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Credo: the deep power of religious mottos

This piece by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue first appeared in The Timeson Saturday 20 September.

Next week poses a problem for Jews. It is our religious new year — Rosh Hashannah — a time to look back on the faults we committed in the past 12 months and to try to avoid them in the ones ahead. Although the idea of having a personal MoT and making next year a better year is wonderful in theory, it is hard in practice.

We are not ethereal beings who live in a state of perpetual piety but are rooted in the muddy world and are often overwhelmed with work or family life. It can be hard to shift bad habits or to rectify poor relationships. Yes, there are plenty of religious books to instruct us about ethical values, but the problem is precisely that we lack time for reflection in the first place, and so those literary tomes are of little use.
Still, it is not a new problem. Religious leaders of old were constantly battling to gain their errant flock’s attention just as much — so rabbis developed a series of pithy sayings to condense their message into memorable soundbites, which are just as relevant today.

One of the greatest was the first-century Hillel, who declared: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” (ie, we have to stick up for our rights). “But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (being self-obsessed is equally wrong). “And if not now, when?” (theological debate is fine, but there is a time to stop theorising and start doing.) A contemporary of his was Shammai, who said: “Say little, do much, and welcome everyone cheerfully.”

In some cases, the memory of a particular sage might have vanished had it not been for the enduring appeal of their motto — such as Rabbi Tarphon, whose personal bon mot has been adopted as a slogan by modern Jews campaigning for various causes. He said: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This has inspired those battling against the odds to save families faced with famine, to innoculate children against malaria or to rescue animals caught in an oil slick. People know they cannot help everyone, but they can make a difference for those they do reach. Tarphon’s words assure them that the only other option — giving up — is not really an answer.

There are earlier examples of sacred one-liners that are more helpful than long sermons when battling to get through the day. The most succinct utterance is the cry of Moses to Pharoah: “Let my people go.” Whereas some biblical phrases have limited usage, that one has echoed across the generations and has been heard in recent decades by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

Modern rabbis have continued the tradition, such as Leo Baeck’s “Mere good will cannot replace definite ethical action.” My own ministry has been inspired by Harold Reinhart’s “It is not what people want that counts, it is what they ought to want.” I am also guided by Mendel of Kotzk: “Take care of your own soul and another person’s body, but not of your own body and another person’s soul.”

They highlight the power of the religious motto at its best — memorable and impelling. However, it still needs us to adopt it for our own lives, and keep repeating it until it becomes embedded in our thoughts and actions.

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