It's time once more for my annual High Holydays message. This time of year always comes round so quickly after the summer delights of weddings, warm weather, trips to Eilat and periods of mourning. Normally at this time I sum up the last year, the events, people and the trends - all, of course, as they affect the Jews. Often I segue into a plug for our appeal (in which we reguarly trounce our neighbouring shul Shaarey Suburbia!) and tell you about all the worthwhile charities that we will be supporting as well as discussing the UJIA. But this year I want to do something different. I want to think about the notion of the new year. Now I know that many of you don't like it when I discuss religious matters, and I get many letters along the line of 'that not what I pay my membership for!'. But humour me for a moment. It may turn out that what is and isn't religious isn't so clear at all.
A passing non-Jew might well conclude, on walking through a Jewish area, that the Yamim Noraim represents the festival of Jewish hat wearing, double parking and standing outside the synagogue. A quick thinking gentile might even construct an impromtu theology, perhaps Jews wait outside the synagogue to commerate waiting for Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai? Perhaps the strange semites wear hats and plimsols to recreate wandering in the wilderness? Either way the encounter at the (heavily fortified) gate of the synagogue is one of ethnic separation and suspicion, a small checkpoint to weed out undesirables so that once inside the full blown camaradarie of the yearly Jewish love in can begin. Strange then that Rosh Hashanah is actually a wholly universalist festival. Unlike all the others, Rosh Hashanah has no link to the Jewish people, no commeration of events in Jewish history, it marks a global event rather than an ethnic one. Radically in the rabbinic debate over where the near falls, Tishri wins over its rival Nissan, Rosh Hashanah is counted rather than Pesach, its polar opposite.
Aside then, from a polemically universalist commemoration of creation, what meaning can we find in our New Year? We learn that on Rosh Hashanah books are opened. in the plural. So this new year I'd like to suggest a we open some different books (although I realise that many rabbis have been sacked for such offenses). Not just the book of the Jewish people, not just the shul membership list, not just the books of jewish comfort, self-congratuation and platitudes. Many more than this: Books of the Saducees, Karaites, Gnostics, Judaeo-Christians, excommunicated kabbalists, anti-nomian Hassids, Sabbatians, Bolsheviks, Bundists, Judao-Islamic Syncretists, Rabbinic Anarchists, Half-jews, Queers, Anti-Zionists, Neo-Canaanites and 4 worlds, dancing, spliff smoking, meditating pardigm shifters. We need all of these, as Franz Rosenzweig taught "We must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the centre; from the outside in". We need new books, or rather the forgotten old ones, to begin to deal with the slew of new questions. Let me briefly allude to some, aside from the obvious problems such as the price of Challah and poor quality of kosher wine: the end of 'meaning', end of jewish peoplehood, end of jewish nationalism, post Zionism, post-religion, and post-insularity-moving towards open ended, reconstructed, de-hierarchilized, joyful Post-Judaism to come. At this new year, we're desperately crying out for new books, new visions, new Jews.
Newness of course can be rather transient. What of the fate of previous New Jews, those strapping tough young hebrews who would work the land and shrug off the diaspora mentality? Somewhere between gentrification, Commentary magazine and the Neo Conservatives the new jews soon become old Jews, fitting in perfectly with a materialist ethnocentric worldview. The other, more long lasting usage is of comparison, x are the new Jews. Fit in Blacks, Asians, Muslims, Romanies etc. as the time requires. Here the newness is again transient, what if you are a new Jew that, with a change of circumstances, ceases to be a new Jew? It all gets rather confusing; do you then continue to be a Jew (perhaps becoming an old one), looking out for new new Jews, or do you, following the model of the genetic Jews, cease to be a Jew when others peoples are in the place where you previously stood? Must it be like Yehuda Ha Levi's dark fantasy, that once we gain power we are as immoral as anyone else? If you can only be a new Jew once it would seem so, it must remain a temporary state.
Just as the new year offers us an apparent fresh start, so being a new jew can be seen as a break, a radical transformation, a new begining, marking a total separation from the old. Yet much newness must take its lead from what has been and what has been forgotten. The historical positioning of Jews on the margins has led to a rich history of thought which is invaluable to the new jew. Now I know that many of us may indeed possess the little book of Jewish Knowledge, or even the Second little book of Jewish knowledge, but I feel our heritage may have something a little more substantial to offer, perhaps that newness is also oldness and that knowledge comes in books which are not necessarily little.
There is however, a cerain seduction in the new year's reinvention; the belief in a kind of all-too-easily-attained perfection. Now I know that there's a tendency to believe that the nice Sir Sacks must know all the answers and indeed live an exempary version of the life of a Jew, but we must be suspicious of what we find underneath his crown. Of course I appreciate fully that living in Mill Hill must seem like having arrived at the Jewish utopia, but I am here to warn you about the dangers of such thoughts. If our newness is to remain new and fresh, it can never arrive. It can never expect to arrive. Like the messiah, a perfect form of Judaism must be on the on hand continually strived for and on the other hand expected without a horizon of expectation. I would like to think that Judaism is perfectable, but this perfect version always remains to come. This messianic structure means that we always strive to improve on what we have and breeds in us a deep suspicion of those who claim or appear to have reached a Hebraic nirvanah.
At the end of Yom Kippur, we (those are still in shul) say Next Year in Jerusalem, the city whose gates the Messiah will first walk through. We say these words knowing that we will say them next year and the year after. We say these words even if we are sitting in Jerusalem itself. (Perhaps next year will will even have been able to take advantage of a bargain Ryanair flight to the holy city, but let me remind you, Michael O'Leary is not the messiah.) We can never reach Jerusalem, we can't even expect to reach Jerusalem, but we must never stop attempting to reach Jereusalem, a messianic post-time when wolves will be lying down with lambs, or perhaps more radically, when the human will have left the lamb alone. This is genuine messianism. Rather than madly proclaiming dead rabbis to be the messiah, or cajoling lapsed jews into performing mindless mitzvot, its about understanding a structure without content which demands of us that we never stop striving for a perfectly unattainable perfection.
Now, don't take any of this the wrong way. I won't be delaying the end of Nei'lah on the grounds that the end of the fast must always be 'yet to come'. And don't try turning up at my house univited on shabbat expecting some 'radical hospitality'! Maybe though, when we have our next AGM and debate the key issues of our times, such as whether we need a rotating bimah and should pets (but not women) be counted in our minyan we can start to see look ahead, to take small steps towards building a new Jewishness that is genuinely fit for post modernity.
Finally, I want to wish mazeltov to David and Rachel on their recent divorce, Yosef/Yusuf on his conversion to Islam and Shirley Cohen and Barry Weinberg at keeping their adulturous relationship secret until now. Look forward to seeing you all (In my dreams) in shul on Kol Nodrei. Just remember if you dont have a ticket you wont get in! I Know I said its a universalistic festival, but there are limits.........
Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
Special request: Our synagogue is a holy building. Please treat it with respect. Please leave mobiles, Xboxes, vibrators, car keys, pen-knives, recreational drugs, with security at the entrance of the shul. They may be returned at end of service.
Our kiddushim are the talk of north-west London thanks to the hard work of the lovely Ladies Guild. They seem, however to have been rather too popular as certain indiviudals have been spotted arriving to shul just for the kiddush and avoiding the service. This is not permitted, and anyone attempting this will be apprehended by our security team.