I want to begin today’s sermon with a very difficult word: polysemic. It comes from two Greek words: poly, meaning many and sema meaning sign, symbol. Polysemic means: which has many meanings. You find the word polysemic in the writings of literary critics and of social sciences. Religious rituals are by definition polysemic. That is because religious rituals have many meanings. Take for example the Seder of Pesach. Its first and most important meaning is the celebration of our journey; the journey of the Jewish people towards freedom and self determination.
There are of course many other journeys towards liberation. One of the most intense experiences in my life had been leading the Seder at Holloway prison, when I was a Rabbinical student, for a small group of Jewish inmates, plus two guards.
When the words “Today we are slaves, tomorrow we will be free” were heard, you could feel a palpable sense of hope around the table, which bound together, not only the prisoners, but also the guards. Prisons are a terrible place to work, and the guards were also hoping to be in another place, and yes there are prison guards who are Jewish. Later I was extremely moved when a lady, before returning to her cell, asked me to pray for her freedom and told me eagerly “I have a trial, tomorrow, Rabbi”. For her these words we say every year “Tomorrow we will be free” were particularly meaningful.
The narrative of Pesach is very powerful. Small wonder that other people have found inspiration in the story of Pesach. When my wife was in hospital to deliver Yair, I heard two of the nurses, both of African background, remarking casually that we must have been Jewish. Why? Because Jewish women deliver quickly, as it is written in the book of Exodus. My immediate reaction was like “Oh gosh, another bloody anti-Semite”.
But I calmed down as I remembered what is written in the first chapter of Exodus. Pharaoh had ordered the midwives to kill all the newborn Israelites but they were not willing to carry out the order. So, to protect the Jews, they said to Pharaoh that the Jewish women deliver too quickly; and that it is impossible to catch their children. For those nurses, the concept of slavery and the idea of a journey towards freedom were not only parts of the Biblical narrative, to which, I suppose, they are exposed to when they are in their church. They were from Afro Caribbean background. The slavery and the journeys to freedom were part of their lives, family memories if not, literally, life experiences.
As Rabbi, I am proud that our narrative provides words to other people, so that they can tell their own journey towards freedom. I am proud that other people find inspiration in our history. When other people learn from the Jewish people, this must be a source of pride for us.
Nonetheless, I was not exactly impressed by the publication of the “Jubilee Haggadah” edited by the New Israeli Fund. Its purpose is to support the national liberation of the Palestinians by encouraging the Diaspora to put the Israeli Government under pressure. So that it will end the Occupation of, and I quote, “West Bank and Gaza”. In the world I live in, the Israeli Army left Gaza in 2004, but these people clearly know more and in their world Gaza is still under Israeli occupation.
What upsets me is not the agenda. The New Israeli Fund has its own and so have the authors of this Haggadah, whose good faith I don’t question. They genuinely believe that peace in the Middle East, peace between Muslims and the rest of the world, peace all over the world, can be achieved by ending “the Occupation” tomorrow, by turning the West Bank and East Jerusalem into another Gaza, completely empty of the Jewish population, (I believe the German expression is Juden-rein).
I of course disagree. And I don’t think that it is up to the Diaspora to pressure the Israeli Government. Israeli voters are – I think – mature enough to decide on their own destiny and to assess by themselves whether this or that policy of their democratically elected government makes their lives more secure, or not. But of course the compilers of the Jubilee Haggadah are entitled to their own opinions.
Neither am I particularly shocked by historical inaccuracies such as stating that Gaza is still under the occupation, or that Jews are now free, (really? In Iran, for example?). Or writing that Palestinians are “in bondage” and all they do is “to yearn for freedom”, as if teaching that the Holocaust never happened can be called “yearning for freedom”.
All of this, and many other passages of this quite creative Haggadah, are inaccurate to say the least and they look more like a collection of badly written propaganda leaflets, rather than a Haggadah. But again, over the last week only, we have heard far worse. A former Mayor of London together with his supporters, (some of them, as you know, Jewish), compares Zionism to Nazism. Stories of the SS training the Haganah. Fantasies about a Zionist Hitler. Compared to the bigotry of Ken Livingstone, the fantasies of these well meaning activists are very minor details.
But, you see, that Jubilee Haggadah is so self-centred and self-righteous. While the Seder is a narrative of liberation. A liberation from internal habit, and from assimilation. On Pesach we resist to assimilate. Our houses are different from the one of our neighbours and we eat different foods. Being assimilated can be comfortable. Assimilation is attractive. But we get rid of even small traces of assimilation, of chametz, leavened food, which is a symbol of luxury and comfort.
Pesach is an internal process: we get rid of comfort and luxury deep inside our houses. We look into ourselves; we cleanse ourselves and our environment from traces of assimilation. But the authors of this Jubilee Haggadah don’t do anything of that kind. They elevate themselves above the rest of the Jewish people, they externalised their contempt against whoever disagrees politically from them: incidentally, that is the majority of the Jewish people and of the Israeli voters.
They take in no consideration of the security needs of the Israeli population, the amount of anti-Semitism which comes from the Muslim world and from the secular Arab nationalists, (including the Palestinian leaders), let alone the deep insecurity in which so many Jews still live in the Diaspora. This is not Pesach. This is exactly the chametz, which we get rid of before Pesach. Chametz, as we know, is a word which reminds us of hamas, a Hebrew word meaning violence and oppression. And this Hagadah is exactly like that. A piece of chametz: arrogant and violent in its self-righteousness.
It seems that after Pesach they will uncover on its web site a map of the world. On such a map, if you are interested, it will be possible to see where in the world a Seder had been held by reading this Haggadah.
I of course at the moment don’t know whether Brighton will be or will be not, a point on such a map of self-righteousness. What I know at the moment, by reading this Haggadah, is that this Seder will have only one theme. Its mood will be heavily influenced by this obsession with the occupation. And you will hear weird moral equivalences between Ancient Egypt and the Jewish State. Between Palestinians who are slaves now and Jews who were slaves in the past and now are… whatever.
This Haggadah makes me think of a very boring Seder. And to be honest, I am not even sure that such a Seder can even be called a religious ritual. Because it is so one sided. And it is certainly not… what’s the word? polysemic.
Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue, Shabbat haGadol 5777