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Think Then Perpetuate the Cycle

Miriam BergerFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

It’s easiest to think of Judaism as a set of dos and don’ts and even easier if your Jewish life is a smorgasbord to pick and choose from Jewish practice at your will.  But Judaism isn’t a set of rules it’s a process, a way of making decisions.  This talk will definitely make your Jewish life more challenging but will certainly make it more meaningful too.  It will make the routine conscious and may just bring about your liberation.

I am the principal rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue and the mum of a particularly gorgeous 18 month old which means the simple question of ‘who am I?’ makes me ask ‘who was I?’  I went from being the Rabbi’s daughter, to being a theology student at Bristol University and after that my identity kept changing as I became Rabbi, wife and mother. All three roles involve privileged relationships, creativity and lots of energy.

[VIDEO clip – Sliding Doors]

I love it when a film takes one of the most simplistic ideas, encapsulates it into a rom com and makes you think of course why I didn’t think of that. It’s those sliding door moments which define our destiny. When our destiny changes by actions that we didn’t even know we were doing. Our lives are defined by decisions we made. I went off to university, and found myself living with girls whose parents had asked them if they wanted them to pay for university or for their wedding; I hadn’t been asked if I was going to apply for University, it’s just what we did. Our Jewish practice is often something that comes within those sliding doors moments, it’s just what we do and if we did it differently how differently would our lives turn out? How would our destinies change? Rarely in our day to day lives are we asked to justify our religious observance, are we challenged and asked questions of why we do things in a certain way. I’ve realised the times where I see myself asking people and challenging them about their Jewish observance is when couples come to me, one of who are Jewish, the other who is not and they’re thinking of converting. We talk about their Jewish lives as they are at the moment, whether it’s talking about Shabbat, Kashrut, their festival observance and we talk about why they do things, or rather lines they have drawn, and I wonder that whether those lines are as arbitrary as they sound when they’re talking to me. Are they in fact arbitrary or is it really more about the in laws or an emotional sensation or their upbringing or a rebellion to their upbringing, or striving for something authentic. Whatever it is they have drawn lines which only they really understand and even then one asks ‘do you understand why you have drawn the line, or have you just drawn the line?. This isn’t a denominational thing, it’s a Jewish thing, everyone draws a line, whether it’s kashrut, Sniut, Shabbat, the list is endless. There’s always going to be someone who has drawn a line further to the right than you. You cover your hair, someone else wears a snude. You separate milk and meat, well they need a particular hechsher on their food. They have a particular hechsher, well that’s not good enough for next person. There’s always a line and it’s never quite the same line as anybody else’s. There is a great example of drawing the line that I love from the Talmud, because this isn’t a new phenomenon. The story starts with Levi visiting the house of Yosef the trapper of Fowl and he is served a platter of peacock head in simmering milk. Levi is horrified and doesn’t eat the meal and he goes straight to Rav and says ‘why has he not been excommunicated and how can he live like this?’ Rav calmly explains, ‘you and I understand our kashrut from one particular verse, one particular passuk with two entities in it. Within one verse the first bit tells us you should not eat any carcass, the second part you should not cook a kid in its mothers milk’. We have understood that to mean don’t cook any carcass in milk but if you were in Rabbi Yehuda town you would understand the verse differently, there’s a comma there. There are two distinct parts of the same verse, you shouldn’t eat a carcass and you shouldn’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk, well that peacock’s mother didn’t have any milk. Why do I love the passage? Well it’s because it’s the Talmud’s blasé nature that we all draw our lines differently and it’s ok as long as they have informed reasoning behind them. For me the act of deciding how to draw the line is authentic Judaism, the life that follows is just commentary. But we have to learn how to draw the line and ironically we have to learn how to draw the line, and ironically I like to explain how to draw the line by drawing two triangles. We can look at every aspect of Jewish life through two triangles, determining our practise and asking ourselves where it is we are going to draw the line, we need to decide what’s going to go into our two triangles. Our God and God of our ancestors, this is the opposite to the story of the famous oven of Achnai debate where the majority decision prevails over Eliezer even with the support of the heavenly voice. Whether it’s God, mitzvot, revelation, divine prompting, our conscience, however you name it, however you understand it, God needs to get a vote but the importance is God does not get the veto because Jewish tradition must also speak to us. The Jew drawing the line needs to ask ourselves what is it the wealth of our text offers us? What’s the essence of it? What is it trying to teach me? What voices are speaking to me? How can I understand it? How can I respond to it? How can I enrich it, purify it and refine it? What is it that Jewish tradition brings with itself to ask me where I’m drawing my line? But the third element of the triangle needs to be our Jewish community. Our lines have to be drawn in a context otherwise what does Judaism end up looking like if it’s just a series of us all drawing our own personal lives? We are not individuals in our religious lives, we are communally obligated beings. It would be easy to leave it at that, easy to leave these three entities as the only way that we make our decisions but we are not living in a ghetto, we’re living in the context of a world in which we interact with on a daily basis, and therefore the rest of the world needs to play into our line drawing as well. So mirroring our God and God of our ancestors ein sof, the image of the divine being from back at the beginning of Genesis, not a particularistic one but universalistic one. The God that interacts with the whole world. Either the God that’s looking to human beings to seeing how we behave in order to look for our redemption, or simply our conscience that’s asking us ‘do my actions contribute to a better world?’ And not just our Jewish tradition but our wisdom, our knowledge, that which is being passed onto us through science, technology, ecology, all that we learn through generation to generation that informs not just our lives but our Jewish lives. We ask ourselves how does the world around us changes our response to our Jewish tradition, and not just our community, not just klal yisrael but humanity. Just as we are part of the Jewish Community that helps us draw our lines, so we are also part of the world at large, part of humanity that which needs to be part of the line drawing as well. What’s my responsibility to world around us? How can I contribute to society in the most ultimate fashion? So it’s not just about 2 triangles but about what those triangles can create, those triangles which go on to create our Jewish selves. The lines we draw have to perpetuate something , we have to be able to acknowledge the lines to be able to pass them on, we have to be able to see that we no longer live in a Rebbe led Judaism, we can’t turn to just one person and take all of the answers because Judaism is so informed by the familial, the society, the community, everything around us. Society changed because we have windows to the world, we don’t have same relationship with leadership as we once did but what does that different process enable us, it enables us to have a conscience and a conscious Judaism. This isn’t about membership or denominations because actually all membership does is allows us to adopt somebody else’s line drawing, this is about us as individuals standing within a community making sure we live a conscious life. Making sure that we don’t just take what has been passed down to us and replicate it and perpetuate it. Not allow it to be another part of our lives when we allow the doors to open and close and walk straight through life wondering what life might have been but not asking the question. Actually it’s about us reclaiming a conscious decision to be able to fulfil act, to do your Judaism s in a way that’s meaningful to speak to us. So what’s my dream? What’s the vision? It’s the vision of a Judaism which isn’t taken for granted. A Judaism in which if we are challenged if we are asked why do we do something we have an answer which isn’t simply because of that was done in my childhood. Nor is it a Judaism which is based on guilt, the guilt of being one link in a chain of goodness that we hold fast to only because of the guilt of breaking the chain. We don’t want to beak the chain, but it shouldn’t just be guilt that we pass on to the next generation. That what we pass on is a process, an informed decision making process, where our children can turn round to us and say, ‘this is my Judaism, this is what I do and yes, it might be exactly what my parents did and my grandparents before them, or it might be something radically different but actually I chose my Judaism in a way that my parents chose their Judaism and that their parents chose theirs. That was hearing the voices of all of those element of our Magen David, all of those elements that make up our Jewish world’. Making sure God and the God of our ancestors has a voice, as well as our Ein Soff – that God that speaks to the whole of humanity. That not only does our Jewish tradition have a voice in our decision making but so does the knowledge and wisdom of modern day life in which we live, and so does the community in which we embed ourselves and so does the humanity in which we live and play a part of and make a difference to.

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