North Western Reform Synagogue
London, NW11 7EN
Tel: 020 8455 6763
Fax: 020 8731 8175
Find UsEnter your post code here to receive directions to the shul.
|Sermon - On wearing a Kittel, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772|
There are two comments that I can guarantee to hear at least once every High Holy Days.
At least once, probably more often, someone on security duty will say as I walk in:
The other guaranteed comment is that someone, at some point, will say to me something like: “Gosh Rabbi Josh, I didn’t expect to see you in a nightie!”
Now, the garment I wear on the Yamim Noraim is, of course, not a nightie. It is a kittel – a death-shroud. My one, I acknowledge, is a particularly frilly kittel. But it is also, quite possibly, the garment that I will one day be buried in.
The exact origin of the association of white and the High Holy Days is unclear, but its symbolism is striking. By asking us to change clothes, it marks out this period as different from the rest of the year. The changing of clothes itself symbolises a change in status and in atmosphere. Look at our Bimah this evening and you know that we are doing something different to that which we do on a normal Shabbat morning.
And whiteness, as every washing powder salesman knows, is itself symbolically important. Whiteness is cleanness. To wear white is a physical symbol of our quest for spiritual purity. Most often the tradition of wearing white at this time is associated with a verse from Isaiah 1, where white is explicitly understood as a metaphor for cleanliness from sin: “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.” In wearing white we express our aspiration for this sort of transformation.
Of course, wearing a kittel is not the only way to express these connections.
And this difference carries its own powerful symbolism for us as a community.
These three whites also set some parameters in which this can happen – set some boundaries for legitimate difference.
Each of our choices is one that is made with honour and reverence to our religious and cultural inheritance. None is rejectionist – no red ties or shirts, nor real nighties; no white Elvis suits – our clothes do not dismiss the practices and associations of the past as superstitious mumbo jumbo, but honour the traditions we have as powerful and symbolic.
Each choice expresses commitment, too, to our community – to our shared priorities and values. The ark wears white, the Torah scrolls wear white mantles – and the three rabbis of Alyth wear white also. But this is not mere conforming, not mere appearance, but a deep and abiding respect for the concept of community.
And, at the same time, each choice is one that is made with integrity, also reflecting our own personalities and needs at this moment – recognising that the quality of our Jewish experience is important. Obedience or appearance is not enough – Judaism has to be done in a way that reflects, and enhances the experience of, the individual doing it.
I don’t want to force the point, but in the context of Jewish history something extraordinary happens here – three different but legitimate ways of expressing the same value, the same ideal, coexisting on one bimah, because three different people sit on this bimah. And as the people change, so will the forms of expression.
This is not a nightie, but a kittel.
It is an awesome possibility – That there are not merely three but three thousand ways to live that Jewish life with integrity and meaning. I am grateful indeed that security still choose to let me in.
|< Prev||Next >|