What lights are we lighting?
Sermon delivered on Sunday 27th November 2022, the last service at the Jackson's Row building which has housed the community for the past 70 years.
I would like to let you into a little secret.
In the planning for this weekend, we had a big ritual moment planned. Part of the research for today’s service involved me asking our rabbinic mailing list (made up of progressive rabbis and cantors across the UK) for copies of their farewell services from their buildings. Colleagues shared their thoughts as ‘deconsecration’ services, as you’ve read in your booklets, are not exactly a Jewish thing as we do not necessarily consecrate spaces given our wandering and our focus on ethical behaviour. We, instead, create holy time and space through our encounters with each other.
One ritual that kept appearing in these booklets was extinguishing the Ner Tamid, the eternal light. Beautiful, I thought. How symbolic. A symbol linking us back to the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, to the temples of ancient Israel where such a light was said to be, to our synagogue in Park Place Synagogue (bombed in the blitz), to today and towards our new home. A moment of solemnity – which would carry us forward to next Shabbat when we would re-light our new Ner Tamid. So, we rehearsed this moment – working out who and how we would switch off the light. Well, it turns out, we cannot! The light, as with many eccentricities of this 1950s building, the light is hard wired onto an entirely different circuit – and despite our best efforts, including the vast knowledge of our caretaker Jack who has been with us for decades, we cannot work out how to turn the light off. How symbolic! The light will turn off only when this building comes down.
This is a testament to the commitment and care of the leaders of our community who built this building and ensured the light would continue.
The fact that we cannot extinguish the light today speaks volume to what we are doing here today – for the light of our community cannot be put out – it will continue long after we leave this building, as it has for the past 165 years of our history. Our light continues with us, the people, not the place, as we move forward to our next chapter.
The question is – what other lights are we lighting as we go forward? What can this community – the second synagogue in Manchester, the second progressive synagogue in the UK – what can this community take forward – what lights do we wish to kindle in Greater Manchester?
I’d like to begin to answer this question by turning to a Mishnah, an early rabbinic teaching, from Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers (1:2). The Mishnah reads:
Shimon the Righteous was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say:
עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on avodah (hard work and service), and on acts of loving kindness.
Three things – Torah/teaching, Avodah/hard work and service and on gemilut chasadimacts of loving kindness.
As we think forward, building on the work carried out by our founders and leaders, I think these are the three pillars which support our community, our world, and light the lights leading us forward.
Firstly, Torah – teaching. The way we share, read and study Torah is particular, noisy and wonderful. We Jews only ever read Torah through study and dialogue, disagreement and questioning and with commentary. Each and every voice matters. We do not value rigid thinking, dogma or homogenous spaces. We want discussion, questions, respectful debate. From the time of the Talmud our rabbis have expressed different opinions, radical views and listened to each other and found a way forward.
Another Mishnah really draws out this point as it talks about two different types of conflict: machloket shel shamayim – those conflicts for the sake of heaven, and those not for the sake of heaven. A conflict for the sake of heaven is one where the participants are motivated by an honest search for truth and not for the sake of argument, provocation or those driven by ego. Conflicts which will endure involve listening, positive solutions and compromise. An example of this type of conflict occurred between the 1st century sages, Hillel and Shammai, who always held different points of views. During one such conflict a voice from heaven came down and pronounced the profound words – ‘elu va’elu divrei Elohim hayyim’ – ‘the utterances of both are words of the living God’. Elu va’elu – what a modern concept for such an ancient text where we see the validity in each position.
Imagine, in this world of increasing polarisation and social media, a time when each person’s opinion, no matter how different to ours, was respected. The text continues – both are the words of the living God but the law is in agreement with Beit Hillel – the house of Hillel. All views are respected and a line is then chosen.
For us, as a community, as we begin our engagement process in January to decide what we are building, where we are building and who we are building with – this is a light we can bring – respectful conflict, strong decisions and conflicts for the sake of heaven. Torah – dialogue – respect – conversation – listening. Positive disagreement to one shared goal. This is one of our strengths as progressive Jews – we are skilled in it and it is something we can offer out to ourselves and the wider community.
Secondly, avodah – hard work and service. What does this look like for us in 2023? What lights are we lighting? I would like to suggest the hard, sacred work of radical inclusion. By committing ourselves to this we are following in the footsteps of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, who were said to have all sides of their tents open to ensure visitors knew they were welcome. But we know that welcome and inclusion is not easy – it is sacred, and it is hard work – avodah. To make room for the other you must…make room. To create space at the table you must budge up – away from what is familiar to what is new but expansive. Whether that’s making room for the noise of the kids’ corner, or the different pace and rhythm of our services with British Sign Language interpreters, or the Pride services – whenever we are led by the value of radical inclusion we are challenged to make room for the other. Instead of believing that if someone else is gaining, we must be losing, we can choose to see that we all benefit for opening our tent doors wide.
As progressive Jews we know what it is to have doors closed – to be told we are not Jewish enough. Our duty is, whilst holding onto our Jewish values and history, to open the doors wide. And, in this community, as part of Reform Judaism, we do this in a number of ways – recognising the Jewish status of those with Jewish fathers, as well as Jewish mothers, holding mixed faith wedding blessings for couples, championing and celebrating same sex marriages. We are an open tent with strong values. The founders of our community, and those who began Reform Judaism were brave, radical and unapologetic in leading the way in inclusion. It is time for us to take up the baton. These are the lights we light.
And lastly, gemilut chasidim, acts of loving kindness. The foundational verse of Torah can be found in the first chapter of Genesis/Bereshit (1:27):
אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם
‘And God created humankind in the divine image – creating it in the image of God – creating them male and female.’
We understand that every individual is good and that every person contains a divine spark. Each person has value and worth. And we are tasked with recognising that divine spark and everyone’s innate worth and goodness. With that in mind we can truly see the other and cannot but act. We carry this value, this understanding of humanity in all that we do.
And I’m particularly proud that we as a community are part of the ever-growing alliance of Greater Manchester Citizens – a broad based community organising coalition which works on social justice issues here in the Greater Manchester area. In our new temporary home, just down the road, we will be in the same building as other charities doing important work in our city. We know it is our sacred duty to partner up and live out our values on the streets of Manchester – repairing our broken world and planet – tikkun olam – repair of the world. For we are do-ers, responsible, duty-bound to take action.
Such bright lights – Torah – teaching through conversation and conflicts for the sake of heaven – respectful conversation for a shared goal; avodah – the hard, sacred work of radical inclusion; gemilut chasidim – acts of loving kindness to heal our broken world.
These are the lights we can light, alongside other communities doing the same work, and these are the lights we will continue to kindle as we move into the next stage of our community’s history and future. For these lights are worth nurturing and keeping aflame.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s will and let us say amen.
 Pirke Avot 5:17 and b.Eruvin 13b.