Sermon: Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 5 October 2016

The last time what happened this morning happened at Alyth was in 1985. This was before the era of the tent in which we are sitting.  At that time Alyth services were held in a number of locations from the Synagogue to the Odeon cinema which once stood on the site of Birnbeck Court and Marks and Spencers in Temple Fortune. 1985 saw the first use of the new Reform Synagogues of Great Britain Machzor, the eighth edition of the British Reform High Holy Days Prayer Book since Rabbi David Woolf Marks original West London Synagogue Machzor of 1842.  It replaced the previous seventh edition Machzor which had been published in 1958 and which was from the era when God was addressed as Thou.

1958 is of course a very long time ago in the span of a human lifespan but then so too, surprisingly so for those close to my age, is 1985.  The pace of change in our world is such that it can be difficult to recognise just how different.

Technology provides perhaps the starkest example – 1985 was the year that the first mobile telephone call was made, not a radio phone but a cell phone, today there are 7.19 billion cellphones in circulation, more than the number of people in the world (Independent 7/10/14).  In 1985 just 2000 computers, almost all in university or government departments, were connected to the internet, today there 3.6 billion people with at least one internet connection by computer, phone or other device (Internet World Stats as at 30/6/16 .)

Britain was different then in 1985.  Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and the miners’ strike had not yet come to an end, we were wondering about whether to become part of the beginnings of European monetary union rather than having voted to leave the European Union altogether.  The Cold War was still in progress and Michael Gorbachev had only just that year become President of the USSR.  We still lived in fear of nuclear war between the communist and capitalist world.  Where there was terrorism on the streets of this country it stemmed from the troubles in Northern Ireland, though hijackings of planes did take place from the Middle East.

The world was beginning to connect up more that it had in the past.  That summer Live Aid meant that all in Britain were aware of the effects of famine in Ethiopia and following Bob Geldof’s call we gave money to help.

In the Jewish world the past decade and more had seen an opening up of the experience of the Shoah.  People who had suffered through the Nazi Holocaust, the exiles that it caused and the trauma done to families and individuals were now speaking about it.  So our 1985 Machzor told some of their stories.

Though the exodus of Soviet Jews to Israel had not yet started 1985 was the year of Operation Moses, bringing the first large contingent of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.  Shimon Peres, whom we lost this past week, was then Prime Minister of Israel    Support of Israel was much less a matter of debate in the Jewish community.  Though the Lebanon War with all of its complexities had just taken place three years before, the spectrum of acceptable debate on Israel in the Jewish community was far narrower than it is today.

Our awareness of the effect that humanity was having on the environment was not widespread in 1985.  Homes had no energy certification, recycling was almost unknown at the household level, global warming was an issue in the scientific community, but not yet through to the public consciousness. (American Institute of Physics, Timeline of Global Warming, Feb 2016).

Reform Judaism was becoming more comfortable with reclaiming Jewish traditions for our own use. Hence one of the major innovations in the 1985 Machzor was actually a throwback to the past, the inclusion in the Musaf service for Yom Kippur of a sequence remembering the High Holydays ritual of the High Priest – surrounded by commentary so that its place in our spirituality could be celebrated.

Now that Leo Baeck College had been open for thirty years training our Rabbis and developing a distinctive British Reform and Liberal bible scholarship, the Torah portions of our High Holy Days could now be enhanced by commentary to help us to make sense of their messages to us.   Ten years earlier, in 1974, Rabbi Jackie Tabick had become Britain’s first woman Rabbi and with a woman Prime Minister gender equality had taken substantial steps forward.  The introduction to the Machzor asked whether gender equality should be recognised in our liturgy but concluded that in 1985 Reform Judaism was not ready.  It is now.

And this is one of the starkest differences in our liturgy that we have noticed every year since 1995 when our Reform Machzor for the Shalosh Regalim, the Jewish festivals was published no longer ascribing a gender, male, to God and no longer restricting our remembrance of our ancestors to the men.   This has of course seemed even more of a contrast with every year since 2008 when our Weekday and Shabbat Siddur was renewed, with gender inclusive language.     We no longer address our prayers to an exclusively male image of God and we recognise that men and women are of equal value and role and that this should also be the case in prayer.

The 1985 Machzor continued the Reform tradition of services which give a definite flow and course through them, celebrating the collective and prayer as a community experience.   But there was also a major innovation for our liturgy, continued from our 1977 Siddur, which was the provision of much material for private reflection and contemplation especially in the study anthology of over 150 pages.  I am quite sure that for many here today this has meant that at times on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when your spirituality has drifted from the standard prayers, i.e you have been getting a bit bored, you have found new inspiration at the back of the book.

I am not going to say that our 1985 Machzor was influenced by punk rock, which had burst on the scene in 1976 showing that anyone could have a message worth hearing if they could play three chords, but I feel that there is a reflection of this in these words from the introduction to the 1985 Machzor:  “We have used whatever seemed genuine and relevant in the spirituality of our people….In the confusion of our times, the word of God has come to us (as perhaps it always has) in unexpected ways and through unexpected people; in social workers’ reports, on wrapping paper found in a concentration camp, or written on cellar walls in time of persecution.  We find our spirituality in the diaries of an adolescent girl, in the records of ghetto doctors, and in the honesty of modern Jewish writers.”  (Intro to 1985 Machzor p. x)

So what is new that you have in your hands and why now, in 2016 /5777 is it time to renew our tool for approaching God and creating community with each other on the High Holy Days?  In 1985 the editors were Rabbis Lionel Blue and Jonathan Magonet and the Chair of the Machzor Editorial Group was Rabbi Hugo Gryn z’’l.  This time our editors are Rabbis Paul Freedman and Jonathan Magonet and I have the privilege of being the Chair of the Machzor Editorial Group, working with my colleagues to make sure the Machzor reaches publication.

A generation has reached adulthood since 1985.  We have come to appreciate services which make their structure clear to us. We value participation in services ever more greatly and want to provide transliteration for those whose Hebrew is not yet up to reading the script.  We want to avoid pinning God to the male gender – and are now used to that.  We value the origins and meaning of our prayers being explained and the opportunity to spend time in personal meditation or contemplation afforded by the alternative passages in the book.  In the age of instant access to information we like to have this information presented to us instantly – hence, in a format which actually dates back to fifteenth century Talmud editions, notes and alternative prayers and readings are all on the same page as the liturgy.

We are in a world where the Shoah is a necessary memory but less and less part of what we fear but there are new threats to our Jewish way of life.    In Britain in 2016 Jews are but one of many minorities, there are 150,000 fewer Jews than there are Sikhs in Britain (Census 2011 = 420,000 Sikhs in the UK), twice as many Poles as Jews.  (Office of National Statistics 27th August 2015).  Being a Jew in Britain today requires positive engagement.

Therefore our Machzor needs and contains much more British Jewish writing showing that we are confident as Jews and have much to give Britain and the Jewish World.   Jews in a Britain where ignorance of us breeds anti-Semitism need the High Holydays experience to give us more confidence in ourselves.

The big issues in the world have changed so that creative parts of our Machzor have to be updated to recognise the realities of today.  We now know that human action can so degrade the world’s environment that within the next thirty years, before we are working on the tenth edition of the Machzor, we are going to have to radically change the way we live or our next generation will not have an earth worth living on.  Our Machzor must give us hope that this is possible and you will see nature addressed in poetry, and prose.

We are living with terrorism and the threat of fundamentalism turned to intolerant violence.  Our Machzor must charge us to be among the tolerant and peace promoting people each year ahead and give us hope that God is with those who love humanity not those who hate it.

Our relationship with Israel is one of a mixture of hope and fear.  Hope that Israel can continue to thrive and succeed as the Jewish state and as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East and fear that intolerance for Reform Judaism, resentment among Palestinians for the stalemate in the peace process and demonization of Israel in some parts of the political spectrum around the world will mean that thirty years from now we risk no longer having an Israel we can call home.  Our Machzor must recharge us each year to join the struggle for an Israel which displays the best of Jewish values.

As the way that Reform Jews pray becomes more diverse, with some of us loving the classical style which took place in this tent and some of us loving the haimishe participation that took place in Kollot, with some of us seeking a numinous spirituality and some of us seeking rationalism in worship that engages the intellect, our Machzor must be flexible enough to be usable for all.   It must have within it what you need to build the service that moves you so that in the decades to come Reform Judaism can stay true to its name – Reform is a way of building Judaism, not a statement of fixed practice.

We cannot know whether this, our new Machzor will still feel fit for its purpose thirty years from now – in 2045.      Please could you fill out the online survey mentioned in the Shul sheet or come to the feedback evening so we can know if we are fit for purpose today. What you have in your hands is a draft – our aim is to publish the hardback Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Machzor in 2018. It is just possible thirty years from now that the book way of publishing may no longer be the way we do it.  New media makes a difference in Judaism.  On Wednesday Katie Hainbach, Alyth’s Head of Music and Arts put out a video of a Rosh Hashanah song written by Cantor Michael Ochs together with colleagues in Reform synagogues around the world.  By Friday 1.75 million people had watched it, by Sunday 3.5 million, twice the number of Reform Jews in the world!  This book even when it reaches its hard cover edition will reach just tens of thousands.   It’s possible that before our new Machzor is replaced that Israel will be at peace with a new State of Palestine.  It is possible in another generation that the world will be feeding and powering itself without permanently degrading itself.

Whatever happens the spiritual essentials of the Machzor will always be needed.  We will always be selfish and stroppy and unhelpful to each other and need an annual reminder to change.  We will always display the jealousy of Sarah, the hopelessness of Hagar, the uncertainty of Abraham and we will need a Machzor to bring us hope.   We will always need another chance to live up to the best in ourselves.

May our new Machzor bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, a greater confidence in our place in this community and in ourselves as Jews, and a sense of mission to change our own behaviour and to bring the world closer to that which God, our own people and all that dwell on earth need.  A new year, a good year.