I was asked to write my thoughts in a booklet to be sent to the Movement for Reform Judaism’s constituent congregations on “What inspires you, how you will change and what you will change in the coming year?” and I share my contribution here.
Rabbi Morris Joseph is by way of a hero of mine. A man who had journeyed in his life from service as rabbi of orthodox communities, to the West London Synagogue, his published writings belie the fact that he was essentially a man of the 19th century and have much to say to us in the 21st. In his sermon on “Reform and Reformers” he challenges his listeners to think about why they are in a Reform community at all. Dealing with those who joined for the laxity of “Judaism lite” or who enjoyed the aspect of revolt against established authority he admits the difference between the ideal theology and its less than ideal practitioners. He says “If the religious tone of our congregation is unsatisfactory, it is simply because so large a number of our members do not realize the responsibilities which their membership imposes upon them. They either attach no meaning to Reform, or they attach a wrong meaning to it.”. He goes on to remind us that the relaxation of some laws is done to free us for the meaning behind the law: “..because we are less bound, ritually and ceremonially, than other Jews. We are more free in one sense ; shall we accept that freedom without giving something in return, or, worse still, make it a pretext for stealing a wider and far less desirable freedom ? Why has the yoke of the Ceremonial Law been lightened for us ? Surely in order to place us under the yoke of a higher law, to set our energies free for the truly religious life. If we do not believe this, then we degrade Reform to the level of mere convenience and selfishness. We make it a force acting not on the side of Religion, but against it.”
Morris Joseph believed in the progressive nature of Judaism. He thought that in order to
live, Judaism had to adapt itself to the shifting ideas of successive ages. But that did not mean that he did not also believe in the eternal nature of the Jewish message, and he preached wonderful sermons that set out a theology of high ideals and the importance of trying to live up to them. Ultimately, his measure of a person as not their theology, but the way they lived their lives. The point of Reform Judaism was to free our energies not to focus on the finest ritual details but to become the best, most honourable person we could become. His hope was that all who joined his synagogue would do so under “a strong and solemn sense of ethical and religious responsibility”.
Growing up in the Bradford Synagogue, one of the earliest Reform Communities in the country after West London and Manchester, the influence of Morris Joseph could still be felt. His call not for Judaism lite but for an ethical Judaism connected to its history and covenant with God still echoed within that beautiful building. The Jewish world has altered unimaginably since his death in 1930, and the wartime influx of German Jews to Britain changed and energised Reform synagogues in this country. The establishment of the State of Israel has also impacted on what it means to be Jewish. Yet his words continue to inspire me – his belief in the goodness of humanity, in the striving to be a better person expressed as our religious obligation, in his love of prayer and liturgy and his writing of new prayers for his community.
So what will be my change in the coming year? After more than eleven years successfully pioneering a job sharing model with Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, her retirement means it is time for me also to move on. At the time of writing I do not know what this will mean, but I shall be accompanied as always by the words and the teaching of Morris Joseph who believed in religion, in humanity, in community, in the Jewish people and in the aspiration to goodness.
What about myself will I change? I will once again search my heart and mind in order to identify how I can work this year towards becoming my best self, even though I know that this endeavour will never be fully achieved – and I will neither give up nor despair because I know this. And I will aspire to his ideal of becoming one of “those who have helped to form anew the moral life of Israel and to vitalize it afresh as a world-wide force.”