What goes in the boxes?

We last moved home almost 4 years ago. This was the sermon I gave that shabbat (at a Bar Mitzvah - I've removed the boys name). We are moving home again next week, and so much of it is still true... what do you put in your boxes and what is essential to your Judaism?

On Thursday I did what someone in Kiddush told me a few months ago is more stressful than getting divorced! I moved house! This has indeed been a slow, stressful, long project. But over the last few weeks, as the sorting and packing and chucking out intensified, it struck me, that what I was doing was very similar to what you X are now being asked to do as a Bar Mitzvah, and what we Progressive Jews take upon ourselves as an integral part of our Judaism.

Every Pesach, Gary and I work hard to clean and refresh the house. This year, we were also making an effort to cleanse the house of all the excess things that we didn't need. A friend advised that for each item one must honestly ask oneself ‘Do I really need it? Do I love it?’ if the answer is no to both of these questions, it is definitely heading for the charity shop or freecycle. As a habitual hoarder, this was quite a painful task, but it was also very freeing. Deciding what is truly essential in ones life is a difficult challenge, not only to the home buyer who is downsizing, but to each and every one of us as modern Jews.  As I sorted and cleared I found myself wondering what you, X, will choose to put in the box in your life labelled ‘Judaism’ and what are the guiding questions that will help you, and each of us, choose?

Critics of Reform Judaism often challenge our ideal of informed decision making as ‘the thin end of the wedge’- where do we draw the line in terms of what is acceptable. One of our starting points must always be ethics and morality – a central Jewish concept anyway, but of course one that shifts and changes. So for example, the traditional Jewish marriage document, was designed to protect a Jewish woman’s rights so that she would have her property protected should divorce occur. However, as it is an early medieval document, the way it protects her was an incredibly forward thinking methodology in it’s time, but one which today seems very one sided and unbalanced. So we have taken the ethical ideal of the ketubah – that a woman’s rights should be protected, but applied them in a way that fits modern relationships and weddings, as well as applying the principal in a more general sense. Ethics of many sorts guide our thinking, but they are not ethics that are external to Judaism, rather they are integral to it. The Talmud[1], for example, asks why the school of Hillel always won out over the school of Shammai in debate, even though both were considered words of Torah. The answer given is that the school of Hillel were kindly and modest, and studied not only their own rulings but also the rulings of Shammai. This gives us important guidelines as to how we should be forming our Judaism – with decisions made in kindness and modesty, but also based on wide learning and space for the other.

I know that to X, and I suspect many of us, family and tradition also form a key aspect of our decision making process. We cannot dismiss those things that form security blankets for us because of their repetition and familiarity, although we must also challenge ourselves to occasionally push our comfort levels and not consider ourselves ‘reformED’ but Reform – a work in progress. When the new siddur was under development, my mum would grumble and complain about the addition of the mothers into the amidah, and how she didn't like change in such a central prayer, it didn't feel comfortable. Yet the amidah she had become used to was already a changed prayer to what she had grown up with, being the product of a siddur from the 1970’s, and today, when she is asked to pray without the mothers, she stumbles and forgets. We quickly adjust to changes, although the process can be painful at times. We must remember that no change is rootless, and that we also have that tradition of family inheritance and community minhag to guide our decision making and help us fulfill our potential as Jews, and navigate our way through that change.

For me, returning again to Rabbi Hillel, I find that at the centre of my decision making compass is his maxim from Pirkei Avot 1:14:
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when"
Our Judaism has to make us happy, it has to be for us, and X I hope that from today onward your Judaism will be something that brings meaning and happiness to your life. But it also has to be about reaching out, about human contact, support, community, and changing the broken world we find ourselves in – and we can’t wait – we must use the gift of each day to it’s maximum. Keeping these three in mind has helped me navigate how to apply Judaism, but the reality is, we will all apply it in a different way, and this too is very Jewish! The many voices of our Rabbis ring out to us through the ages offering a Judaism that has always been varied, that has always had diversity, and that has always created space for a diversity of voices. I hope that I can create a little more space in my life by continuing to sort through boxes and establish what truly is essential, but perhaps it will always be a work in progress, and maybe this is as it should be.

Shortly before my ordination I managed to make this deeply spiritual experience into an opportunity to be a consumer, and in a wonderful workshop in the old city of Jerusalem, I had a bracelet made. On it was a verse from Psalms[2] and it reads Ivdoo et adonai b’simchah, bo’oo lefanav birnanah ‘Serve the Eternal in gladness, come before God with joyful song’. I wanted this bracelet to be a constant reminder to me of what essentially lies at the heart of my Judaism and my Rabbinate – joy and gladness, whether it is found in song, in study, in community, in cooking – whatever brings joy into your life, grab hold of it, and put it into the boxes of things to keep near. If we can’t make our Judaism a source of happiness for ourselves and for others, we are doomed, both individually and communally. X, I hope that after today your Judaism is a constant source of happiness, support and growth, and may we all be blessed with boxes of Jewish essentials that make us and those around us joyous and fulfilled.
Cain Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.
Venomar Amen.

[1] Eruvin 13b
[2] 100:2


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