Yom Kippur 2019, Ed Kessler

A Rabbi loved golf so much that one occasion, on Yom Kippur, he left the house early and went out for a quick round by himself, thinking no-one in the community would notice. An angel who happened to be looking on immediately notified God that a grievous sin was being committed. God caused a mighty wind to take the ball directly from the tee to the cup – a miraculous shot. The angel was horrified. “A hole in one!” he exclaimed, “You call this a punishment, Lord?!” God answered with a smile, “So who can he tell?”

More seriously, I’d like to begin by quoting a letter I received from a member of the public:

‘We are standing at a crossroads. What kind of society do we want? Will we be tribal and separate from one another, or an integrated, inclusive, welcoming society?…The crucial questions facing religion today are not points of detail but matters of fundamental attitude – in particular, how do we get on peaceably together and how do we live with difference?’

The questions raised by my correspondent is the theme of this sermon.

A Progressive Jewish vision is of a society at ease with itself, in which individuals, groups and communities feel at home, and in whose flourishing all wish to take part. In such a society all feel a part of an ongoing national story, are treated equally by the law, know that their culture and religion are part of a process of mutual enrichment and, it must be said, a society that is able to respond cohesively to the challenges and threats it may face.

I recognise this vision is not free of obscurity or ambiguity. There could be, you suspect, some devils in the detail. For example, what does it mean today to be British or European; Progressive or Orthodox? These categories are neither fixed nor final.

In the past, society and its citizens were understood very differently.

In 1756 Voltaire, self-proclaimed defender of liberty, published a virulently antisemitic essay. Jews, he said, contributed nothing to civilisation: no art, no science, no philosophy, no original thought, not even in religion. “In short,” he concluded, “we find in them only an ignorant and barbarous people.”

Within two centuries after those words were written, Jews had produced a stream of geniuses who transformed the very foundations of Western thought: in physics Einstein, in sociology Durkheim, in philosophy, Wittgenstein, in anthropology Levi-Strauss, in psychiatry Freud; Marx and Disraeli in politics, Mahler and Dylan in music; Kernoff and Chagall in art; Proust and Kafka in literature.

A mere fifth of one per cent of the world’s population, Jews have produced 20% of the 900 or so Nobel prize winners since the first 5 awards were established in 1895.

It is quite an achievement.

Yet, this is an achievement tinged with sadness. Many of these figures either renounced Judaism or, like Disraeli, Marx, Proust, and Wittgenstein, came from families that had done so. It was inevitable. In 19th century Europe, there were simply too many doors closed to Jews. Heinrich Heine called baptism his “entrance-ticket to European culture”.

Many Jews in the age of antisemitism were in effect secular Marranos. They hid their identity. They were highly conflicted individuals, and they sought, through their work, to overcome that conflict.

The paradigm is Spinoza, the first modern Jew. Spinoza, came from a family of Marranos, leaving them doubly alienated. They were regarded with suspicion by Christians because they were ethnically Jewish, and with disdain by Jews because they had abandoned Judaism.

It is not surprising that they or their children said: a plague on both your houses, and sought a world in which there were neither Jews nor Christians, but just people. Only in such a world could they be free.

Some became the kind of atheist who, with an almost religious fervour, sought to create a world in which there is no religion at all. These Jews, or ex-Jews, most notably Marx, Freud, and Spinoza himself sought a world purged of religion where people could be free to be not this or that – but simply…to be.

Yet, it didn’t happen. That was the tragedy of European antisemitism when Jews were the very embodiment of being ‘other’. Their religion was different; so were their customs, culture, their very way of thinking. The more Jews tried to be like everyone else, the more different they appeared, because if you really are like everyone else, you don’t have to try.

Before I compare this to the challenges facing us today…

On Yom Kippur many years ago, a rabbi noticed a child staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. The plaque was covered with names. He had been staring at the plaque for some time, when the rabbi walked up, stood behind him and said quietly, “Good morning.” Good morning, rabbi,” he replied, still focused on the plaque. “What is this?” he asked. “Well, it’s a memorial to all the men and women who have died in the service.” Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. The boy’s voice was barely audible when he finally managed to ask, “Which one, rabbi, the morning (shach’rit) or evening (musaf) service?”

Society today is exhibiting levels of intolerance, including antisemitism and islamophobia, not seen for a generation. But in our day we must respond by thinking and acting as Jews. It is not that we have the right to do so but the duty to do so. A world in which to gain a hearing you have to pretend to be other than you are, is intellectually and morally unacceptable.

Rather than reject our heritage as did some of our predecessors, we must recognise our inheritance. For some, especially here in Cambridge, Jewish identity is predicated on education and scholarship. Study, said the sages, is higher even than prayer. The seats of honour in the ancient synagogues were reserved not for the powerful but for the learned.

For others, Judaism is lived out through advocacy, the pursuit of social justice, which the rabbis described as tikkun olam, the healing of the world. The Jewish task, they say, is to plea for the vulnerable, rebel on behalf the environment and , as this synagogue does, provide a home for the homeless.

But I’d like to focus on a third aspect of the Jewish way of life by turning to Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Job for guidance in answering my correspondent’s questions and responding to the intemperance of our day.

What do they have in in common? They all argued with God.

Socrates was sentenced to death by the citizens of Athens for doing what every Jewish parent regards it as his or her duty to do: teach the young to ask questions. Could any civilisation, other than Jewish, have coined the phrase, “arguments for the sake of heaven”?

My point though, is not just to endorse argument for the sake of argument. My point is that argument is central to human life, the very structure of human thought. And in the Kessler household at least, the standard form of a response to anything.

Argument is good news in a world fractured by abrasiveness and aggressiveness. It is one way to delegitimise the present lethal combination of religious fundamentalism, nationalistic chauvinism and political demagoguery. How? Because arguing genuinely means being open to different points of view.

If a few more of us were willing to stand up and argue, we’d be better able to withstand the dogmatists and fundamentalists growling in their twitter feed. There aren’t that many of them – they just happen to be loud. You know the type: people who have the unshakeable conviction that in their sacred text, or in the economic theories of communism or capitalism, in the political ideologies of Europhiles and Eurosceptics, they possess the whole truth and nothing but the truth, with the reassuring consequence that their side is always right and the opposing argument invariably (and inevitably) wrong.

Yet, when you read Jewish commentaries you’ll notice there’s a different type of argument going on. Whether it’s the biblical commentators or Talmudic interpreters, what you read is an argument about what the text means. And, in the surrounding small print there are arguments about arguments about arguments. If I were to describe the literature of Judaism, it would be an anthology of arguments.

Arguments, that is, for the sake of heaven.
Hold on – you might ask – isn’t there intemperance and polarisation in Judaism and hasn’t confrontation grown in the religious sphere as much as anywhere else?

Yes, you’re right – aggressive religious nationalism is growing. In the assertive Hinduism of India and the consequent marginalisation of Indian Muslims and Christians; in the shrill Christian nationalism of central and Eastern Europe and the consequent growth of Islamaphobia and antisemitism; among those Muslim radicals who express hatred of Christians and Jews.

And – and let us confess on this Day of Atonement – the threats posed by religious Jewish extremists, especially in Israel, who spew anti-Islamic and anti-Christian teaching as well as denigrate Palestinians.

These hardliners are convinced that they possess the truth while you’re sunk in error; they may try to persuade you, but if you refuse to be persuaded, they may compel or even conquer you, imposing their view by force in the name of religious truth or political ideology. They are locked in a deadly combat with their opponents, convinced they are wholly right and that the other is not merely wrong but villainous and must be ignominiously defeated.

This thinking leads to the mindset of, “I’m right; you’re wrong; go to hell.”

But, supposing individuals see things differently, passionately so, and have different perspectives on reality. Is that it? What can we do under those circumstances? Is there a different approach to megaphone monologue? Well, we can talk. We can converse and yes, we can argue. You can tell me how the world looks to you. I can tell you how the world looks to me. We can have a genuine argument, a dialogue if you like. We can, through that argument understand different views, bridge the distance between our two perspectives and see the world for it is: an irreducible multiplicity of perspectives.

Here I must confess that I am no expert on many of the problems presently plaguing our society. Unlike many of my fellow citizens, I have no idea who or what is most to blame and I have no solution to propose. But I do know one or two things.

I know that if you see everything in terms of two dimensions, it is either true or it is false. That there can only be one perspective! But this is what I reject. There is always more than one perspective. This means, in other words, we need to do justice to the fact that there is more than one point of view; yes, more than one truth.

For Judaism to hold to its own principles, it must be open to other wisdoms in the world. Our challenge is to think, speak and act, not as secular Marranos, but as Jews. In the past, Jews felt the need to distance themselves from Judaism. That is true no longer. The time is right for a deep, far-reaching conversation between different world views, to foster a new generation, who will influence the world by engaging with the world; to restore the Jewish voice to the conversation of humankind; to play music above the noise.

One final word: whilst we can know and learn from the past, human life is lived towards the future, which means facing the unknown. As the saying goes, perhaps one of greatest kindnesses of God is that He doesn’t let us know in advance what we are letting ourselves in for.

I have learnt over many years, from family and friends, students and colleagues, doubters and yes, even my opponents, that we must face the future together. And without that togetherness I very much doubt we could have achieved what we have and more importantly, what we might yet set out to do.

How to live peaceably together, as my correspondent asked in his letter, becomes possible when everyone who crosses the Jewish threshold builds a world; acquires a human face; reflects and acts on what life’s most basic concepts mean; and most of all, realises that we are together on a journey across an unknown with nothing to protect you or me, except one another. It may not be much…but it is everything.

Kein yehi ratzon. May this be God’s will. Amen.