This year at college, Thursdays have been the highlights of my week. My class and I have had the pleasure of meeting people from all around the London Jewish community. People aged into their hundreds in East London, who have been there their whole lives and reminisce about Cable Street and the ‘good old days’ of the Jewish East End.
We were party to important conversations had by Holocaust survivors about how to be Jewish in public, and what happens when your children start caring for you instead of you for them. We met people from a group of friends who had become family to each other, living together in a house supported by Norwood for the past twenty years.
I gained so much from meeting all of these people and I would not have had the opportunity to do so were it not for the placements organised by Jewish Care in the third year of our training. These placements got me thinking: all these people exist in our communities and our communities have dedicated care teams and provide so much for congregants in need. But is there more we can be doing to bring everyone together? Does a person have to turn up to the retirement lunch and the tiny tots’ morning and a service specially designed for those with special needs, in order to meet the entirety of our community, or is there a way that we can all feel included at the same time, in the same space?
Today we often talk about inclusivity and recognise that these values are deeply rooted in Torah. Last week’s parashah warned us not to put stumbling blocks before the blind and to leave corners of our fields for the needy, and contains the golden rule to ‘treat others as you yourself would like to be treated’ (just to name a few).
But we are also often challenged by our texts. This week’s parashat Emor outlines strict and exclusive criteria as to who can be a priest. These criteria seem counter-intuitive both with regard to many of the laws outlined last week in parashat Kedoshim and to my vision of inclusive community.
In our communities we no longer have priests, and although many communities have rabbis, their role is not as exclusive as the one bestowed upon Aaron’s sons. In fact, many communities do very well without rabbis at all (I hope I am not putting my classmates or me out of a job here!). Instead, we adorn our Torah scrolls in the priestly clothing and parade them around our communities, making them accessible and available for all those present to enjoy.
Although many of the standards for priesthood may seem abhorrent to us now, it could be argued that the author was trying to construct the maxim of a person who could best provide for the community at the time – much like Leo Baeck College is trying to do for us rabbinical students.
In a modern reality where our Torah scrolls become our adorned priests and our prayer services replace the ancient ritual of sacrifice, maybe it is the community itself that we should hold to the high standards laid out for the priests in parashat Emor.
These standards would be ‘high’ in a completely different way though – focusing on an inclusivity suitable for today’s Progressive Judaism. There would be an emphasis on making Torah overtly accessible to anyone who may choose to partake, and allowing the whole community to be together in the room to enjoy it – and to gain enjoyment from others around them enjoying it as well.
Can we enact this kind of Torah by bringing our community closer together and mixing ourselves up a little more? It seems unfair that everything I learned from all the wonderful people I met on Thursday mornings is reserved just for the few of us who work with Jewish Care or study at Leo Baeck. What would it look like if the music group I enjoyed in Stepney with people aged 103 was joined by those aged just 3? If the tiny tots’ morning was combined with the retirement lunches and our Shabbat services built to be inclusive to those with special needs all the time? How much more we would learn from each other, how much closer our communities would be, and how many more people we would be getting through our doors if they knew that that priestly-looking Torah is not so distant, and is for them, too. As Ben Azzai says in Pirke Avot; do not disregard any person or discount anything for there is no one who has not their time and no thing that has not its place.
Student rabbi Anna Posner