Sermon – On Bayern Munich, Hillel the Elder and How we Welcome

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 18 May 2012

Oscar. I’m really sorry, but on this occasion we are going to have to agree to disagree.  I know you will be, and I know on one level I possibly should be too, but I’m afraid tonight I won’t be… supporting Chelsea.

This isn’t just because it seems pretty unfair to me that if Chelsea win, then Tottenham don’t get a Champions’ League place.

Nor is it only the petty mindedness of the football fan.  You know, if it were City or Liverpool it would be, absolutely – I simply can’t bear the idea of them winning.   But, Chelsea doesn’t hold that problem for me, though the thought of John Terry lifting the European Cup is pretty unpalatable.

So why, tonight, will I be supporting Bayern? Well, it is all because of a man called Benno Elkan.

In many ways his story was typical of that of many Jews in the 20th Century – born in Dortmund in 1877, he studied and worked in Paris and Rome, as well as his native Germany, and emigrated to the UK in 1933 following the rise of Nazism, and he made the UK his home.

But two things mark Elkan out as really distinctive.

One is that Benno Elkan was, apparently, one of two Jewish signatories to the founding charter of a certain Munich football club.  I know this because over the last week there has been a rather bizarre flurry of media interest, and then internet dialogue, about the Jewish history of Bayern.  It is a phenomenon which I suspect reveals how hard it is for us to move on in our relationship with Germans, even in my generation.  But that is for another day.

The other really significant thing about Elkan is that he was a talented sculptor – in fact, one of his pieces is currently hanging above my head – the Ner Tamid that hangs above our Bimah was designed by Benno Elkan, paid for by each member of the Religion School bringing in a penny.

And there is an allusion to another of his pieces in the stained glass window in the far corner over there, the window dedicated to the Reverend Phillip Cohen.  Because, Elkan was also the sculptor responsible for the Menorah that stands outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, commissioned by the UK parliament as a gift to Israel in the mid 1950s. The Knesset menorah is an extraordinary piece of work.  Four and half metres tall; built to resemble the Menorah found in the reliefs of the destruction of Jerusalem on the Arch of Titus – itself a symbolically powerful message.  It includes 29 individual scenes, giving a journey through Jewish history from the biblical narratives up to the efforts of the pioneers in building the modern state of Israel.

Some of the frames are of figures you would expect to see – Abraham, Moses, King David; of images that we might well select ourselves as important – Isaiah’s messianic vision of the lion lying with the lamb, Ezra’s public reading of Torah, the Maccabean revolt. But some are more unexpected – and one is especially important to me personally, as someone who has spent much of the last 10 years teaching those joining the Jewish community as converts and also researching the way in which our formative rabbinic texts and rabbinic narratives understand conversion.

On the top of the sixth branch along of Benno Elkan’s Menorah, is a sculpture of an old man with his arm around the shoulder of a younger man who is standing on one leg. This is Elkan’s rather literalist representation of a narrative from the Babylonian Talmud about the sages Hillel and Shammai (Shabbat 31a).  In this story, a non-Jew comes to Shammai, a sage notorious for his grumpiness, and asks to be converted.  But with a twist. He wants to be taught the whole Torah al regel achat – while standing on one foot. The commentators debate what this question is supposed to mean – is it a wish to understand the essence of Torah or is it a facetious wind up.

Shammai clearly understands it as the latter.  The Talmud tells us, d’chafo b’amat ha’binyanan she’b’yado – he sends him away with the builder’s measuring ruler he happens to be holding – in other words, he chases him away with a big stick.

Undeterred, the same potential convert approaches Hillel, and Hillel gai’ray – he converts him.  He responds to the request positively, teaching him Torah with him al regel achat with one phrase – “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the entire Torah, all else is elaboration”, adding zeel g’mor “go and learn”.

Hillel’s response is often quoted to point to the centrality of ethical behaviour in Judaism – that the fundamental purpose of Torah is to regulate our interactions with each other.  As an example of the so-called Golden Rule, also attributed in a number of places to Jesus, it is also of particular interest to scholars of the relationship between Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

But in the Talmud it is much more than that.  In the Talmud this is one of three stories brought together in which someone approaches these two sages with a view to conversion.  In each one the potential convert has a question or comment which might be understood to be facetious or challenging – but which also points to a really fundamental question about Judaism.  On each occasion Shammai pushes the potential convert away – don’t ask, don’t challenge, don’t break the mould.  On each occasion Hillel takes them at face value, not pandering but using their questions as a starting point for their learning.

In the conclusion of this Talmudic piece the three, now Jews, meet up and together they say: “The harshness of Shammai sought to banish us from this world; the patience of Hillel brought us under the wings of the Shechinah’, of the divine presence.

This text is therefore about something really fundamental – how do we treat those who approach wishing to join us. Do we make them feel welcome or not? Do we belittle them because of lack of knowledge or embrace them because we know that asking questions is the first step?  And when we are challenged by them – with the very big questions that sometimes we do not ask – do we welcome these questions or resent them?  This narrative represents a positive model of how we should respond.

And this is, in truth, not only about converts, but about how we build community in general, how do we seek to meet the diverse needs within a community: of those who are not Jewish, or not Jewish yet, as well as those who are; those who haven’t studied as well as those who have; those who ask what might seem to be strange questions, but which to Hillel, and to us, are an opportunity to teach and to study.  Do we build walls around ourselves which make it hard for others to get in, or open the doors, meeting others where they are?

That Benno Elkan included this moment, this brief rabbinic story, along with the other iconic images on the Knesset Menorah was not an obvious choice, but it was a very special one.  His image – a sage with his arm around a man standing on one leg – is a symbol – of a rabbi’s willingness to meet the needs of another human being in their journey through Jewish life, including when that journey involves the transformative path of conversion. So, in recognition of that amazing choice, it surely only seems fair that tonight I should support the football team he helped to found.  And if that means John Terry doesn’t get to celebrate – well that’s not bad, too. Come on Bayern! And Shabbat Shalom