Every day, every single day – week days, Shabbatot, chagim even Yom Kippur, hundreds of thousands of Jews in every corner of the world do the identical thing, including me. They study the same page, daf, of Talmud. It takes seven and a half years to cover the whole Talmud! I’m loving it. Today’s page,daf is from Tractate Ta’anit, it serendipitously, teaches how to organise a colossal Chagigah-type event – otherwise known as: daily life in the Jerusalem Temple. This sometimes involved up to half a million pilgrims, a psychedelic smorgasbord of sacrifices and dedication to detail that would impress any perfectionist.
But it needed a lot of care to keep going. All the Jews in Israel were divided into twenty-four groups who took turns to serve for a week in the Temple. These groups were called mishmarot, from the Hebrew,shamor, to keep watch, guard or preserve – as in shamor et yom haShabbat, keep the Shabbat.
Imagine yourself on your watch. At the start of each watch – you’re given new information about what has changed since last time – situations constantly change and you have to respond accordingly. So it is for us – on our watch, on our mishmeret.
Since last Chagigah, there’s lots of new information about the situation of the Jewish world. We need to be alert to respond. American research shows that Jews in the States love being Jewish, but Jewish identity is changing significantly. In Israel and in the Diaspora the Haredi population is doubling every twelve to fifteen years and Haredim are likely to be the majority of the Jewish world by 2050 – that’s very soon. In the States, the percentage of those who identify themselves as being Jewish by religion has nearly halved in the last 60 years. In one generation, the number of intermarried couples in the States has doubled.
In the UK, the trends towards intermarriage are lower and the research is nuanced and fascinating. Thismishmeret is defined by a shrinking middle space as both the haredi and secular worlds grow. We are perfectly poised to enter that middle space – to create what we call in Hebrew, the shvil hazahav – the golden path, the optimum half way point.
There’s a golden opportunity out there ready for us to grasp, as there’s been a thirty percent increase in people who identify with Reform and Progressive Judaism who came from a different upbringing. There’s also a far bigger increase, of two thirds, in Jews who now call themselves ‘secular/cultural’ rather than how they were brought up.
Additionally, it is tantalising that over ninety percent of British Jewry believe that strong ethical and moral behaviour is top of the “what makes me feel Jewish” chart. This is intrinsically glorious but also tailor-made for us to build on. Social justice and social action are our calling card. We have credibility through our proud equality of gender and sexuality, of being the shvil hazahav that can be seen in our services that value tradition, variety, creativity and knowledge. Ours is a gentle, welcoming and grounded conversion process – perfect for the shvil ha’zahav. I’m proud how we consistently challenge, excluding, elitist obstructions that others put in the way of our converts.
How can we ensure that the mishmarot, continue, that we care, preserve and guard and enjoy the caring, preserving and the guarding?
Who will be on the next mishmeret? It’s the generation that is referred to as “millennials” – people born before the millennium, aged between 14 and 32. It seems that their attitude to authority and institutions is vastly different to my generations’. Millennials don’t necessarily join institutions such as synagogues as their parents did. They’re asking a question which I never even thought of asking: “Why should I bother being Jewish?”
We’re uniquely placed to respond to this question and inspire Jews of all ages with a Judaism of greater meaning. We must and will find new ways to talk together about the integrity and challenges of Judaism having boundaries, about Judaism being counter cultural and that this means we are sometimes out of synch with the rest of society. But davka because millennials expect a Judaism that values ethical behaviour; that has substance; that teaches with texts and through relationships – we should relish the question ‘why should I bother being Jewish’ – we love questions, ultimately, we have the best answers and the tools so each person can find their own answer.
We need to shape a Jewish identity that’s called a “sticky identity” – identity that lasts from one mishmeretto the next to the next. From this Chagigah to Chagigah in 30 years time. Four Talmud cycles down the line.
But it’s not enough to respond to our changing demographics by hunkering down on our mishmeret. We protect longevity by continuing to change the guard, but we need to actively ensure we also guard the change. We’re proud of our creativity, openness to innovation. We must allow future guards, mishmerot, and their opportunity to think and express and shape their identity. Together, we’ll find the shvil hazahav.The balance.
It’s this balance, this careful, delicate balance that means we’ll succeed in changing the guard and guarding the change. Ours is a Judaism that is true to tradition because it continually evolves.
I believe this balance emanates from a theology, a theology that sees Judaism as a partnership – with God and with each other.
As our L’Chaim programme teaches, ours is a Judaism based on three core values – holiness, kedushah; wisdom, chochmah and community, kehillah. Our approach to Kedushah means we’re partners with God – actively participating in the world with integrity. We match our actions to our beliefs. Our kehillot, communities value diversity and treat other views with dignity and welcome. We know that kehillot aren’t just in synagogue buildings but that we need to build networks and skills that support people’s Jewish lives wherever they are and especially in our homes. I believe that our approach to chochmah, wisdom, which starts by valuing our own wisdom, is because means that God is present in our own conscience; in our very autonomy as we were made as active, argumentative, people with independent thinking – in the image of God. This is at the centre of a theology of integrity – of integration.
We all need to take our place on the mishmeret. Just as the mishmeret in the Temple consisted of Priests, Levites and Israelites – not just one group. Each of us, rabbinic and lay together needs to be involved in the sacred work of developing Judaism, of actively being on the mishmeret. Together we’ll define the balance of our Jewish lives. As Professor Rachel Adler told us this week at the Leo Baeck College, “Each Jew has their own voice in Torah.” I ask all of us to make ourselves heard in this process of evolving Judaism. As Rachel Adler says, each of us must, “lift up our voices.” We bring people with us as we evolve, cherishing difference and our diversity.
Let’s return to today’s Daf Talmud, which speaks of the Israelites’ journeys to the Temple in Jerusalem. Not everyone was able to make it to the big event. What happened to people unable to travel with theirmishmeret? They also participated, and were valued, praying in local communal spaces, meeting in synagogues and homes. They prayed for soldiers, travelers, children and pregnant women. And, they read what we’ll read this evening at havdalah, to mark Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. They read the story of creation. That’s the defining moment and it still is. We’re still creating and re-creating, every new month, every day. That’s our story. That’s our task. That’s our Judaism.