by Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Jewish Sermon 2015
We have just spent a week together discussing the topic of solidarity and dissent – we talked about it as opposing tendencies but also as a gentle dance that we shall all dance, as Mark put it in his talk. As individuals of faith we must all walk a narrow path zigzagging between solidarity and dissent
Here at JCM we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk. We struggle in our interfaith groups to find compromises that allow everyone in the group to feel a little at home in the services while allowing no one to simply lean back in comfort without being challenged. In our discussion and project groups, we discover our solidarity with people of other faiths or feel that we must dissent – be it a dissent from something expressed by a member of our own faith or a member of another faith. But most importantly, we listen to each other and we talk to each other with the aim to increase our understanding of each other so that none of us will continue to be seen as simply “The Other.”
But JCM is also somewhat of a bubble. In the safe environment of people who unite in the common endeavour of mutual understanding, it is possible to experiment, to explore new ways, to participate in rituals that once we return to our own communities might be looked upon as questionable.
Are some of the things that we practise and live at JCM as acts of solidarity going to be viewed by our community as acts of dissent? For instance, how would my congregation feel if they saw their rabbi participating in the Juma prayers? Well, I’ll be able to tell you next week after this sermon has been circulated to them.
In synagogues across the world, this Shabbat Jews will begin to read the book of the Hebrew Bible called Vayikra or, in English, Leviticus. The book of Leviticus is rather challenging as it contains few stories and instead focuses mostly on detailed ritual laws – many of which have become obsolete in our days as the sacrificial cult is no longer practised.
I would argue that one of the main messages of the book of Leviticus is about individual and communal responsibility.
If we look at the various types of sacrifices, we can see that in addition to the daily and seasonal sacrifices there are two types of sin offerings – one offering for the sins of an individual and one for the sins of the community. The responsibilities and the modes of accountability therefore vary depending on whether we are dealing with an individual or a community.
In the sacrificial context, individual and communal responsibility are tied together – they both require sacrifices – yet they are not the same: in a case where guilt was incurred by an individual a goat is offered, if the entire community is accountable, the sacrifice involves a bull instead. So the accountabilities of an individual and the community are not the same, but they cannot be fully separated, they are held together by some system – in biblical times this was the sacrificial system.
In our days, as we no longer have sacrifices, we have lost this clearly defined system. But even without it, the ideas behind the sacrificial system might help us in understanding how we as individuals have a part in the responsibilities of the wider community.
As individuals, we are not guilty of all the ills of the world around us. But, as the 20th century Jewish theologian and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
In fact, what Heschel said just before that is also worth quoting: “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.” As individuals we are linked in some way to those around us – those in our faith community and those in the wider community in which we live. We are not shielded by some magical wall and although it may seem pointless, we must all act as individuals to stand up for what is right and protest what is wrong.
Too often we do not speak out because we feel like it won’t make a difference or because we are afraid. But if we all shy away from dissent, who will be there to protest? Will we just leave it, as the rabbis might have phrased it, “bidey shamaim – in the hands of heaven?” Will we focus our efforts on praying for the kingdom of God to come as the Aleinu prayer does, so that God will take care of the matter?
Rabbi Heschel would certainly have shouted: “No!”. Adapting a saying by St Augustin, which sometimes is attributed to St Ignatius, Heschel stresses: “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”
This is why Heschel marched with Martin Luther King jr in Selma for the civil rights of black people in the US. This is why we too must not be satisfied with the world we find around us. This is why we must protest, stick our neck out for what is right.
It is not enough for us as people of faith to focus our energies on the observance of ritual practices, concentrating on worship. As good and responsible human beings of faith we must also, and I would argue especially, embrace our moral and ethical responsibilities.
The Hebrew word for sacrifice “korban” is derived from the root meaning “to draw near.” A sacrifice in Judaism is therefore not simply an act of appeasing or pleasing God. It is a ritual to help us become closer to God.
In temple days, Jews brought sacrifices to come closer to God. For us, we can find the still small voice of God in prayer but I would argue that if we are prepared to listen, we can hear God’s call even louder when we speak out, protest and act to make the world a better place.
We draw close to God when we work to bring about our messianic vision for the future, so that the words by the Jewish feminist poet, Judy Chicago, will in our days come true:
And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power.
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
- The Merger poem by Judy Chicago