Sermon: Shabbat Vaetchanan – Does one God mean one Nation State?

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 30 July 2018

I remember the first time I actively believed God existed. I was about seven years old, it was a Sunday afternoon and it was cold out. My eldest sister was best friends at the time with Zoe Jacobs, now a cantor, and she was round at our house, as she so often was. They were sitting together on the floor of our lounge and playing guitar whilst I was snuggled up on the sofa reading ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’, my favourite book. They used to sit together and play for hours and I loved the melodies that wafted through our house.

On this particular Sunday afternoon, the power suddenly cut out, and the house pitched into darkness. Scared of the dark, and annoyed at the interruption to my reading, I began to gently cry as my mum flapped around sourcing torches and lighting candles.

Zoe and my sister continued to play the melodies they knew by memory to calm me down. We all gathered around the guitars, and they began to sing ‘Light these lights’ by Debbie Friedman. Half way through the second chorus, as if by magic, the lights sprung back into action. It was the closest to a miracle I had ever seen, they had sung the lights on! And from that moment on I knew that God existed.

My relationship with God hasn’t always been that smooth sailing. I rebelled away from my beliefs in my teenage years, as so many teenagers do, I challenged God as I learnt more about science, I grew angry with God when I began to become more aware of injustices in the world. As I grew, my relationship with God grew with me. It changed and evolved, the same ways I did, and continues to do so as I move through life.

Despite my ever-changing relationship with God, I never denied that I believed in something. I acknowledge that there is something outside of my realm of control, something in this world that I don’t quite understand.

And I believe that Judaism as a religion, is greatly equipped for this grappling with God that happens as we develop in life. We as a people are named Israel, the name given to Jacob when he wrestled with an angel of God back in Genesis. Israel can be translated as the one who struggles with God, and hence as a people we are greatly encouraged to struggle with ideas of God, rather than just accepting a blanket image of the divine. And the word Israel has other connotations. It can be expounded as yashar El, meaning one who is honest with God, perhaps denoting that we need to come together with an honesty about God and an openness about our relationship with that God. Or Israel can mean to persist, or persevere, perhaps showing that we need to persistently challenge the ideals of God as we move through our lives.

Yet, even though we are encouraged to grapple with the exponential, sometimes the fixed liturgy we use doesn’t seem quite so open for a conversation about the nature of God. On the pages of our prayer book, God is defined as the almighty, the creator, the protector or healer. How can we pray to God, if this is not the God we identify with?

For me, the answer comes in the form of the Shema, read in Torah this week. This central statement in our liturgy, is not really a prayer, but more of a text of study, a theological debate slap-bang in the middle of our service. In the Torah itself, the first line of the Shema contains two enlarged letters, an ‘aayin’ and a ‘daled’. When read together these letters form the word ‘ed’ meaning witness. The shema is literally calling us to be witness to one God. Read at the peshat, most simple, level, this is a great text on monotheism, an exposition on the first commandment, you shall have no other Gods beside me.

But there is more to our Jewish monotheism. The editors of our own Prayer book, Forms of Prayer, argue in their commentary that the Shema is used to express that God is one despite the many ways in which God is experienced. The use of the tetragrammaton in this line of text, the name for God that we do not even know how to pronounce, is purposeful, to tell us that God is not just one thing to all people but many things that cannot be described. The God of Judaism has many different names, and no image, and so can be experienced in different ways by different people.

American liturgist, poet and Judaic scholar Marcia Falk writes about the monotheism of Judaism in the following way; ‘The authentic expression of an authentic monotheism is not a singularity of image but an embracing unity of a multiplicity of images’. By her standards, God is different qualities and different characteristics. Monotheism is having the capacity to glimpse the One God in the changing forms of the many.

The centre of our services, deemed ‘Judaism’s greatest contribution to religious thought’ – teaches us not to all relate to God in the same way, but rather to grapple with the concept of God. When we recite the Shema, we pledge to see us all as a combined entity of Israel that embraces and contains our diversity and connects all things, however different, together.

The Shema asks us to be one humanity, however we relate to God, which feels in direct opposition to the new Nation State law, recently adopted by the State of Israel. The controversial new law prioritises Israel’s Jewish identity over its democratic one, and declares that only Jewish people have the right to ‘self-determination’.

This law feels so far removed from the principles on which Israel was founded, that say Israel will “…foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture;…”

The progressive rabbinate of Israel feel that the Nation State law will erode the necessary balances among the core values of the state of Israel. It is a law that causes real damage to marginalised communities throughout Israel, by making them feel they will never be equal citizens. By downgrading Arabic from an official language, the Arab community are labelled second class citizens and the fraught relationships become even worse.  There is also a fear that there will be no recognition of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism of the LGBTQ+ communities as they do not represent the interests of Orthodoxy. And it seems these views have been enforced this week as a conservative Rabbi was arrested for performing a non orthodox wedding and a law was passed banning gay couples from working with surrogate mothers in Israel.

What is so worrying about this law is the assumption that control can be had over people’s beliefs and the Judaism they practice. The law begs the question of who will define what a Jewish life is? What will happen for a person when their Judaism is not the Judaism of the state? Will each individual be able to act and live the Jewish life of their personal desires?

We as Jews, must make it ok to have differing views on God, without it affecting our ability to live a Jewish life. We must allow our children to believe in miracles, our teenagers to reject their belief in God, whilst we too continue to grapple with our own ideas of the divine. We must not make talking about our God and our Judaism a taboo subject, or fear speaking about our opinions when our Judaism is not that as defined by state law.  We must fight for an Israel where we can all live our Jewish lives how it must suits us, interacting and exploring our relationship with God and with each other as we go.

May we continue to live our Judaism with the monotheism of the Shema in our hearts – Listen all of you who struggle with God, we can glimpse the varying forms of God amongst the many, and that God is one.  Hear oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.