Sermon: It is to do with us, Kol Nidre 5774

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 September 2013

This is not a sermon about Syria.

I am not a policy maker; I am a Rabbi.
And the pulpit is not – I believe – for policy, but for principle.
It is neither my job, nor my inclination to advocate one course of action or another.
So this is not a sermon about Syria.
But it is a sermon about one voice in the debate about Syria.  It’s a voice that is getting louder in the public debate of our nation.
A voice that can be heard in our parliament, in US Congress, in TV vox-pops from the “man-on-the-street”; an opinion found repeatedly in those awful comments at the foot of every website article about the situation.

It is the voice that says “it’s not our problem”.
It is the voice that says “we have no concern for what is happening over there – so many miles away; no obligations to another country’s people”.
It is the voice that claims an exemption from responsibility.
And it is not a Jewish voice.

Ours is a religion of obligation – of taking responsibility.  It is in the very essence of Jewish ethics, of Jewish law that we are duty-bound; that we do not say – “this is nothing to do with us”.
From a large scale responsibility for what happens in the world, down through our relationship with each other in community, to the way we think about and treat ourselves – we are, as Jews, obligated.

Let’s begin on the widest scale with that voice about Syria.  What might Jewish responsibility entail?

Over the last year, a number of Alyth members have joined our member, human rights lawyer Danny Friedman, and me, to study the ethics of war in Jewish and international law.  One of the Jewish concepts we have come across is that of the rodef – or pursuer.  Mark mentioned it in passing in his sermon on inspiration last week.  And it is inspirational – challenging, but inspiring.  From a passage on the legitimacy of self-defence in the Book of Exodus, the rabbis derived a broader law of obligation – that we must defend ourselves from attack – but also others.  As phrased by Maimonides in his code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah:
“If someone is pursuing after another person with the intent to kill, everybody is obligated to save the pursued party”.

Now, let me stress, I am not expressing an opinion on the advisability of military intervention in Syria – it is not always clear how best to save.  The concept of the Rodef is painfully manipulable – as it was by the murderer of Yitzchak Rabin – and as Danny will tell you it creates a Jewish legal framework for extrajudicial killings – which are legally and morally deeply problematic.

Jewish law, moreover, demands that we first try peaceful means before military action.  To again quote Rambam:  “One should not make war against anyone until first calling out to them for peace”.
We can only hope that the change in tone of the last few days might be a turning point, not only in the use of chemical weapons, but also to the bloodshed caused by conventional weapons – that we are seeing a real and successful ‘calling out for peace’.

But the underlying idea of the law of the rodef – however complex in practice – is the polar opposite of that voice we hear – the one that says it’s nothing to do with us.  The law of the rodef says – “it is everything to do with us.”
It is everything to do with us:  The Talmud asks, “How do we know that if we see another person drowning, mauled by beasts, attacked by robbers, we are duty bound to save them?”  From the verse in Leviticus “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour”.
The Talmud had no concept of satellite phones, but nowadays we have the ability to see what is happening on the other side of the world – and the principle surely still applies.  The breadth of responsibility widens with our knowledge.  Failure to act carries guilt.

So that sentiment – the idea that “we do not have to take responsibility” that it is not anything to do with us is not a Jewish sentiment.

And if we have responsibility for the welfare of those thousands of miles away whom we have never met, then how much more so do we have obligations to those closer to us?  Repeatedly in Jewish literature we find that we must not isolate ourselves from the needs of those around us in moments of crisis and in our general lives – we have individual and communal obligations.   “At a time when the community is suffering”, the Talmud instructs us “no one should say ‘I will go home, and eat and drink, and be at peace with myself’”.
That inspiring notion of duty, of obligation infuses every aspect of Jewish life and ethics – medical, social, political.

Where does it come from, this Jewish concept of responsibility?
Within the classical theism of Judaism, it stems, of course, from the divine imperative.  From Mitzvah.  Commandment, not suggestion; a demand to act, not merely to think.  One of those who consider themselves commanded, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, [in his book To Heal a Fractured World]: “Judaism is not peace of mind” – I consider that to be one of the most powerful statements of religious intent one could imagine.
“Judaism is not peace of mind, he continues, “I remain in awe at the challenge God has set us: to be different… to be God’s question mark against the wisdom of the age, to build, to change, to mend the world until it becomes a place worthy of the divine presence because we have learned to honour the image of God that is humankind”. “The bible” he states is “God’s call to human responsibility”.

Such language is inspiring.  Sacks at his very best.
And, in truth, it might not work for all of us.  The concept of transcendent commanding or challenging God is not one that we can all understand – nor is it necessary for us to in order to live as Jews.  Judaism is far more theologically imaginative than that.  Many of us feel not commanded but compelled.  But still driven – by an imperative that is just as Jewishly legitimate – not divine, but human. In part this is relational – as Jews we live in, have always lived in, community; we are acutely aware of the obligation that comes from being in relationship with others.  To steal, and ridiculously over-simplify, a concept from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face of the other looks at us and calls us, it demands a response from us.  There is a relational imperative which extends to all other human beings.

Either way, Judaism states that life has value, that other people matter, that the world is important – it entails a rejection of nihilism, a rejection of the idea that we are only animals, only selfish genes; that we can live without ethics, without personal responsibility;  It is a rejection – utter and complete of isolationism – personal, or national.

And if others matter, then we matter, too.
Our responsibility also extends to ourselves.  We are duty bound also to take care of ourselves.  We look after our bodies, we go to the doctor, we drive carefully, even – as religious imperative.  We do not abdicate responsibility – even to God.  It is an extraordinary religion that has the maxim “We do not rely on miracles” – responsibility is in our hands.

And our responsibility for ourselves extends to our behaviour.  That is the point of today.  It is what we are doing here, what this 25 hours is for.  For the other side of responsibility – that we don’t say it’s not my fault; that we don’t hide behind excuses; that at least once a year we hold ourselves up to the light and say we are fully responsible for what we do. To quote Rabbi Tony Bayfield, “We can and do make moral choices, we can and do bear responsibility for our own deeds and for those of our community and society”.  And, I would add, of the world.

This is not a sermon about Syria.
It is a sermon about that voice.  That voice that says “it is nothing to do with me”.
That voice is not a Jewish voice.

Being Jewish is not peace of mind.  It means taking sides, means making tough calls, means an obligation to act.  Means taking responsibility for the welfare and behaviour of others and of ourselves.  Means being God’s question mark.  Means saying “we can and do bear responsibility”.

As the Talmud puts it –
“Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of their household and does not, is punished for the transgressions of their household.
Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of their town and does not, is punished for the transgressions of their town.
Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not, is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.”

We are not passive.  We do not stand by.

That was not a sermon about Syria.
It was a sermon about us.

Chatimah Tovah