Sermon: Kol Nidre 2018 – A community of diversity

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 20 September 2018

L’chol ish yesh shem,

Each of us has a name
given to us by God
and given to us by our parents

Each of us has a name
given to us by our stature and our smile
and given to us by what we wear

Each of us has a name given to us by our story. A story of the past year, of our lives so far, of how we met our partner, or chose our career. Some of our stories are real life fairy tales, some are tragedies. Some of us are still waiting for our happy ending, while others have already found it, and are wondering if, when, it might go wrong.

For all of us, being Jewish is a part of our story. But over the past year, living in the UK, our Judaism may have become more of the title or the central theme of our narrative. As the story of antisemitism has been climbing higher and higher up the media agenda, we as British Jews have become one story. We have been told the story by others and we have told it to ourselves, over and over again, that we are one thing, with one view, a people persecuted, hating of and hated by Jeremy Corbyn, defensive of Israel, its citizens, leaders and some of its politics.

The creation of this single story has stopped us from engaging properly with the matter at hand. This single story dehumanises us and robs us of our individual opinions. The tribalism that is created by a single trope stops us from seeing the diversity in our community, from recognising the complexities in a situation. It isolates those who feel differently and emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar, to other communities in Britain.

By living as a community built around a single narrative we are becoming the stereotype of Judaism inflicted upon us rather than working to break this stereotype down. Because we as Jews know that we are not just one story.

L’chol ish yesh shem, each of us has a name, and our individuality, our varying backgrounds, politics, and relationships weave together to create an interesting fabric of community which empower us. The stories we tell of different perspectives do not show a fragmented Jewish community, but rather a diverse one, that can work in different ways to build our relationship to other communities, both in the UK and in the wider world.

That was why the documentary, ‘We are British Jews’ was so important. It was a two-part series based on the lives of Jews throughout the UK and produced by one of our very own Alyth members. The programme aimed to sensitively look at Jews from different denominations and the producers took several months to find eight people who represented the plurality of voices in the Jewish community.

The self-defined non-religious Jew, the orthodox Jew, the reform Jew, the Zionist, the atheist and the pro-Palestinian journeyed together first to Manchester and then to Israel, Gaza, Hebron and Palestine. The programme showed their quirks, their identifications and the deep seated beliefs that formed their Judaism. There was felt a huge obligation to ‘get it right’ so that the viewers came away with the realisation that the British Jewish community, whilst thriving, has many challenges to grapple with.

Sylvia, an orthodox grandmother reflected that the most surprising aspect of the experience was “the happy discovery that we all seemed to like each other as people in spite of our differing opinions on the politics existing in and surrounding Israel,” adding: “That is the essence of being Jewish. We are all connected, even if we agree to disagree.”

Judaism is complicated and nuanced, in the wider world, in Britain and in this very congregation. We do not just have one story, but many, intrinsically linked at the roots but growing and flourishing into many different lives.

However, often when we feel vulnerable as a community, it can be hard to recognise this diversity, and so we feel the need to show a united front, with just one story. Yet the collection of different stories and the rich and diverse narrative on which our community stands should give us strength. At the beginning of our Kol Nidre service we state, ‘by the authority of the court on high and with the consent of the court below, with the consent of God and with the consent of this congregation, we are permitted to pray with each other who have sinned.’ This affirmation takes into account the diversity of our community, stating that all are welcome this Yom Kippur, regardless of our faults and doubts, our beliefs and positions. It urges us to embrace the complexities that keeps our communities thriving.

The necessity to include such a statement on this holiest night of prayer proves that this is not second nature to us, that drawing into our prayer communities those who are different can feel difficult. This opening statement by virtue of its existence, acknowledges that it can be hard to let go and pray intimately with people who have such differing views from our own.

This introduction to our Kol Nidre service was added in the 13th century by the medieval Rabbi, Meir of Rothenberg, to help include those Spanish and Portuguese apostates, or any who kept their religious identity secret in times of persecution, but still wanted to join their communities on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Meir’s addition is derived from a passage in the Babylonian Talmud, whereby Rabbi Chisda says, ‘A fast in which no sinner in Israel participates is no fast’. The ruling is derived from a practice mentioned in Torah. When an incense offering is placed on the altar it contains one spice that has no odour, yet without it the sacrifice is deemed invalid. So too our communities need the diversity of spices and voices, including even those transgressors who may have been marginalised.

Adding a clause to the beginning of our Yom Kippur ritual, gives permission both from heaven and from the community, that all may pray with their fellow Jews. On this night, the fabric of our Jewish communities changes, becoming richer with those who had not felt able to pray with the community on other days in the year. So too for us, the fabric of our community feels different on Kol Nidre. Joined by people from far and near, our voices are more diverse, our stories are more plentiful. And this statement tells us, that no matter a person’s mode of life, they are still part of us. It challenges our perception that some are in and some are outside of the community. Instead it sees us all as avaryanim, transgressors. We are all equal, as worthy as the next person to join our community in prayer.

We as an Alyth community are one of many different stories.

We are a community coming from different parts of the world.

We are a community split across ages.

We are a community that employs 4 diverse rabbis, with differing views, beliefs and interests.

We are a community where on the 24th July two Alyth members sat side by side on the Today programme speaking about their opposing views on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party.

We are a community where the hustings organised had all parties represented, because we did not decide in advance who is and isn’t worth speaking to.

We are the community that believes in a Judaism that is fully engaged with the world around us.

We are the community with differing voices on Brexit, Israel… and even music!

Our commitment as a community to reach outside of our walls means we are even more susceptible to a wider range of opinions. Which is why, in our community, we cannot define what a legitimate Jewish voice is, because we do not have just one voice. This is key to what we are as a community, because ultimately, we are a community not of one story, but of one set of values.

Written into our values, it states, ‘We believe that Judaism is best when it is shared with a diverse group of people.  Ours is an accessible, grown up Judaism and one that nurtures and challenges our young people; both a Judaism for families and one that responds to the individual. Within our community we believe in equality and inclusion as religious principles.  We strive to be a community where everyone is included equally irrespective of gender, ability, ethnicity, wealth, age and sexual orientation.’

We need to continue to work so that our community can be one where differing views coexist and we can live alongside those with whom we do not agree. It is for this reason, that we as your rabbis do not sign letters, on either side of a political battle, on behalf of the community. Instead it is our job to recognise the plurality in our community. It is our responsibility to truly listen to the differing views and represent not just one voice, but the voice of Alyth as a whole.

L’chol ish yesh shem, each of us has name

given to us by our sins,
and given to us by our longings.

Each of us has a name

given to us by our celebrations
and given to us by our stories.

Our individual stories are powerful, and we need to tell them. Over the dinner table, in our community, in the world, we need to share the multiplicity of narratives that make up our rich and varied fabric. We need to represent a Judaism that is comprised of different voices, empowered to speak out and still bound together at its roots. Holding that complexity isn’t easy and it sometimes feels difficult to be together, but it is even harder to be by ourselves.

Over this next year may we practice the art of acceptance, of genuinely welcoming into our community richness and diversity, however challenging this may feel. May we strive to create a safe space where people can come and push themselves to hear the voices that are in opposition to their own. May we facilitate the conversations that embrace the different stories of our community and truly listen. And ultimately, may we be proud of our differences, for they are what makes our community such a rich and complex place, where all are accepted, and none isolated.