side in the service, with prayer books in our hands in place of technological accessories, each one of us, bearing in our hearts our own particular bundle of fears and regrets, troubles and longings, sorrows and losses, may we find ways of being ‘with’ one another, ‘a flowing from I to Thou’, as Buber puts it. And may the experience of this time of self-reflection within community encourage us to ‘make community happen,’ and contribute our individual gifts for the benefit of others in the weeks and months that lie ahead. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Erev Yom Kippur 5776 –22nd September 2015

  1. Mishnah Pirkey Avot 3:5 speaks of the ‘yoke of the Torah’. Acceptance of ‘the yoke of the commandments’ became related to conversion to Judaism (Babylonian Talmud B’khorot 30a). See Conversion to Judaism in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa edited by Walter Jacob and Moshe Zemer (Rodef Shalom Press, Pittsburgh, 1994).
  2. From: ‘Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’, a series of interviews conducted, edited, and translated by Richard Kearney, and reviewed by Levinas. Reprinted in Face to Face with Levinas , edited by Richard A. Cohen. (State University of New York Press, 1986), pp.23-24.
  3. I and Thou by Martin Buber. A new translation with a Prologue and Notes by Walter Kaufman (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1983). For an exploration of the differences between Levinas and Buber, see: Levinas and Buber: Dialogue and Difference edited by Peter Atterton, Matthew Calarco, and Maurice Friedman. (Duquesne University Press, 2004).
  4. See: Martin Buber’s Spirituality: Hasidic Wisdom for Everyday Life by Kenneth Kramer, p.76 (Rowman and Littlefield, Maryland, USA, 2012).
  5. Mishnah Pirkey Avot 1:14.
  6. Spelling: Przysucha. Rabbi Simchah Bunim (1765–1827).
  7. Genesis 18:27.
  8. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.
  9. Psalm 8:4-6. See Machzor Ruach Chadashah (Liberal Judaism, London, 2003), pp.294-5. Also quoted, in part, in the yizkor, ‘memorial’ service – p.389. Note: ‘humanity’ is a translation for enosh – root: Alef Nun Shin, to be human – from which the nouns, ishah/nashim, ‘woman/women’, and ish/anashim, ‘man/men’ are derived; ‘human beings’ is a translation of ben-adam, literally, ‘son of an earthling’ – adam being related to the noun adamah, ‘ground’ (see Genesis 2:7).
  10. A Magna Carta For All Humanity. Homing in on human rights by Francesca Klug (Routledge, London & New York, 2015). Francesca Klug was the principal architect of the UK Human Rights Act of 1998, which came into force in 2000. See Francesca Klug, Values For A Godless Age. The Story of United Kingdom’s New Bill of Rights (Penguin Books, 2000). Until her retirement in 2015, Professor Klug was Professorial Research Fellow in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Director of the Human Rights Futures Project at LSE. Following her retirement, she has been appointed by LSE as a Visiting Professor. Her other publications include: The Three Pillars of Liberty: political rights and freedoms in the UK (with Keir Starmer and Stuart Weir, Routledge, 1996), and Common Sense: Reflections on the Human Rights Act, (Liberty, 2010). Francesca Klug co-edited a special issue of the European Human Rights Law Review, published in December 2010, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Human Rights Act. She was awarded an OBE for her Services to Human Rights and Civil Justice in the 2002 New Year’s Honours List.
  11. Ibid. p.45.
  12. Ibid. p.46.
  13. Ibid. p.45. Quotation is from The Community of Rights by Alan Gerwith (University of Chicago press, 1966, p.6).
  14. Exodus 25:1-9. See my sermon for Rosh Ha-Shanah morning: ‘Rainbow Judaism for All’ ( www.rabbiellisarah.com ). For a more extended treatment in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Press, 2012), Chapter 11, Empowering individuals and creating community.
  15. Deuteronomy 29:9-14.
  16. Between Man and Man (Collier Books, Macmillan, New York, 1965), p.80, p.31