Sermon: On Jewdas and Jewish Diversity

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 6 April 2018

They say that every rabbi has a sermon to which they always return.
I don’t know if that is true for every rabbi, but it is certainly true for me.

The sermon to which I return again and again is one about diversity and difference; it is a sermon about the fundamental poly-vocality of our tradition – the multiple voices that make Judaism the rich tradition that it is; it is about the broadness of Judaism’s shoulders which allows it to carry different forms and views, and always has done; it is about the different ways in which Jewishness has been expressed through thousands of years of Jewish life, and the continuing ability of our tradition to evolve and grow in exciting ways.

It is a sermon that can be given throughout the Jewish year, for so many of our texts and symbols speak to it.
This week – at Pesach – it is the sermon of the four children, four different approaches to Jewish life.  And, in particular, it is the sermon of the rasha – who came to be described as wicked, but who is sat there at the table, engaging with our story and our ritual, even as he – or she – struggles with its meaning.   And it is the sermon of the evolving seder night with which we began this festival – a night of multiple symbols, each with diverse meanings, and with new symbols and new texts added each year.  The haggadah with which we told our story was actually multiple tellings, different ways of engaging with our story added over time.

In a few weeks’ time, at Shavuot, it will be the sermon of a revelation heard by a diverse group of people, and the midrashim that speak of each hearing Torah differently according to their capacity.  Only because of this could they, as our portion this morning said, ‘hear the voice of God from the fire and live’.

At Sukkot it is the sermon of the midrash of the four species, each of which represents a different kind of Jew, together making a whole.  At Yom Kippur it is the sermon of vidui, confession, recited in the plural because kol yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh – all Israel are sureties one for the other.

It is a sermon of rabbinic Judaism, a reflection of the dialectic tradition, the concept of a machloket l’shem shamayim – a dispute for the sake of heaven; a sermon of Acher – Elisha ben Abuya, the heretic rabbi – who retains his place in the Talmud, even as he struggles and ultimately rejects.

It is the sermon of Roman Palestine in which different Judaisms, different forms of expression flourished – Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes, zealots and peacemakers, as Monty Python so accurately parodied, the Judean People’s Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Front of Judea; and it is a sermon of Central Europe two centuries and less ago, grappling with emancipation, in which different Judaisms, different forms of expression flourished – Orthodoxy, Reform, secularism, Jewish Socialism, Zionism of many different flavours.

The sermon to which I return again and again reminds us that we do not have, and nor should we seek to grant ourselves, the right to define what is a legitimate Jewish voice, and we should be wary indeed of anyone who believes they do.  Jews have for millennia developed their own forms of expression – it is the very nature of Judaism that we do so;
The sermon to which I return says that we should reject the idea that Jews must speak with a single voice – for we never have before.  Ours is a polyvocal tradition – on religion, theology, on politics – to suggest that these voices are somehow less Jewish, not Jewish, is wrong.  For diversity is fundamental to Jewish identity.   Jews in this country do not have one view, nor has that ever been the case.  And one of the things that makes this particular community very special indeed is that diversity of voice sitting side by side with love and respect.

Which brings me to this week.  I think that in choosing to go to a Jewdas seder at this time, Jeremy Corbyn was either deliberately provocative towards parts of the Jewish world and his party, or showed an extraordinary lack of political judgement.  But that is about him, not about Jewdas, and not about us.  And the response in some quarters, the way in which Jewdas has been described, is deeply problematic.

There is a great deal I do not like about Jewdas.  My personal view is that their reading of the current state of the Labour Party is naïve at best; and some of the statements made about Israel at Jewdas events and from their social media are deeply offensive to me.  But that does not make their voice illegitimate.  It just means that I disagree.  The politics of the zealot was not that of Yochanan ben Zakkai, nor that of the bund the same as that of Herzl, or the religion of Israel Jacobson that of his rabbinic peers.

I find much of the Jewdas agenda rather childish.  But I imagine this was an accusation also made at the first person to sing echad mi yodea at a seder.  I’m personally not attracted to the anger – though I imagine that the first person to bring the midrashim of amplification after the ten plagues into the maggid probably received a similar response.

But their seder was a seder.  Not – as the JC chose to describe it – a ‘so-called’ seder.  It was in a long tradition of sedarim – especially third night sedarim – taking the form and using it to express new hopes, to articulate new ideas.  In fact, if you read the Jewdas haggadah, you might, swearing aside, be surprised at how traditional it all is.
And the people there were Jews doing Judaism – whatever some ‘leaders’ might suggest – an important part of the rich diversity of the Jewish world.  Theirs is the challenging, disruptive voice which Judaism has always had within it.  Among them were Alyth members and regular worshippers in this congregation.

That is the sermon to which I return.  I fear that you may hear it more than once more in the years to come.
Most often when we return to it together, it will be – as it often has been in the past – a sermon of conciliation, of comfort – reassurance that we can be radical, we can be innovative, we can be different, because difference, diversity is the defining characteristic of Judaism through the centuries.

But it is also, as this week, a sermon of challenge, of discomfort.  It makes a demand of us.  A difficult, challenging demand.  The demand that we also recognise the legitimacy of the voice with which we don’t agree, the form of Jewish life that is not ours.  That we recognise it, too, as part of the richness of a diverse people.   We should never suggest that Judaism’s shoulders are not broad enough to bear difference or diversity.  They have been for thousands of years, and surely still can be today.