Kol Nidre Address 5777/2016
Kol Nidrei Appeal Oct 2016 by Penny Faust
There's a phrase we use at regular intervals in the High Holy Day services, Oo tshuvah Oo tfillah Oo tzedakah ma'avirin et ro'a hagtzerah – ‘And Penitence, Prayer and Charity avert the severe decree’.
It's interesting that the three go together without any indication of which might be most important. We can't cherry pick, we can't decide that we'll do only one or two. In our liturgy, hopefully in our practice, they're linked inextricably together.
But they're not all put into action in the same way. Penitence may be a private affair but we can demonstrate it through what we do both before and during the High Holy Days, and most of that is done publicly. And we spend more time praying as a Congregation in these 25 hours than at any other time in the year - prayer for Jews is particularly public.
Charity is a different matter. Because that's what we do when we go home - in a way it demonstrates at a purely personal level whether we're serious about what we have said in shul. And although we learn later how much the Congregation has raised overall here in Oxford, there's no public recognition of how much we have each given individually or as a family. So charity at Yom Kippur is a matter for each one of us.
In Oxford it's our minhag, our custom, for the Council of the Congregation to choose two charities as the recipients of our donations, one Jewish and one from the wider community.
This year there's a certain synchronicity in the choice that the Council has made. At a time when the standard of living in the West is as great as it's ever been, there are an increasing number of people who cannot afford to feed themselves and their families.
Perhaps this evening, when we have all arrived for Kol Nidrei having eaten well, may be having eaten too well, to prepare ourselves for the Fast, it's particularly appropriate that our chosen charities are two food banks; The Bet Shean Food Bank in Israel and the Oxford Food Bank here. They work in very different ways.
Let me start with the Bet Shean Food Bank, a small local charity which works under the auspices of the umbrella charitable organisation, My Israel.
As you may know, Bet Shean is a very low socio economic area in Israel with much more than its share of disadvantage. The food bank was set up over 20 years ago to help needy families, the elderly, underprivileged children and people who live alone. Its' brief then was specific: to provide hot meals on Shabbat and Holy Days for those in the community who otherwise would not be able to afford them. For us, it may be unimaginable - to be in a situation where it would be considered an impossible luxury to start the Fast with a special meal?
Today there are more than 100 families who need the Bet Shean foodbank. They are drawn from across the local community and include Ethiopian and Russian Jews and those who come from Bet Shean's large Sephardi community. They are referred to the bank by the city's welfare department, local GPs and occasionally by local contacts who know they are in need.
The Bet Shean Foodbank distributes more than 800 portions of hot food and dry goods every Friday afternoon or before Yom Tov. The food itself is largely donated by local kibbutzim, wedding venues and local families. The bank also buys in staple foods locally such as soft drinks, schnitzels, rice and challot.
The bank operates out of a community centre and is staffed entirely by volunteers, mainly teenagers, who meet on Friday mornings to collect, prepare and deliver the food.
In addition, the Food bank, recognising that food is very much part of any family's celebrations, has built a special facility with a kitchen and function room which can be used for family events when appropriate.
The Foodbank has become very much part of the local community extending its remit to meet local needs, distributing second hand clothing and eyewear, and giving assistance for marriage, brit and Bar Mitzvah celebrations.
A typical example of the range of its current activities is demonstrated in the story of Avraham a young man with mental health issues. Aged 21, he was expected to fend for himself in a small totally unfurnished apartment outside Bet Shean. A local contact alerted the food bank who provided a truck full of second hand furniture including a bed and fridge. They also filled his cupboards and the fridge with food. He now receives the standard food package on Shabbats and festivals giving him both nourishment and a feeling of self worth.
Currently the Bet Shean Food bank has set a target of £10,000 specifically to cover the cost of Shabbat and holiday meals.It costs just over £80 to donate a food package for a family of five, to give them appropriate celebratory meals for three days over the High Holy Days or Pesach. They have already raised just over £5000 and are delighted that half of our Yom Kippur Appeal will go as our contribution towards reaching their target.
Oxford Food bank is a very different operation.
Starting with the knowledge that 15 million tons of food are wasted in Britain every year and yet more and more people are going hungry, the Oxford food bank was started in 2009. The formal aims of the foodbank are straightforward: simultaneously to reduce both food waste in the Oxford area and reduce food poverty in the local community.
Its founders had a simple idea: take fresh food that's considered to be waste and destined for animal feed or a hole in the ground, and recycle it to people in need.
They start by collecting food from a variety of local suppliers. It's not food that's going bad but it may be past its sell by date in a supermarket or not quite in its prime enough to be sold on by a wholesaler. The Oxford food bank collects it, sorts it out and stores it overnight in its own chiller rooms. The following day it's distributed to around 60 local charities, large and small, across Oxfordshire that provide meals for people in need: from shelters for the homeless to mental health charities, from Childrens' centres to refugee and asylum seeker charities. Places such as Simon House, Asylum Welcome, and Emmaus, Donnington Doorstep and the Community Soup Kitchen.
All the organisations receiving food from Oxford Foodbank can choose what they want to take, what will be best for their specific needs. They can then plan their menus according to what is available on any particular day using the fresh ingredients. They benefit enormously.
Unlike the Bet Shean food bank, the Oxford food bank does not provide food directly to the needy. That's the responsibility of the Oxford Community emergency food bank which provides for people referred to them by social services, charities and medical practices.
Suppliers for the Oxford food bank include supermarkets, fruit and vegetable wholesalers, restaurants and food processing companies.
When I was there a couple of weeks ago, trays and trays of pineapples came in from a restaurant which had over ordered, there were lettuces, tomatoes, and other salad vegetables from the wholesalers and a rich variety of other fruit and vegetables, all being sorted and stacked away.
The food bank does not take in meat or fish for obvious reasons. But on the shelves were bottles of sauces still well within their sell by date but not fresh enough to go to supermarkets which need a 9 month lead in time. There were loaves of bread, both the ordinary sliced kind and from specialist bread shops. There were sacks of potatoes, flour, rice, packets of pasta and much more. I was simply astounded by the range of food - they recycle some 1.5 million pounds worth of food per year.
There are two paid directors of the bank taking responsibility for raising funds and administration but the collection, sorting out and redistribution are all dealt with by volunteers, some 120 of them at the moment, each working half day shifts. There are 4 vans in circulation during the working day, collecting food and distributing it; the foodbank operates 7 days a week all the way through the year.
And it's enormously efficient - for every £1 donated to the Foodbank, £20 of food is distributed.
In addition - remember this is part of the food industry - at the moment, there's a special offer! A local donor has guaranteed matched funding for all donations received before the end of this month. So if we can collect and donate the money from this Appeal quickly, our money will go twice as far. I'm asking you not only to give generously but also to do it as fast as possible.
As I said previously, in Oxford our giving is anonymous. We trust each individual member of the congregation to go home and remember to give in the days following Yom Kippur. Inevitably some of us forget or simply decide that we’re not going to give this year. It might surprise you to know that less than half of the OJC supports the Kol Nidrei Appeal.
It would be great if it was a much higher proportion than this - that we all now make a personal commitment to send a donation to support these two foodbanks.
Please don’t just rely on good intentions, remember to send off your cheque, made out to the OJC Kol Nidrei Appeal before the end of this week – it can be for any amount, however small or large. There are Reply Paid envelopes in the lobby for you to take home but if you don't take one, just send it to the Treasurer at the OJC, 21 Richmond Road OX1 2JL. If you prefer to make an electronic transfer, you can use the bank details that you received with your subscription reminder, just identify the transfer as KN Appeal.
The Council of the OJC has chosen two worthy recipients. Food is not just a luxury but a necessity. Fasting for just one day can give us only an inkling of what it must be like not to afford to eat. Please be generous - our contribution right now can and will make a enormous difference.
Shana Tova to you all - and I'd like to wish everyone well over the Fast.
Yom Kippur Address 5777/2016
Yom Kippur Address Oxford 5777/2016 by Jeremy Montagu
There are two things in Judaism that came to us directly from God. Everything else in the Tanach was passed on to us by Moses and then by the later prophets, but the priestly blessing, with which we bless our children every week, and the shofar, which Benjy blows for us so well, came to us direct. God said to Moses ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them This is the way in which you shall bless the Children of Israel – so that they shall put My name upon them and I will bless them’. So when we hear the Cohanim, or when we hear the reader during the repetition of the Amidah, it is not they who are blessing us; they are merely the channel through which God Himself will bless us. It is not I who blesses my children on Friday nights or when they go off on their travels, nor is it my children who bless my grandchildren – we are just opening the way for Him to bless them.
When the shofar was first heard at Sinai, that shofar was sounding from heaven. ‘The voice of the horn waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice’, giving us those Ten Words that we see above the Ark here.
In legend, that shofar, ringing out from heaven, was the left horn of the ram that Abraham had sacrificed instead of Isaac, and the right horn, the larger of the two, is still in storage up there, waiting until it will be heard ‘in time to come’. It is because it was the horn of that ram that on these Days of Awe we read so many references to the Akedah, and indeed why we read that story itself as a Haftara.
But it is not the shofar that is so important during these Days of Awe – what is important is its sound, its calls. In the biblical period we never read of Rosh haShanah – instead we read of Yom T’ru‘ah, a day of blowing an alarm. It is an alarm to tell us that it is time to remember our sins and to seek repentance for doing so many things we should not have done, and for not doing so many things that we should have done.
We have heard these calls for thousands of years. Two of them, t’ki‘ah, a blast, and t’ru‘ah, an alarm, are biblical; their combination with the triple sh’varim is Talmudic, and it was laid down in the Talmud that we should blow those three calls in the triple series that we all hear today, t’ki‘ah, sh’varim-t’ru‘ah, t’ki‘ah; t’ki‘ah, sh’varim, t’ki‘ah; and t’ki‘ah, t’ru‘ah, t’ki‘ah. Here all Israel is united in blowing the same calls in that first main group between the Torah service and Musaf. What we do after that first group of calls differs in different communities. So do the actual sounds that we blow, and the type of animal whose horn on which we blow them. So does when we blow them, and how often we do it; what we do during the month of Ellul also differs, and so does whether we blow or not on Hoshanah Rabbah, when the Gates of Repentance are slowly swinging shut, reminding us that this our final chance to return to God in repentance. But the calls themselves, there with that first group, unites the whole house of Israel.
We are united because it is there that all Israel stands together before God, preparing to address our sins and transgressions, preparing us once again to return ourselves to God on this day of Yom Kippur. It is today that we make our resolutions not to do it again, and to do what we should have been doing. And when Benjy blows that final blast in a few hours time, we hope that this time God may accept that we have meant it, even though we know, and He knows, that we are not likely to succeed. That is why next year we shall need to hear those calls again on next Yom T’ruah.
The calls are powerful – they affect us all, all of us in different ways. They are a summons, a summons to Judgement, and few of us can resist that summons, however temporarily, for it is on this day that we stand before God in Judgment with the book of life and the book of death open before Him. That Judgement swings between the terror of the Un’taneh toqef and the Thirteen Attributes of divine mercy. This is why as we blow those calls, and this is why, as we hear those calls, we feel again that those calls are coming to us once again from Sinai. As blowers, we feel that yet again we are just a channel and that the calls that we blow are coming, through us, directly from the Heavens.
This is why, just as when the priestly blessing comes to us directly from God, that we bow our heads, so as not to see God hovering over the Cohanim while they are reciting those words, and why we men cover our children with our tallit, and why women hold their children close to them. So, similarly in many communities, when the shofar sounds on Rosh haShanah, again we bow our heads so as not to see the shofar blower, and in some communities why we cover our children with our tallit, because year after year, once again, we are hearing those sounds that come directly from the Heavens.
May we all have a good year. Jeremy Montagu
Rosh Hashanah 1st Day 5777/2016
Ist Day Rosh Hashanah Address 5777/2016 by Sarah Goodman
According to the Mishnah, “On Rosh Hashanah all the inhabitants of the world pass before his presence like legions on review”. Today we see ourselves as standing before the throne of God, where the Book of Life lies open, and we hope to be inscribed in it.
Today’s service is the longest in the Jewish annual calendar. I want in this talk to unpick some of what the late Raphael Lowe called the “machinery of religion – liturgy, ceremonial, and their associated culture pattern”.
Whether we come to shul every week or twice a year, whether we pray daily or not at all, the synagogue service provides a structure and space, freed for an hour or two from daily cares, within which to contemplate big ideas: love, truth, life, death.
We sit with people pf all ages and many walks of life, blowing ram’s horns and singing of the or of the orders of angels; a magical juxtaposition of the prosaic and the spiritual, conducive to contemplation.
The musaph (additional service) of rosh Hashanah starts and ends in a familiar way. Inserted within it is the tripartite third century composition of Rab, with its section on Malkutioth – Kingship, Zikroniot – Remembering – and Shofarot – Trumpet calls. Each of the three sections recites ten proof texts of its theme, Biblical quotes. Our Bible is called Tanach – the word is an acronym for Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim – the five books of the law, the books of the prophets, and the other writings. For each of the three sections of the Musaph prayer there are three texts from Torah, three from the prophets, and three from the other writings – mostly from the psalms. The tenth in each section, within or just before the blessing, returns to Torah. There is a lot in these texts, and the message is complex, but cumulatively they tell us what the day is about: that God rules the whole earth, that nothing is forgotten or can be concealed from his eyes, that the trumpets sounded on Sinai, and will sound on the day of judgment.
As we repeat the musaph prayer as a congregation, between each of the three sections we sing “This is the day in which the world came into existence, and on this day all creatures of the world stand in judgment, either as children or as servants. If we are children, then have mercy on us as a father has compassion for his children, and if we are servants – we are hanging with our eyes on you, until you are gracious to us and bring forth our judgment into light”.
We don’t talk much about masters and servants these days. Except for civil servants, we are employers and employees, and even the self-employed, technically their own masters, must meet the exacting market demands of clients and customers and competitors. In current employment practice, most employees face in some degree the terrifying process of annual performance appraisal, when we are challenged to report our efforts and achievements in the past year, and then face a painful discussion with a manager of whether he or she agrees with our assessment, resulting in a mark that remains on the record and may lead to pay rise and bonus, or performance management and worse.
On Rosh Hashanah we are called to assess how our souls are doing, measured against the job description that is the Torah, for review by the Almighty who sees into our inmost hearts, better evidence of our shortcomings even than the CCTV, the dashcam, the phone records, and the incautious emails that show us up. When we face the Almighty, we live our lives on the open plan; in other areas of life we may be tempted to do what we can get away with – not here.
Uncertain whether we are being judged as employees or as children, and fearing it may be as employees, no wonder we hang on him with our eyes, breathlessly hoping not to be condemned, cautiously reminding him of the saving of Noah – that at a time when the Almighty was exasperated by the recalcitrance of mankind and planning to drown the lot, he remembered the righteous.
In the alternative to the stern impartiality of an all-seeing employer’s view, we hope to be treated as children. The scripture readings for Rosh Hashanah are about the love of women for children: Sarah laughing in joy and disbelief on learning she is to be a first time mother in old age, Hagar moving away from Ishmael, unable to watch him dying of thirst in the pitiless sun, Hannah praying so fervently for a child that she was rebuked for coming to the Temple drunk, in tomorrow’s haftarah, Rachel weeping for her children, and Ephraim being God’s dear child. Isaiah, in the haftarah for Rosh Chodesh, spoke of the Almighty comforting Israel as a mother comforting her children.
Then there is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a difficult story (and Clive this morning gave us one instructive insight) that might be read as about how Abraham, called by God from Ur, and with no tradition or teaching behind him, was trying to work out what kind of relationship they should have, and learned most painfully that it was not one involving child sacrifice.
We hope for a relationship with God in which he will show all the passion and commitment of a parent for children, the patience and forgiveness, but we are not sure if we can presume to rely on it.
Rosh Hashanah falls in the seventh month, Tishrei: we know that on the return from exile in Babylon the book of the law was read to the people on the first day of the seventh month by the scribe Ezra, who according to Nehemiah, “read distinctly and gave them the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” When they heard it they wept: perhaps they recognised how very far they fell short. They were reassured: to rejoice that the day was holy and that they understood the commandments.
Earlier in the Amidah prayer, looking forward to the end of days, when the upright shall be glad and the righteous exult in song, it is of note that we do not go on to pray for the destruction of the wicked, but that “all wickedness shall vanish in smoke”, the point being that we should hate the sin and not the sinner, a distinction made, by tradition, by Bruriah, the wife of rabbi Meir. Parents above all know how important it is that children do not come to believe that they are naughty, but that what they did was naughty, or they will never believe that they are capable of better. We hope that our many shortcomings are treated by Him as a parent - one who wants us to live, and do better.
We are judged every day, and the wise reflect on this each day. For now we are called by the shofar - that raw and primitive noise, a call to arms, signal of attack and of last things - to start ten days of asking ourselves how we will be remembered, how we would write our own obituaries; to think if we have fences to mend with other people as well as the almighty, and to ask them and Him for forgiveness. In the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Rosh Hashanah 2nd Day 5777/2016
2nd Day Rosh Hashanah Address 5777/2016 by Sara Yael Hirschhorn
-Thank you to the “fearless leaders” President Jonathan Bard, Clive Lawton, OJC Committee, and everyone else who makes High Holy Day Services possible and memorable. This does not happen on its own and I’d like us to take a moment to recognize these efforts.
-I am so honored and grateful to be asked to address the congregation today, especially as a little more than 3 years ago, this bewildered Yankee showed up in Oxford during the “Yomim Noraim” —
When I moved here in 2013, it was my 3rd trip to the UK — I had been here once on family holiday when I was 12 (schlepped around to the Tower of London and other tourist sites), a second time for my job interview at the university, and then finally, a third trip to take up my post at the university.
I really knew nobody in and nothing about Oxford and its Jewish community and the OJC welcomed me so warmly. Our congregation has done so much for myself — and many others — in helping make Oxford our homes and include us within the ranks of the synagogue and communal life.
I wanted to relate this idea to the themes of our Torah and Haftorah portions during Rosh Hashanah —
Yesterday, we read about Abraham and Sara, who were blessed with a child late in their marriage — meanwhile, Abraham — at Sarah’s urging (and let’s keep this in mind!) had taken Hagar, who bore Ishmael, both of whom were thrown out by our matriarch and my namesake Sara after Issac was born. Today, we read of the near-sacrifice of this beloved son and true tests of faith by both parent and child.
Similarly, the Haftorah readings have told us of another couple, Elkanah and his wife Hannah, who also have a child, Samuel, late in their marriage and must undergo trials and tribulations as part of the story of the Jewish people — which is also the theme of today’s Haftorah reading.
The situations we have in these biblical stories is surely familiar to us moderns: dysfunctional families, blended families, childlessness, near death experiences, physical and mental disabilities, difficulties of everyday life as well as traumas of the spirit. Our matriarchs and patriarchs also knew the human emotions that so many of us have also experienced: jealousy, fear, grief, bitterness, pain, as well as joy, serendipity, and fulfillment.
Sometimes, to manage these situations and emotions, are forefathers and mothers also chose strategies that I think would resonate with us in defining — and even policing — the boundaries of who belongs in our homes, our communities, our countries, and our ways of thinking.
Yesterday, we read of how Sara’s open marriage — and perhaps open heart — closed when her child was born. Whether from resentment or a desire to protect Issac, Hagar and Ishmael were banished from their home and nearly left to die in the desert as refugees from Abraham’s tent. Curiously, God both allows Abraham to send them into the wilderness, but also saves them from death.
In the Haftorah as well, we read of Eli’s suspicion about Hannah’s extreme emotional distress, nearly threatening to chuck her out of the synagogue as a drunk until he understands it is not alcohol but unanswered prayers that bring her to his doorstep.
Today, we read of another kind of story involving community — Abraham, following what he believes to be God’s will, takes their son Isaac from the family home (leaving Sarah behind, who will die of grief) into the mountains to sacrifice him — only the intervention of an angel — a stranger from outside Abraham’s physical and emotional world — stays his hand from slaughtering his child.
In each of these stories, the real and often confusing power of human dramas have even brought out forefathers to question whether they or others belong within the “big tent”.
What these readings suggest to me is that our sages were well aware of the fact that life is messy, complicated, emotional, and fraught — and that Jewish individuals and communities don’t always fit nicely into the “boxes” of traditional families and life. However, these texts also suggest we also struggle to know what to do with fellows Jews — and sometimes those of other faiths - who seem different than us, who may be undergoing extraordinary circumstances, who don’t fit the mold of previous generation, or who may have special needs or desires to be accommodated.
In today’s world, we may not have to figure out what to do about our live-in concubines (or well, most of us don’t anyway — if that’s your family situation, that’s between you and your Maker on Yom Kippur, I was just asked to give the Rosh Hashanah address!) or are called upon to place their child on an altar on a hilltop, but surely either our lives — or those of people we know — have been touched by some of the same dramas: not having a “normal” family because we are unmarried, childless, divorced, widowed, estranged, or are trying to create a new blended family. Many of us have made epic sacrifices for our children or parents or other loved ones, often only known to those closest to them or to God. We may suffer from physical or mental illness or care for someone who does. We may have overcome both common problems and near-death experiences — and many of us will surely know many kinds of loss in our lives at some point or the other. And sadly, many of us will know that because of these situations, we may have felt — intentionally or unintentionally — excluded from our Jewish community.
What I have found in my 3 years here is that the OJC has been a incredibly warm and welcoming place that has embraced all types of Jews — even the Yankees!
I encourage our community to continue to be place and space where all feel included and utilized. That we continue to be a place that embraces the very modern realities of Jewish life and those who are living it, while preserving our ancient traditions. That we also be a “big tent” that looks both inward and outward — that we care for those within it and open our doors to those outside it — whether by continuing to reach out to those of our faith and maintain ties of those of other faiths and recognizing broader social issues which our Jewish teachings can inform. One of the poignant lines of the liturgy is that the Lord listens to those “knocking softly on the gates of heaven” and I hope we too can do this.
Last but not least, I ask, in the name of my rebbe, John F. Kennedy, each individual sitting here today to “ask not what your shul can do for you, but what you can do for your shul” — we each come from different walks of life, with certain strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully we can find a way to contribute, each to our own abilities and talents.
I wish us all a year of blessing and many simachot to celebrate with the OJC community —
Shanah Tovah U’Metukah!, Sara Hirschhorn
Yom Kippur Address 5776
Yom Kippur Address Oxford 5776/2015 by Wendy Fidler
Yom Kippur, a day of reckoning. The day of taking stock of what has happened in our lives over the last year. What have we done that has been good; what have we done that has been less than good; and what have we done that has been bad. Student or professor; zero hours contract or captain of industry; Care worker or consultant. We all stand before God in what we have done, or failed to do. Weare allthe same, each one of us moulded by God in His image, yet each different and unique.
Some of our actions are specific many are intangible. How tolerant or how caring have we been? How altruistic or how self-engrossed. How compassionate and understanding have we been; or do we have a closed mind to those who are not the same as we are. Orthodox and Liberal; Sunni and Shia; Anglican and Roman Catholic; Christians and Jews
It won’t come as any surprise that my subject of choice this morning is ‘interfaith’. To set the scene, I begin with a personal memory from my childhood. I was born during the war and brought up in a traditionally orthodox family in Manchester in the 1940s and 50s, surrounded by non-Jewish neighbours. Wash day in our house followed Shabbat and every Sunday we all had to change the sheets on our own beds for my mother to begin the washing. However, despite Manchester rain and before tumble dryers, and even on a rare dry Sunday, my mother would never hang out the washing in the garden. When questioned about this, her immediate response was to say, ‘We live with our Christian next door neighbours. We must always show respect to them and to the faith of the majority of the people around us. To hang out the washing would not do this and we, as Jews must remember that all faiths are of equal validity, worth and importance and thus must be respected.’
Thereby began my first lesson in interfaith at about aged 5!
The word ‘Interfaith’ covers a huge spectrum of thoughts and ideas and it is about some of these I want to talk this morning.
We are all accustomed to hearing that today we live in a diverse, multi-cultural society. But today it is this multi-cultural society which is creating tensions. Society is fragmented and there is religious, political, social, ethnic, racial and national dissonance all around us.
Internationally there is little doubt that the scourge of hatred, intolerance and oppression remains the most urgent global challenge of our time. Extremism is gaining credence and the upper hand. To combat these issues we need those people with a balanced belief in all the Abrahamic faiths to promote their moderate beliefs. This means that people of different religions need to live with each other with tolerance and understanding; knowledge without prejudice.
But it is not enough just to hear or to mouth these words; we must understand what this means. We must consider how. And this is where interfaith work comes in. It is imperative we put diversity on a more meaningful level if we want to be able to live together. We need to live and interact with the Others, not just live side by side in parallel
And that means we must engage with the Other and establish relationships of trust. The only way to do this is through dialogue. Fundamental differences do exist between our beliefs which can never, nor ever should be reconciled, but an understanding of the Other will enable people to live together with mutual respect.
All I’ve said so far affirms and demands respect between Jews and Christians, between those of all other faiths and none. This I firmly believe, but I am aware that all people, including Christians, Muslims and Jews, should practice what they preach in all, rather than in selected contexts. We therefore need to consider intra-faith respect, in our case respect between Jew and Jew.
When Judaism entered the modern world at the beginning of the 19th Century, one of the things that we imbibed from Christianity was denominations. For the best part of 200 years we have livedwith Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Modern-Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Liberal/Progressive Jews. Spoken in that usual order, we think of it as a simple spectrum from right to left. We tend to categorise the groupings by levels of ‘traditional observance’ rather than theology or ethics. We are often guilty of the sin of regarding anyone more observant than us as being obsessive and anyone less observant being scarcely Jewish at all. The right pointer on the spectrum is exactly where we sit. It is not a very attractive attribute. In a small community like the British Jewish community, it is wasteful and destructive. It is often about issues of power, authority and perceived ‘rightness’, the very same attributes which poison interfaith relationships. We in Oxford are privileged not to live in a separated Jewish environment. Here a Jew is a Jew irrespective of affiliation or none. We have a lot to be thankful for in our own Jewish lives but we need to be continuously aware that our community is unique, achieved as Miriam Shire mentioned last year in her address, because we want it to work and we are all prepared to offer respect and interact with all the OJC members. Sadly, in many communities outside Oxford, the situation has become worse not better since the rise of global fundamentalism in the 1960s, when Jews became polarised by difference rather than being brought together through a common heritage.
As a follow-on from this, since all humanity is made in the image of God, one could ask should respect be given equally to all human beings, and should that respect be given unconditionally and non-judgmentally? Can there even be respect if it has conditions attached? Am I obliged to respect everyone and everything they do? For example, a man who is so committed to his faith that he hijacks a passenger plane and flies it into a sky scraper, or, the brutality of the Islamic State. The very first sentence in Jonathan Sacks’ most recent book ‘Not in God’s Name’ is ‘when religion turns men into murderers, God weeps’.
Until the second half of the 20th Century there was little or no formalised interaction and dialogue between faiths in Britain. The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) which, as the UK’s oldest national interfaith organisation, was established during the dark days of World War Two in 1942, took the first steps on the tortuous road to establishing relationships between Christianity and Judaism. There is little doubt that the foundation of CCJ wasprompted by the growing recognition of the Jewish catastrophe in Europe but that in no way detracts from the courage and vision of the then Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz.
The circumstances in which CCJ was founded, the Shoah, influenced its terms of reference and created the agenda to combat antisemitism that has persisted for many years. Jews wanted to call the Church to account for its anti-Judaism and the consequences which flowed from that; Some Jews found the courage to enlist the help of our sibling religion, Christianity, to ensure that the horrendous events of the Shoah are never repeated. Some Christians wanted to expose the anti-Judaism and antisemitism endemic in the Church and cleanse it. Yet even such an ‘untheological’ agenda was a ‘risky activity’. Any attempt at reconciliation could expose Jews to Christian mission and to the danger, and possibly the disrespect that posed.
Some of us have thought that now in the twenty-first century, having responded to centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and the catastrophes of the 20th century our job should have been accomplished. But the roots of estrangement and the pain of the past are so deep that they will take far longer and far wider engagement than anyone could have envisaged. The situation has, sadly, been greatly exacerbated by events in the Middle East, particularly since 1967. Whatever view one takes of the policies of particular Israeli Governments, the situation is alarming, and sadly Jews are not guilt-free. Since 2012 there have been several attacks on Christian religious sites by Israeli Jews. Most recently in the Gallil a 5th century church was attacked twice, the first time occurred when a service was in progress and a fire was started, people were hurt in the attack. These attacks are justified by those Jews who participated, on the grounds that Christianity is not a monotheistic faith but is idolatrous, made so because of the Trinity, and therefore an abomination. Do you hear any similarity here between the destruction of Temples in Palmyra? Or synagogues full of Jews being set alight in the last war? Fortunately, The Elijah Interfaith Institute, headed by three well-known Israeli Rabbis (David Rosen, Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Michael Melchior), have spear-headed a project called Restoring Friendship which includes a fund raising drive in order to not only restore friendship but also restore the burnt Church in Tabgha, the Christian site of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. One wonders what happened to the Talmudic injunction of ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend’.
How did all this angst happen especially between the three monotheistic faiths. Jonathan Sacks explains that the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has, historically been a poisoned one. Each initially assumed the others would disappear. Their members would either convert or acknowledge the primacy of the new faith. Christians expected Jews would become Christian because the founder of their faith was a Jew. Muslims expected that both Jews and Christians would become Muslim because their faith incorporated Abraham, Moses, Jesus and elements of their teachings. Some converted but most did not. Jews remained Jews; Christians remained Christian and Muslims remained Muslim. The result is that each was challenged by the existence of the other. Does this matter? For most of the time, no, as all three have lived peacefully together, but when they don’t, yes, o yes this matters a lot. And this is why interfaith is not optional. It is vital.
When Jews, Christians and Muslims do come together, develop a relationship of trust in each other, we face one another in our full humanity. In the case of Judaism and Christianity it took the Holocaust for this to happen. The result has been dramatic. Today after the estrangement that lasted almost two millennia, Jews and Christians meet much more together as friends rather than enemies. Sadly there is still much work to do, and it seems that in each decade there is a need for all the interactions to begin all over again, but society would gain so much if we felt able to move beyond the fear or just the dismissal of the Other.
On the practical level what can we do? There is a need for religious literacy in schools. Many OJC members contribute enormously towards this aim. Sarah Montagu organises our band of people who go into schools to talk about Judaism and we have contact with well over 3000 pupils and adults each year.
We need to ask if 'religion' needs to have well defined borders in schools and synagogues or be taught as a porous subject which goes into every aspect of life, as so often we are talking to pupils who know very very little about Christianity, the faith of their own country. Interaction though should not be restricted to schools or interfaith organisations but go beyond these boundaries out into society.
At a personal level, I am fascinated by people and interested in everyone. All people have a ‘story’ worth listening to. People matter in this world; All people matter. There is a desperate need for each group of people to understand the culture, the power and the ethnicity of the ‘Others’. One can ask ‘why’? Don’t we have enough trouble or tsorros just being Jewish? Dayenu. I believe that isn’t enough. We HAVE to involve ourselves with the others because today it is intolerance, prejudice and ignorance that is tearing at the fabric of our society; That is creating the tragedy of the migrants whilst the world, and particularly the UK turns a blinds eye. In order to combat this we MUST get to know them and they must know us. It is not religion or faith per se that causes conflict. It is the abuse of religion. This abuse then becomes a mask behind which those bent on death and destruction can, all too often hide. I firmly believe that it is interfaith involvement, interfaith work, interaction with the Other and getting to know, understand and trust those of other beliefs and practices and none, that is the only way we have to achieve a solution to ensure there is greater tolerance and understanding and reduce the blind aggressive prejudice which seems to flourish today. Of prejudice Albert Einstein has said, ‘It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom’. A pity this sentiment is still relevant today.
I hope that working with CCJ in this field has made me a better person than I might otherwise have turned out to be. The attitudes of the Others are humbling. We need to respect who we are and show this same respect to others.
I close with the ultimate conundrum. We are made in the image of God, yet everyone living on the globe is different. Can we focus on what joins us as people, rather than obsessing on our different beliefs. Peace only comes when we are comfortable with ourselves, our neighbours and beliefs.