A slightly unedited sermon for this Shabbat:

A very warm welcome to all those gathered here for the celebrations of a very special baby and all our members, visitors and friends in our sanctuary and joining us on line.

Actually, the fact that there is a baby blessing this morning is very appropriate given the historic decision of the Assembly of Rabbis of the Reform movement to widen the scope of possibility for people of either Jewish mothers or fathers to be Jewish. A story that you will see in the Jewish News and the JC this week. But more on that later.

For now, I want to tell you a story. It’s the account of a young man, pre-Bar Mitzvah aged who is in year 8 having joined his new private school. And in his very nice school he is enjoying the fact that he is no longer the only Jew. Having spent most of primary school giving the talk to other students about Judaism he thought it would be nice to let someone else take up the slack. After revelling in the experience of a Jewish assembly every week, things turned a bit sour. Now, in case you’re wondering, this sour turn was not altogether bad, since the young man in question went on to become a rabbi.

The incident in question was when the young man, who for arguments sake, we’ll call Neil, turned up for Jewish assembly. The speaker was notoriously popular. Not only was he an elderly rabbi and talented violinist, but also there were free doughnuts.

As the hoards of Jewish kids arrived at the door to the hall there was a prefect at every entrance. Their jobs were to ensure, believe it or not, all children who entered were Jewish. Just in case the doughnuts caused someone not Jewish to try and sneak in. As I arrived at the door, not being of typical United Synagogue North West London extraction, I was asked if I was Jewish.

“Yes”, I replied.

“Prove it”, came the response.

Now, this school was Haberdashers so you can imagine that the argument took on a very particular tone. So my come back to being asked to ‘Prove it’ was “How?”

The response, thankfully at a boy’s school, was that I was required to recite the Shema on the door of the assembly hall to the officious prefect. I did recite the Shema, impeccably thanks to my Radlett Reform education in the lead up to my Bar Mitzvah and my parents sending me to religion school, youth club, cubs and RSY-Netzer most of my life, not to mention Shabbat every week at home.

The assembly experience was fine, but I never went back to Jewish assembly. In fact, I went to the Christian assembly thereafter. Haberdashers had a brilliant chaplain who might not have played the fiddle but was absorbing nonetheless. That lasted until I started cleverly to absent myself from assembly outright (but that’s for another time).

However, I never went back, ever, to Jewish Assembly. And I also put the experience down as the reason that I went on a GAP year and chose my university specifically to escape North West London Jews. In a single act I was disinherited from my Judaism, by the gatekeeper of my Jewish assembly. 12 years old – I wasn’t disconnected from Judaism, I wasn’t seeking to defraud others. I was a proud Reform Jew. And by the way, so what if non-Jews wanted to come to Jewish assembly and learn about Judaism. It might not have done any harm to hear about Kristallnacht (as happened to be the subject of the speaker that week).

There are only two stories in the whole of rabbinic literature which describe gate keepers to Jewish learning. The second of them is going to be touched on in our Yom Kippur learning session this year (so come study with me!) and the first is part of an equally famous narrative.

The first is the story of Rabban Gamliel and his deposition from the head of the Jewish community in the land of Israel – the patriarch or Nasi in Hebrew (bBerakhot 28a). In this story the gatekeeper is removed and all students no matter whether they are deemed worthy are allowed into the study hall – judged on things like appearance, heritage and learning.

The second story is a story of the poor Hillel the elder (bYoma 35b) who lived around the time of the turn of the common era. Prior to becoming the sage par excellence – you know the one who says the whole Torah can be summarised ‘on one foot’ as: ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to others, the rest is commentary, go and learn’ (bShabbat 31a). Prior to these heights of rabbinic expertise we read a story (it is a story, we don’t read this as history) of Hillel being left on the roof of the study hall, freezing beneath three cubits of snow and blocking out the light through the skylight. Why? Because he had not earned enough money to pay the gatekeeper to let him to study with the greatest sages of his time – Shemaya and Avtalyon.

As the brilliant scholar, Shmuel Safrai asks:

“How could a great Sage of Tannaitic times be portrayed as delivering his discourse while the doorkeeper stood guard and refused admission to a poor labourer who had failed to earn his keep on that particular day?”[1]

Something that Yonah Fraenkel, of Hebrew University, remarks that there is nothing that is like this in the whole of rabbinic literature – paying to get entrance to the study hall.[2]

I do not for one minute wish to put myself in the same category as Hillel or the young academy students of Rabban Gamliel’s time. But think about it for a minute. What does it mean to be a gatekeeper of a Jew’s sacred heritage? What does it mean to disinherit someone from taking their place in the stream of sacred memory and narrative that envelopes us – simply by blocking their access in the most physical of ways because you deem them unworthy through appearance, learning, heritage or wealth?

As the entry into the land of Israel looms in the Torah, our portion, right at the end of the Book of Numbers, describes the near obsession, and understandable one at that, of preserving the inheritance of the tribes within the tribes – particularly with regards marriage.

“No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelites must remain bound each to the ancestral portion of his tribe.” (Numbers 36:7)

Let’s be honest. The only two real functions of an endogamous relationship (where you marry into your tribe) in the Tanakh was (a) to prevent idolatry and (b) preservation of your tribal inheritance. Leaving idolatry to one side for the moment, God forbid (and the Bible effectively has God forbid) that the sacred portion allotted to you as a tribe were to find itself in possession of another tribe or, even worse, in the possession of another people altogether.

The Bible, and the story of the daughters of Zelophehad mentioned in our portion today, is patriarchal. Women married into their husband’s household, they adopted their husband’s religion and through their husband’s tribal affiliation their children also inherited a tribal identity. The most famous story of a mixed ethnic relationship that ends badly – the story of the blasphemer the book of Leviticus (24:10) – is imagined hundreds of years later to end badly because the rabbis already recognised that the lad who blasphemed was embroiled in an argument because he was the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man. He has no tribal identity and no ensign under which he can assemble. His father is not of the ‘in’ tribe. He is tribeless, people-less, identity-less. The Tanakh, the Bible, is almost universally patrilineal in status. You are your father’s identity.

Now I’m not going to give you the history lesson, though it is important that you have it at some point.[3] But the shift to the ‘matrilineal’ principle never really happens as popular mythology would have us believe. What happens, in potted history form, is that the rabbis nearly 2000 years ago, who obsess over putting things and people into neat boxes have a problem. If, in the case of a Jew and a Jewess who have a child the child’s identity follows the identity of the father, we must ask as good rabbis of late antiquity, what do we do in the case of a Jew and a non-Jewess and vice versa. This is resolved, ultimately, by the solution that the status of being Jewish follows the Jewess – not for reasons of DNA and maternity or paternity testing, but following the Jewess nonetheless. Thus is born the ‘matrilineal’ principle. Hundreds of years, at least, after the Bible is written. And no-one, not even popular folk wisdom, knows why.

That is the system we call tradition. Though we should not ignore the fact that American Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism (yes I straddle movements quite happily) in this country have for many, many years rejected this model and are the most numerous affiliated population of Jews in the world. But tradition it is nonetheless.

But now I want us to return to the question of our portion this week. The pressing concern that the tribes were exercised by. Inheritance and the future.

If our concern today is about what is passed on – what is inherited so that there may be a future – how should the inheritance be transmitted in a meaningful way?[4] – is being Jewish like a parcel of land to be given within the tribe? Or is the inheritance a complex interplay of personal expression of identity, communal boundaries, parental identity and most significantly, engagement? If the latter more complex model then we must ask ourselves if it is right under any circumstances to restrict the model of inheritance to the gender of one parent – when families and relationships are more diverse than ever before – just because that is what was done?

Scholars describe identity in late antiquity as being manifested in two ways – you were either born into it or you adopted the religious belief system of it. The scale of extremes meant that you could have a sect where no-one but those born into it could ever be part of it (like some of the more ascetic sects) or you could simply wake up one day and say ‘Hey I want some of that’ and parental identity was irrelevant. Sitting within that scale lies what becomes the Judaism we have followed – you need a bit of this and a bit of that. You must be born into the tribe but you can also adopt the tribe as your own through acceptance of the covenant – this process is regulated by the rabbis of the Talmud such that they invent conversion as we know it.

We are a mixture of ethnic inheritance and adoption of religio-cultural identity – that is where we sit, where we’ve been for two thousand years and where we are today. The question is do we maintain the narrow ethnic, birth identity issue for the mother’s status only and all but forget the looming giant of an issue – engaging, being, living Jewish? Or do we say that the 21st century demands us to widen the scope of potential for being Jewish to those born of a Jewish parent of either gender, whilst recommitting to living Jewish lives in passionate, engaged, learned ways? I know which I prefer. If Reform Judaism stands for anything it must stand for an authentic response to the 21st century in the stream of the sacred narrative of our people (not to exclude other authentic responses by the way) – a response which means we can and must change and it means we can and must renew our love of the Jewish future. It might not always pioneer the change but it should be true to itself as a movement.

You see the gatekeepers of Judaism are not guardians or preservers of the faith. In fact they are not gatekeepers at all. We must be legators – those who bequeath our sacred inheritance. We are in the Hebrew מורישים ‘morishim’ and must view this task as of the upmost importance. For there must be something to bequeath and someone to whom we bequeath it.

Reminded of Kafka’s parable, “Before the law”, my answer to the young prefect on the door should have been not ‘how should I prove I’m Jewish?’ but “You prove it. You tell me what you’re giving me and why I should not turn around and never look back, this isn’t your gate to keep, it’s mine and you’re standing in the way.” We’re not dealing in parcels of land subject to legal paradigms of inheritance. Judaism is not wrapped up with a gift card ready to hand on and because of that our understanding of who can inherit must change. May we all live to embrace our inheritance and may we seek to pass it on to future generations for their enrichment and our future. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.


[1] Safrai, Shmuel. “Tales of the Sages in the Palestinian Tradition and the Babylonian Talmud.” Scripta Hierosolymitana 22 (1971): 222.

[2] י פרנקל, עיונים בעולמו הרוחני של סיפור האגדה, תל אביב תשמ”א, עמי 67

[3] For the history lesson read Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley ; London: University of California Press, 1999).

[4] The corollary to that – why we want there to be a Jewish future and what it should look like is certain to be the substance of some of my colleagues’ sermons at the High Holy Days.