Sermon: Is voting Kiddush ha Shem?- Emor 2010

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 6 May 2010

Chananiah ben Teradion, Chutzpit the Interpreter, Elazar Ben Shamua, Chaina ben Chahinai, Yeshevav the Scribe, Yehudah Ben Damah.  Names to strike fear into the person who each year has the Mitzvah of reading them out each Yom Kippur during the Additional Service, or Eleh Ezkerah in Days of Awe, our High Holydays Machzor.

Actually they are not the most complicated set of names read in our services each year – far more challenging are the names in the Meggilat Esther read every Purim – names as tricky to pronounce as Parshandatha, Adalai, Vaizatha and Aspatha four of the ten sons of Haman who are mentioned in Chapter 9 in the Book of Esther – The two lists of names are connected in one terrible way – they are being read out because all of the people mentioned met their death by execution.  But whilst the death of Haman’s sons is seen by some as just recompense for their treachery, the death of the six teachers of Torah in the Yom Kippur service is commemorated because of their martyrdom – they are called to mind because they were members of a distinguished but horrendous chain of martyrdom which has accompanied the history of Judaism right up to the present day.

Martyrdom in Judaism is known by a surprising phrase given the evil which has caused it to be necessary – Kiddush ha shem (the sanctification of God’s name) – and this term is derived from one of the verses of our Torah portion this Shabbat, Emor – the portion which deals with a number of aspect of sanctification – the holiness of the priests, the holiness of the festival days, the holiness of the place in which they were celebrated.  The portion however also includes the momentous verse – “You must not profane My holy name so that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people – I am the Eternal One who sanctifies you. (Lev 22:32)”  As the festivals and Shabbatot of the Jewish year aim to sanctify God in time and the priests aimed to sanctify God in their ritual so should  our actions aim to sanctify God in deed.  The Rabbis reasoned that there was no clearer way of showing how special and holy God was to you than to die for your religion hence the word for this ultimate deed became Kiddush Ha Shem – the sanctification of God’s name.  I must of course remind you in these troubled times that at no point has mainstream Judaism seen it as acceptable for a person to seek martyrdom – and so in Judaism a person who committed homicide by killing civilians and blowing themselves up in the process would not be called a martyr but rather a murderer.

I said that Jewish martyrdom – Kiddush ha Shem has continued up until the present day – there are for example many many instances in the Shoah, the Holocaust, of people who laid down their lives for their right to continue to practice their Judaism – or simply because they were considered Jewish by the Nazis.  In our service for Yom Ha Shoah our memorial prayer – El Male Rachamim – said directly that the victims of the Shoah died for Kiddush Ha Shem.  But thank God, it is inconceivable that we here today will ever be required to make that choice.  Does that then mean that Kiddush ha Shem – the sanctification of God’s name – is something that we cannot do unless we are forced into it by oppressors and persecutors?

Not at all – it is something that we could do every day – Some Jews attempt to sanctify God’s name by using it in all of their daily correspondence.  You may have seen at the top of Bar Mitzvah invitations printed by Orthodox printers and at the top of letters written by observant Jews the letters Bet and Heh separated by what look like quotation marks.  These letters stand for the Hebrew words B’ezrat HaShem – with the help of the holy Name.  Those who use this convention are suggesting that God is intimately bound up in every action which they take.  Whatever they do is in some small way in the pursuit of the Sanctification of God’s name – which is why I do not use the Bet heh at the top of all of my letters because I feel that I cannot be sure that God smiles on all of my activities!

Even the Israeli singer Dana International the last Israeli winner of the Eurovision song contest performed a minor act of Kiddush Ha Shem when, as she was quoted in the Jewish Chronicle she said that she felt that “I knew God was with me.  This is the proof that we are all equal in God’s eyes.”  By bringing God into such a major achievement into her life she brought people’s attention to the encouragement that a Jewish religious outlook can give to us.

As unlikely, thank God, that it is that we will find ourselves in a position where martyrdom is the only honourable option , so it is unlikely that any of us will win the Eurovision song contest.  Yet we do not need to make statements before the whole public or the whole Jewish people to succeed in sanctifying God’s name, to do Kiddush Ha Shem.  We can do so in very many aspects of our daily life.

How so?  In the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 86a) there features a discussion of what constitutes kiddush ha shem which ends with these words “You [as a Jew] should cause God to be loved through your acts.  So if a person studies Judaism and is honest in his business dealings and speaks gently to people, what do people say about him?  “Happy are the parents who taught him Torah.  Happy is the teacher who taught him Torah.  This person studied Torah and see how noble his ways are, how good his actions.”  But when a person studies Judaism but is dishonest in business and is rude and abusive to people, what do people say of him? “Woe unto him who studies Torah … this man studied Torah ; look how corrupt  are his deeds, how ugly his ways.”

It is profanation of God’s name – almost blasphemy – to do your duty by studying Judaism and then go out and be bad to other people in business or simply in  your social relations – but it is sanctification of Gods name – Kiddush ha Shem to be guided by your Jewish religion and learning to be honest and upright and pleasant to the people whom you encounter.

Another interpretation of the meaning of Kiddush Ha Shem, in the days when Jews lived under constant threat of massacre, during the crusades was provided by Rabbi Moshe of Courcy in France.  You might have thought during those troubled times that no further demands should be put on Jews than just to keep to their faith but Rabbi Moshe was still able to maintain that Jews must sanctify God’s name by their own good behaviour.  Martyrdom would only be the most extreme example.  He wrote:  “Jews must … not lie to a Jew or non-Jew, and not mislead anyone in any matter… For if Jews cheat non-Jews, they will say, “Look how God chose for His people a nation of thieves and deceivers” … Indeed God dispersed us among the nations so that we could gather converts to Judaism, but if we behave deceitfully towards others who will want to join us?” (Semag 152b q in Telushkin p 318-319).

In our day it is not only how we behave as Jews that is at issue if we wish to sanctify God’s name.  In our society we are not always recognisable as Jews and I would therefore add to the hierarchy of Kiddush Ha Shem the desirability of making it clear that we are proud to be who we are.  We have several ways we can do this – one of the most simple, direct and indeed one which is explicitly commanded in the Torah is to be confident enough of our own identity and our wish to bear witness to God in the Jewish way – by emblazoning on the outside doorpost of our houses the Mezuzah.  I am often surprised when I visit homes in our community and there is no Mezuzah outside – the people inside the houses are by no means ashamed of their Judaism and there is no doubt for me that their Judaism is encouraging them to lead good lives – why do they not wish to tell their neighbours who they are?

Then there is at work and at college and school.  For example, what should a person do if they have just started at a new college or a new employer when Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur comes around.  To me it seems obvious – it is Kiddush ha Shem – the sanctification of God’s name to come clean immediately and make it clear that you are a Jew and will always need these special days off.  Is it far off Hilul Ha Shem – the profanation of God name – either not to reveal your Jewish identity or to make it appear to your employer or tutors that your Judaism means too little to you to absent yourself on those days – that may not be the way you feel it but surely that is how it looks to others.

I believe that there is a further Kiddush ha Shem that we can do – and that takes place on May 6th this coming week.  That is voting – and doing so in a way which gives political expression to our religious values.   Rabbi Jonathan Romain notes that one of Hillel’s first principles of Judaism is that we must never separate ourselves from the community around us and that where there are no people of visionary courage each Jew must try to fulfil that role themselves (Avot 2:5-6).   The prophet Amos says that God needs us to work with Him to “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an everlasting stream” (Amos 5:24) – this means that we should be seeking to vote for the party which we feel will best protect vulnerable groups in society, enable Israel to thrive and come ever closer to peace with her neighbours, uphold human rights, respond to the needs of the stranger, work for peace and build a society where everyone can reach their best potential – as is the Jewish mission in this world.

As we began our hustings here at Alyth ten days ago and as I was able to say last week on Radio 4, involvement in politics for the sake of God’s name has been mandated for Jews ever since the days that the prophet Jeremiah said “Pray to God for the peace of city within which you live for in its peace you will find your peace.”  (Jer 29:7)  Political apathy is not an option for Jew who wants to do Kiddush ha Shem – whoever you vote for!