Sermon by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, on first day Shavu’ot, 1997.
Mount Sinai is a very ordinary-looking mountain. It cannot compare with the breathtaking grandeur of Everest or the Alps or even our own Blue Mountains. Yet just as the most ordinary human being can rise to the heights, so can an unimpressive mountain grow in stature and become immortal.
And that is what happened to Sinai when, from above its cloud covered peak, the voice spoke and said, “I am the Lord your God”.
At that moment, say the sages, all Israel, encamped at the foot of the mountain, were k’ish echad b’lev echad – as one person with one thought.
Did they look around and challenge anybody else’s right to be there? Did they question whether they themselves were at home with the moment?
No, says tradition. God spoke, all Israel listened, and there were neither questions, nor doubts, nor identity crises.
Shavu’ot this year, all those centuries later, sees quite a different Jewish picture. We look at ourselves and wonder whether we have to believe everything. We look at others, uncertain about them since what they espouse seems far from right in our eyes.
There are crises in Israel whenever the Knesset considers tightening up the definition of a Jew. There are crises almost everywhere over the definition of Judaism. The over-arching issue is whether every Jewish ideology is entitled to use the name Judaism and to claim legitimacy, authenticity and validity.
The debate is important. It affects all of us. The tragedy is that so many cannot get involved without heat, hate-mongering and intemperate language. The hot tempers enliven the community and sell Jewish newspapers, but they cannot be the right way to address the issues and search for solutions.
That is the reason why last Shavu’ot I spoke with dignity and restraint about a crucial aspect of the debate, when I considered whether a secularist Judaism without God was still Judaism. Since then, events have made necessary a further Shavu’ot sermon on what is Judaism.
Locally, there has been tension this year between orthodoxy and reform. To some extent it reflects the uproar in England when the reform rabbi Hugo Gryn, a fine man and a good friend, passed away and the issue was whether Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks should attend the funeral or address a memorial meeting.
When did the orthodox-reform problem arise? Not at Sinai, where, as the rabbis say, even the simplest handmaid had no doubt in her mind that there was a God and Torah was His word.
Centuries thereafter saw Jewish days hallowed by prayer and commandments, the weeks by Shabbat and the years by the festivals; Jewish minds moulded by study and actions by Jewish ethics; and lifetimes lived in dignity, inspired by hope for the Messiah and faith in the World to Come.
Great works of Jewish thought, literature and law emerged, showing the Torah in all its proverbial seventy faces. Jews were born and blessed. There was b’rit milah for boys, and in due course Bar-Mitzvah and Bat-Mitzvah developed; marriage and divorce followed the set patterns; Jews who died were reverently buried. Converts, in fluctuating numbers, joined the fold, committing themselves to the Torah without qualification or condition.
It was hard to be a Jew – hard, but good. Yes, different groups had different interpretations and emphases, but all knew that God was eternal, Israel would last as long as history, and the Torah was the firm reference point – an anchor that could not be shifted, a tree that could not be shaken.
The end of the eighteenth century brought the French Revolution; the beginning of the nineteenth brought a Jewish revolution. Judaism and modernity confronted each other; some weighed Judaism in the balance, found it wanting, and abandoned it as the price of entry to European society.
The early reformers for their part re-made Judaism in the light of modernity, giving up what they deemed not in consonance with the new age.
The orthodox stood firm. At most they made aesthetic changes, but the substance was untouched. Samson Raphael Hirsch said Judaism could not be adapted to the times: the times should be adapted to Judaism.
Orthodoxy was unimpressed when the reformers unilaterally and selectively re-made Jewish belief and practice, discarding and then sometimes restoring things, and subsequently dropping or revamping others.
They still used the old familiar Jewish words, but the meanings were no longer the same.
Torah was Torah, but it was no longer wholly Divine, sacred and authoritative. Messianism remained, but it became a messianic age, not a personal Messiah. There was afterlife, but resurrection was gone. Zion was still in the Bible, but whichever place Jews lived – that became their Zion.
The commandments became optional, often being tailored or truncated, and sometimes abandoned altogether.
The eternity, constancy and certainty of the tradition were pitted against people who – let’s make it quite clear, honestly and genuinely seeking a light to illumine their path – subtracted and amended, apparently at will.
Orthodoxy could not make sense of it all. The same name was used – “Judaism” – but it didn’t seem to be the same Judaism.
Could two kinds of Judaism both be Judaism? Could it be equally valid to believe in kashrut and not to believe in kashrut? Could one synagogue maintain separate seating, and another, with equal legitimacy, allow mixed seating?
Could it be equally permitted to remarry with a gett – and without one? Could one person enter Judaism by unqualified acceptance of, and another by limited commitment to the mitzvot?
In the eyes of Jewish morality, could some things be wrong – and also right? Could new ways of defining Jewish identity be as valid as the age-old definition? Could Torah be entirely the word of God, and at the same time partly human, with the difference between Divine and human elements impossible to define?
Judaism was always halachah; how could halachah have onlv a vote and not a veto? How could it be asked to legitimise non-halachah as equally valid?
It is this which is the problem. It is not a question of tolerance. Of course we have tolerance for every fellow Jew; more than that, we love them unconditionally. It is not a question of respecting people’s right to be themselves without name-calling and intemperate adjectives; we are all made in the image of God.
It is not a question of recognising freedom of conscience; each one of us has a mind and heart, and Solomon Schechter said rightly that no-one can be expected to feel with their grandfather’s heart.
But the question is, if you exercise your conscience to arrive at your own version of Judaism, am I, who also have a conscience and stand for and by the Judaism of tradition, not allowed to say, “You give me problems”?
More: you create problems for the whole system when you choose, for whatever reason, not to follow halachah, for how can Judaism be both halachic and non-halachic at the same time?
I am not saying that any Jew is not welcome in the Jewish fold. Last year our community rightly addressed the issue of whether secular Jews should be allowed to feel marginalised. At times other groups feel unwanted; the press recently reported that Israelis feel that way. It is axiomatic that all are welcome: baruch haba b’shem HaShem, berachnuchem mi-bet HaShem.
But understand, please: there is a price to pay if a movement chooses the non-halachic path. We recognise it uses Jewish terminology. We know it is an honest search for a Jewish path. But we simply cannot entirely endorse it, yet it is that endorsement which we are being asked to accord.
The bottom line, the unterste shurah, is this.
We love, honour and respect every Jew. We recognise the Jewish spectrum is diverse. We are not prepared to burn at the stake those who see things differently. We believe in debate and dialogue, with dignity and restraint.
We will sit together and work together for k’lal Yisra’el. We will mourn together for our martyrs, thrill together at the miracles of the last fifty years, dream together of the destiny ahead. We will rejoice together at every sign of Jewish interest, involvement and identity.
We will recognise the plurality of the Jewish people – but we will continue to have grave doubts about pluralism in Judaism. There are limits beyond which we cannot go in according halachic recognition.
Where do we go from here?
All versions of Judaism measure themselves by and against the standards of orthodox Judaism. (Jakob Petuchowski, a great reform scholar, said, “The one thing that all reform Jews have had and do have in common is the fact that they are not orthodox”).
Jews all describe themselves in relation to orthodoxy: “I am (or am not) shomer Shabbat“, “I am (or am not) kosher“, and so on. They say, or imply, “We reject orthodoxy”, “we accept orthodoxy”, “we are moving away from (or towards) orthodoxy”.
So perhaps you should decide your position on orthodox criteria. They go deeper than whether or not you can sit with your wife or husband at a service, whether something is easier or harder on your lifestyle.
It is philosophical criteria that should determine and assess a position. And those criteria require deep knowledge, not just slogans or stereotypes.
Having the knowledge to ground your position means learning: quietly, constructively, listening to the sources without arguing, letting the tradition speak, finding what it has to say. God said, “Let My people go”; today it is, “Let My people know”.
Yet wherever the learning process leads you, you will not be written out of the Jewish people. We must be one people. There must be no internecine war. The gates of brotherhood and dialogue must be kept open at all costs.
But sincere effort to study may reveal a fuller picture than before, and the tradition may take firmer hold of you. If nevertheless you retain a non-orthodox position, that is your privilege, but let the knowledge of tradition explain why halachic endorsement is too much to ask.
My last word is to the orthodox. For God’s sake, moderate your language. Chachamim hizraharu b’divrechem. You gain no victories by being vituperative, dogmatic, stern and dismissive. Beware of what Lord Jakobovits calls “the unacceptable face of orthodoxy”.
Love every fellow Jew, even when they are in error. Celebrate the oneness of God, work at all times for the oneness of His people, and leave the rest to the Almighty.
We don’t have to be God’s policemen. But what we do have to do is to exemplify, in all we do, say, and are, the Biblical description of Torah – “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”