Sermon: Second Day Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018 (Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 20 September 2018

“so, here you are too foreign for home too foreign for here. never enough for both.”

  • Diaspora Blues by Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Nigerian poet, Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s, poem is a perfect encapsulation of how I’ve always felt, since I was a little girl. My parents divorced when I was very small and my mother first took us from our home in suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma to early 1970s Israel for an extended period. For various reasons we did not end up making aliyah, but instead moved to the urban magnet, which the growing city of Houston was at that time. At seventeen I left home to go to university in western Massachusetts to study for my first degree. And then I left again, almost twenty-nine years ago to the day today, to study in Oxford and a year later to London to train for the rabbinate. My mother jokes that I forgot to leave, forgot to come home, though my parents’ home for more than thirty years, since after I left for university, has been Dallas – a place I have never lived.


Since moving to Great Britain, I have had short stints living elsewhere – Jerusalem and Melbourne – but London has been my home for all of my adult life. And yet Umebinyuo’s poem, Diaspora Blues, sums up the underlying sense of dislocation I have almost always felt – a sense that I belong neither here nor there, yet carrying a passport for both the United States and the United Kingdom; my accent marking me out, but not clearly enough for anyone to identify with certainty where I am ‘really’ from.


Beneath those layers are the layers of my Jewish identity. Being Jewish in Houston growing up was not so strange as people seem endlessly to imagine. The Jewish community was more than large enough to support multiple synagogues of every denomination and several Jewish schools, one of which I attended until I was fourteen. Afterwards, in my public high school, a sizeable percentage of the students were Jewish. And yet I remember the notes shoved through my locker informing me of the mortal peril my soul was in for not embracing Christ as my personal saviour. The boy who wouldn’t date me, likely because I wasn’t Catholic (or Latina) – he never said so outright, but my religious beliefs were very often at the background of our conversations.  These matters were not enough to make me feel entirely out of place, just enough to disquiet me from time to time. I could go on, but I only want to share a small fraction, a snapshot, of my life – enough to explain why Diaspora Blues resonates so deeply with me.


So I have spent the best part of three decades rooting myself here, in what is arguably one of the greatest international metropolises in the world. In London I find myself surrounded by people who were not born here – my friends are Australian, South African, and Irish; American, German; and Israeli, Polish and Canadian and Danish and Hungarian. The food I eat is Vietnamese, Turkish, Ethiopian and Mauritian; Italian, Japanese, Indian, and French. My neighbours to one side are Sikhs. On the other side I’ve no idea what their religious beliefs are, though they are Japanese and English. At the bottom of my street lives a Jewish plumber and over the road two white, British doctors. I live in one of the most diverse boroughs in the UK, Haringey, and, on the whole, I have felt over some years now that if there is a place in the world I belong, it has been London.


But the very public debates around anti-Semitism in the Labour party of late have done more than simply cause me to resign my membership of Unite the Union; the blatant anti-Semitism seemingly daily discovered in the very highest echelons of public life in our country have profoundly unsettled me. London, on the whole, may be diverse, multicultural, and at ease with itself, but much of the rest of the country is proving itself to be anything but. Can I really call this place home, under the circumstances?


In the years 587/586 bce, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroying the first Temple in the process. At the time it was a catastrophe unparalleled in Jewish history, a rupture so deep in the covenantal relationship with the Divine that Israelite national and personal identity were thrown into a complete tailspin. The poets of Lamentations 5: 21 implored God:


השיבנו ה” אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם:

Cause us, O Eternal One, to return to you and we shall return, renew our days as of old.


The voices of Lamentations plead with God to restore them to their former state, where Jerusalem is once again their capital with the Temple rising at its centre, enabling them to worship God through the agency of the priesthood’s daily sacrifices. But the final line of Lamentations 5, the final line of the whole of the book, is not this verse, but the one that follows:

כי אם מאס מאסתנו קצפת עלינו עד מאד:

Unless you have utterly rejected us, raging bitterly against us.


These two lines seem to me to sum up the whole of Jewish history since the time they were written – we beseech God to return us to some blissful imagined state before the present day, a time in which all was well in our relationships with God, with others, with the nations that surround us or govern over us; we pray and hope and work towards the reinstatement of that fabled time, but we worry still. What if God has rejected us? What if God actually hates us? What if we will never get back to the time and place when we imagined all was well with world? What do we do, if that is really the case?


The answer that our ancestors found to that question was to settle themselves as comfortably as they could in Babylon. And then they prayed for return. But in establishing themselves so well into their local surroundings, they also created the first permanent Jewish diaspora. Even when the Jews were allowed to return and rebuild the Temple under Cyrus and, after him, Darius, many Jews remained in Babylon, laying the foundations for a community that would, centuries later, create the greatest work of the classical rabbinic period – the Babylonian Talmud. For many centuries, the Jewish diaspora community in Babylon was the driving force of the Jewish world. And Judaism, as it was then practiced, began to change.


The truly remarkable, irreversible change came in the wake of the destruction of the second Temple in 70 ce. By then, not only did a Jewish diaspora exist in Babylonia, but also in numerous other places including Egypt, Syria, Crete, and Rome. And once the rabbis transformed Judaism into a portable religion divorced from the need to sacrifice daily at the Temple, the Jewish diaspora grew even larger, until it became as we find ourselves today scattered across the whole of the globe from the southern tip of Africa to above the Arctic Circle from Auckland to Trondheim, Beijing to Los Angeles and all points in between. And in every country outside the state of Israel in which we reside, we are a tiny minority of the population. Even in the States, where – as we all know – the largest diaspora community of Jews in the world resides (and possibly, depending on which demographer you consult, the largest population of Jews in the world), we make up not more than 2% of the total population. Here in the UK we represent around 0.5% of the population.


Perhaps it is no wonder that I am not really sure if I belong. 0.5% is an awfully small number of Jews out of a total population of some 66.5 million people. And yet, for me, the importance of maintaining the Jewish diaspora is absolutely central to my Judaism. Perhaps it is unfashionable or even theologically challenging to say so, but much as I love Israel, my commitment remains steadfastly to the nurturing and development of the unique forms of Judaism rooted in the diaspora. For more than two millennia, the experience of diaspora – of the influences of everything from Aristotelian philosophy to Islamic theology, from Zoroastrian eschatology to the Enlightenment, from Buddhism to second, third, and even fourth wave feminism – this abundance of ideas have incalculably influenced the Judaism we practice today. And to my mind, this dialogue of ideas would not have taken place in the same way without rooting ourselves in the diaspora. And make no mistake, Judaism has been enriched largely for the better though this interaction with both majority and other minority cultures.


For each of us the degree of discomfort, distress, and dislocation we feel at moments such as our current political climate will be different, but I am in no doubt that as a community we are currently feeling more disturbed than at any time in the nearly thirty years that I have lived here. And yet, I want to stress how important I believe being here, living in the UK, practising our own distinctive, indigenous form of Reform Judaism is for the health and wellbeing of the whole Jewish world. I couldn’t do my job – training the future religious leadership of the UK and European progressive Jewish world – if I didn’t believe that. Jewish diversity matters – from the melodies we sing to the traditions we develop, from the languages we speak to the theologies we write, from our halachic (and post-halachic) norms to the food we eat – our diversity as Jews makes us, makes Judaism, richer.


Can I really call this place home? The late, great doyen of science fiction, Ursula Le Guin, who died earlier this year, wrote: ‘You can go home again…so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.’ Le Guin, like Umebinyuo, neatly encapsulates that sense of dislocation that we all sometimes feel. Home may never entirely be either here or the numerous other places I have lived. Our sense of home will always shift like those proverbial sands, but we belong here, all of us. I will persist in claiming our right to live here, safe from prejudice. We are diaspora Jews and I, for one, am proud to be so.