high holy days · sermon

The changing face of the Jewish family

Imagine a Jewish family. Go on, close your eyes and envisage what a Jewish family looks like. 

How many of them are there? Where are they? What do they look like? What are they wearing? 

OK, you can open your eyes again. 

Perhaps you pictured one of the families from Shtisel. You’ve conjured up Haredim in black hats and long coats and white socks. You might be picturing women with covered heads, racing around a dinner table, providing food and clearing away dishes, while a bearded patriarch at the head of the table murmurs prayers from a benscher. Yes, that is a Jewish family. 

Or maybe you imagined the family from Gogglebox. A husband and a wife. Two children, a boy and a girl. They sit on the sofa in front of the TV. They eat their meals on their laps. They light the shabbes candles and sing together the brachah, then go back to watching X Factor.

Yes, that’s a Jewish family too.

Or maybe you’re remembering your own family, from your own childhood, at some festival or simchah, and seeing yourself in your own family make-up. 

You might reminisce on siblings, cousins, single mother, married parents, step-parents, step-siblings, uncles, aunties, grandparents, great-grandparents, step-great-grandparents, neighbours, babies, babysitters, cats, dogs, goldfish. You can scratch out and fill in whatever applies. You’ve got a Jewish family. 

If you’ve got a family and there are Jews in it, that’s a Jewish family.

The truth is there is no one way to have a Jewish family. We come in so many shapes and sizes. We are too diverse even for a single stereotype. 

Still, people often have an idealised vision of what a Jewish family should be and how it should look. Take today’s Torah reading. 

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read of Sarah’s anguish at having one too many children. 

In our parashah, Sarah knows she must provide an heir to Abraham. At first, she offers up her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate so that Abraham might sire a child. This is successful, and leads to the birth of Ishmael. Later, God blesses her with her own child, Isaac. 

But this is where things get really complicated. Sarah wanted Hagar to have Ishmael when she thought he’d be the only one. She liked the idea when she was providing her heir for her husband. But now Ishmael looked like a competitor for her son Isaac’s birthright. 

Sarah had an image in her head of what her family was supposed to look like. When her surrogate son plays with the child that she gave birth to, Sarah decides only one of them can last. Sarah instructs Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Now, the Jewish family of five gets swiftly reduced down to two. 

Sarah had an image in her head of how her Jewish family was meant to look. But it didn’t match up with reality. Rather than adjust her expectations to her reality, Sarah decided to make reality conform with the fantasy. Even if it meant making people destitute and homeless. Even if it meant cutting up the family she had.

Unfortunately, this desire to force reality to fit the fantasy still permeates Jewish life centuries later. In our communities, people still want to police what a Jewish family should look like. 

The result can only be disappointing for everyone. Families that don’t fit the mould find themselves excluded and cast out from communal life. The people who are “on the inside” get increasingly frustrated that nobody is coming along to synagogue who matches up with their idealised vision of the Jewish family. Eventually, synagogue leaders find themselves exasperated that their membership is dwindling and short on children. 

Rather than fighting reality by clinging onto a fantasy, successful synagogues find ways of embracing change. The best and most active shuls make sure they celebrate diversity, rejoicing in how manifold their membership can be. 

So, let’s take stock of what Jewish families really look like today.

Today, a Jewish family may only have one Jew in it. According to research, a quarter of Jews are in mixed relationships with people from other religions and none. 

In the 90s, moral panic about Jews “marrying out” meant a lot of community resources were spent trying to get Jews into relationships with each other by any means possible. After decades of bemoaning mixed families and complaining that these Jewish groupings don’t look right, there are more mixed families than ever. That number is set to grow.

Contrary to Orthodox and establishment Jewry, Reform Jews made it our mission that we would celebrate families in all their diversity. People could know that, no matter who they loved, the synagogue would be here for them and support them through every step of their life’s journey.

Because the family has changed, conversion has changed too. Decades ago, you could reasonably assume that, if somebody was converting, it was for marriage. That is no longer the case. 

The vast majority of Jewish converts over the last few years have been “spiritual seekers”: people looking for God who have found something meaningful in our traditions. Last year, over 80% of candidates at the Reform Beit Din were lesbian, gay, bi and trans. They are people who looked for a religion of integrity that celebrated them as they are, and found it with us. 

Like the rest of the country, our families reflect the choice that people have over how they want to live. Our families are sometimes one dad with three children and sometimes two mums with a baby; they are cousins and grandparents living under one roof; and they are friends raising children together as neighbours. 

So, imagine your Jewish family again. And again. And again. Keep picturing them until, as in Abraham’s promise, you have as many configurations of families as there are stars in the sky.

Yes, now we know what a Jewish family looks like.

And now we can welcome and encourage them in all their diversity. We can find ways to bring everyone into the synagogue and feel like this is a home where they are loved and encouraged. We can make sure that nobody is turned away.

Imagine the possibilities.

Shana tova. 

I gave this sermon on Second Day Rosh Hashanah at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

judaism · sermon · torah

Being hospitable

It was a dark night in an Eastern European shtetl. Shabbat was just about to come in. The Baal Shem Tov sat at the dinner table, surrounded by friends and family. Every spare inch of space had somebody sitting in it. The Baal Shem Tov was not a rich man, although many of the acolytes of the movement he founded later would be, and he would have to make a thin chicken soup stretch to feed everyone. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Standing in the doorway was a vagabond. He smelt bad, his beard was unkempt, his clothes were untidy. He asked: “can I come in? Can I eat?” The Baal Shem Tov looked back at the full house, looked over at the steaming pot of thin chicken soup, looked back to the man, then up to Heaven and said: “If God has made enough room for him on this planet, then surely I have enough a room at my table.”

The Baal Shem Tov was a model of hospitality. In this week’s parshah, we read about Abraham, who was, too, a model of hospitality. Two strangers come to approach Abraham, and he cannot do enough for them. The Torah is usually noticeably scarce on detail, but on this occasion, we hear everything he did. He bowed, he welcomed them, he gave them water and bread-cakes, he washed their feet, he offered them shade. He even killed a calf for them, and in those days meat was far more expensive than it is today.

Abraham doesn’t even know who these people are yet. As it turns out, they are messengers of God. But they could have been anyone. Nevertheless, from the outset Abraham addresses them as if they are angels. Perhaps it was that Abraham could sense something in them. Perhaps he had been expecting God. But I think, most likely, Abraham simply saw the face of God in everyone.

Rashi tells us that Abraham always used to sit at the entrance to his house, so that he could invite anybody in who walked past. The midrash tells us that Sarah always had a listening ear. She was known everywhere for how tirelessly she worked to cultivate a garden for visitors to sit. Their tent was open on all sides, so that they could welcome people coming from every direction. And from this story, the rabbis derive a mitzvah, perhaps the most important commandment of all: the duty to be hospitable.

The next story in Genesis is a parallel. Two angels turn up in Sodom. Lot invites them to stay the night. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surround the house. They threaten to assault their visitors. When Lot objects, they deride him for being a foreigner and try to break down the door. Lot offers his daughters up to the baying mob.

Although there is a modern Christian interpretation that the story of Sodom is in some way about homosexuality, the rabbis did not have such a tradition.  For them, this was a story about hospitality denied. This, they said, was a city so wicked that they would not even allow their residents to show any hospitality or compassion to strangers. This, they said, was a city where even neighbours were not kind to each other; where a dog-eat-dog ideology took root so that nobody worked together. This was a city so wicked that even people like Lot, who should have been righteous, ended up turning against their own daughters and denying them the childhood they deserved. That is why the angels destroyed Sodom.

Which city do we live in? Which house do we inhabit? I often wonder what the two angels would make of our neighbourhoods and homes if they came to visit. While we have more technology and medicine and infrastructure than the prophets and tsaddikim could ever have anticipated, we have just as many people in need of hospitality. Our society seems more isolated than ever.

Manchester is known for its hospitality, but even here we can see the isolation. We already know older people who live in loneliness. We already know younger people who are desperately reaching out for a community, only to find nothing. We have seen newcomers turn up in this city only to encounter racism, hostility and closed doors. We have all seen the number of rough sleepers on our streets rocket over recent years.

In that situation, we have the same choice that was facing Lot and Abraham. Will we throw open our doors to let people in, or will we take the cruelty we experience in society and turn it on the people in our own homes? Will we increase the love or increase the isolation? This is a societal problem, but it will only change if people welcome each other, get to know each other and build solidarity with each other.

So, we must start with ourselves and our own homes. Jewish life is not something that happens in the synagogue. The synagogue is just a place we come to get respite and reenergised as we live a Jewish life. Jewish life happens in what we do the rest of the time. If we spend the rest of our week building communities, showing hospitality and modelling loving-compassion, that is when we’re living Jewish lives. Hospitality is one of the most important mitzvahs because it affects how we interact with everything. Being welcoming to people helps to break down isolation. It helps to create a sense of community. And it makes better, kinder people of ourselves.

Let’s all make the effort to be better hosts and to give more time to each other. Choose to be like Abraham and Sarah. Choose to be like the Baal Shem Tov. As Jews, let’s be the people who decide not to let an isolating and inhospitable society last. The struggle for community begins here, with us.

besht

This sermon was first delivered Shabbat Vayeira, 3rd December, at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community