Sermon: Us and the World (Cup)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 23 June 2018

It is not immediately obvious why I – indeed, any of us – should be interested in Germany versus Sweden.
And yet, chances are my night tonight will be spent watching the national teams of two foreign countries playing football in a Black Sea resort nearly 2,500 miles away.

From Peruvian support in tens of thousands to delightful Argentinian heartbreak; Icelandic resilience and Senegalese fans clearing up after themselves.  Despite the very problematic nature of its host, this World Cup has once again provided colour, and excitement. There is something in this international tournament that never fails to grab the attention, the wonder of a football world, and a world of people, beyond our doorstep.

It is therefore quite hard to believe that for the first few World Cups, English football chose not to be involved.  Invited in 1929 by the Uruguayan Football Association for the first such event the following year, the English Football League sent their apologies.  Four years later, invited once again, this time to Italy, the answer was the same. As it would be for France in 1938.

In part, this was motivated by fear.  What if something went wrong and England didn’t win?  In 1929, the Foreign Office advised of the importance of not putting “British prowess” at risk.  What, too, of contamination from the rest of the world – something we still hear occasionally today when commentators blame foreign footballers for aspects of our football they don’t like.  Connecting to the outside world, engaging with other cultures and ideas, carries risk.  And in the 1930s this was not a risk English football was willing to take.

But this was not the real reason.
Much more important was English self-perception, the last flickers of belief in God-given English superiority: “This fortress built by Nature for herself against infection” as Shakespeare put it in Richard II. England was the home of football; The Home Nations was therefore the real international competition.  When England later played the World Cup winners, the match was presented in the British press as the real World Championship game.  English football felt no sense of connection or responsibility for the game in the outside world because this was an inferior football.  One was English, not part of a wider football world.

As we watch the World Cup, these voices may seem alien to us now.
But there are plenty of places in which they remain, and this includes a growing segment of the Jewish world, internationally and in this country.  What the former Chief Rabbi of central Orthodoxy, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, condemned in his final address before stepping down from the position as ‘the world of inward-turning, segregationist Orthodoxy’.

This, growing, section of the Jewish world shares many of the same characteristics as English football did before the Second World War.

It, too, struggles with the apparent risk of engagement with an outside world.  This is seen clearly in some, and I emphasise some, independent Ultra-Orthodox schooling, which is a particular issue at present for the schools regulator OFSTED.   Shamefully, some of the central Jewish communal organisations, instead of challenging these behaviours, are now choosing to be complicit with them, advocating for these schools with government.  But they are deeply problematic:  A number of schools have been rated poorly for their limited study of science, poor standards in English and maths, and – much more significantly – refusal to meet national standards in safeguarding.  The ‘provocation’ of being asked to respect national law in teaching about equality as a British value led thousands of Charedi men and boys to hold a prayer rally in Stamford Hill this week.  There have been documented cases of censorship of textbooks to, for example, remove from a GCSE History book any reference to gay people as victims of Nazi atrocity.  Connecting to the outside world, engaging with other cultures and ideas, carries risk – and in 21st Century Stamford Hill and beyond, this is not a risk parts of the Jewish world are willing to take.

But just as in the 30s English football isolationism was not really about risk, but about self-perception, that sense of God-given superiority, so, too, for this section of the Jewish world, in an even more extreme way.

It is an aspect of our tradition that we tend not to talk about because it slightly embarrassing, as it is so alien and repellent to us.  But talk about it we must, for its effect on Judaism in this country and around the world is deeply destructive, and we have a responsibility loudly to challenge it.
For underlying segregationist Orthodoxy is an explicit theology of superiority.  Prevalent in ultra-Orthodoxy is an understanding of the divine promise to be an Am Segulah – a treasured people – that states, as Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Thought Menachem Kellner puts it, that there is “a metaphysical, innate, inherent, absolute difference between Jews and non-Jews”.  In this strain of thought, which stretches back to Yehudah HaLevi and the Zohar, the divine image is more strong within Jewish people.  Jews and non-Jews, as Kellner puts it, are seen as ‘ontologically distinct’ – in other words, this part of the Jewish world understands Jews as inherently superior.

Segregation must be seen through this lens.  Working to achieve broader integration within wider society is not just challenging, not just risky to a way of life.  Unless it is specifically in their communal interest, it is not necessary or in any way desirable.  There is no compelling sense of connection to or responsibility for the outside world for that world represents something lesser.  It is not only possible but desirable to exist without contact with non-Jews, so as not to be influenced by an inferior broader society.  One is Jewish, and not part of a wider world.

We must challenge this, too, because of the inevitably dehumanising effect this theology has.  Its implications for the approach of a segment of Israeli society to the Palestinian People is deeply destructive to any hopes for peaceful coexistence, because if you believe in inherent difference, innate superiority, greater ‘divine’ image, coexistence is deemed unnecessary.
Of course, this is not the only perspective in our rich poly-vocal tradition.  There are two very different visions, theologies, of what Judaism should look like.

While one voice may stress prohibitions on “chukkat hagoy” – “adopting the practices of the nations”, there is another voice – our voice, and that of the sadly much diminished classical Anglo-Orthodoxy of which Jonathan Sacks was perhaps the last vestige – that states that we live within a broader society.  This emphasises “dina d’malchuta dina” – “the law of the land is the law”.

While there is a position that says that we should live enclosed and distinct, pointing to the importance of separation in our texts, the other voice states that we are not just permitted but obliged as Jews to engage with the non-Jew.  In the words of the Talmud we do so “mipnei darchei shalom” – “for the ways of peace”.  And, this voice points out, to honour the demand of Tanakh that we be ‘a light to the nations’ requires that we are in connection with those other nations.

Most fundamentally, while that part of the Orthodox world emphasises that we as Am Segulah are separate, distinct, different, superior, we must respond that we are all created in the image of God, and the concept of chosenness is a chosenness of task not of superiority.

And this voice should go on.  Not merely that we are religiously compelled to look beyond ourselves, whatever that segregationist part of our community might say, but that we are better for it.
That if there is a risk, the risk is worth it. Our Judaism is richer for having more forms, different ways of reading the text, new forms of study, of prayer.  And only through increasing that richness, and only through an openness of stance can we ever hope to attract new generations to this beautiful game, into our synagogues and communal spaces.
Only this way will we ever reach the almost 70,000 households which include within them a Jew but which are not affiliated to a synagogue.

It is very rare for me to give space in my sermons to Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, but his final message to the Jewish world in his role was perhaps his most important.  It is one that anyone who cares about the future of our community should shout in the face of the growth of segregationist Judaism:
“We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world; if we look down on non-Jews…
[We must] engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged”.

So, as you settle down this Saturday night – as surely some of you will – to watch a game of football between the national teams of two foreign countries in a Black Sea resort nearly 2,500 miles away.  Or, more likely, as you watch England beat Panama tomorrow lunchtime.  Perhaps, reflect just for a moment on the importance of this football world beyond our doorstep.

On what it says about how we see ourselves – as part of a wider world, different, yes, but not unequal.  And the richness and colour that this brings to our lives.

Reflect, too, on the – in retrospect – extraordinary decision not to be part of that wonder, the decision of English football to cut itself off out of a sense of superiority which was, of course, misplaced.

And perhaps, allow yourself to draw the, admittedly very imperfect, analogy that I have drawn this morning.  To commit to rail against that inward looking segregationism, and to bring that richness, colour and connection to our Judaism, too.