I would like to share with you two of my ancestors, both Rabbis, who greatly inspired me.
My great grandfather, Rabbi Emanuel Mayersohn was Rabbi in Jewish community of Rastaat in Baden Wurtemberg in the early 20th century. His daughter, my great Auntie would tell me that on Sundays, he would often go into the hills around Rastaat, walking with local Parish ministers. More details I do not know – but that was enough for me. He died in 1924, a small number of years before the rise of Naziism to government in Germany, but I was always mesmerised by the thought of him taking those walks, and building relationships with local Christian ministers. My middle name is Emanuel, after him, and I often feel how much of a kindness it was that he did not live into much older age.
Many decades earlier, in the mid 19th century, my great great great grandfather was Rabbi Moses Reiss, who presided in the beautiful town of Breisach on the Rhein, an hour’s drive north of Freiburg. I found recently online some newspaper cuttings from Jewish and local newspapers. Some criticised him for his leanings towards reforming Judaism – I won’t go there. But one small snippet, relates that he was being interviewed by local police for involvement with revolutionary tendencies, in 1849. This was a time of liberal revolution in Prussia and in the Duchy of Baden where my ancestor was located. I would have loved to read the sermons he was giving at that time – who knows whether he was railing against the autocracy of the aristocracy and supporting its replacement with something more liberal and more democratic.
According to Amos Elon, in his amazing work ‘The Pity of it All’ which is a history of German Jews until 1933, thousands of Jews were involved in the liberal revolution of 1848 – and yet half of German’s Jews were still of the more conservative type and would not have much to do with it. The Jewish revolutionaries of course wanted what all revolutionaries wanted – an end to oppression. And yet there were still riots against Jews by peasants – One Jewish cartoon at the time had the caption – ‘Not too much emancipation please – or there will be another riot’. Furthermore, many believed it was the Jews who orchestrated the revolution in the first place. Even the London Standard wrote in an editorial: ‘all the mischief now brooding on the continent is done by Jews’ .
What I love about these stories and their context, is that these were Jews who were willing to fight for a utopian ideal, even with and in spite of the knowledge and awareness of the existence of antisemitism. You can call them naïve – but there is always something heroic maybe – or truly Jewish, about maintaining, the human utopian spirit. Of wanting to work together with others for a better world.
Now for many Jews, and I am sure most religious Jews, utopia, reaching an ultimate point in history involves a messianic figure and a return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. The religious Zionist world over the last 50 years has grown a large, significant community in Israel which puts territorial control of the Land of Israel as an ultimate priority – we are in the beginning of the pangs of the coming of a Messiah they claim.
The Maharal lived in the 17th century and we know him as the Rabbi of a Synagogue in Prague. Many of us may well have visited that Synagogue. The Maharal wrote about the meaning of diaspora. What he is mostly understood as saying, is that diaspora, Jewish dispersal is a not normal national situation. He suggested an almost scientific understanding that being dispersed must lead to a return to a rightful place – in fact all nations have a rightful place where they can be masters of their own fate and return to that place is a natural and determined process in history. He says ‘like every other natural thing, each has its place – and each is its own master’.
The Maharal was utopian – and a religious utopian. He wrote about how things would become eventually, in a higher and better situation. That meant to him, Jews returning to Israel. Religious Zionists today will champion this element of the Maharal’s teaching. But the diaspora was totally a part of his vision as well. He also writes that the dispersal of our people across the world was descriptive of a Divine quality – it was a good thing. This was not just a temporary stay waiting to return to Israel but something of importance in and of itself. An important step on the way to a messianic reality.
And so our stay in the Diaspora is real – in fact more than that – it is a period when we can build the type of nation we want to be that fully returns to the land of Israel. What I am saying is that the Diaspora forms part of our belief in utopianism – that the trajectory of the world will be towards a better, peaceful and harmonious future. And this is an active belief – something we can all work towards while in the diaspora. So yes, many would link this to the coming of a Messianic figure and Redeemer in person – but maybe the linking to a personal redeemer, has distracted us from the importance of building utopian reality together, and together with non Jewish allies. If Zionism was about not waiting for God to redeem us, but rather acting to begin our return to eretz Yisrael – why can’t that action, that pre-emption apply also to our helping to develop a better world?
Messianism is of course dangerous. As Rabbi Sacks wrote in one of the essays of his Haggada, it can stop us from acting in the belief that God will bring the future. Alternatively, it can make us reckless in the belief that it is only in our hands. Rabbi Sacks actually has a really radical idea about messianism – he compares the idea to a star used by ancient navigators. You don’t aim to get to the star – you only steer by the sight of that specific star. So the messianic ideal may in fact be a vision outside of reality, almost too pure. But we should never cease to move step by step towards it. Never.
My belief is that utopianism is hard wired into our religious and national culture, to want to make the world a better place. Our utopianism may include the relocation and return to eretz Yisrael. But it also revolves around our passionate desire to make the world a freer, more equal and generally more moral place for all. And so the ultimate preparation for the real return to the land of Israel – is the attempt to improve and ethically advance the diaspora where we live – rather than giving up on it. That is our religious role.
And so, I really want this to be a positive message at this unpredictable time. A time where we are feeling that bit more nervous about the cultural and political currents that are swirling around. A time when we do not know from where the next use of an antisemitic trope will come, but what we do know is that it will come. A time where things are changing rapidly in society. Wealth creation, greater inequality, greater strains on identity, the democratisation of opinion through social media. And when things change rapidly – conspiracy theories are dusted down that implicate Jewish people for some malicious control. We have the place in this society however to stand up against all that, we are, we have and we will.
But I want us to fight all this with one hand – and yet clearly have our utopianism clenched tightly in the other hand. We need to ceaselessly show that as tirelessly as we will want to uncover and challenge antisemitism – we also tirelessly wish to create alliances and solidarity with those who are oppressed. We want a society that is run with compassion, a sense of fairness, a desire to reduce inequalities, and a willingness to treat all groups within society with fairness and open-mindedness.
And so we should be flooding the social media platforms with our voice on how our society can be improved. We may be passionate about freedom of religion and the freedom to teach in religious schools, or passionate about teaching in religious schools according to set national standards. We may be passionate about building a more pluralist society through allowing more immigration; or we may be worried about the extent of immigration over the last number of years.
There are many more such disagreements today, some that go to the core of society. It is also becoming more and more difficult for many of us to feel connected to any political party today.
But this is not about politics. This is about our voice. This is about our Jewish utopianism and our Jewish hope. This is about being clear that being Jewish is also about exclaiming loud and clear that we want the world to be a better one – and how we want it to be.
And finally, this is about us being a people of God, in a world created by God – where we are bid to act through our Torah to improve our world. We know that it is not always easy, and we will not always be successful in this endeavour. We know that humanity can cause so much damage. But as Rabbi Sacks put it so astutely, there is a difference between being an optimist and having hope;
‘No Jew – knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God, suppression of human rights in the name of freedom – can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope. ‘Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall’ says Isaiah, ‘but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength’. ‘Restrain your voice from weeping’ urges Jeremiah, ‘there is hope for you in the future’. To be a prophet is to find a vestige of hope in the wreckage of despair.’
Last Sunday, I officiated at the stonesetting of one of our members Naomi Blake. Naomi was born in Munkacs, Hungary and was deported to Auschwitz with many of her family in 1944. She was taken on a death march at the end of the war which she survived. After sailing to Palestine, she then found herself in London, and married to Asher. Naomi took up sculpting in the 1950’s attending a class in Haringey. Her proficiency allowed her to become a renowned sculptor, creating the most incredible works of art. Her daughter Anita, wrote a biography of Naomi called ‘A Glimmer of Hope’ which was also the title of one of her sculptures. And what is so moving about Naomi’s work was how she saw the positive in the human form. She told the Guardian newspaper back in 1981 ‘there’s something positive in the human form – there’s a lot of good in people. With my past, if I were pessimistic, somehow, it wouldn’t have been worthwhile surviving’. I cannot cease to be inspired by having got to know the story of Naomi Blake. Someone who met face to face with the ultimate evils of the 20th century and of history – and yet after surviving had a spirit of hope in humanity, that same humanity that had caused her and her family so much pain.
Naomi’s memory empowers me to feel passionate, as a Jew, and as a religious Jew, that we should never, ever, cease, wanting to make our world, a better, improved place, that is that bit closer to the utopia that we dream of.