Shabbat Sermon (11 May) – By Adam Overlander-Kaye

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 16 May 2019

So you may have noticed that it says in the shul sheets that I’m giving the dvar torah in kollot and the sermon in main shul and so it made me think  – what’s the difference between a dvar torah and a sermon. In my mind a dvar torah is a short explanation of the torah portion as where a sermon is that but longer and more preachy! You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve gone for long and preachy….

Anyway. It’s always good to learn from mistakes. Fortunately I like learning. I’m not saying it was a mistake to say yes to giving the sermon before knowing what the torah portion was but next week is all about the visionary concept of the jubilee of giving the land rest – allowing nature to find agricultural balance and also taking stock of the human effort that goes into economic production. A perfect torah portion for these times. Never mind. I’m happy with priestly rules around bodily purity, sexual holiness, and ritual defilement.

I could of course cleverly link some of the recent remarkable sporting achievements to concepts of priestly leadership. Some of you here are smiling when thinking about that but I know that not all of you will be interested in football and won’t care that the Manchester United women’s team gained promotion to the FA Women’s Super League following the thrashing of Aston Villa Ladies 5-0 just a few weeks ago.

This weeks parasha is Emor. Also known as Torat Kohanim – the priests manual. Setting the scene for how the priests have a different relationship with jewish life and law through a range of obligations, restrictions and abstentions in a way that the other Israelites did not. According to the commentary in the Etz Chayim chumash, a mainstay of non-orthodox synagogues across the world,

“the kohanim are to represent a maximal level of devotion to God for their fellow Israelites. Every society needs a core of people who live by a more demanding code – to set an example of what is possible.”

I think I totally disagree. I’m not sure we need to fossilise. To set aside some whom we assume to be better. To be different. It’s them and us. And it is clear that the biblical torah is setting this up as an ideal society structure. It may have worked for a nomadic god fearing desert people finding their way literally, geographically, spiritually and psychologically in a post Egyptian and exodus world – but is this really our ideal jewish communal world? Where we place value on a hierarchy of religious observance?

In fact our parasha goes further. It doesn’t just create different levels of holiness within jewish society it tells via the death of a loved one that you can’t move beyond your status. If someone dies within your clan then if you are a priest you are not allowed to become ritually impure by coming into contact with the dead – unless they are your mother. Father. Your kids. The torah continues saying that a kohen, a priest, can also bury your brother. Or your sister. Though only if she has not had a sexual relationship. The Talmud in Yevamot does add in that you can also bury your wife! – but that’s it. We have boundaries and limits on how some can deal with death.

Personally I see this making permanence as an ideal problematic. And we often see it in our community and religious life. It’s a fossilisation of tradition. An idolising of deference. The wearing rose-tinted glasses when looking at the past.

But we know that it is ok to create new societal structures. It might be confusing at times and we might not understand everything around us but our jewish heritage teaches us to question, to demand and accept change. The world always changes. and it can’t just change for some things and not for others. As reform Jews, progressive we Jews, we welcome the crossing of boundaries, of personal, religious, sexual and cultural freedoms. We welcome equality and the deconstruction of privilege. A priestly caste reinforces privilege and if I’m honest usually male privilege. Our historic system led to thousands of years of deferential preference of tradition. But now we have female rabbis – or as I like to call them – Rabbis! And our world is better for that. we don’t believe in glass ceilings. We can bury whoever we like and in a variety of ways; we can consider vegan torah scrolls made from dried pineapple skin; we have changed the language around mixed-faith families from a fear of marrying out to that of welcoming in; we use musical instruments to enhance our prayer, our t’phillah experience and shabbat experiences. And yes, we are aware that sometimes it can lead to mixed dancing!

A few years ago I read an article by Nicola Twilley in the New Yorker magazine titled – An Ancient Flower Trapped in Amber. I can assure you I know nothing about the natural world, flowers or grasses. You should see the mess I have made of our garden. The article says that the flowers of the Strychnos electri are slim and small. Their petals flare out at the tip to form a star, out of which a single spindly tube protrudes. They look as if they might have fallen from the stalk yesterday, but they are ancient. Between fifteen and possibly forty-five million years ago, they landed in the sticky sap of a tree that is now extinct, in a kind of forest that no longer exists on Earth. The sap hardened into amber, the tree died, and eventually geology took over. The fossilized flowers were submerged in water, buried under layers of gravel and limestone, and finally thrust upward into the foggy hills of the modern-day Dominican Republic. There, in 1986, an American entomologist – a scientist who studies insects  – named George Poinar, Jr., unearthed them.

Poinar, who is now in his 80’s has spent his entire career examining insects trapped in amber, using them to reconstruct prehistoric ecosystems. In 1982, he and his future wife, the microscopist Roberta Hess, discovered a remarkably well-preserved female fly in a droplet of forty-million-year-old Baltic amber and their finding inspired Michael Crichton to write “Jurassic Park.” Since then, the Poinars have found the oldest known bee, the oldest known mushroom and the genetic sequence of a hundred-and-twenty-million-year-old weevil. Only a few of Poinar’s five hundred pieces of Dominican amber contained plant fragments rather than insects, and, being a bug person, he turned his attention to them last. It wasn’t until April of 2015, nearly thirty years after the fossils were first uncovered, that he decided to e-mail photographs of two specimens to Lena Struwe, a professor of botany at Rutgers University.

She studied the photos and this flower looked like things she had seen before—but it didn’t look exactly like anything she had seen before.” Struwe is an expert on the tropical trees, shrubs, and vines of the genus Strychnos. She compared Poinar’s images with other examples of the Strychnos family to try to find a match.

Eventually, Struwe concluded that the amber flowers constitute a new species, something different from anything that is alive today. In a paper published in Nature Plants, she and Poinar dub the species Strychnos electri, after the Greek word for amber (elektron). The flowers are the first example of an asterid—one of the three major groups of flowering plants, encompassing the sunflower, the coffee tree, and the potato, among others—to be found in amber in the New World. Unlike Poinar’s weevil, these specimens are unlikely to yield usable DNA: genetic material is much more difficult to extract from plant fossils than from insects or mammals. Nonetheless, the insects that likely pollinated electri, millions of years ago, would still be equipped to attend to modern members of the Strychnos family. The entire ecosystem within which the flowers evolved is extinct, and yet, somehow, their descendants have remained almost the same.

This is the killer line for me – The entire ecosystem within which the flowers evolved is extinct, and yet, somehow, their descendants have remained almost the same.

We could say the same about Judaism. The context of Biblical Judaism is in many ways extinct. But we, the descendants of that ancient, radical text and heritage remain, if not the same, then similar. That I believe is the mission of our jewish community today to recognise that perhaps as in the first line of the portion – vayomer Adonai el Moshe; emor el hakohanim; bnei aharon that when the lord said to moses, speak to the priests, to the sons of aaron – the torah means just that. to them. At that time. In that space and place. How we translate it today so that it simultaneously makes sense to us whilst having authenticity and meaning – that’s the responsibility of and the challenge for us progressive Jews in 21st century Britain – the most recent chapter in the story of our people.

Vayomer Adonai el moshe – the Lord said to Moses

Emor el ha’kohanim, bnei aharon – speak the priests, the sons of aaron

Ve’emarta a-le-hem – and say to them

Said. Speak. Say.

We like to talk us Jews (as you can tell by the length of this sermon). Why?

In the words of the great jewish storyteller, Penina Schram,

“The Jews are a story telling people. We cherish our memories and celebrate them through our stories. We are called the People of the Book but we are also the people of the spoken word. Bibilically, the world was created by God’s spoken word and the stories of our people are told and re-told orally, for we all carry within us ancient memories of our history, legends, songs and personal experiences.”

What is the story or stories we tell? How do we pass them on? And to whom?

Shabbat shalom.