Sermon: The Limits of Multiculturalism – Vayechi 2010

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 December 2010

ln my Leo Baeck College Student days, during Chanukah, I went to a primary school in Mitcham in South London to teach a class of seven  year old children about Chanukah. There was no need to tell them the Chanukkah story, they already knew it. I could tell that as soon as I started asking them who the Maccabees were, what the miracle of Chanukah was, why we light eight candles and suchlike.

The funny thing was that there were no Jews amongst them. Half of the class was West lndian, a quarter was Asian and the last quarter was made up of white children, including one engaging Bosnian boy, who when I came into the classroom wearing a Cippah asked me if I was on my way to Mosque after the class. Their teacher, an old friend of mine from university days, had done a super job teaching them the basics of Chanukkah from a book written for the purpose by Rabbi Julia Neuberger. My task was to show the children how Chanukah is celebrated in a Jewish home.

So we lit the school’s Channukkiah together – note that I was told that there were no more than two Jewish children on the school roll- yet still they had a Chanukkiah. I taught the class to sing Maoz Zur and, very popular this part, gave them each a mini doughnut from a Temple Fortune Bagel bakery. This was multi-cultural education – as required in the National Curriculurn.- and you can’t teach about Jewish culture without food!

About a week later, there was a resounding clunk on our doormat. I opened a bulging envelope and out came 3O beautiful Chanukah cards in which the children of that Mitcham primary school had painstakingly inscribed – in Hebrew no less -Birchot I’Chanukkah- Chanukah blessings. There was also a tape which the children had made of themselves singing Ma’oz Zur – with Hebrew annunciation most Religion School teachers would dream of! I phoned my friend their teacher to thank her – and she told me that Maoz Zur had now become the most popular skipping song in the school playground.

Well all that sounds wonderful, heart warming. Those children will hopefully see Judaism and Jews as a positive presence – not a threat – and a little something will have been achieved by that piece of multi cultural education to foster understanding between Peoples.

But now consider this episode – which happened about a week later – I am still not sure what to make of it myself. At the time I ran a youth club for 12-16 year olds at a certain large London Synagogue. During the school holidays the club was offering a series of outings for the youth of the synagogue. We went ice skating,and Quad-Biking and in the week of Channukah a small group of the club members came with me to Michael Sobell Community Centre run by Jewish Care just recently reopened which, then as now provides a marvellous selection of interesting and stimulating activities, all day every weekday, for over 2OO elderly people and many others in need of a friendly , busy place to go.

My club members were a credit to their synagogue. They worked tirelessly to lay up and serve lunch to 2O0 people. They participated in a discussion with people five times their age. They busied themselves in the arts and crafts room. They listened in rapt attention as a man in his eighties called Nat told them about his part in Hitler’s downfall. They were the epitome of Tzedakah conscious Jews.

At 2.30, when the activities of the day came to a close they all went up to the art room of the centre and were set up by the Art Therapist to do some silk screening and block printing. And here in the Michael sobell centre, after a day in which they had all shown the best of their Jewish selves they all decided to make Christmas Cards for their friends and parents!

My question is this – there I was in Mitcham to teach about Chanukkah to a class of obviously non Jewish children – and I found their response very heart warming – Here was a group of Jewish children – all studying for or past their Bnei Mitzvot – making Christmas cards – and I felt distinctly uncomfortable.   How can one be right without the other? ls there a problem with the flip side of multiculturalism when you see it in your own people?

The Rabbis singled out as praiseworthy a Jewish resistance to multiculturalism that they saw written into our Torah portion this week.   Our portion’ Vayechi’ from the final chapters of the Book of Genesis tells us about how Jacob at the end of his life comes to bless his twelve sons before he dies in Egypt.  Within the portion we are told the names of all of the sons of Jacob who came into Egypt following their brother Joseph during a time of famine: Reuben, Simeon, Levi Dan etc. ln the 26th Chapter of the book of Numbers, when the Exodus has happened, years later, we are told that the tribes still carried the same names the tribe of Reuben, of Simeon etc- thus Rabbi Eleazar Ha Kappar said the Children of lsrael had kept their names and therefore their identity as the children of Jacob, despite hundreds of years in Egypt, only the last three of which had been spent in slavery.

The Rabbis were especially impressed by Joseph. He remained loyal to his father’s heritage, proud to introduce his father to Pharaoh. Was it not splendid that he, the Viceroy of Egypt, kept his proto-Jewish identity intact despite all of the natural advantages of integration into Egyptian high society?

You can see their point. Had the Children of lsrael not kept loyal to their identity, and by extension their religion, throughout all of those years the Torah would have ended abruptly with the book of Genesis. Jacob would have blessed Pharaoh, blessed his sons on his deathbed, they would have settled in Egypt and then nothing. There would have been no Exodus, no Mount Sinai, no Mitzvot, no Jewish literature, no Jewish contribution to the world as a whole and we – we would not have been here today as Jews.

But yet, had our Jewish identity not been sufficiently flexible to allow us to learn from other cultures, and indeed, other religions, there would have been no place in Judaism for example, for Maimonides, deeply influenced as he was by Muslim understanding of Greek Philosophy, as all who attended Rabbi Josh’s recent course on his life and teachings have learned. We would have been unable to respond to the emancipation of the nineteenth century – except by shutting up the gates and confining ourselves to an intellectual and probably physical ghetto. And had that happened then today we Jews would be a lost and peculiar people, unable to exist in and to enrich modern society.

The example of our Torah portion clearly shows us that the growth of Judaism as a thriving religion depends on our careful nurturing of our Jewish identity as distinct from the peoples amongst whom we live. Yet the example of history shows that we need to learn from and to incorporate the best of our surrounding cultures in order for our Judaism to progress through history.

It seems to me that this is a question of limits. What is the limit of Jewish multiculturalism? Should we learn about other religions and cultures? Should we enjoy being part of them? Should we participate in their rituals and practices?

Let us first consider the question of learning about other Religions and cultures.  There are two poles in Progressive Jewish learning about other religions – the one perhaps represented by the late Rabbi lgnaz Maybaum, a highly respected founder of modern Reform Judaism, and the other by Claude Montefiore, one of the founders of the Liberal Jewish movement, (Zichronam L’bracha). I suspect that most of us would take a position somewhere between the two.

Rabbi Maybaum was the instigator of the comparative Religion course at Leo Baeck college and, in the words of Rabbi Lionel Blue who together with Rabbi Michael Lee, formed the first intake of the college, Rabbi Maybaum’s approach was to teach his students about other religions and to show them how each other religion had got it all wrong.

Claude Montefiore’s approach was to study wholeheartedly the New Testament in order to See how it could supplement and complement our own more obviously Jewish sources. He wrote the following in 1903 {Liberal Judaism 178-181) “To read a chapter of the New Testament in a Liberal synagogue would provoke misunderstanding… But outside the synagogue, it is right for Liberal Jews to read the NewTestament; itistheirduty, and it is within their power to appraise and estimate it correctly without prejudice and passion’ What on these lines we appropriate and admire can never make us less devoted to Judaism, because what we admire and what we appropriate will itself be Jewish..”

What lies in between? The Reverend Vivian Simmonds (Zichrona Livrachah)’ was minister for many years of West London Synagogue, of this Synagogue and then of Wembley Liberal Synagogue. He wrote in his book The Path of Life, that what the Progressive Jew may not, in true conscience, do is to “deny the greatness in other religions”. “Though”, he wrote, “naturally we believe our own to have a greater measure of truth than others.” He continued, “Each man and woman is born into a certain environment, and is trained in one particular way; each has an inheritance for which he is not responsible; each has the holy task of making his or her life as effective as possible; each must follow the teaching which he believes to be true. The Shechinah, the divine presence, rests upon all who strive to do this, whatever be the kind of faith they follow, or the forms in which they give it express;sn.” (p153)

A number of times I have taught in this way in courses concerned with the interrelationship of Judaism and lslam. We study the stories of Abraham and Noah and their interpretation in our own tradition and then look at the way that the characters of Abraham and Noah have been treated in the Muslim Koran. We find great differences in approach to the same biblical story. The Koran, as it often does, incorporates Midrashim on the stories of both.

Through doing this comparison I think that we came away with a clearer idea of the way in which Judaism never allows a human being to be a superhero. We keep our archetypes human. We learn from each other as people, not as unapproachable saints as Abraham and Noah were presented in the other religion. This was, I think a useful lesson that could not have come across without considering traditions outside Judaism.

Another level on which our understanding other religions is important is the level of cultural references. Without a reasonable knowledge of the source books and stories of other religions and cultures, the Jewish child will find it difficult to read and appraise books and other media produced by non- Jews and would be disadvantaged in being able to be effective in the modern world.

Should we as Jews enjoy the expressions of other religions and cultures? ls there a problem for a Jew in taking pleasure at hearing carols on the Radio, feeling involved in the present storylines about the goodwill of Xmas in the soap operas, being swept up by the atmosphere of relative calm and leisure that envelops Britain at this essentially Christian season? I really cannot see any reason why we should shut ourselves off from these. But I would make one proviso. Let us be there as Jews, observing what happens, taking pleasure with our fellow citizens, thinking on what we see and enjoy and considering how we can express goodwill in a Jewish way.

My third question was this: Should we participate in the rituals and practices of other religions? I am willing to be disagreed with, but here I think we have reached the limit of permissable multiculturalism. Symbolic acts are there to point at higher concepts. When we open the Ark we are pointing at our willingness to learn from the Torah. When we lit the Chanukkiah the week before last we were pointing at our admiration for the courage of those who have defended Judaism throughout the ages. However, if we send a Christmas card to another Jew we are expressing goodwill on the basis of the birth of another peoples hero. lf we install a Christmas tree in our front room, we are identifying with pagan midwinter rituals which have been given a valid Jewish expression only in our lighting of the Menorah. That is how we should celebrate God’s gift of light.

Essentially my message is this – by all means let us be active as Jews in the wider society of our nation and of the world. Let us learn from other religions and cultures, let us enjoy what they have to offer – but let our practice be Jewish. Let our expressions of higher truths be executed in a Jewish way, let us not casually fall into losing our Jewish identity by taking on practices which point to concepts which are strictly not Jewish.

Let us, lsrael, be here in the world as Jews sharing what we are and what we have with our neighbours and encouraging them to share with us – but always conscious that we are rooted in the children of Jacob