Sermon Nov 8 2014

Although this sermon was given by Rabbi Tony Bayfield on Erev RH at Sharei Tzedek Synagogue, it provides a helpful introduction to the sermon he preached at FRS on Rosh Hashana morning.




Mah anu, meh hayeinu.  What or who are we?  What’s the nature and purpose of our Jewish lives in these unsettling and disturbing times?

It doesn’t sound as though this sermon is going to be a barrel of laughs and I’m afraid it isn’t.  But then there’s not much to laugh about in a society where the calamity of Grenfell Tower has exposed the gross inequalities within British society in the most shocking and distressing of ways.

Not much either to laugh about on the international stage with the grooming and seduction of the dispossessed of America by a ruthless, amoral egomaniac.

Not much to laugh about in a world where even the apparently random hazards of the environment are compounded by man-made global warming, two thirds of which – according to the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado – is directly attributable to the economic activity of just 90 industrial corporations, many state-owned, all over the world.

So no laughs and I don’t apologise.

* * * *

Several years ago, I came across the concept of liminality.  The word comes from the Latin word limen – not a sour fruit, but the threshold over which you have to step to enter a house. We probably know it best from the word subliminal, under the threshold of consciousness.  The term liminality was coined by anthropologists to describe a family group which is either expelled from or chooses to break away from a tribe and is in a state of not belonging because it hasn’t yet decided whether to throw in its lot with another tribe or go it alone.  It’s a powerful term – not just a metaphor but a term – for examining the Jewish community and asking, “What or who are we?” and, “What’s the nature and purpose of our existence in British society?”  Have we joined another tribe – the Brits?  Are we fully part of British society, a society, after all, forged from wave after wave of immigrants – Saxons, Danes, Normans, Huguenots, Irish?  Are we indeed those much derided ‘Englishmen of the Mosaic persuasion’?  Or are we still that breakaway family group, settled yet unsettled, for ever immigrants, liminal, living – if not on the threshold – close to the threshold, on the margins, at the edge?

Unusually for Jews it may well – in Britain today – be a matter of choice.  A survey’s just been published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research which demonstrates that, whilst anti-Semitic attitudes are still detectable, they’re held by a relatively small minority.  Some mindless supporters of Chelsea may still chant anti-Semitic slurs but it’s atypical and a large majority of the British people are not only accepting of us but determined to oppose anti-Semitism and eradicate it from British society completely.  How we see ourselves and with whom we identify is now very much up to us – whatever previous generations experienced and taught.

So, let’s look at the pros and cons:

Today, we could choose to shift the old mind-set and embrace our rightful place as fully part of British society – at least as much part of the mainstream as the Marchmains of Brideshead and Ken Livingston, former fabrente Mayor – in many respects stauncher defenders of the best of British values than either.  Contrary to what people may think and say, that’s been a Jewish dream since the dawn of modernity, for the last 200 years.  A dream not just of assimilated German Jews but of the majority.  If you read the early secular Zionists from Pinsker to Herzl, they all insist that being fully part of society is what we’ve tried to be but society wouldn’t have us – ‘only in our own state can we be both ourselves and be safe’.  But today that may well not be so and claiming our rightful place would bring an end to the constant refuelling of our neurotic fears, our dislike of being different, of sticking out like sore thumbs.  That’s a pretty powerful argument in favour.

For me, the contrary argument would not be the obvious one – that the present acceptance that the research shows is an illusion and the anti-Semites will always be there to get us in the end.  My question would be this: if British Jews are just Brits with a different religion, what will then be the glue that sticks Jew to Jew and Jew to Judaism.  What will be our USP – our unique selling point?  What will be the point of driving ourselves m’shuge to keep a shul and its activities going?  After all, rates of secularity amongst Jews are very high.  The majority of Jews outside the world of ultra-orthodoxy are not driven by faith.  It’s not the Jewish God who keeps alive Jewish identity any more.  So what will?

I recently came across a book, “On Betrayal”, by a secular Israeli philosopher called Avishai Margalit.  Towards the end of the book he writes about workers who are ‘insiders’ and workers who are ‘outsiders’.  Margalit says that the ‘insiders’ enjoy relatively secure jobs and care politically about the conditions that make their jobs secure.  These are the ones who are well represented by social democratic parties and trade unions.  Those who are the most insecure, who go unrepresented, he calls ‘outsiders’.  And he concludes, “Nativists [in our case, we white British] constitute the main bulk of the insiders, immigrants the largest part of the outsiders”.

The Nazis coined the term Fremdarbeiter, alien-worker, to cover non-Aryans coerced into slave labour.  Post-war, a new and softer term was invented to refer to those who’d come from abroad to work in Germany – Gastarbeiter.  But, says Margalit, ‘guest’ is a double-edged term.  The expectation of guests is that they should be eternally grateful for the favours of the host.  They’re entitled to protection but they should also know their place as guests.  And in times of conflict they become instant suspects – especially if they have terrorist infiltrators in their midst.

That was certainly true of Jews in the past – scrub the front-doorsteps of the well healed and be grateful you’re not back in Austria – but today’s research suggests that it’s no longer true, even though our ties to Israel evoke conflicted echoes of long-held prejudices.  We’re no longer guests in Britain but ‘insiders’ – and that may well prompt conflicted feelings in us as well as considerable ambiguity over what or who we really are.

Mah anu, meh hayeinu.  What or who are we?  What’s the nature and purpose of our Jewish lives in these unsettling and disturbing times?

You’re knowledgeable and committed Jews – probably more than you realise, given the enduring prejudices of the Jewish community – so many of you will know the next step in my argument.  Our defining event – in Torah, in the Festivals and Jewish liturgy – is the escape from slavery in Egypt.  How often have you heard sermons which refer to Leviticus, Chapter 19 verse 34: “The strangers, the immigrants who live with you must be treated as equal citizens.  You must behave towards them as you behave towards yourselves because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.”  It’s the fundamental role of the Jew as ‘insider’ to side with the ‘outsider’ because being outsiders is what we’ve been throughout our history.  But what does that mean, mamash, in concrete terms?

Let’s go back for a moment to our pensioned-off Jewish God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, to the God of the Prophets and the God of the Rabbis: it is absolutely unarguable (and I acknowledge that unarguable has no meaning amongst Jews), it’s unarguable that the Jewish God is the embodiment of justice.  It’s justice and the quest for the just society or, rather, a fairer society which God, Eloheinu v’Elohei Avoteinu v’Imoteinu, embodies.  Justice, righteousness remains the driving force of Judaism, its meaning and purpose – whether or not it has divine authority for us.

The Jew is either commanded by God or compelled by Jewish culture to seek justice and, says Avishai Margalit in the context of the ‘insider/outsider paradigm’, fighting injustice must be our unambiguous starting point.  As Margalit writes, “Gross injustice is a powerful force for creating a sense of solidarity.”  And, “what starts out as a group motivated to counter injustice may turn into a group motivated enough to pursue positive justice or, rather, motivated enough to pursue more justice.”

Solidarity with the outsider: Joseph Soloveitchik was an American Orthodox rabbi and philosopher, Jonathan Sack’s guru.  He offers a stunning insight which brings the various threads of my case this Erev Rosh Hashanah together.  Soloveitchik emphasises the intense ethical significance of with whom we show solidarity and he draws this distinction.  He says that there are two modes of existence – which Margalit goes on to call ‘solidarity of fate’ and ‘solidarity of destiny’.  ‘Solidarity of fate’ looks back to the past and is based on shared suffering and allegiance to those who are suffering now – ‘outsiders’, those on the margin, the un-empowered – those with whom up to now we have had a shared fate.  ‘Solidarity of destiny’ also means making common cause but looks to the future – destiny demands going forward through collective action.

And that for me answers the burning question with which I began.  What’s the glue which will continue to bind Jews together; what should be our USP – our unique selling point?  Just this: justice.

We are now ‘insiders’ in a society increasingly fractured by ideological extremists of the right and the left.  Our past has acquainted us with what it feels like to be strangers, immigrants – outsiders, powerless and vulnerable, with no-one who will make common cause with us.  We British Jews may, at least temporarily, have been released from the fate of suffering – and that liberates us to show practical solidarity with those whose fate we know so well; to make common cause, to affirm our destiny by working with them for a more inclusive, more just, fairer society in Britain.  The outsider-become-insider and the outsider who craves acceptance are united by the quest for justice.

* * * *

These are disturbing times.  The world around us is both unsettled and unsettling but we can respond by recognising that for we Jews at least, things have changed for the better.  In the past we were cast as liminal, outsiders, guests allocated a place on the margins of society.  We, therefore, had our lives scripted for us.  We’re now in a position to script our own lives for ourselves and help others to script theirs.  And, in so doing, respond to the challenge Mah anu – what and who are we and Meh hayeinu – what’s the nature and purpose of our Jewish lives?

This Rosh Hashanah we can do no more than acknowledge our past, our fate.  But when it comes to the future and our destiny – how we see ourselves in society and with whom we show solidarity – that’s our choice.  May we choose with an understanding of our Jewish past and the courage to give ourselves a Jewish future.

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE, DD (Cantuar)


Comments are closed.