When we are children, we have a child’s view of God. A big bearded man in the sky with a benevolent smile, a beard and sandals. Maybe a maternal godhead, embracing us.
We imagine God as our idealised parent, fulfilling all our needs, giving punishments and rewards, guiding us to do right. We see the world as children because we have no other reference point.
Then, we become teenagers, and our worldview shifts. Suddenly, we are able to question authority, push boundaries, and assert our own independence.
We go through growth spurts, physically and emotionally. We close the gap in height with our parents so that we can see over their shoulders. They are no longer demigods, but imperfect human beings that we can challenge.
At this point, many of us give up on God. The childlike view we once had cannot hold, because the view we had of our parents has altered too. We realise that, if we can challenge authority, we can push back against the ultimate force we had imagined too.
I fulfilled the stereotype of a rebellious teenage atheist. I rejected the sky-daddy and all the nonsense of religion. This was a pretty lacklustre rebellion to my parents, who were themselves Marxist atheists.
I don’t remember the moment I stopped believing, or when I started again. But when I came back to faith, the beliefs I held were not the same as when I had been a child. I had to reconstruct God.
I took snippets from Jewish tradition. I listened attentively to my friends who were Quaker, Baptist, Muslim, Sikh, and Catholic, finding the parts that resonated. I reimagined what it would mean to believe in God if the Divine Parent surrounded by clouds no longer existed.
I realised that many others had engaged in the same thoughts too. All the while, when grown-ups had been talking about God, they hadn’t believed in the primary school version either. They had also gone through that process of maturing, and their ideas had developed with them.
It turns out that the God that atheists don’t believe in, the religious don’t believe in either.
This week is the Israelites’ coming of age.
Throughout Genesis, we only knew the God of stories. God created the world; God made people and gave them special purpose; God gave out punishments for wrongdoing and rewarded the good.
Now, we find ourselves in a situation in which we must rebel. We enter the Book of Exodus, where the Israelites are enslaved and forced to do hard labour. They are beaten and abused. Meanwhile, all around them, the Egyptian empire and the social order on which it is built are crumbling. We cannot believe in their gods, and we cannot find our own.
Our hero, Moses, sees through the nonsense. He stands up against his father’s power in the royal palace. He beats a slaver to death. He breaks away from the only regime he has known and runs into exile.
In the years that Moses ran away, he had to give up on all his old beliefs. The fantasies he’d held about his family. The dreams he’d had about what his own life meant.
He married a woman of a different tribe, Tzipporah, and worked for her father, Yitro. They were Kenites, and Yitro was a Midianite priest. Perhaps Moses could just have substituted his old beliefs for the Midianite ways. He would have simply worshipped a new pantheon of gods and taken on different customs.
Instead, Moses is forced to reimagine God altogether.
While tending his flocks, Moses meets his Creator in a thicket on a mountain. He sees a bush on fire, but not burning, that calls out to him and demands he remove his shoes.
Could this be one of the gods of Midian or Egypt? Could it be one of the spirits that inhabited the ancient world?
Moses must know. He asks “who are you?”
The voice from the burning bush replies: “אהיה אשר אהיה.” I will be what I will be.
This God does not have a name. It is not one of the idols that the nations worship. It is not something that can be held or controlled. This God will be what it will be. This God is the sum total of all that will ever exist.
When I teach bnei mitzvah children portions, I try to get them to understand what they are saying, so I teach them the roots of Hebrew words. They learn what is going on in each word of their parashah.
In Hebrew, every word has a root: three letters that hold all the possible meanings. Words like kaddish (the prayer for the dead), kiddush (blessing the sabbath), and kiddushin (getting married) all have the same root: kaf-dalet-shin. The root gives us all the words to do with holiness and making things special.
In nearly every parashah, we get to the unpronounceable name of God. The students nearly always try to pronounce it, but find it quite impossible.
We don’t say the word as it appears, but substitute it with “Adonai” (my Ruler) or “Hashem” (the name). That way the name stays sacred, or kadosh.
And then I teach them the root of this ineffable name. Hashem is a composite of three words: היה (what was); הוה (what is) and יהיה (what will be). God’s root is existence. God is the thing that always exists, and from which all existence comes.
When God says “I will be what I will be,” it means that God is everything. God is existence itself. God is whatever it means for something to actually exist.
This is the mature view of God. It is not a fairytale or a Santa Claus. It is a way of understanding all of reality.
This God will not do what it is told, or sort out your problems for you.
That’s why this God comes with a demand. “Go back to Egypt. Get over there and bring the people out of that land. Do whatever you can, bring everyone with you, and get yourselves free.”
When we are children, we have a child’s view of God. One who gives out punishments and rewards. One like an ideal parent.
Now, we are faced with the good of adulthood. The one who is the foundation of all existence. The one who gives all life meaning. The one who says: “I am not going to free you by magic. You will have to start freeing yourself.”
A young Talmud scholar moves from Lithuania to London. Years later he returns home to visit his family.
His mother asks: “Yossele but where is your beard?”
“Oh, mama, in London, nobody wears a beard.”
“But do you at least keep Shabbat?”
“No, mama, in London people work all the time. We have to make money.”
“Oy vey. But do you still keep kosher?”
“Mum, I’m sorry, kosher food is expensive and hard to find.”
“Yossele…” she says. “Are you still circumcised?”
Coming home from rabbinical school for Rosh Hashanah, I feel like I have my parents asking the same questions in reverse. “Lev you’re laying tefillin now? You’re keeping shabbat now? You’re training to be a rabbi now?! Lev, are you still patrilineal?”
I can confirm with great pride that I am still not Jewish according to the Orthodox beit din. I still have no desire to leave a religious movement that embraces me for one that doesn’t.
Still, anxieties are understandable. I have to admit that I am more than a little daunted coming home for the High Holy Days this year. It is quite one thing to lead services for strangers in far-flung places like Cornwall and Newcastle. But giving a sermon to the community that raised me, in front of my cheder teachers and old friends, adds a whole new level of pressure. It turns out it’s easier to talk to strangers about God than it is to engage with your family. Perhaps Chabad are onto something after all.
Reading Liberal Jewish Community is now celebrating its 40th year. Everybody who attended the birthday celebrations in July fed back what a great time they had, and members of the community who I met at Liberal Judaism’s biennial told me how inspired they were to keep this community going and make it even stronger.
Rosh Hashanah is a good time to take stock of that. We are at the start of autumn and ten days before Yom Kippur. In the time of our ancestors, this was when the harvest season finished, and the Torah cycle came to its end. The days became darker and insecurity about rainfall set in. Farmers and nomads wondered what the new year would bring, whether they would have enough food to feed their families, and what new challenges they might face. So they set this period as a time for reflection on how their lives had gone and where they would go in the coming year.
Rosh Hashanah is a time when we return to the same place as we have always been and look at it again with fresh eyes. This is, then, a poignant moment for all of us, to reflect on where we as a community have been and where we will go. I think then that the best I can offer in this Rosh Hashanah sermon is not so much Torah learning but reflections on the amazing impact this community has had, both on my life and on the life of Judaism in Britain.
This synagogue really has pioneered a future for Liberal Judaism. For such a small community, it is remarkable how many of the children who were in cheder at the same time as I was have gone on to be engaged Jews. Graham has worked for various Jewish charities; Abs has led Limmud; Katherine attends services when she can fit them into her busy schedule as a doctor. (The list goes on, so if anybody has some naches they want to share, do feel free.) This is not, by any means, a coincidence. This synagogue created such an amazing intergenerational community for us. At cheder, we learnt not just the facts about Judaism but how to really engage with it, have opinions on it, and integrate it into our lives.
All that fostered strong relationships between people of all ages. My brother loved being able to go round to Susanna’s house and speak German with her. Across the board, people fostered really meaningful bonds. Today, the buzzword in Jewish circles is “relational Judaism” – the idea that Judaism is not a transaction where congregants purchase a service off a rabbi, but that Judaism is something we build through our relationships with each other. I think we can say with some pride, we were doing that long before it was cool.
Perhaps what made Reading’s community so special was Meir’s farm. When I tell people that this existed, often people barely believe me. One day, we will need to write down the history of this community, or in fifty years the idea that there was a religious community in Berkshire living out a kibbutznik’s dream on a crop farm in Berkshire will be just a strange myth. The experiences of Meir’s farm were unbelievably special. Harvesting rhubarb on Shavuot, building a Sukkah out of real twigs and greenery, seeing how the biblical year lined up with an agricultural cycle. One of my strongest childhood memories is of when we buried the old siddurim, Service of the Heart, at Tu B’Shvat, and planted on top of them a Burning Bush.
This all made such an impression on me that, when I moved to London, I wondered where they went to plant trees on Tu B’Shvat. I thought that perhaps the councils gave them permission to do something in the public parks or that they might link up with one of the city farms. I was shocked to realise that this practice of earth-based Judaism was something special and unique to Reading. I felt like Londoners were really missing out on a proper Jewish experience. How can you live Judaism properly in a big city like London? Apparently, some other people agreed with me, because in the last few years a group of young pioneers have set up Sadeh, a Jewish farm in rural Kent. That farm has become a magnet for young Jews across Europe and restored an important sense of community around agrarian Judaism. We at Reading anticipated that and I am sure there is much wisdom that established members can share with those people if they so choose.
What sticks out for me most, however, was how much this community embraced diversity. I have amazing memories of dressing up as Dana International for Purim here, and performing her Eurovision-winning hit ‘Diva’ on the bimah. This world is not an easy place to grow up LGBT, but this community made it so much easier and created a genuinely warm and accepting environment. As an adult, I have seen many of my friends struggle with their sexuality and gender and wonder if they have a place in this world. I am so incredibly grateful that I never had to doubt that I had a God and a religion that loved me exactly as I was.
Reflecting on all this, and on the wonderful Jewish upbringing I had in this community, what I really want to say is thank you. You enriched my life and have done for so many Jews who come through these doors. Keep going, stick with it, because you never know what great things you are achieving with small gestures. This synagogue is not just my home community, it is a home for everyone who needs it.
As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and a great 20th Century mystic, said: “Through returning home, all things are reunited with God– returning home is, in essence, an effort to return to one’s original status, to the source of life and higher being in their fullness; without limitation and diminution, in their highest spiritual character, as illumined by the simple, radiant divine light.”
I’m pretty sure he was talking about Berkshire.
At the grand age of 40, I say to this Jewish community: may you live to be 120! And then some.
I gave this sermon in the synagogue that raised me, Reading Liberal Jewish Community. It was a very tender and nostalgic experience.
 Orot HaTeshuva, 4:2