Thursday, 29 Feb 2024

Written by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh

The English text of a sermon delivered by LBC Dean Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh in French at the Communaute Juive Liberale in Paris on 1st March.

Shabbat shalom kulam!

I am very happy to be with you tonight in Paris accompanied by some of the rabbinic students from Leo Baeck College. Leo Baeck is proud to have trained and ordained several French rabbis, including both the rabbis of CJL. One of the things we discovered was that there were significant differences between the French and Anglo-Saxon way of running congregations and understanding the role of the rabbi. I think we learned a lot from this, and I believe that it strengthened our respective understanding of each other. So I say Vive la difference, because difference is where the open-minded learn more about themselves, as well as others.

But whatever the differences on a religious and organisational level, and indeed on an international one, both you in France and we in the United Kingdom face a challenging year, particularly with elections in my country and in the United States, and in several parts of Europe, which may impact us all.

Coincidentally, today is the 210th anniversary of the day that Napoleon Bonaparte, having escaped from Elba, landed on the Cote D’Azur before starting a journey towards Paris that ended at Waterloo in 1815. The whole Napoleonic period was one of dramatic change, swinging one way and the other, and at no time would it have been possible to say that the situation was fixed and likely to endure.

We might argue that the life of our nations is in constant flux, always has been, and yet we nevertheless secretly hope that some things, once changed, will not revert to what they once were.

This Shabbat’s Torah parashah, Ki Tissa, is a perfect example of dramatic changes. Moses receives the commandment about Shabbat, an incredible gift that was bequeathed to the Jewish people in perpetuity, and through us to Christianity and Islam. It was visionary and far-reaching and has remained pivotal in Jewish life ever since. But….in the same parashah everything positive that has happened is overturned by the people wanting an idol, a god in their midst rather than the one on the mountain shrouded in cloud.

It is a powerful reminder that in human life we should always expect the unexpected. None of us, since that terrible day on October 7th last year, need reminding of this truth, for we know that it was an event that changed everything, possibly forever. It was a seismic moment, unleashing a tidal wave of fear, insecurity, and despair, and a tsunami of anti-Semitism.

I know you feel it here, as do we in the UK, and at home I can say that while many in the British Jewish community would say that anti-Semitism has never died, we felt that expressions of such hatred in the 21st century would bring shame and dishonour on those who expressed it, and condemnation from all right-thinking people everywhere.

Sadly, how wrong we were! The events in Israel and Gaza have not only seen an incredible spike in anti-Semitism across society in many nations, but in a twisted way those who condemn Jews for the actions of Israel have somehow legitimised their Jew hatred on the grounds that all Jews everywhere support all Jews everywhere, especially in Israel, thus our complicity justifies their loathing. Thank God, there are still many sectors of society that resist this cheap attack, who support us, sympathise and weep with us, but they are a minority and not as loud as the majority.

How quickly things change, how quickly what we thought buried in the distant past bubbles to the surface to waft its poisonous fumes over our lives. That is one of the reasons why I believe it is so important that we are having this Shabbaton, because we need to be together at a time like this, to support and strengthen each other, to sympathise with each other, regardless of whether we are French or Anglo-Saxon, and most important of all, because we are Jews, we are kelal Yisrael, and that matters more now than it has for a very long time.

Rousseau memorably remarked: L’homme est né libre et partout il est dans les fers. This profound social comment about the structures of so many countries in the 19th century, has a 21st century application too.

We who live in free and democratic countries can choose how we think, how we live and how we love, and as Jews we have every reason to break the chains that blind the brainwashed and the deluded to falsehood, to be the force for good that we have always tried to be, to exemplify the best in our tradition, and to strengthen our nations, because in their strength and cohesion lies the key to our own.


Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh Dean LBC

CJL, Paris

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.