Shabbat Vayera 5779

Temple Emanu-El Beth Shalom, Montreal
Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Vayera, we are told of the three messengers of God, who are sent to Abraham and Sarah to foretell of Sarah’s impending pregnancy, despite her advanced age and previous infertility, and the subsequent birth of Isaac. The absurdity of a post-menopausal woman suddenly becoming pregnant by her husband, who too was advanced in years, was not lost on Sarah as she famously laughs when she hears this news. She laughs in amazement and embarrassment and disbelief, yet God cannot understand why she laughs. She back tracks, trying to cover her laughter in denial – לא צחקתי, ‘I did not laugh,’ she tells Abraham – for the text tells us she was יראה, frightened, awestruck, terrified. Abraham tells her what we already know, לא כי צחקת, ‘No, you did laugh.’

Can you blame Sarah? It’s a fairly human reaction to deny when we are embarrassed and afraid. Neither of these emotions brings out the best in human nature. How many times have we reacted with denial when the truth of our actions is too uncomfortable, too awkward, too distressing for us to live with. How much easier to say I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me, I am not to blame. Sarah’s infraction, her denial of her laughter, hurts no one but God’s ego, no small matter in the Tanakh, but in the grand scheme of things causes no lasting harm.

But denial, as we seem to be experiencing it in our larger national and international political debates, seems to me the root cause of so much that is going wrong in our public lives, certainly in the UK and many other European countries, certainly in the United States. Canada, increasingly among my peer group, is becoming the new Promised Land. You will have to tell me later if that is true.

Brexit Britain is a challenging place to live, whichever side of the debate you sit on. Sifting through the half-truths, outright lies, and denials emanating from too much of the political class could be a full-time job. Increasingly, apparently what most of the country want is for Brexit just to be over, so we can begin sifting through the half-truths, outright lies, and denials on a range of domestic issues that affect our everyday lives. Brexit is complicated and difficult to deliver, so let’s just leave or let’s vote again and stay, but really we want someone else to fix the whole thing, preferably not the people who’ve been doing all of the fudging of the truth, but they seem to be the only ones foolhardy enough to be in leadership on all sides of the political fence.

For the Jewish community, we are as divided as the rest of the country on Brexit, though our questions tend less to be about the Irish border problem and more around the traditional cry of ‘but what will it mean for the Jewish community?’ The answer, like most of the rest of the Brexit debate, seems to be that no one really knows. What we do know is that one of the major catalysts of Brexit was the debate around immigration and that the vote to leave the EU appears to have emboldened all manner of members of both the far left and far right and an indecent assortment of simply the prejudiced and sometimes the ignorant, too, to make their racist views more openly known and acted upon. That’s never good for the Jewish community and yet we are not the ones most in danger of this discourse. Personally, I have a number of Polish friends and co-workers and I have discussed the overt racism they experience regularly. In today’s Britain I would far rather be a Jew than a recent Eastern European immigrant.

Some Jews, nevertheless, are looking to emigrate; some are simply looking again at their ancestry in the hopes they can obtain a European passport; and some are just getting on with their lives in the hope that this, too, shall pass. Anti-Semitism is, as it has been for some time, rife among the chattering classes and more overt the more recognisably Jewish one is on the streets, but overall the UK has really rather low levels of anti-Semitism compared to most other countries. These statistics have not stopped the increasing and understandable alarm at the state of the leadership of Labour party, our major opposition party, their failure to take accusations of anti-Semitism seriously, the mess that was the eventual adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and the real nastiness crawling out of the far left swamp at the moment, making many left-leaning Jews feel politically homeless.

If all of that sounds somewhat depressing, it both is and is not. I have lived in the UK, mostly in London, for nearly thirty years and Jewishly speaking, this current period is the most disturbing I have lived through. And yet, I know objectively that the Jewish community in Great Britain is safe and secure and enjoys all of the rights and protections that a modern, Western democracy provides. My children go to Jewish schools, which are largely funded by the UK government. They ride public transport to school in their uniforms without any issue. I work on the largest Jewish site in Europe, housing the Leo Baeck College, the Akiva School, the Shofar day care centre, the New North London (Masorti) Synagogue, and the headquarters of Reform Judaism in the UK. Yes, we have security, but hundreds of people stream in and out of the site daily without incident. Our synagogues and community centres and schools all have security, but no more than any public building, sometimes much less.

As Principal of Leo Baeck College, where we train rabbis for both UK and European progressive communities, I hear from students and alumni the differences between the UK and the many countries they come from and work in – France, Poland, Russia, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, to name but a few. Each of these countries has its own unique narrative, particular story, individual issues. Regulations on kashrut, circumcision, religious head coverings; attitudes to immigration, assimilation, and religious tolerance; laws around Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and criticism of the state of Israel – every country is different and the experience of the Jews living there are unique as well.

But as I preached in one of my High Holidays sermons this year, what is truly relevant is that there are still Jews in all of these places. Jewish diversity, Jewish life in diaspora, which has flourished for more than two millennia despite all manner of obstacles, matters. One of the most precious aspects of my work training rabbis for this myriad of European countries is the richness that Jewish diversity brings to our community. It is central to making us resilient, to ensuring we are alive, abundant, exciting.

To deny what thriving Jewish communities bring to Europe or Canada or any of the places we live, to deny the positive centrality of diversity, to deny what diaspora life brings to a flourishing Judaism, now that really is laughable. But just as God opened Sarah’s womb, even when she laughed at the prospect, safeguarding the promise God makes to Abraham to  ארבה אותך, to make Abraham exceedingly numerous, so may God continue to safeguard us and our communities as we fulfil God’s promise to Abraham. כן יהי רצון.