December 19, 2014 admin


This Shabbat the New North London Synagogue celebrates its fortieth birthday. I am grateful to those who founded it, those who nurtured it through the years, and those, some of them at present wheeled there in buggies, who will create its future. In the words of the traditional blessing, I’m thankful to God for giving us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this day.
How does one measure the success, or failure, of a religious institution? I sometimes explore the fantasy that just as the British Government created Ofgem and Ofsted to hold the energy and educational institutions respectively to account, so one day someone might establish OfGod (or OfG-d) to assess the achievements of churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. What would it look for when it arrived on its tour of inspection? Unlike other such teams or assessors, would it have to visit the world beyond as well?
The reality is that much of the impact of a religious community is not susceptible to measurement. This insight is at the heart of the festival of Chanukkah, when the oil which should, according to the laws of combustion, have burnt for just one day, remained alight for eight. There is much in our world which can and should be measured. But there are also qualities and effects which facts and figures cannot ascertain: what is the impact of an act of kindness, trust, courage, generosity, faith or love? The light generated by such an action, which may have been all but invisible at the time, can travel underground for generations and reveal itself through its influence on a grandchild, who takes to heart what her grandfather once did.
Perhaps, then, what one might look for in considering the impact of a ‘House of God’ is whether it has, in word and deed, in its own actions and through those it has sought to inspire, been faithful to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, to ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’, to ‘strengthen the needy’ and to ‘do not destroy my world’. Has it guided us to give charity, show hospitality, care for the sick, comfort the bereaved, and act with loving-kindness?
If these criteria seem rather this-worldly, moral rather than spiritual, more about our neighbours than God, that’s partly true. I would never trust what’s preached about God from a place which does not practise goodness and justice here on earth, or speak a language free from prejudice and hate.
But it’s only partly true. It’s a question of how we regard the mundane, the everyday. We see it most deeply if we perceive it in the light of the holy. For every life is an infinitesimal portion of God’s life, a living fragment of a greater whole. Every earthly, transient second is also a moment in the unfolding of the infinite. Thus every day we interact with God’s life through the most ordinary encounters, with tree, or bird, or child, or friend, or stranger in the queue. Though we are free beings, privileged and burdened with the capacity for moral choice, we are not in the end solely autonomous creatures, here to please ourselves, but servants of the greater being and the deeper reality to which we belong.
Any religious institution must justify its existence by its devotion to this truth, each through the language and traditions of its faith.
As a synagogue, we thus stand accountable before Judaism. Have we loved its precepts, commandments and traditions sufficiently that God’s light has reached us through them? Have we engaged and struggled with its texts, its legal, moral and spiritual wisdom, both so that we find truth and truth finds us? Have we dedicated our lives, sought to make them holy as the Torah enjoins us, ‘Be holy, for I your God am holy’?
There is a traditional answer to when OfGod visits and the frequency with which the inspectors call: ‘You God know the heart and inner being. Nothing is hidden before you’.
It’s a wonderful and humbling joy to celebrate our forty years.

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