Some sermons, no doubt, are easier to write than others. Words and ideas flow onto the page until a coherent whole is formed, without too much time and effort being expended. Hopefully, there will be enough to interest the intended audience, maybe amuse or provoke, even on occasion inspire, who knows? A general feeling of contentedness pervades the air, from the page or the bimah to the readers or the listeners, and we can all feel rather pleased with ourselves. Such is the conservative nature of organised religion, even in its more radical guises. Yet, what of those sermons that don’t flow readily; ones that don’t even want to be written? I suppose they have to be ‘won ugly’ to coin a footballing phrase, if they are to appear at all.
How do you respond when asked ‘Are you religious?’ If you are reading this, perhaps you have to deal with the question from time to time. Do you answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ immediately? Do you hesitate and then add certain qualifications? Do you prefer to use the word ‘spiritual’ or are you simply ‘Jewish’? Any reluctance to affirm one’s religiosity may well be because of all the assumptions that trail in its wake. We care what others think and few want to be subject to stereotypes of narrow mindedness and excessive piety. And then there are the people who bring religion into almost total and utter disrepute. They can be found in all the major faiths, in varying numbers and degrees, including Judaism. I, for one, do not want to be placed alongside them in the theatre of ‘religion’. Indeed, I would much prefer to ‘exit stage left’.
I returned yesterday from the 47th International Jewish-Christian Bible Week, held annually in beautiful surroundings at a Catholic education centre not far from Osnabrueck in north-western Germany. The conference is co-sponsored by Leo Baeck College and I was one of six representing it, including old hands and first-timers. Alongside one Liberal and two Reform rabbis, the organising team could boast a Catholic and a Protestant theologian, a cantor and a nun. In the wider conference, Jewish participants ranged from Modern Orthodox through Masorti to Progressive. The Christian contingent was equally varied, with lay people and clergy from across the confessions. For the first time, we enjoyed and appreciated the company and contribution of a Muslim participant, a bridge to another conference long since involved in interfaith dialogue, JCM. For seven days, we studied, socialised, ate and prayed together. Years of experience has shown this to be not only possible, but of great benefit. With a little forethought around religious observance and sensibilities, a wide community is assembled and a meaningful experience facilitated. We encounter the ‘other’, and his or her questions and presence require us to encounter ourselves. As unsettling as that can sometimes be, its value is clear, as are the bonds built between people of such good will.
And then home to this week’s portion, Re’eh.
…where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire… (Deuteronomy 12, from verses 2-3)
Verses of this kind can, of course, be ‘explained away’ in any number of ways. The religious practices of the Canaanites were particularly despicable, up to and including child sacrifice; the national-religious contingencies of the day required such a single-minded approach etc. From a Progressive point of view, it is surely morally repugnant to ascribe such commands to God – true blasphemy. These are the words of men seeking divine justification for deeds done. You may agree or disagree, and if only it were a theoretical discussion, however heated. Of course, it is not. The crimes of so-called Islamic State in recent times differ only in magnitude from those who call themselves Jewish and stab wildly at gay pride marchers in Jerusalem, burn churches in the Galilee and firebomb Palestinian homes on the West Bank. They kill, maim and drive out, from a scriptural basis. The ‘ism’ which they inhabit is not Judaism, it is extremism, and it crosses religious boundaries. Yet, before we disassociate ourselves from them completely, we need to remember once again the inherent challenges which an ancient literature sets before us. We might also remember it the next time a Qu’ranic or New Testament verse is quoted to the detriment of Islam or Christianity.
At the conference, news from Israel was filtering through as we grappled each day with the thoughts of Kohelet in the book of Ecclesiastes, and sought to find meaning in his writing and our lives – I think this is what Rabbi Sheila Shulman would have called the real ‘work’ of religion. Kaddish was recited for the victims, tears were shed and embraces shared at a powerful Shabbat morning service. Whether we were Jewish, Christian or Muslim ceased to matter very much. The custom of raising the corner of the tallit and pointing with our little finger towards the raised Torah scroll seems to be gaining in popularity among Progressive Jews. I would suggest that we consider pointing at one another instead, Jew and gentile alike. Not ‘this is the Torah that Moses set before the children of Israel’, but ‘this is a human being created in the image of God’. Beyond that, this sermon writer feels struck dumb.
Student Rabbi Nathan Godleman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.