Sermon – Shabbat Korrach (MRJ’s 80th Anniversary

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 30 June 2022

On January 4 1942 representatives of the 6 Reform synagogues in this country – Alyth was one of them – met at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. They established Associated British Synagogues with the aim of working more closely, supporting each other and being a voice of non-Orthodox Judaism. Interestingly they didn’t use the word ‘Reform’ in their title. In 1946 it became the Association of Synagogues in Great Britain – now with 8 synagogues. YASGB, the Youth Association of Synagogues in Great Britain, was also established in 1946. Only in 1958 – now comprising 16 synagogues – did this Association become the ‘Reform Synagogues of Great Britain.’ In 2005, the RSGB became the MRJ – the Movement for Reform Judaism and now has 43 member synagogues.

So this year, 2022, is the 80th anniversary of that gathering in Manchester. From being a small percentage of Anglo-Jewry in 1942, the Reform movement now constitutes over 20% of Anglo-Jewry.

My trajectory into the Reform movement can’t be that unusual. I was brought up in Hendon United Synagogue. My father, ultimately from Berlin, came from a fairly frum background; my mother from a very assimilated Polish Jewish one. I used to quip that it was a sort of mixed marriage. I went regularly with my father to shul on Shabbat, continuing to attend and go to cheder even after BarM. But the gap between what I was hearing in shul and what I was learning in my nice Christ’s College Finchley education grew wider and wider. I heard little or nothing about concern for the world or for those who weren’t Jewish. Ultimately something had to give and it was my attachment to Hendon United and what it stood for.

A friend at school took me along to youth club at West London Synagogue. I liked it and stayed. It was the first time – I was in my mid-teens – that I had even been on the premises of a Reform Synagogue. I got involved with the youth group and became chair the year that Hugo Gryn became rabbi. He ran a Shabbat afternoon discussion group and I learned things about Jewish teaching that I had never encountered before – things that attracted me to this part of the Jewish world and, eventually, to the Leo Baeck College and the rabbinate.

So I’ve now been involved with this movement for the best part of 60 years.

In my files, I found the sermon I had given on the 50th anniversary of the Reform movement in 1992. I spoke about the achievements of the Leo Baeck College, which, by then, was already recognised as a serious institution of Jewish learning. In 1992, just 10% of rabbis were women; now the figure is nearer 40% and admissions to the College run about 50-50 men and women. If I mention it now it’s simply as a sort of fact of Progressive Jewish life not as anything particularly novel.

It is of course often only when you look back over a period of decades that you become aware of particular patterns emerging. It wasn’t a word much in use in 1992 but today that word would be ‘inclusion.’ So many examples: we no longer talk about ‘marrying out’ when a Jew marries a non-Jew – because we know too often that two born Jews are quite capable, thank you, of leaving Jewish life behind; we know too many non-Jews who are very supportive of their Jewish partners and children; the idea that a non-Jewish parent might stand next to their child as they become Bar- or Barmitzvah was still not all that common in 1992; sadly there are still parts of the Jewish world where people who want to become Jewish are viewed with suspicion and made to jump through hoops to prove their worthiness, hoops designed in a past age as a deterrent. Clearly not the case today.

1992, telling somebody that their life-long non-Jewish partner couldn’t be buried in our cemetery seemed tough, but, with a sort of shrug we’d say: “what can we do?” It became increasingly cIear that status in our time is not, in the end, determined by gender or birth but much more by involvement with, and commitment to Jewish life.

Things that have become common-place in this part of the Jewish world were still worthy of comment in 1992: areas where there seemed to be tension between traditional Jewish teaching and current attitudes. Just 3 years earlier, in 1989, the first two lesbian rabbis had been ordained. It’s hard to remember back to such very different attitudes, a mere 25 years ago. The idea that a same-sex couple might one day stand under a chuppah in one of our synagogues and be married was, I think, simply beyond anybody’s horizon of possibility.

What has been happening is, I suppose, a sort of rescue operation – saving Jews from drifting away from Jewish life altogether, offering a possibility of a serious, lived and fulfilled Jewish life. I know that because I think I could well have been one of those people. Sometimes that has involved innovation; sometimes just a re-examination of what we considered to be ‘tradition’ – that is, something fixed and immutable. Once you start looking at what is called ‘traditional,’ you find that it was always much more flexible.

Another of the things that continues to characterise Progressive Judaism is what was called ‘prophetic Judaism’ – a Judaism that spoke of out of the prophetic tradition, of concern for society. If there’s a trinity in Jewish tradition it would be that Biblical one of ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow’ – the most vulnerable and defenceless groups in society. The prophetic tradition spoke of justice, of tikkun olam, of repairing the world. Earlier this week a colleague reminded me how we used to stand outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square in the 1970s and 80s conducting Pesach seders. “Let my people go” spoke of the struggle against Apartheid. Reform Jews have been involved in many social action issues: Extinction Rebellion, JONAH, JCoRE. Currently our synagogues run many social action programmes, like Night Shelter programmes for the homeless, refugee drop ins and the like. All these initiatives come out of that dimension of Jewish teaching.

Of course that teaching was there in my childhood, but I have little recollection of hearing about it from the pulpit or from my cheder teachers. And, sadly, if I did, it was usually concern only for the Jewish stranger, the Jewish widow and the Jewish orphan. Which is why it was such a revelation when Reform rabbis I met did talk about it.

Many years ago, Professor Jakob Petuchowski, at HUC, wrote about what he called “the ever-widening holiness franchise.” (Moment, Vol 10 No5 May 1985) Halachah changed, he said, when circumstances changed, often in fact making what he called ‘quantum leaps.’ Petuchowski argued that this “seems to have been the case particularly in instances where the matter at hand involved the translation into practice of the ideal that all Jews partake of the character of a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Exodus 19:6)

What the Reform movement has been doing for the past 80 years is to be involved with that ‘ever-widening holiness franchise.’ It has meant trying to spread the net over more and more people to include them in the orbit of Jewish life, making it accessible to them, accessible and meaningful.

In our Torah reading, Korach challenges Moses’ authority and leadership. “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above God’s community?” (Numbers 16:3) Those who seek self-aggrandisement will often take a valid idea but give it a slight twist to make it serve their ends; and of course in so doing reveal their less than disinterested motives. So Korach claims that we are all holy, all part of that “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” But that admonition is couched in the future tense: kedoshim tihyu, “you shall be holy and a kingdom of priests” but you’re not there yet.

Any significant anniversary is a moment to look back – where have we come from? – and ahead – what’s the next stage of the journey? 80 years have seen some pretty remarkable achievements. But there are challenges lying ahead – the ongoing challenge of how to continue to create a living and dynamic Judaism, spreading that ‘holiness franchise’ ever-wider, enabling us all to, live serious Jewish lives.

Rabbi Colin Eimer