The first time I presented my Ph.D. thesis to the examiners I was turned down because inadvertently I had used the same quotation twice. I hope I do not now suffer the same fate and have my third High Holyday sermon of this year docked points for the same reason. I started out commenting on the “God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and have attempted to show that though I can’t prove the existence of God anymore than Dawkins can disprove it, I can vouch for the positive value and power of religion, of Judaism. This morning Aaron gave us a powerful reminder of the value of religion to move us to social action, and last night I introduced a definition of right religion with a quotation I now repeat. It’s by the British essayist & poet Arthur Christopher Benson. For him religion is: “the power, whatever it be, which makes a person choose what is hard rather than what is easy, what is lofty and noble rather than what is mean and selfish; that puts courage into tender hearts and gladness into clouded spirits; that consoles us in grief, misfortune and disappointment; that makes us joyfully accept a heavy burden; that in a word, lifts us out of the dominion of material things, and sets our feet in a purer and simpler region.”
Amen to all of that, but I can easily add to his list. On Rosh Hashanah I outlined the aid and comfort that comes out of a religious community; support that will be ever more needed in our fragmenting society; care that will be urgently needed as we will struggle to look after our aging population with diminishing family help and diminishing State support. I have not yet heard of a Dawkins society of fervent atheists setting up care committees and bereavement groups. All the things we do so well in our congregation, and lets be honest, the good people who give of their time do not do so, in the main because God commands them to do it, but because our tradition of 3000 years has trained us to know that this is the right thing to do. And our tradition has given us stories on which to base our morality, Biblical and Talmudic and Chassidic role models that help us remember what is expected of us, which help us train our children in the right way. And we have a Jewish history that can both inspire us and frighten us and hopefully enlighten us. And a history is important to give us a place in the endless flow of time. And on top of all this, we have our Jewish culture, our humour, our music, our jokes, our food. Of course we can also enjoy all the pleasures of the secular national versions of these delights, yes even fish and chips if I can mention this on Yom Kippur, but we have the privilege of the additional layer of tribal distinctiveness to add another colour to our everyday identity. And, though I am extolling the virtues of being Jewish, those who belong to Muslim or Christian or Hindu communities experience the same blessing of being different and yet alike. Experiences I just don’t think you get from joining the Humanist Society, though to be fair that society does urge its members to lead an ethical life.
And there is the art and the architecture, though we Jews are not great in this sphere, but the exhibition at the British Library allows us to share in the inspiration religious texts have given. And I believe that if you have a special relationship with your own Jewish calligraphy it makes the Arabic or Latin more special to you than if viewed by a pure academic art historian. Great historic cathedrals or mosques seem to mean more to a person even from another religious faith than to someone with none; though of course sadly there are some ultra fundamentalist Jews or Muslims who would never set foot inside St Paul’s Cathedral. Sad. Of course we can all marvel at special buildings: Versailles or Blenheim Palace or the Taj Mahal, but people with a religious background have an added chance of inspiration. I’m always moved by members of the synagogue who rarely come to our services, who tell me that on holiday in some far off place they, with great effort, sought out the local synagogue or Jewish cemetery. And often bring me back a post card to prove it. And I can tell you so many travellers’ tales of synagogue visits; just one: I recall this May in Romania in a place called Pietra Neamt, late Friday afternoon and going into the 18th century wooden synagogue. Not the most beautiful by far, in fact dusty with pealing paint. Thank God we got there before this UNESCO listed building is restored, for still, even in its mustiness, it was filled with the atmosphere of the congregation who had abandoned it in 1890-something for the far more architecturally advanced sanctuary next door. But then they say the Baal Shem Tov had prayed in the wooden synagogue, and I felt his presence there. Mystical, nostalgic imagination I know, but such are the experiences that we religious people can have when we combine emotion with historical remembrance; a spirituality hard to explain to an atheist….and there as the sun set in May we Liberal Jews prayed the Shabbat evening service together with the elderly remnant of that community. Perhaps the first Liberal service they had ever attended.
To be religious is to have all the blessings I have outlined above and also to enter a world of wonder. The opportunity of making a discovery that moves the soul. Yes it could also be music or nature, any special moment or experience when you are transfixed and transformed. It could be the moment of making a scientific discovery, or just the sudden understanding of why something works, or even finding the last clue in a crossword. Yet a person with religion (I think that more expressive than saying a religious person); a person with a religious background and insight, however slight can experience all of these, plus a few more, as I have tried to explain.
And finally being Jewish gives you one more incredible chance, and that is to be attached to and in love with the incredible story of a modern State called Israel. Yes, it can also give you all the agonies, worries, concerns that the love of anything brings, but also the greatest of blessings. We might question certain Israeli government policies, both towards sections of its own population and towards its neighbours, we might have increasing concerns about the way its neighbours verbally and physically seek Israel’s destruction, irritations at the behaviour of some Israelis; but there is so much that gives us genuine cause for pride. Such much for which we Jews in the Diaspora should feel grateful. We stand between two important dates: the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War and the 60th of Israel’s very foundation. 1967 & 1948. At the time we acknowledged both events as modern miracles: I urge you , for a moment, to reflect and repeat the word miracle in your heart and brain. Too easy to let the revisionists and nay-sayers blight our appreciation of what these two events record in Jewish history, how they affect us this very day. No as Jews we have every reason to feel proud, to rejoice, to give thanks for all that Israel means to us. And this is but the final reason why I declare to you: it’s good to a Jew, and I wouldn’t be a rabbi if I didn’t then add…so why not be a good Jew.
And I will end with a favourite poem by my favourite Israeli poet. It is a reminder that you can be a completely secular Jew, yet still coloured by the language and nuances of our religion. It reminds us of one final boon…a sense of wry humour. It was written on Yom Kippur 1967, the first time that Jews could enter the Old City of Jerusalem since 1948.
“On Yom Kippur in the year 5728, I put on
Dark holiday clothes and went to the Old City in Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in the niche of an Arab’s shop,
Not far from the Nablus Gate, a store
For buttons and zippers and spools of thread.
In every shade and snaps and buckles.
A rare light and many colours, like a Holy Ark opened.
I said without speaking that my father
Had a store like this for threads and buttons.
I told him without words about the decades,
The causes, events, that now I am here
And my father’s store was burned there and he’s buried here.
When I finished, it was time, for Neilah, the closing prayer.
He too lowered the shutter and locked the gate
And with all those who prayed I went home.”
May this New Year of 5768 be one that brings new understanding between Jew and Arab, even if unspoken. An awareness that events and causes bring us to where we are, but that we must move on beyond our suspicions and enmity towards peace.
May you all return home tonight having made teshuvah, a return to your God, your religion, your people. If you believe in God, may you feel touched by God’s presence during the prayers of this long day. If you are not sure about God, may God have touched you just a little. And if you are sure there is no God, may your Jewish spirit have been revived, and who knows….? And may you all return home tonight with hearts uplifted and may you be granted a good and healthy, a satisfying and peaceful New Year.