Sermon: Shabbat 3 July

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 5 July 2021

Tomorrow afternoon, 4th July, at the annual Leo Baeck College ordination, two women and two men will be ordained rabbi, by ZOOM, in Paris, Cambridge and Amsterdam. 50 years ago, by calendrical coincidence, on Sunday July 4th 1971, I was one of 8 men on the bimah at West London Synagogue to be ordained. The other 7 were: Rabbi Adi Assabi z”l, Rabbi Simon Franses z”l, Rabbi Alec Freedman, Rabbi David Goldberg z”l, Rabbi David Lilienthal, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Alan Mann.

Some years earlier, when I told my mother I wanted to train for the rabbinate, she said, “That’s fine,” she said, “as long as you remember that whatever you do, it will be the wrong thing for half your congregation.” I laughed. “Oh, mother,” I said, “what do you know about these things?”

In 1971, both Bromley Reform Synagogue and the Reform Synagogue in Paris had vacancies. “What shall I do?” I asked Rabbi Lionel Blue. “The choice,” he said, “is between Bromley High Street and the Champs Elysées.”

In those days, rabbis wore canonicals, robes, just like vicars. I stopped wearing mine, certainly for services, in 1974. I remember, not long after, now back in England, talking with a member of the synagogue who was to conduct the service while I was away. “After Adon Olam,” I said, “you do the priestly blessing.” “Oh no,” he said, “only the rabbi can do that.” Indeed, rabbis would often do the priestly blessing holding their tallit aloft – like this. With or without this, it spoke volumes about the relationship between rabbi and congregant. Rabbis usually came onto the bimah in triumphal procession while the congregation stood. It might have served to bring the community to order, but starting with a song or a niggun is, surely, a more appropriate way to begin. The rabbi had a marked-up prayer book indicating which bits would be sung – that made sense – but other bits were marked “we read together.” The implication was that, if they weren’t given the ‘go-ahead,’ the congregation should remain shtum. It was all very decorous, no doubt, but it was also rote, formulaic, pretty lifeless, devoid of spirit.

When I started at Leo Baeck in 1966, it was just 21 years after the Shoah. Many of our teachers were refugee rabbis and usually had German, occasionally American or British accents. Of our teachers, I think only Lionel Blue and Raphael Loewe were English-born. All were born in the 1920s and 30s, had all lived, directly or indirectly, through the Shoah, and were all deeply-marked by it. There was a sense that, as future-rabbis training at what was the only European Progressive seminary, part of our work would involve the rebuilding of European Jewry. Awareness of the Shoah over-shadowed so much of Jewish life. The Eichmann Trial had taken place in 1961; survivors – Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Hugo Gryn and so on – were beginning to talk of their experiences. In 1967, the philosopher Emil Fackenheim coined what he called the 614th Commandment: “you must not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” In other words: “Hitler tried to destroy us; let’s not finish his work.” That became a mantra for many, but was often misunderstood as if simply affirming Jewishness was enough. It ignored Harold Schulweiss’ much-later warning that “to be an anti-antisemite does not make you a Jew: it simply robs you of Jewish song and poetry, Jewish philosophy and Jewish joy.”

In spring 1967, Israel seemed like it was on the brink of another Shoah, with Arab armies massing on its borders, threatening its disappearance in ‘rivers of blood and seas of fire.’ Easy to forget now that Israel was not yet 20 years old at that time. As we saw what was happening, Leo Baeck College students organised the ‘Jewish Youth Organisations Emergency Committee’ which coordinated efforts by all Jewish youth organisations for Israel. I subsequently went to Israel as a volunteer. Amidst the euphoria of victory I also saw things which made me begin to ask questions about Israel’s long-term occupation of the territories. Sadly reinforced, for example, in 1968 at a meeting Golda Meir had in London with leaders of Jewish youth organisations. Somebody asked her “what about the Palestinians?” to which she gave her, now well-known, dismissive, “’The Palestinians?! there is no such thing as the Palestinians.” Dissenting voices were fewer in 1971 and on the whole severely jumped on. So even in the late 1980s, when I invited a few of my colleagues to meet in my home with Afif Safieh, then the leader of the PLO in London. It had to be strictly confidential. I knew that if it became public I would be in serious trouble from all sorts of quarters.

I said earlier, intentionally gender-specifically, that 8 men stood on that bimah in West London Synagogue in 1971. It would still be another year before Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi since 1942 and another 4 years before Jackie Tabick became the first woman rabbi outside the USA. As of tomorrow, I will now have 66 women colleagues.

If I had to choose two words which somehow encapsulate what has happened in our part of the Jewish world in these 50 years they would be ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment.’ And those two words almost go hand-in-hand.

‘Empowerment’ implies, by its very nature, that something shifts, changes. If women, in this instance, start to reclaim their place in the Jewish world, men will have to reconsider what their place is – it cannot stay the same.

50 years ago this was as big a deal as the furore over Lindsay Taylor-Guthartz is in the traditional world now. It goes without saying – but goes even better with the saying – that women fulfil the same roles in the religious life of our synagogues as men. But only in the late 1980s did it became possible for a woman to be the lead-rabbi in a community.

‘Inclusion’ meant that attitudes had to undergo paradigm shifts. I don’t imagine anybody today would say “but you have to be a rabbi to do the priestly blessing.” Indeed, many rabbis feel uncomfortable with doing it altogether.

Inclusion has meant that we have stopped seeing a Jew marrying a non-Jew as an automatic withdrawal of that Jew from Jewish life. We no longer speak of ‘marrying out.’ We bring mixed faith families into our communities and have evolved ways of resolving status issues, ways that could hardly be conceived of in 1971. Same-sex relationships are no longer seen as something not to be talked about or tolerated in the Jewish community.

Inclusion has meant that rabbis see much of their role as working to empower their members through study, practice and so on, to enrich their Jewish lives.

But I think what we have lost is what was called, 50 years ago, ‘prophetic Judaism’: the sense that being a Jew meant an engagement with issues of social justice as enunciated by the Biblical prophets. Some have suggested that the shift to the religious right that has taken place across the Jewish world since then has meant that more-attention is turned inward in the Jewish world, more is focussed on ritual practice. To which I would add that the concerns – both real and imagined – about antisemitism and threats to Israel have also encouraged a more insular Jewish engagement.

Reform Judaism has flexed its muscles in this half-century. Strong, vibrant communities, the influence of the Sternberg Centre and Leo Baeck College graduates have played their part in raising the profile of Reform Judaism. People join us for positive reasons rather than the oft-heard, “I’m lapsed orthodox – I’m Reform really.” But it’s still not quite that straightforward. To paraphrase an old rabbinic adage, you can take the Jew out of an orthodox synagogue; it’s harder to get an orthodox mindset out of the Reform Jew.

Inclusion and empowerment have meant a renewed look at what we mean by ‘spirituality.’ Only a few rabbis were talking about it in the 1970s and most Jews thought it belonged in the Christian world. So having somebody like Lionel Blue as teacher and mentor during the height of his ‘power,’ was very special and formative. Two new siddurim – in 1985 and 2008 – are the practical expressions of that in our prayer life.

At a personal level, one of the great consolations of the rabbinate has been that it brings you into intimate contact with people when their lives are changing – moments of great difficulty but also of great happiness. For very different reasons, both are ventures into a potentially life-changing unknown. Sometimes you can’t do much more than simply be with that person. saying little, being much. All of that has been a great privilege. Teaching at the College has been transformative for me as well (I hope) for my students. But the demands on the rabbi are heavy and often it is their partner and families who bear the brunt – too much of the brunt – of that.

I came into the rabbinate rather stupidly believing in the essential goodness of human beings, that the good in people would outweigh the bad. I have to say that 50 years in the rabbinate have done very little to dispel that foolish notion.

I wonder what my 4 new colleagues will be thinking about the shape of their rabbinate? I hope it is as constant a surprise to them as I think it has been for me.