Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio

So there I was, sitting in my sun drenched office, enjoying the first hint of spring in the air, the warm sweetly scented breeze gently lifting the curtains which were rising and falling in a graceful dance across the windows, I felt light and happy as… I googled myself. I know we are not supposed to do that, and if we do, which we all do, we are not supposed to admit to it, but every now and then we all succumb to this guilty, somewhat narcissistic activity. So I typed in my name Jacqueline Ninio, Rabbi Ninio, Rabbi Jacki Ninio with an “I”, Rabbi Jacquie Ninio with a “q” and an “e,” Rabbi Jacqui Ninio with a “q” no “e,” with a “ck,” with a “y,” with the “rabbi,” without the “rabbi,” and I began to read. I expected to see articles I had written, references to appearances on radio or tv, but what I did not expect was the nasty, hurtful, vicious comments which were written about me by people who do not know me, questioning, often with sarcasm and a touch of self righteous indignation, the gall I have to dare to call myself rabbi, raising the fact that I am not Jewish according to the Orthodox understanding of halacha, one post calling me a “rabette” in inverted commas and saying “if they (meaning Progressive Judaism) accept a woman who is not 100% Jewish as their rabbi, nothing is beyond the pale.” The site, calling itself the “on-line voice of Orthodox Judaism” then offered others the opportunity to comment, and their remarks were equally hurtful and hateful. And the vitriol was not reserved for me. They then continued to denigrate Progressive Judaism, saying “responding to the Reforms is the equivalent of responding to whakos.” We have all been subject recently to the attacks upon our movement and the principles we hold dear in the letters pages of the Jewish News. And, one of the prominent rabbis in Israel said of Progressive Judaism: “They fight against every holy thing…trying to uproot Judaism…we must pray against them like in the times of war when bullets are being shot at us.” (Rabbi Shlomo Amar)

I am always shocked and surprised by the words of hatred which are hurled at the Progressive movement but I am even more outraged by the source of these statements. Often they spring from people who claim to be religious, who suggest that they are the exemplars of what it means to be holy, to be Torah true, to be the righteous defenders of Judaism and its principles. Yet with their words they violate one of the fundamental teachings of Judaism; to speak words of kindness, to use language to bring peace, not to create divisions and promote hatred. And we must ensure that these people do not become the voice of Judaism, that they do not speak for us or for the religion and principles which we all hold dear. Too often we defer to the more traditional position, we do not stand up and speak out when we hear these comments and statements being made. And it is hard to do that in this community. I imagine at some time we have all been challenged about our religiosity, we have been told that Progressive Judaism is a light option, it is the easy way, that we are not legitimate. I have had long and troubling conversations with some of the incredibly dedicated and committed people who have converted in our community. They have been told that their passion, their learning, their commitment does not mean anything. That they are not really Jews, that what they are doing is a pale substitute for real Judaism. These amazing people who should be inspirations for all of us, who have, as adults, undertaken to join their destiny with that of our people, these souls who have opened themselves to the richness of our traditions, the spiritual uplifting of its teachings, should be honoured by our community but instead they face denigration and bigotry. I was recently at an event with people who are not members of our synagogue and one of them said to me, “you know the difference between Progressive Jews and me?” I said “No.” he replied, “I don’t do any of the mitzvot either but at least I know it is wrong.” In that statement alone there is so much misunderstanding and so much condescension. In those situations it is so hard to stand up and say: “you are wrong,” to argue. Sometimes it is easier to just let it go.

And sometimes I don’t think we help ourselves. Too often we define who we are by saying what we are not. We are non Orthodox branches of Judaism, we do not believe in x, y or z or worse, we define ourselves by defending ourselves. I believe that it is time for us to change the way that we understand ourselves, to stop looking at our movement and our community through the eyes of others, constantly having to defend who we are, instead together shift the focus, look to the reasons we are part of this incredible movement in Judaism, to reconnect with the core values and teachings and to go out into the community and be proud, proud of who we are and what we believe, proud of our principles, proud of being Progressive Jews.

Every one of you here today has chosen to be part of our congregation. Despite your busy lives, the demands on your time, energy, resources, and I know they are very great, despite all the reasons, and there are many, for not being here, you have all chosen to come, to gather in this holy place, to connect with each other, to touch something beyond ourselves, to be challenged, inspired and to join together to dream big dreams about the shape of Judaism and our future. And as we gather here, we are not alone, we are members of one of the largest synagogues in Sydney, one of the largest congregations in the Southern Hemisphere. We are part of a world-wide movement of over 1200 congregations with 1.8 million members in 45 countries around the world. We are part of something truly incredible: a Judaism which seeks to bring into the world some of the greatest teachings and values of Judaism. And we are doing holy work, drawing together the sparks of divinity to create a light and energy which will shine into the world, through us. We are shaping the future of Judaism, each one of us adding our voice, our thread, our story to create the unfolding destiny of our people. And we are part of the most dynamic alive and exciting movement in Judaism, responding to the challenges of our world, linking with the prophetic vision, working to heal our broken world and our lives. We are doing holy work.

This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women by the Hebrew Union College. From its founding, Progressive Judaism has championed gender equality, we have opened Judaism and all its beauty to men and women equally. When Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained as a rabbi was asked what led her to believe that she as a woman, could become rabbi she answered that she did not ever aim to be a pioneer, a role model but she said, “my parents gave me the greatest gift; the courage to dare and to dream” Our movement is one which has the courage to dare and to dream, to say we believe that everyone should have equal access to the Torah and its traditions, that spirituality has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with what is in our hearts. Standing beside women as they approach the Torah for the very first time, as the veil which separated them from the scroll is lifted, has given me some of the most magical and beautiful moments as a rabbi. To feel the awe with which they approach the scroll, to see the tears in their eyes, to watch them gently brush the parchment, joining hands across time with all those who have stood and wept at the Torah before them. Women who did not even dare to dream that such a moment was possible have been given the wings to fly. The power of the holiness of those moments is so palpable you could reach out and touch it. When we see girls standing at the Torah, wearing tallit, chanting in the ancient trope, celebrating bat mitzvah in the same way as their male counterparts, we can be filled with pride. And the world needs to hear our voices joined together in a beautiful chorus more than ever.

When we look around the world and see the voices of Jewish women being silenced, women being pushed to the fringes. In Israel we find segregated busses, men in the front, women in the back, the argument is made for footpaths for men and others for women, supermarkets which have separate shopping hours for men and women so that the genders do not have to mix even in that most secular of environments, women being handed kaftans at the doors of a supermarket to cover their clothing because it is not deemed modest enough. When we read about Jewish men spitting on and hurling abuse at an 8 year old girl because her very modest dress was not deemed modest enough. Where women are forbidden from praying at the western wall, the kotel, where they are arrested for wearing a tallit or carrying a Torah. There are even discussions of building a tunnel underneath the forecourt leading to the kotel so men can walk underground to the wall, not having to pass or even see women in that most holy of places. These are all perversions of Judaism. It is not a Judaism I know, understand or believe and I don’t believe it is so for many Jews across the spectrum but these extreme voices are becoming louder, and more than ever, we must champion our alternative vision. Our conviction based in the equality of men and women, of opening Judaism and all its riches to everyone without discrimination based on gender. A Judaism where men and women sit together, sing together, pray together, a Judaism where all our voices are heard and celebrated. We are doing holy work.

Twelve years ago, just after I arrived in Sydney, I was invited to lead the first Mardi Gras Shabbat service, a service which would acknowledge and celebrate the gay and lesbian members of our community. I accepted with honour and I sat back as the storm raged in the Jewish press. As the sun set on the courtyard of Shalom College on the evening of the service, I draped my tallit around my shoulders and quietly said a prayer, I opened the pages of the Shabbat service we had created and I began to chant and sing the prayers. The sky was streaked with gold as the flaming sun dipped its head below the horizon and the stars began to twinkle in the inky night sky. After the silent prayer I lifted my head and for the first time looked out at the community of people who were gathered there. Men and women were holding hands, caressing the pages of the siddur and almost everyone was crying. Tears streamed down their faces as many, for the first time, were embraced fully by the Jewish community, they found a safe place, a haven where they could be who they are, no more veils, no more hiding. It was a powerful and transforming experience for everyone who was there. Progressive Judaism enabled the creation of that holy place, a space where men and women could be enfolded back into the arms of their community fully loved and cherished for who they are. We are doing holy work.

And today we celebrate the love between two people, no matter their gender, beneath the chupah. Not yet permitted by the government to perform wedding ceremonies, we celebrate commitment ceremonies, brit ahava, a covenant of love, embracing and welcoming two people who love each other into the arms of their community, fully, completely. Progressive Judaism, through our own union, the UPJ, is one of the only religious communities who have added our voices to the call for marriage equality. We have petitioned the government to enact legislation to create equality of marriage, and we do so from a basis grounded in religious texts and traditions.

We are a Judaism that reads our sacred texts with an open and critical eye, we apply its teachings with compassion and gentleness. We search for meaning, we peel away the layers of interpretation to uncover the essence of what we are being called to do. Then we go on a journey through time, looking at each generation’s understanding, taking into account the circumstances of the time, the passions, the concerns, the assumptions, and to that we add our own voice, our own understanding, whilst always adhering to the core principle, what is at the heart of the teaching. It is a difficult process, we are not told what to do, we are not placed at the destination, rather we are called to go on the journey, to discover the richness of our past, understand the wisdom of our ancestors and then add our own colour, texture and weave into the dense tapestry. We are creating our future, shaping the kind of Judaism of which we want to be a part, and we all have a role to play. We are doing holy work.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler once described the synagogue as being a home, and if that is the case, then the Progressive Jewish home is one with wide open doors, welcoming and embracing those who wish to dwell with us in the sacred place we are creating. We honour and bless those who have chosen Judaism as their path as well as those who share our community but have not formally joined themselves to our people, the ones who walk beside a Jewish spouse or partner, who are raising Jewish children, who are part of our Jewish journey, giving us your support and your love. In our home is a diverse family, all ages, colours, shapes and sizes. We hold many different beliefs, we have an incredible range of life circumstances, of economic positions, and we welcome everyone, we embrace you and bring you into our inclusive, warm home and invite you to be who you are. As in all families, we have disagreements, we will argue and debate but always from a place of respect and love. We will be there for each other through it all, the joys and the suffering, the celebration and the mourning, for that is what it is to be a part of a community, a home, a family. We are doing holy work.

I have written and spoken before about the struggle that Adam and I had to have a child, you were beside me during the highs and lows of that journey as I wrestled with God, with grief, with loss, as I tried to find meaning and a way to move forward, to find hope and to dream again. In those darkest moments I turned to Judaism, to the words and rituals of my tradition to find comfort, a source of strength and grounding. And I found it in the reimagining of the ancient rituals, in combining the prayers of the tradition with words from contemporary sources, adding my own voice, my own prayer. Others too in our community have found solace, healing, strength in the rituals we have created together, drawing on the ancient prayers, adding our own voices. That is the nature of progressive prayer, combining innovation with the past, creating a link so that we can draw from the well of tradition and hear the music of its words. To connect to Judaism at the times in our lives when we most need support, comfort, to feel loved and celebrated, to be acknowledged, to find strength, healing, to not feel so alone in our struggle. Together we are writing the prayers of tomorrow, we are engaged in the same creative holy work as our ancestors, finding ways to speak and cry out to God in our greatest suffering and our most joyous celebrations. We are the innovators, responding to the challenges of our complex lives bringing a touch of the eternal to the everyday. We are doing holy work.

And we are agitators, not content to see injustices in the world, we hear the cry from our texts to go and make a difference, not to sit by complacently and wait for things to change. We hear the call from our tradition to heal the world. In that we are the inheritors of the prophetic tradition, we hear the call of the shofar and are roused from our inertia, we recognise that it is for us to protect the environment, to leave behind a world for the next generation which is better than the one we inherited. To stand up and speak out against injustice and hatred wherever it may be found. And Progressive Judaism is often in the forefront of movements for change. In South Africa the Progressive rabbis spoke out against apartheid, in Israel it is Progressive Jews who are fighting against the social inequality and our movement and congregation continue to reach out and do the work of making the world a better place, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is the Jewish thing to do. We are doing holy work.

We are Progressive Jews, part of one of the most dynamic, innovative, exciting movements in Judaism, embracing change whilst at the same time honouring tradition, shaping and creating a Judaism which responds to the challenges of our world and our lives through creative rituals and prayers, giving new meanings to our texts and uncovering ancient traditions which speak to our own challenges, sorrows and triumphs. We are part of the voices ringing out through the UPJ in our region, the IMPJ and IRAC in Israel, and throughout the world, calling for justice, equality, a Judaism which is changing the world. We are doing holy work.

May we always be proud of who we are, proud of what we bring to the world and may the year ahead be filled with holy work.

Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio is rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW.

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