Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black

Many of us are leading double lives.

Let me pose a question – who here puts their Jewishness first? For most of the year, at least, I suggest that the majority of us would consider ourselves people, perhaps Australians, first, and Jews second.

And the first tends to dramatically overshadow the second, if we measure by the number of times we come here, to the synagogue, or do what we would identify as Jewish things, compared to the number of times we go to work, or the supermarket, or the cinema, or the gym and so on. We might only strengthen our conviction that indeed we were Jews very much less often than we were just ordinary people.   And indeed, if that were really the only measure, and the only choice, it would be difficult to argue.

Yet there must be a powerful force that brings us back here, year after year.  It can be easy to lose sight of it in the bustle and challenges of daily life.  Feeling God requires space, time, quiet, special music, community, solitude – all in very short supply in an average household.  And, when we strip all the words and customs away, we know that Judaism has an underlying concern for the human enterprise – for all God’s creation, for all people, not just for us.

Of course we are part of that people – of the mass of humanity, and the smaller mass of Australian humanity.  But we are not just people – we are Jewish people.  Judaism is not only about synagogue and prayer.  First of all, synagogue means place of meeting – a centre of Judaism, a cultural and educational as well as a spiritual place.  Looking at all that goes on here during the year, as well as all our regular Shabbat and festival services, you’d have to acknowledge how well we deliver that, even though numbers participating are not always great.

But Judaism is also a way of life, a set of expectations and values for ourselves and the world and our relationships – a way to live in our homes, to eat, to entertain, to raise families – guidelines for work practices – and demands for a just and a caring society.  With the big 10 Cs – and lots of others, we can restart a discussion – what does God require of us? This year I reviewed the fabled 613 commandments – and found that only about 150 are relevant today.  So I started a twitter feed, and if you want one short mitzvah a day, with its source, you can sign up and it will arrive on your phone or computer every morning – except, I should say, on Shabbat and Festivals!

Let me make it even more personal on this start of the new year.  Think of the symbol of blank, crisp white sheets of paper, ready and waiting for us to start afresh.  Ask ‘What does God require of ME?’.  It really doesn’t matter much if, at this moment, you don’t believe in God, or don’t know if you do, or don’t know what I mean by God.  For even without that underlying certainty that Judaism is based on God, it still remains an excellent framework to live by.

If we think we are modern people of the modern world first, that is primarily because of the remarkable success of our ancestors in spreading the message, taken on through Christianity and Islam as well as through Judaism, that all human beings are the equal creations of God, and all are entitled to justice, which means a fair and predictable society, with equal access to work, leisure, law, education, health and home.  We are not there yet of course – this has become all the more evident in the past months and even days, as the ravings and threats from Iran and Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the map become more and more scary, and as we see the mad response, by ignorant mobs who haven’t even seen it, of a you-tube video making fun of Mohamed, which has resulted in the death of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others – all the more tragic because, having come through the Arab spring and subsequent conflict rather more hopefully than some of the others countries, the people have never the less shown the results of years of hatred of America and Israel and reverted to the most basic mob behaviour at the merest excuse.  In so doing, and in demanding the withdrawal of the film, these terrifying mobs and their leaders, in the name of Islam, demonstrate that their understanding of freedom and law, their rigid religious interpretations which justify violence and death in response to words and pictures, is so different from ours, suggest that the clash of civilisations is upon us – but not quite across the religious divisions anticipated by Samuel Huntingdon.

I say this because we hear and see more and more reports of fundamentalist Jews, especially in Israel and beyond the green line, yet we know that most Jews are not like them and would not dream of acting like them.  And because, over the years, and especially this year, I have been personally criticised and called naive for being involved in dialogue with Muslims, yet I am convinced that almost all of those I meet are as embarrassed and ashamed of their fundamentalists as I am of ours, and want nothing more than to be able to practice their religion as they choose in a free, open and democratic society.

The primary fault line then that we are facing today is between religious fundamentalism and modern democracy.

Today, more than ever before, our world has extremes of poverty and wealth, and there are many areas in which justice is clearly not done, sometimes because we cannot see, or agree, on how it should be achieved, and this is a situation which we cannot ignore just because we are generally on the quite comfortable side of the divide.

At a Zionist Federation of Australia conference in August, one of the guest speakers was a very liberal orthodox rabbi, Benny Lau from Jerusalem, so liberal in fact that he said people often come up to him after he speaks and say ‘Reformi?’!   Rabbi Lau is involved with the social justice movement in Israel and it was pointed out that the proportional difference between rich and poor, soon after Israel was established, was the 2nd smallest after Sweden – now it is the 2nd biggest after usa!  Poverty is a significant problem today in Israel, especially for refugees and the ultra-orthodox, and increasingly the middle class are feeling the pressure.

Yet with all that, most people living in western countries, including Israel, can probably agree on their broad goals, which can easily be traced back to the teachings in the scrolls that the Jewish people have carried with them and studied and taught down the ages.

Am I saying that these values and aspirations for our world can exist then without Judaism?  Yes, in some ways, and with other clothing, whether moderate Christianity, Islam, or perhaps even socialism or humanism.  All have their difficulties, their failures, just as Judaism has.  But at their best, the shared central message is very similar.  Judaism has been so successful in shaping society that if people do not wish to be Jews any more, they will still enjoy the fundamental structure of society that Judaism has created!

Two thousand years ago, our great teacher Hillel was challenged to encapsulate the Jewish message.  ‘Do not do unto others what you would not want done to yourself’, he responded.  This is known as the Golden Rule, and is found in some variation in all the great religions.  But Hillel added ‘All the rest is commentary – now, go and learn” – and this is the distinctively Jewish aspect.

A good place to start finding commentary and learning is our prayer book – and this has been a year of consolidation for our now not quite so new daily and Shabbat siddur – and I hope that you have all had a chance to use it, and enjoyed doing so.  Its familiar and its new prayers are moving and powerful, and frequently reach to the heart of things – and there are a wide variety for home use, such as a prayer for lighting a yahrzeit candle, or for a child travelling away from home, or taking exams, or for receiving a medical diagnosis or undergoing surgery.  It is sometimes too easy to keep the siddur on the shelf and forget to browse it, or use its indexes to find something useful when the need arises, so I encourage you to do so–as Hillel said, read the commentary!

Of course, now we have the new siddur, and we gather for Rosh Hashanah, the question might be ‘when do we see the new Machzor?’  For those who are used to the new translations, the more complete Sh’ma, the slightly varied T’filah, and the general layout and language, a return to Gates of Repentance might be slightly odd.  But the good news is that preparation of the new version of the machzor, which will be consistent with the siddur, is already under way in America, and we are participating in input as well.  We held two sessions at TBI a couple of months ago to try out some of the Yom Kippur service, and on Monday, you can participate in PJV’s combined service on second day Tishrei and really get a feel for it, and have your feedback included in the development process.  These things do take a long time and I expect it will be several years before you’ll actually have a new book in your hands – but when you do, we will make doubly sure that it is not too heavy to hold through Yom Kippur!

In the meantime, you each have a new book this Erev Rosh Hashanah – a book as yet unmarked, unprinted.  Let us each start this new year as the proud owner of a new life – no longer people who come to shul to be Jewish on odd occasions for uncertain and complicated reasons, but as proud, Jewish people, with a proud and rich heritage and a renewed and relevant message for today’s world and the challenges and opportunities that 5773 brings with it.

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