Sermon: Ki Tavo: Becoming John Rayner

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 15 September 2014

Many of us will share the familiar Jewish story of the immigrant to England who changed their name in order to be able to be more comfortable in their home country.  On my mother’s side of the family my great great grandfather arrived in England from Novy Korcyn in Southern Poland in kaftan and black hat as Michiel Shmucklierz. Within a few years he was living in Tunbridge Wells running his first dress shop as Michael Salter, by now in the pictures we have of him dressed in a tweed suit with no hat, still Jewish  but no longer identifiably Polish.


In 1939 the fiteen year old Hans Sigismund Rahmer, born in Berlin to freidenker freethinking but Jewish parents, educated in the same school as Rabbi Harry Jacobi and the late Rabbi Albert Friedlander was sent to England with his sister by his parents on a kindertransporte train.  He never saw his parents again.  In 1943 Hans Sigismund Rahmer was walking to the recruiting centre for the Durham light infantry when he passed Rayner’s Opticians adopted the name and became known from then on as John Desmond Rayner.


Rabbi Dr John Rayner CBE, President of Liberal Judaism, Emeritus Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue and Vice President of the Leo Baeck College died nine years ago on this Ki Tavo Shabbat after a long illness.  In obituaries he was called the foremost Progressive Rabbi in Europe for past forty years combining courtesy, intellect and scholarship with moral fervour challenging to all who would relativise their own moral and ethical outlook.


I was taught by John at Leo Baeck college and his writings, lessons and example are a profound influence on my life as a Jew and as a Rabbi.


John valued precision in Hebrew and scholarly standards.  He demanded the best of himself and of the rest of us as Rabbi Albert Friedlander wrote: John Rayner was the soul of kindness and a stern man of dialogue who permitted no errors in others or in himself. Any texts submitted to him were subjected to an exacting grammatical examination alongside the demands for intellectual clarity.


Rabbis throughout the Progressive Movements including me were recipients of John’s letters of constructive criticism – you got a few lines of heartfelt congratulation on your piece of writing, a service that John had attended or class that you had taught – then three pages of detailed and fearsome criticism of all of the errors that you had made in your transliterations, pronunciation, quotations etc.  John had a mission to ensure that our liberty to interpret Torah beyond the work of the traditional Rabbinic sources would not mean carelessness.


Ever since 1967 Liberal Jews prayed and worshipped with John.  He was the co-editor of prayerbooks Service of the Heart, Gates of Repentance and the Siddur Lev Chadash.    As well as editing liturgy John also wrote many pieces within Siddurim which I find inspiring statements of what being Jewish means to me:  “To affirm God is to affirm that history has a purpose, Man is to perfect himself; to unfold the great potential that, created in God’s image, resides in him, to learn to live with his fellow – men in peace and harmony; to be a society of liberty and justice brotherhood and love…” “When doubt, anxiety or pain hinder us in our efforts to commune with you (God), grant that our prayers may find their answer in firmer courage, deeper insight and greater fortitude.  May we learn to overcome doubt, endure anxiety and bear pain bravely, that with hearts and minds less troubled, we may come closer to You and to our fellow-men.” “To be just is to be angry when justice is violated, to be just is to choose just means to right wrongs, to be just is to demand justice for others as well as yourself, to be just is to demand justice for other peoples as well as your own”.


The first two prayers come from Siddurim published before John became convinced that a change had to be made to the gender language of all of our prayer publications. As he wrote in the introduction to Siddur Lev Chadash concerning the replacement of man by humanity, forefathers by ancestors etc “The linguistic convention which subsumes women under men is manifestly a reflection of the subordinate position which have held in most societies through the ages.  It also contributes to the perpetuation of such attitudes and therefore needs to be corrected.”


From this insight he edited the first Siddur in the UK which took gender out of the language directed to God, an innovation which was soon adopted by Reform Judaism and which will feature in the draft Machzor which I and colleagues have produced for all Reform congregations to use this Rosh Hashanah evening.


What I understand from John’s liturgy is that prayer is a way of directing ourselves towards hope – hope for the world, hope for the Jewish people, hope for ourselves in times of despair – we say it we sing it and it helps us to believe in it.


John wrote that the Jewish religion is to large extent an attempt to answer a single question:  “What does the Eternal God require of you?”.  It is a question that John showed us has got to be answered in every generation  and in every situation.   The traditional literature of our past cannot always provide the answer so we at times we must find the answers in the light of our informed conscience.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said of John:  “he was a man of deep integrity and ethical principles who followed his conscience with determination and courage”.  Because of this John was committed to social justice.


John’s last work was published a couple of months before his death.  It was a slim book called “Principles of Jewish ethics” and in this book you will find a really clear explanation of how Judaism mandates us to care about freedom, justice, compassion, peace and the environment. In our Haftarah portion the Prophet Isaiah lambasts injustice and hypocrisy:  “I the Eternal love justice, I have robbery with a burnt offering.”  Our Torah portion Ki Tavo tells us  that the blessings of plenty are to shared with the stranger in our midst – that God hates oppression, slavery and human misery and is with us when we act in his image to relieve it.


But later in the part of the  portion that we heard today there is a chilling section complementary to the blessings which you read about–– the curses.  If you count the letters of this section you will find that there are 676 letters of challenge to all those who don not implement the Torah –  including cursed by he who accepts a bribe against the innocent, cursed by the one who subverts the rights of the stranger the orphan and the widow, cursed by he who moves other people’s landmarks and nine other curses.  Now for some gematria – there are 676 letters in these curses and if you add up the letters of the word in Hebrew for evils raot then the resh is 200, the ayin 70, the vav 6 and the the tav 400.  Neat but gematria can also tell us how to deal with these evils – with the word yod hey vav hey – the letters of God’s name in Hebrew – which add upt to 26.  Now if you multiply 26 by 26 what do you get – yes 676.  The evils of the world can be challenged by God – by seeking God’s will in our work to bring hope – as John taught us and as that other great man who died in the same week nine years ago that he did, Simon Wiesenthal put into action by ensuring that murderous racists were never able to hide from justice.


Religion is not worth much at all if it is ritualistic and insular.  It just becomes a way of creating exclusive and self-satisfied communities which do nothing to repair the world.  Rabbi John Rayner taught  us in his generation and I hope, through those who learned from him, in future generations that religion, and Judaism especially is a challenge to hope and action.


You have to be careful with this teaching because it is playing with fire.  The murderous Islamic State jihadists think that what they do is hope and action in the name of God.   The best in religion is motivated by hope and action too but it must be guided, as John would insist by conscience, a deep ethical sense and a pursuit of justice for all – represented in Torah by the stranger, the orphan and the widow.


Our service will finish with the Aleynu prayer of hope – may the hope of the aleynu for a world of peace and unity be brought closer from our Judaism in the tradition of our teachers such a Rabbi John Rayner.