This sermon was given by Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo at Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue.
A few weeks ago I had the honour of being invited to the induction of a new vicar of three parishes in Hove.
The liturgy was fascinating. It included impressive moments, when the new vicar went to the back of the church and sounded the church bell, which seemed to be very heavy. I am so glad that we Jews do not have such a thing as the church bell in our synagogues.
A few moments before that, the new vicar stood in front of the bishop and took solemn oaths of allegiance and obedience to the Church of England, (here’s another thing we Jews do not have: a hierarchy).
He then signed a document of covenant, where all these oaths were listed, and the parchment was then dutifully and solemnly placed into the parish archive.
I have spent the academic part of my life studying early modern history, and I spent time reading and analysing documents such as that covenant, so that was, for me, the most fascinating part.
You know, historians love documents. One of my teachers used to repeat a joke he had heard from his teacher: an historian is aware to be alive only because he cannot find his own death certificate.
I found it fascinating that these oaths mention the Book of Common Prayer that the vicar has to commit to use. That and only that.
I am lucky, that I don’t have not to commit to using only one prayer book.
Also the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion are mentioned. Again, we’re very lucky, at my induction nobody ever mentioned the Ten Commandments; we just said the Shemah.
The church was packed. I am reasonably sure I was the only Jew in the room. So I enjoyed my privileged point of view of an external observer: these rituals, these formulas, the quite detailed religious commitments are not close to Jewish sensitivity. But they have a fascinating history, which I am lucky enough to have studied in my university years.
And I know that none of these historical documents came into being in a peaceful way. The Book of Common Prayer, for example, was adopted by Edward VI, after the break from Rome, in itself not an easy step. It was then banished by Mary I, “Bloody Mary”, as part of her despotic Catholic restoration, when Protestants were burned at the stake. And it was then re-adopted by Elisabeth I, but with a bit of editing, in order not to alienate some of the factions.
The history of the Thirty Nine Articles of Faith is even more fascinating. They have been written to shape the identity of the Anglican Church, as different from the Catholic Church, but also not too close to the German Lutherans or to the most radical Protestant groups, mainly Scottish. Ever since the beginning of English Reformation there have been several statements of position, and only after many decades the Articles of Faith took the actual form, the one that the Reverend had to subscribe publicly and solemnly to gain access to his new position.
That was impressive.
Even the liturgy of the ceremony, the moment when the new vicar bows to the bishop, and then he turns to the assembly proclaiming his allegiance, all of this choreography is, in essence, the result of a compromise.
These compromises were established usually in the era of Elisabeth I, after decades of religious war.
In this country, in England, and I understand very intensively in Sussex, ordinary good British people, engaged for almost a century in furious battles against each other. They killed each other in the name of true faith and of true Christianity. The religious divide cut across families. There were brothers belonging to different denominations, as we say today: Calvinist against Anglican. The war was horrific, as every war is, but this probably more than others, because in religious wars the combatants fear no death. You cannot deter a religious fanatic just by threatening to kill him. To him, death is a reward; it is the beginning of the true life.
Lewes Town Hall is a very gracious historical building, and nowadays hosts plenty of nice events, but in 1555 seventeen Protestant martyrs were burned at the stake exactly there. Some of them had Catholic relatives and siblings: how horrendous must that have been, the spectacle of brothers rejoicing at each other’s death.
These were my thoughts a few days ago, when I heard the terrible news from France: religious fanatics murdered journalists. Those journalists are martyrs. They have been slaughtered by fanatics whose alleged goal was to defend the honour of their religious faith.
During these days we all pray for the end of this nightmare and we all wish the Muslim world the strength to take the same path that Christianity has taken in England, by discovering the virtues of compromise, and the benefits deriving from religious peace. May such a day come soon, although we are probably too terrified to be able to imagine such a possibility.
But as a rabbi, and as a Jew, I want to point to a peculiar trait of our faith, because I think everybody can learn from it. That is, the duality of Moses and Aaron. In this week’s Torah portion we read how it began.
Moses has a speech impediment, and for this reason he has to rely of Aaron. Moses speaks to God; or rather, it’s God that speaks to Moses, during all the years of the wandering in the desert, for the time of his tenure, so to say. Despite that, Moses never claims to the people, to his people, that he is the leader in the name of God. God’s words, even when they are spoken directly to a human being, always need to be transmitted to another human being. And this second human being, Aaron, is in charge to explain to the people what God wants from them. And of course he adds his own intelligence, his own mind, his own efforts. The Divine words cannot be taken literally, never. What God says to the men need always to be interpreted. In Judaism, no one, not even Moses, can benefit from a direct access to the Divinity. No one can claim to have the best channel of communication with the Almighty. There is always someone else to rely on, another human being, just like you.
This dialectic, mediate, human facet of Judaism has preserved our faith of becoming a tool in the hands of the fanatics, and has allowed the virtues of compromise to prevail among ourselves, even in time of persecution. While religious violence is killing in the heart of Europe, and God forbid! the streets of France may see some other religious violence, we dare to invite our Muslim brothers and sisters to take inspiration from Judaism, from the most inspiring teachings of our tradition; the duality of the leadership of Moses and Aaron; the prohibition to act in the name of God; the ban of fanaticism and vigilantism. These are spiritual treasures that we are willing to share with all the believers in the One and Only God, the Almighty, Adonay, Al-lah, call him (her) as you like. We say to our brothers and sisters: don’t dare to think you are doing the will of God. Do not act in the name of God. Rather, pray. Let us pray together, let us pray for peace.