It’s never a boring time to be a Jew.
The life of a Jew is one that is constantly wrapped up in ideas, actions and movements. Centuries of precarious existence, an intimate relationship with texts and an intense struggle with God have implanted in us a restless culture that thirsts after new ideas.
It’s never a boring time to be a Jew, and this year has been no exception.
This week’s readings give an insight into just how important ideas are in our community. We read the stories of three remarkable women and three remarkable births of three remarkable sons. In our Torah portion, Hagar, an Egyptian princess transformed into Abraham’s nomadic handmaid, gives birth to Ishmael, in the stead of her mistress, Sarah. Then Sarah conceives Isaac at the age of 90. In our haftarah, Hannah, an infertile woman, prays so fervently that she gives birth to Samuel. Three unusual births.
These three boys then all suffer a similar fate: they all come close to dying. Isaac, as we know, is taken up Mount Moriah to be sacrificed by his father and ends up bringing about an end to all child sacrifice. Ishmael becomes stranded in the desert with his mother and comes so close to dying of dehydration that his mother considers putting him out of his mystery when the two are saved by a miracle well. Samuel really does die but comes back as a ghost to give advice to the king.
All the figures in these texts are more than just interesting people living interesting lives: they are models of ideas. According to the 15th Century Spanish mystic, Isaac Arama, Sarah is the representative of Jewish Torah, and Hagar of universal philosophy. In the traditions of both religions, Isaac was the founder of Judaism and Ishmael the progenitor of Islam. Hannah is a model of piety and a symbol of how we should all pray. Her son, Samuel, was the archetypal prophet, and the first to establish monarchy in Israel by crowning King David.
Three remarkable women. Three boys conceived in impossible circumstances. Six ideas. Three ideas that nearly died. Six ideas that have come to define our modern world. Throughout our stories these characters sometimes come into conflict. They sometimes try to kill and banish each other. They sometimes come together. So it has been throughout our long history, that complicated and contradictory ideas of philosophy, Torah, piety, power and faith have interacted to do fascinating things.
I spent this summer in Jerusalem, as in previous years, and this time, decided that while I was there, I would try to read up on Jewish ideology. I took copies with me of Rabbi David Goldberg’s book, ‘To the Promised Land: A History of Zionist Thought’, and ‘Revolutionary Yiddishland’, by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg. These were archetypes of the exciting thought in European Jewry before the Second World War: the first of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, and the latter of Jewish socialism. Both books reveal an era full of ideas, when Jews were passionate and tenacious enough to imagine every possible utopia. You get the feeling as you read them that anything is possible.
Indeed, it seems that pre-war Europe really was a time when ideas felt alive. Reading biographies of the time, you get the feeling that every street corner and café was abuzz with discussion about who the Jews were and what they could become. On the one hand, there were Bolsheviks, agitating for Jews to throw off their heritage, join the ranks of the working-class and commit themselves to overthrowing capitalism as citizens of the world. There were the Zionists, who maintained that Jews would never be safe or able to flourish until they had their own state. There were assimilationists, who wanted Jews to transform themselves and become loyal citizens of the countries where they lived. There were Bundists, who wanted to see Jewish cultural renewal in the Diaspora as part of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Out of this great social upheaval came, too, spiritual revival. There were the Orthodox, who insisted that Jews should focus on keeping halachah and not think about moving anywhere until the Messiah came. There were the reformers, the founders of our movement, who felt that Jews should cleave to their God and to the spirit of the prophets, so that they could be a light unto the nations in the Diaspora. These truly were interesting times to be a Jew.
The Nazis extinguished much of that discussion. Not only did they kill the people in their gas chambers, but they also destroyed their ideas. In the aftermath of a genocide, it was hard to believe that the Jews could ever be a light unto the nations. It was hard to believe that Jews could integrate, still less thrive in the Diaspora. It was hard to believe in halachah. It was hard to believe in God. There were certainly great ideologues in the generations after the genocide, but they had to make up in passion what they lacked in number.
When I left this synagogue and went to university, I felt very profoundly the absence of the ideas with which I had been raised here. I left behind here the ideas of community, of ethical mission and of religious hope. I wondered if perhaps those ideas only really belonged in my childhood. Among my Jewish peers, it seemed that one idea remained as the last man standing in post-war Europe: secular nationalism.
The reasons for that are unsurprising: across the whole of British society, the importance of collective religion had slowly declined. So, too, had the trade unions, community centres and political parties that had animated the ideas of public life. Israel, on the other hand, existed, and offered people a sense of security. Publicly supporting it, right or wrong, offered people a sense of purpose. The religious meanings ascribed to statehood, Diaspora and internationalism faded into the background as Anglo-Jewry invested much of its efforts in public advocacy for Israel.
This threatened to become the only manifestation of Jewishness in Britain. So great was the convergence across the movements among Jews in Britain that people had begun to talk about post-denominational Judaism. The great debates of the preceding decades had been laid to rest. Progressive Jews had fought so hard for women’s and LGBT liberation that even the most bigoted conservatives were powerless to resist it. Indeed, this year Britain gained its first Orthodox woman rabbi and only last week the Office of the Chief Rabbi issued a briefing on welcoming LGBT people into synagogues.
As feminism progressed, a consensus emerged in the Jewish community around a progressive, secular, nationalist vision: Jews in Britain would be liberal, atheistic, and attached to the state of Israel. Just as Fukuyama saw the end of history with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, leaving only liberal capitalism, Anglo-Jewry’s ideological debates tailed off, leaving only secular Zionism.
But it’s never a boring time to be a Jew, and this year has proved it. Like Samuel, Isaac and Ishmael, ideas that seemed dead suddenly found new life this year. The whole community has been abuzz with conversation. At Pesach, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, attended, Jewdas’s seder. Jewdas, a group that has done amazing things to help me find my own place in the Jewish community, promotes ideas of internationalism, Diasporism and socialism. Corbyn’s attendance opened up anew the questions in our community about antisemitism, our role in the world, and the values we support.
Only a few months later, a group of young Jews, most of whom had grown up in Zionist youth movements, stood in Parliament Square and recited kaddish, the prayer for the dead, over the Palestinians who had been killed in Israel’s attack on Gaza. This simple act of public prayer re-opened old conversations about Jewish religious practice, the significance of halachah, and Anglo-Jewry’s relationship with Israel. They challenged everyone to question what the limits were of liberal Zionism. Ideas that some imagined were buried – of Liberalism, Bundism, Orthodoxy, integrationism and Diasporism – re-emerged from their graves.
In the shock at seeing a consensus broken, some of the initial discourse was less than edifying. Perhaps what caused people to lash out so much was that they hadn’t realised how fragile the apparent consensus was or how safe it had made them feel. Although hardly part of the mainstream within Anglo-Jewry, I was surprised in myself at how frightened and threatened I felt by the sudden and very public disagreement.
But disagreement need not be a cause for fear. The vitality of diverse ideas is an indication of the strength of feeling within the community. It means that, once again, Jews are wondering how the world can be different. After decades spent recovering from the shock of genocide, we may now be ready to imagine alternative futures and retell the stories of our past.
This year has been one of tumult and change, and we can only expect that the next one will see more of the same. We cannot stop the breakdown of consensus: we can only jump into it and embrace it. Anglo-Jewry is resourceful and resilient enough to have energetic conversations and remain a united community. We shouldn’t shy away from those conversations but should embrace them with whole hearts and open minds.
Ideological disagreement is far better for all of us than staid consensus. Indeed, in the conclusion of Rabbi Goldberg’s book on Zionism, an idea to which he is very sympathetic, he warns that without alternative ideas against which to pit itself, Zionism could become reactionary, conservative and devoid of the ability to be creative. Debate helps us to be imaginative, innovative and dynamic. This coming year presents us with opportunities to be upfront about our values and have real conversations about what God, religion, ethics, Diaspora and homeland really mean to us.
I cannot say definitively what Liberal Judaism’s position will be, or even whether it should have one at all. What excites me about the new culture of debate is that it is open-ended, and none of us know where it will lead. Yet there is one role that progressive Jews have always played, which is needed now more than ever: we need to offer hope.
It’s never a boring time to be a Jew. May the next year be even more interesting.
 Louis Ginzberg, Jewish Folklore, 1955