At some point on Yom Kippur each year, I pause for a moment to think about the millions of Jews across the world, gathering together on this most sacred day of the Jewish calendar. And then, as soon as my thoughts drift in that direction, I also acknowledge to myself the unknowable numbers of Jews, who are not part of the worldwide Yom Kippur congregation – for a variety of reasons: because they don’t choose to be; because the historic experience of persecution has made their Jewish identity a burden they choose not to bear; because they don’t have a Jewish mother and so are not regarded as Jewish by Orthodox authorities; because their spouse or partner is not Jewish and they feel rejected by the mainstream Jewish community; because the narrowness of the Jewish navel-gaze has caused them to become disaffected; because they are secular or cultural Jews who do not see the synagogue as relevant to their lives; because they see themselves, primarily, as British – or as citizens of the world. There are probably as many reasons as there are official and unofficial Jews.

And then, there are those in-between Jews. I used to be one of them: before I stepped foot inside a synagogue on Yom Kippur – my first introduction was the autumn that I started studying for the rabbinate at the Leo Baeck College in 1984 – I would spend the day quietly with my mum, hearing stories of her family and their Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur experiences. She came from an Orthodox family, but her parents were open-minded – her mother had discarded her shietel as soon as she arrived in the East End from the Pale of Jewish settlement around 1902. Judaism was mostly celebratory in her family home, but as a teenager my mum rejected the strictures of the wider Orthodox community. And yet, she remained attached to the key moments and rituals of Jewish life: and so when I was growing up, every Erev Shabbat and on the eve of every festival, candles and a special meal and Hebrew and Jewish songs, Seder nights and Pesach baking, no school on the main festivals, and on Yom Kippur, an opportunity for reminiscence and reflection. Who knows how many in-between Jews there are out there…

So, who is a Jew? And what constitutes ‘being’ Jewish? Is it about who I am or about what I do? Does being Jewish or doing Jewishly preclude being anything else or participating in the rites and practices of other peoples, communities or faiths? Being a Jew and Christian is a bit of a contradiction in terms, but can one be a Jew and a Buddhist? A Jew and a Hindu? Certainly, one can be a Jew and a feminist, a Jew and a socialist, a Jew and an atheist. And what about the definitions: According to halachah, Jewish law, being Jewish means being born of a Jewish mother or becoming Jewish according to a prescribed legal process.[1] According to Liberal Judaism, being Jewish means being born of either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father and having a Jewish upbringing or education. Liberal Judaism also recognises that one can become a Jew through conversion under the auspices of any Jewish authority.[2]

While the Liberal definition is more permissive and allows more people in, it can also be exclusive in its own way. What to do, for example, with those people with one or more Jewish parent, who didn’t know they were Jewish because that parent was a survivor of the Sho’ah, the Holocaust, and as a result of the trauma they had gone through, decided not to be Jewish anymore and not to transmit a Jewish way of life to their children? If the child of a Sho’ah survivor, their mother or their father, who had not known they were Jewish and had not been brought up as a Jew approached me because they wanted to live a Jewish life, I could not turn round them and tell them they were not Jewish. And yet, that individual might feel in need of a process of entering into Jewish life and becoming a Jew. When I was the Rabbi of Leicester Progressive Jewish congregation, I was involved in supervising the conversion of a woman in her 40s, who discovered that her mother was Jewish after her mother died. It had been a great shock. She found she was halachicly Jewish, but she didn’t feel Jewish. When she went round to the Orthodox congregation and was told she could become a member, it made no sense to her. And so she approached the Liberal congregation to learn about Judaism and when she had become more familiar, made the choice to become Jewish.

Complicated, isn’t it? During my summer break, we went to the Proms. The high point for me was my favourite piece of classical music, Gustav Mahler’s tumultuous second Symphony, the ‘Resurrection’. It was a superb performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir. Beforehand, in the late afternoon, I attended a ‘Proms Plus’ event, where Mahler experts, Norman Lebrecht and Jeremy Barham discussed the composer’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity, his spirituality and the social context of the Resurrection Symphony.

Norman Lebrecht talked about Mahler’s Jewish family background and the recurring theme of death in the second Symphony – which was written shortly after the deaths of Mahler’s parents and his sister – all in the same year. There are no signs that Mahler was an observant Jew after the death of his father – and curiously, he didn’t attend his beloved mother’s funeral. And then, in accordance with the law regarding official appointments, in 1897 he had to convert to Christianity in order to become Director of the Vienna Court Opera. Apparently, Mahler resented this compulsion and although he was no longer a practising Jew, did not become a practising Christian either – even after he married a Catholic, Alma Maria Schindler in 1902.

So, was Mahler a Jew – despite his conversion to Christianity? Did he think of himself as a Jew? Norman Lebrecht pointed out that in incorporating the poem, Die Auferstehung, ‘The Resurrection’ by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, into the fifth and final movement of the second symphony, Mahler only included the first few lines and wrote the rest of the lyrics himself, specifically leaving out any reference to Jesus.[3]  And what about other 19th century Jews, who were forced to convert in order to continue their professional careers? Karl Marx is an interesting case of someone who rejected his Jewish roots entirely. Unlike Mahler, Marx’s Jewish parents converted to Christianity before he was born in 1818, and unlike Mahler, Marx eschewed religion altogether. However, he not only regarded religion as ‘the opiate of the people’,[4] his ruminations on what he called, ‘The Jewish Question’, revealed that he had very much absorbed societal anti-Semitic stereotypes that were current at the time.[5]

Much more recently – and closer to home – following his appearance in the BBC television series ‘Who do you think you are’?,[6] self-proclaimed, quintessential English eccentric gentleman, Stephen Fry, has come out as Jewish as well as gay. In his open letter to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, on August 7th, in which he argued against allowing Russia to host the winter Olympics because of its persecution of gay people, he stated: ‘I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler’s anti-Semitism.’[7]

So, Jewish according to Orthodox definitions, Stephen Fry, who is an atheist and entirely non-observant, also self-identifies himself as a Jew for political reasons. Which raises the question: Are individuals Jewish, or not, primarily by external definition or by their own self-definition? And if self-identification is valid, does this measure apply equally to non-Jews? Can one be or become Jewish by association? What is the status of a non-Jew, without any Jewish roots, who identifies with and observes Jewish practice and attaches themselves to the Jewish community? As it happens, in biblical times that’s all one had to do to become part of the Jewish people. . The Hebrew root, Gimmel Vav Reish means to ‘sojourn’ and the original translation of the Hebrew word, geir, is not convert, but rather, ‘sojourner’. We read in parashat Sh’lach l’cha, in Numbers chapter 15, verse 29:

Ha-ezrach bivney yisra’el v’la-geir ha-gar b’tocham, Torat achat yihyeh…

[For] the home-born among the Israelites and the sojourner who sojourns among them, there will be one law…

Of course, sojourners, who joined in with the life of the ‘home-born’ in the land was one thing; the perceived threat of an alien culture when we later lived as a minority people in other people’s lands, quite another. After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the first Temple in 586 BCE, the captives exiled to Babylon became such a minority. When, subsequently, some of the exiles took foreign wives, Ezra the Scribe, one of the leaders of the community in exile, condemned this practice.[8]

Nevertheless, not everyone shared Ezra’s view. The Book of Ruth, set in the period of the Judges, was actually written to challenge the notion of the alien influence of foreign wives promulgated by Ezra. In this story, Ruth, a Moabite, chose to remain with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and return with her to Judah. From a later rabbinic perspective, Ruth became the model of the convert to Judaism. And what did she do to convert? When Naomi urged Ruth to return to her people, Ruth simply proclaimed her allegiance with a declaration that is one of the most moving and poetic passages in the Hebrew Bible (1:16-17):

Ruth replied: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. / Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal One do to me if anything but death parts me from you.’

The Book of Ruth not only presents a Moabite woman in this positive light, at the end of the tale, after she has married Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, and had a child, the closing verses present a chronology that makes Ruth the great-grandmother of none other than King David! What a great story and what a superlative message to counter the assumption that Jewishness is entirely in the blood. And to top it all, the first rabbis decided that we should read the Book of Ruth at Shavuot, on the ‘day of first fruits’ that they had reinvented for post-Temple Jewish life as matan z’man Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah.’

How wonderful it would be if Jewish life revolved more around its wonderful resource of stories and their powerful truths, and was less preoccupied with maintaining the boundaries prescribed by halachah. Two weeks ago, the new Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, South African born Ephraim Mirvis, commenced his position. I was given the opportunity to reflect on this event and its implications two weeks in advance when I was interviewed by Robert Pigott, the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, as part of his preparation of a news package on the new Chief Rabbi. The package was scheduled to be included on, both, the BBC’s Radio 4’s Today programme and breakfast time television news, on September 1st. In the event, the story was overtaken by the House of Commons vote on Syria the previous evening, although it did appear that day in the form of an online article.[9] Nevertheless, it was great fun visiting the new BBC News building behind Broadcasting House at Portland Place, and having started to reflect about Jewish identity in preparation for this sermon, the synchronicity was perfect.

Robert Pigott wanted to know what I thought about the post of ‘Chief Rabbi’ as a Liberal Rabbi, a woman and a lesbian. As you can imagine, I had plenty to say! Obviously, I wish the new incumbent well. He happens to be the brother-in-law of Holland Road’s Rabbi Vivian Silverman[10] – and if he is as courteous, sincere and personable as Rabbi Silverman, and as willing to relate to other Jewish denominations and other communities in the wider society, he will do a good job. But what exactly is his job? The office of the Chief Rabbinate is actually a product of British colonialism – originally, an appointment required by the British authorities, who needed a representative of the Jewish community to deal with, both, in Britain, and in the ‘colonies’ that later became the Commonwealth. That is why the BBC regards the appointment of a new Chief Rabbi as newsworthy. But we all know that the Jewish community is not singular and monolithic. Minority communities are always regarded in that way from the outside, but they look very different from the inside. We know that the Chief Rabbi represents the United Synagogue and not even the whole of orthodoxy, let alone Liberal, Reform and Masorti Judaism. It’s about time the wider society caught up with this reality.

But the main issue is not that the new Chief Rabbi does not represent us. The main issue is that the type of Judaism promulgated out of the office of the Chief Rabbi does not recognise the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, and that, in insisting on its exclusive claim to Jewish truth, not only marginalises other forms of Judaism, but also excludes Jews, whose lives do not conform to the halachah. As I’ve said on other occasions, pluralism is a concept that only pluralists understand. But it is hard for pluralists like us to acknowledge this with equanimity. After all, much more is at stake than built-in inequality. The future of Jewish life is at stake – which means that, apart from making sure that our voice is heard in the public arena speaking up for a more inclusive understanding of Jewish identity, we have to ensure that we continue to be a refuge for disenfranchised Jews, for patrilineal Jews, for Jews who share their lives with non-Jews, for LGBT Jews, for those who choose to become Liberal Jews – and also for non-Jews, who want to find a home with us, without undergoing conversion.

In his article on ‘Defining Who is A Jew’, published in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, on Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah, writer, A.B Yehoshua wrote:

A Jew is a Jew because he chose to be a Jew and not because he was forced – because of biology or by some external social force, to define himself as a Jew…. A Jew is anyone who identifies as a Jew. That is the root; that is the essence.

Ultimately, Yom Kippur is about the individual and his or her own journey. No doubt, some people here today are Jewish by Orthodox definitions and some by Liberal definitions. And some people here today are not Jewish by any definition except their own sense of affinity. And some people here today are not Jewish, but choose to walk alongside their Jewish brothers and sisters. What is more, that non-Jewish category is also plural – including those who have Jewish spouses, partners and/or children, those who practice other religions, those who are atheists, and yet are interested in elements of Jewish life and teaching, those who have found us along the winding path of their own wanderings, those who simply find the universal themes of this unique day relevant, meaningful and enriching. Whoever we are, wherever we come from, here we are together. Paradoxically, this most important day of the Jewish year has nothing to do with being Jewish, or even with practising Judaism – although, of course, it is infused with Jewish teaching. Yom Kippur calls us to be ourselves in all our complex humanity, to recognise our mistakes and misdeeds and to resolve to renew our lives. May we all feel supported by one another on our personal journeys towards forgiveness and atonement. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

 Yom Kippur Shacharit 5774 – 14th September 2013

[1] The first statement of the halachah regarding Jewish status is in the first rabbinic code of Jewish law, the Mishnah, edited c. 200 CE – see Kiddushin 3:12.

[2] See Liberal Judaism: A Judaism for the Twenty-First Century by Rabbi Pete Tobias (Liberal Judaism, 2007). Also:

[3] Klopstock’s poem was written in 1759 and had the sub-heading, ‘Mel Jesus Christ our Saviour who overcame death.’ See These are the initial lines (in English translation) that Mahler took from Klopstock’s poem (for Chorus and soprano). See for the complete text:

Arise, yes, you shall rise again my dust,

after a short rest!

He who called you

will give you eternal life.

You are sown to blossom anew.

The lord of the harvest strides

And gathers sheaves …

us who have passed away.


[4] In Marx’s journal Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (1844): “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. See:

[5] First published in February, 1844 in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. See



[8] See Ezra chapter 10 for an account of the returning exiles’ confession of their ‘trespass’ of marrying foreign wives.

[9] Robert Pigott, ‘The task facing the new chief rabbi’, 01.09.13, BBC News UK .

[10] Hove Hebrew Congregation.