Sermon: VaYikra: European Judaism is not a Heroic Failure

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 2 April 2012

If you are writing for a series on American television and you want your characters to be memorable cultural icons who will propel your series to high ratings and a lasting place in the hearts of the American public – then you have to make sure that your characters are essentially successful.  They must succeed against adversity, like the characters in the series Friends who all in the end make it.     They must actually be good at their job like President Jed Bartlett in the West Wing or any of the doctors in ER.  They must transcend the stereotypes that others lay upon them, like the teenagers in Glee.   To make an American series work its all got to come right in the end.

However if you are writing for a British series, as writer Armando Ianucci says, and you aim is succeed then you need to make sure that your characters are more or less heroic failures.   Malcom Tucker in the “The Thick of It” is just odious.  Captain Manwaring in “Dad’s Army”  really is not the kind of man you want as the last barrier before Hitler invades.   Basil Fawlty is monumentally bad at his job as a hotel manager and nothing that Steptoe and Son ever planned came off.  We teach children the same lesson – Wallace of Wallace and Gromit, always in the end has to give up.  That is what we British find funny and endearing.

Our admiration for heroic failure is perhaps at the root of how most British Jews relate to European Jewry and even to our place within it.    We assume that it is besieged and attenuated – cut off and reduced by the assumed terrorist threat which so sadly came true in the form of one madman in Toulouse this week.    We are tempted to think that only Judaism in Israel or America can have the longevity and vitality to keep our people going in its contribution to the world.

But this is not true.   Last week in Amsterdam three hundred leaders drawn from the 170 Reform and Liberal Jewish congregations around Europe came together for the bi-ennial conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism.   We were from Amsterdam to Zurich, from Spain in the West to the Ural mountains of Russia in the East, from Milan in Italy in the South to Copenhagen in Denmark in the North.    I was there to share some of Alyth’s ways of building Jewish community with the other congregational leaders, educators and Rabbis.  I led workshops on how our Synagogue is able to combine the feel of a community centre with being a traditional Shul, and on how we multiply our community rather than dividing it by offering parallel and alternative ways to worship and for children and adults to learn.    I also had the opportunity to learn from my counterparts from all around Europe.

The first signal that European Judaism has immense potential was the Synagogue in which the conference took place itself.   This newly built Liberal Jewish Community of Amsterdam is one of ten Progressive Jewish congregations in Holland today.   It was founded in the early 1930s, grew rapidly as the thirties continued and German Jewish refugees fled to Holland.  Members in its first decade included Anne Frank and her family.  Otto Frank remained an active member after the War and the library of the Synagogue is named for his daughter Anne.  Now more than two thousand members make this striking architectural masterpiece with a Bet Teffillah or Sactuary of breathtaking beauty opened just a year ago, a thriving community centre Synagogue much like Alyth.

The conference was full of stories of the redemption of the Jewish people of Europe from the failure to which others wanted to consign us.   The Liberal Joods Geemente in Amsterdam itself suffered terribly during the Second World War.  85% of its congregation did not survive the Nazi murderers – and those who did had often done so through being in traumatic hiding.  Nevertheless, under the leadership of Rabbi Jacob Soetendoorp they managed to rebuild their congregation person by person and establish a building in South Amsterdam in the 1960’s.   Earlier this year Alyth hosted a large group of Dutch Jewish teenagers here for a weekend and later this year they will be returning the favour as our Alyth Youth Singers goes for a tour of their communities in Holland.

German Judaism is also striving to rebuild.  There are many Reform congregations throughout the country, the majority of whose members are Jews of former Soviet Union origin.  For them the Reform Synagogue has provided a place to be together and to begin life in their new country, some are thriving some less so but the effort to ensure that Judaism binds people to each other is inspiring.   Through the indefatigable efforts of Rabbi Walter Homolka, German Reform Jews have set up their own Rabbinic training college, the Abraham Geiger Colleg, based at Potsdam University and have received great assistance from the German government to meet the costs.   You can now train to be a Reform Rabbi or Jewish Educator in Europe, at Leo Baeck College here in London, Geiger College in Potsdam or the new Levinson institute in Amsterdam.   History has shown that every Jewish community which has thrived has always had its own Institute of Higher Jewish Learning – now European Progressive Jews have three.

Eastern European Jews were well represented at the Conference.   The Reform congregations in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Krakow and now Sofia in Bulgaria were all there. Places where Judaism was murderously snuffed out by the Nazis and then made near impossible under communism after the war are now home to terrific communities with congregations full of young adults rediscovering their Jewish roots.   So too Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. It is 20 years since Reform Judaism was re-established in Minsk, Kiev, Moscow, St Petersburg and many other centres.  Our own partner congregation in Kerch in the Crimea celebrates its fifteenth birthday this year. Thousands of Russian, Ukranian and Belorussian children go to their every popular summer camps and their Rabbis are now dear colleagues.

There is a new frontier for Reform Judaism where we are truly relighting the Ner Tamid, the everlasting light, which shone so dimly for the past five hundred years that you would have barely noticed it.  This is in Spain – the home of the Jewish golden age from the 9th to 15th Centuries.   Reform Judaism began there twenty years ago in Barcelona with the foundation of Congregation Atid, whose name means “future”.   It current Chairman told us the history of his ancestor Juan Falcon el Viejo who was among those expelled from Spain in 1492 who made his way to South America with his family eventually settling in Beunos Aires, Argentina.  They returned to Spain from there in this generation and his son, the first born into the community in Barcelona bears his ancestors name.

Like all mature Jewish communities there are now two Reform Synagogues in Barcelona after a broighus in the first congregation – and of course the other Synagogue founded from this broighus is called Beit Shalom – house of peace.   A new congregation was founded this year in the north of the country in the region of Asturias and in Cordoba, the home of the great Jewish scholar Maimonides and Seville there are now regular Reform services and learning in the new congregation Beit Rambam.  This congregation is led by the first native student Rabbi from Spain Haim Casas who begins his studies at Leo Baeck College this year.  Haim, like many Spanish Jews today comes from an Anusim background – this means that his family preserved a tradition of being Jewish ever since the time of the Spanish inquisition.  It is only in his generation that they have felt safe to return to Judaism – after a gap of 500 years.  Reform Judaism enabled them to come back.

Maddie today in her D’var Torah struggled with the concept of sacrifice..   She knows that we replaced sacrifice with prayer as our way of seeking contact with God in worship so that reading about sacrifice is mainly of historical interest.  But there are no wasted words in Torah.

Our scholars explanations of sacrifice fall into two camps – the first championed by Maimonides (of Cordoba’s) camp where sacrifices were God’s concession to the early Israelites who only understood worship as the giving of physical beings to God, like the other peoples around them.   It took time for them to understand that prayer and following God’s commands was the best way to be with God.   The alternative explanation was championed by Saadyah Gaon in tenth century Egypt.   Sacrifice is not something that God needs but rather something that we need – because we need to give something of what we appreciate back to God in order to appreciate it – until we share our blessings they are just meaningless stuff.

These two views are reconciled by Shmuel David Luzatto the Italian scholar of the early nineteenth century.  He says that we have a natural desire to give our best to something we respect.  In the days of the early Israelites it was the animals they owned that they considered their best and thus it was natural that giving the best of their flock to God through sacrifice would be the most meaningful thing they could do.  Then the world moved on and we came to understand that it was the best of our intellectual and spiritual selves that we should give through Torah study and prayer.     Today this still holds true but in Europe which is still rebuilding its Jewish self after persecution our best also includes our enthusiasm to get Judaism going – the support we lend to European Jewish communities by visiting them, helping them to grow and the efforts that we put into our own communities here in London by making them thriving centres of Jewish care, learning and prayer.

May it be God’s will that they will continue to be so and may it be our will that we will help to make them so.