sermon

What I inherited from my grandfather

One of the greatest things I inherited from my grandfather was a tattered red paper folder, containing jokes. I’ll give you a pertinent example: “On the first day of school, a new student hands his teacher a note from his mother. It reads: ‘the opinions expressed by this child are not necessarily those of his parents.’”

My granddad, John Rayner, was the rabbi here for decades. I am now a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, where he once lectured on liturgy and codes. Today is Leo Baeck College shabbat: a chance for congregants to see what the future progressive rabbinate might look like. I’ve been invited to speak here because today the LJS will install a new stained glass window in the room named in my granddad’s honour. Rabbi Alex realised that the coincidence of these two events was too fortuitous to pass up. I am here, then, to speak about both Liberal Judaism’s past and its future.

I am often nervous to speak about my grandfather. Whenever I go to preach or lead services at any Liberal synagogue, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much they loved him. I blush and tell them: “he was a wonderful man.”

I think what worries me most when I talk about my grandfather is that I’ll only disappoint people’s expectations. I don’t have his knowledge of Jewish thought. I can’t even repeat his views on it, because I haven’t read enough of his books. I suspect that most of the people who greet me so enthusiastically know what he thought much better than I did. That’s because I never really knew him as a scholar, or a liturgist, or a homiletician. I only knew him as a lovely man.

So, on this day, in his honour, I’ll share with you something of the lovely man I knew. The John Rayner I knew used to skip along by the brook in a park in Finchley with his two West Highland terriers, Sasson and Simcha. He used to love word games and, when driving along, he used to point out to us the registration plates of the car in front to see who could come up with the best word from the letters on the plate before the car drove off. He used to sing. Really, really badly. He broke into song, because he couldn’t find the key. When we went round for dinner at his house, he always had a stash of jokes that he’d memorised to tell. The rest of us would make sure that we also had new jokes.

That’s why the greatest inheritance I’ve received from him is this red folder containing his collections of jokes. He was so organised that he kept them and catalogued them. Some are hilarious. “Saul Epstein was taking an oral exam, applying for his citizenship papers. He was asked to spell cultivate, and spelled it correctly. He was then asked to use the word in a sentence, and responded ‘Last vinter on a very cold day I was vaiting for a bus, but it was too cultivate, so I took the subvay home.’”

Some are only good in the context of sermons, like this advert he found in a shul newsletter: “Don’t let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help.”

Some just seem wholly inappropriate for sermons: “Where do you find a dog with no legs? Right where you left him.”

Some are completely outdated. Jokes about the pitfalls of this newfangled creation called the internet. Jokes about politicians in the Clinton administration. There are some that seem doubtful whether they were ever funny, some that were probably funny at the time but have since become offensive, and some that I just don’t understand.

This little red folder is a treasured inheritance because it reminds me of my grandfather the man. It isn’t valuable or useful. Nobody else would get much out of it. It’s just a collection of old jokes. But when I look through it, I hear again his sense of humour. I see his yeckerish impulse to organise everything, even joke collections. I remember what his laughter sounded like.

This little red folder stands in for something of what matters most about Judaism. Much of it can be read about in books or understood from watching documentaries on TV. But the essence of Judaism, that part of it that makes it really Jewish, is completely intangible. It is the relationships we have with each other. The feeling of lighting shabbat candles with friends. The shared references. The warmth of sitting in a synagogue together and feeling the gentle strength of community.

That is what I inherited from my grandfather. It is what I hope to pass on. Part of the reason why I decided to pursue this path was because that Jewish world meant so much to me. The experiences that those who gave their time to make Judaism live created for me an oasis in a challenging world. I want to pass on those experiences and create that sanctuary for others.

That little red folder is a microcosm of Jewish inheritance. Just as I filter through these old jokes and find ones I want to pass on and discard, so we modern Jews do with our heritage. In every generation, we look anew at the traditions, rituals and beliefs of the past to see what is relevant in our time. Some of what worked in the past might not work today. Some of what did not work in the past might well work today. Going through that process of filtering through what we have received is what keeps Judaism alive, dynamic and engaging.

Right now, Liberal Judaism is going through just such a process. We are reviewing our old liturgies and customs in the hope of developing new ones. As we go through these changes together, we must of course bring our heads and a sense of intellectual integrity. But we must also bring our hearts. We need to be able to look at the changes our movement needs and ask: how can we make this warmer? How can we make it more heartfelt? How can we be more loving to each other as we disagree and work out new ways of being Liberal Jews?

That is the greatest inheritance I received from my grandfather: a little red folder, reminding me that a good sense of humour, and a desire to share it, matters more than anything else.

Shabbat shalom.

granddad
John Rayner z”l

I delivered this sermon on Saturday 9th February 2019 at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood.

judaism · sermon · social justice · Uncategorized

We build the Temple when we learn its dimensions.

We begin to build the Temple when we learn its dimensions.

Midrash Tanchuma tells us that we begin to build the Temple when we learn its dimensions, and it is in this week’s parasha that we learn about the first Temple’s dimensions.

The Temple it describes sounds gorgeous: gold, silver and brass; blue, purple and scarlet; skins and threads and wood and onyx stones. The parasha lays out what the ark should look like, surrounded by cherubim. Even the smell – that deep rich smell of incense – it describes.

The Temple sounds beautiful, but it is not my Temple.

That Temple is for a world divided up into castes – where cohanim take precedence over Levites, Levites over Israelites, Israelites over low-caste Jews and low-caste Jews over foreigners. The Temple I want to build is one where all hierarchies of race and class are abolished.

That Temple is for a place where women are kept in their own quarters, separate from men and participation in services. My Temple is one where patriarchy is finished.

That Temple is one where countless animals are burnt on furnaces, day and night. In my Temple, humanity and nature work in harmony.

Their Temple is for a centralised cult in Jerusalem – mine is a decentralised, Diasporic, dispersed Temple where people can find God wherever they are.

Like the Sages, who took this parasha and inferred from it the laws of Shabbat, my Temple is not a place, but a time. It is a time for justice, peace and tranquillity.

That Temple is not our Temple, but this week we learn its dimensions. And when we learn the dimensions of the Temple we begin to build it. This idea, that you can create change just by imagining something different, has been central to many revolutionary movements. Last week, we celebrated 100 years since women got the vote, and it is worth reflecting that every major change for democracy was brought about people fighting to change their circumstances and every battle was brought about by a change in consciousness. Through that consciousness, through contemplating a world of women’s liberation, the earliest feminists began to create that world.

Abdullah Ocalan, also known as Apo, the incarcerated leader of the Kurdish resistance in Turkey, pledged in his Prison Writings that weapons should go silent and ideas speak. His idea – of democratic confederalism, where peoples were brought together by collectives that transcended boundaries – he hoped, could be brought about by persuasion rather than violence. He imagines that the Kurdish people might have national liberation without resorting to the authoritarianism and division of their own state, and has made it his task from prison to advocate for a different kind of society. The Kurdish liberation movement has been profoundly different to most other nationalist movements that preceded it, in that it has focused on building greater equality and community while fighting against persecution on all sides, rather than deferring this necessary work until ‘after the revolution’.

During my time in Turkey, I was lucky enough to see some of these ideas in action. In the year I lived in Istanbul, the Turkish government made a rare allowance for the Kurds to celebrate their spring welcoming festival, Newruz. A friend took me out to a giant field in the centre of town where people were selling garlands. Fires burned and people jumped through them. There were a few stages, on which folk musicians performed. The people around me took my pinkies in theirs and danced in a circle in a style similar to the hora.

What was perhaps most remarkable was how politicised this festival was. The very fact that it was taking place at all was a shock to the system. For decades, people had not dared to speak Kurdish openly on the streets. Journalists who reported on the persecution Kurds faced had been imprisoned. But here they were, in their tens of thousands, proudly celebrating their own traditions. After every few songs, a speaker came out. The speaker would spell out a vision for national liberation and international solidarity. I don’t speak Kurdish, but I’ve been to enough Marxist rallies to recognise “down with the capitalist system” when I hear it.

At the same time, a revolution was taking place within the Kurdish community. The national liberation struggle had empowered women, ethnic minorities and queer people to start campaigning for their own rights. HDP, the democratic wing of the resistance movement, had, by far, the most comprehensive policy for gendered liberation, including paid housework, gay adoption rights and closing the pay gap. The party’s candidate for mayor of Kadikoy, a fancy district of Istanbul, was a trans woman sex worker, Asya Elmas, who came close second on a platform of combatting exploitation.

Over the last few years, I have watched with great intensity as that movement for Kurdish freedom has unfolded. In a way, I have done so despairingly. The Syrian civil war has continued and escalated, causing devastation on unprecedented levels, and turning out more and more refugees. In that time, ISIS has spread across the Middle East, destroying Kurdish communities and threatening to destroy every remnant of hope with their own brand of reactionary, fundamentalist dogma.

But, as well as despairing, I’ve watched on with hope. The conflict has, unexpectedly, given Kurdish militants the opportunity to try out the least of their dreams. The Kurdish groups banded together in response to the war and, in 2012, they captured the cities of Efrin, Amuda and Kobani in the northern Syrian territory of Rojava. Having taken control, they tried to implement the ideas of Apo I described earlier. They governed by direct, grassroots democracy. They instituted a constitution that pledged religious, cultural and political freedoms, as well as a bill of human rights in line with the UN’s Declaration.

For the last few years, they have been one of the driving forces in pushing back ISIS. They have now almost completely defeated ISIS in all the areas neighbouring them, despite little support from the international community and active hostility from Turkey and Iran. Turkey, which has so far barely intervened in the Syrian conflict, even to support humanitarian efforts, has in recent weeks got involved only with the intention of destroying Rojava and, with it, Kurdish hopes for their own self-government.

I hope you will understand that I am not frivolously cheering on a side in a war whose outcome will not affect me, but I do believe that the struggle in Rojave is the Spanish Civil War of our generation. It is not a struggle over which ethnic group will govern, but over which ideas will be allowed to dominate. Rojava represents the possibility of a set of ideas that have otherwise been called unrealisable – of a borderless, classless world. They are defending more than a territory; they are defending a dream of a different kind of Middle East.

I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of the Kurdish resistance. There are big problems that have been widely acknowledged, including mistreatment of minorities like Yezidis and the egalitarian values I described are not uniformly shared. I also do not want to give off the impression of glamourising war. I only recognise that the need for violence has come out of necessity, and I find it hard to criticise anyone for using those methods when faced with such violent opponents on all sides.

It is worth knowing that those ideals – of liberty, equality and justice – are being fought for, right now. It is worth supporting the people who are fighting for them, however imperfectly.

Learning about their struggle for a just world, I realise that my Temple may not be as distant as I thought. Knowing that people are struggling against far worse conditions that I can imagine, I feel empowered to fight for the same ideals here.

You may not share my ideals, but I still want to hear yours. I want to have a real conversation about what kind of world we want to build.

We begin to build the Temple whenever we study its dimensions, so let’s look at each other’s blueprints. What is our Judaism really for? Are we just preserving a tradition; just using our religion to serve people’s individual needs now; or are we serious about building a Messianic Age?

We begin to build the Temple whenever we learn its dimensions. Let’s get building.

 

Newroz_Istanbul4

I delivered this sermon on 15th February 2018 for Parashat Terumah at Leo Baeck College.