50 years in Palmeira Avenue
I have to make a confession. I enjoy Jewish curses. I suspect I am not the only one. We Jews have quite an interesting relationship with curses.
Many books on Jewish humour have indeed a hilarious chapter on Jewish curses, such as: “May God answer all your prayers, and then may He mistake your worst enemy for you.” During my anthropology research among the Anousim in Northern Portugal, I heard this one: “May you own one hundred houses, each one with ninety rooms in it, and may you not be able to sleep in none of them because of convulsions.” I have read on the internet, that in the USA, Democratic Jews address Republican Jews with expressions such as “May you live to a ripe old age, and may the only people who come visit you be Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon missionaries.”
I may not be an expert, but I don’t think there is other people who enjoy curses so much as we Jews! Why? Or, to put in another way, Why Jewish curses are different from all the other curses? (sorry, I could not resist).
There is certainly a prototype, a model, and it is in our Torah portion. “You will lose your house and someone else will sleep with your wife” (Dt 28:30) means that, before being hit by the curse, you were actually enjoying your house, probably a beautiful one, and have of course a good time with your wife, whatever this means. “Your ox will be slaughtered in front of your eyes but you shall not eat of it” (Dt 28:31) means that, prior to the event, you actually had enough wealth to have and upkeep an ox, and a good one, that is quite meaty. “A people you do not know shall eat up the produce of your soil” (Dt 28:33) actually means that you had been able to purchase a very fruitful land and actually enjoy its fruit, for probably some years.
The Torah says that these curses, which are all in this week’s Torah reading, will befall on the Jewish people if they do not follow the Torah. So says God.
Notably, these Biblical curses have the same structure of the funny folk curses we find in books and web sites of Jewish humour. They are about having something, and enjoying it, and then all of a sudden losing it, in a ruinous and probably funny way. In most cases, you were satisfied but did not do the proper planning. You were not clever enough to take into account those bad events, and bad luck, that is always possible.
In a word, you have been complacent. And God has punished you for your complacency, your excessive trust in yourself, probably your arrogance.
We may ask whether these Biblical passages about curses are relevant in the contemporary world. We may be tempted to say they are not. The language is antiquated. We do not live off a slaughtered ox, and many of us are vegetarians or (in Brighton) vegans. The produce of the soil does not affect our savings or shares in investment funds. As for people enjoying our property and our wives, well, that is sexist to say the least.
But if we look beyond the language, which admittedly may sound outdated, we discover that the structures of these Biblical curses is the same of the funniest curses of our folklore. And we can read these curses as a warning against complacency. I would say that complacency can really become a curse, in the Jewish world.
There is certainly complacency towards the modern world, or modern values, or some people say Liberal values. There is a rush to get rid of allegedly the embarrassing parts of our theology because we feel they do not fit into the modern world. Take the recent example of Jewish status. We want to be egalitarian, to fit in into the modern world and so we get rid of the matrilineal principle, which actually for generations has empowered the Jewish women.
On the opposite side, there is complacency towards Tradition with a capital T, the habit to follow certain customs without looking at the sources, without understanding why, only because we have seen someone else, usually Ultra-Orthodox, to do that thing in the same way.
These are opposite examples of complacency that are actually killing the Jewish world. The moment you replace loyalty to Judaism with loyalty to Modern, or Liberal, values, then there is no reason any more to remain in the Jewish fold. And when you keep on doing these things, in Synagogue and at home, only because Tradition dictates us to do so, the next generations will not follow Judaism anymore. And that is a curse.
Is there a way to avoid these two curses? The curse of complacency, which in the end brings to deeming Judaism not relevant, and at the end to assimilation? I believe there is. And that can be found here in this Synagogue.
I have tried to summarise the ethos, the culture of our community with these two quotes you find in the Iton, the weekly Haftarah sheet which Liz puts together every week with admirable dedication. In this week’s Iton you can read:
“We need to retain the traditional character of our congregation as otherwise, we may put ourselves outside the pale of Judaism. We are Reform Jews because we wish to strengthen Judaism”. This was said by Rabbi Rosenblum, z’’l, my most illustrious predecessor. And it says it all. We do not want to leave Judaism; we are not interested to go beyond the pale of Judaism. We want to strengthen our religion, our culture, and our faith.
And the second quote is by Gerald Burkeman, z’’l, whom many of us remember for his dedication to the Shul and his wit. “The attraction for the vast majority of the adults who belong to Sha’are Shalom is that they can live their Judaism without diminishing its fundamental laws and with no feeling of guilt that they are not obeying all the 613 Commandments which God handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai”
And that’s it. In its fiftieth year of existence, this building has been a place where Jewish faith and culture have been practised and taught to the young generations, so that they may learn to live their Judaism without guilt, and inside the boundaries of the Jewish tradition. In doing so, we have become the largest Synagogue in Sussex, the most thriving Cheder in Brighton and, as you will taste in a moment, the place where the best Kiddush is offered on great occasions like today.
So let’s celebrate!
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, 9 September 2017