Sermon for Shabbat Zachor by Rabbi Kelemen (WUPJ ER meeting in Zurich, 2000)

Sermon for Shabbat Zachor

by Rabbi Katalin Kelemen

given at the Annual Conference of the WUPJ European Region,
Zurich 18th March, 2000.
Published in  European Judaism Volume 33. No.2. Autumn 2000

“If God doesn’t exist, and never existed, then why do we miss him so?”
This question is asked by Istvan Sors-Sonnenschein, a young Hungarian Jewish ex-Communist of his grandmother, Valeria, just after his release from three years in prison in l959. It is a scene in the much discussed, recent Istvan Szabo film “Sunshine” which chronicles the history of four generations of a Hungarian Jewish family from the late l9th century to the present. After having been imprisoned for speaking openly about the moral corruption of the Communist regime in which he served as a member of the secret police, Istvan has returned to the spacious, comfortable family home of his grandparents to find it filled with strangers. Much of the film shows, how his father, an Olympic champion fencer, gives up his Jewish faith for his career as a fencer. Having been raised in such an assimilated family, and having himself been a dedicated Communist, Istvan is posing this question out of the pain of his disillusion to his grandmother, who never relinquished her Jewish identity, neither through the Fascist, nor Communist eras.

In order to start to address this question let us now turn to this week’s parashah, Vayikra, which deals with five types of Temple sacrifices.  Let us concentrate on the Sin Offering ‘chatat’ which is first mentioned in Leviticus 4:2

“When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done… he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering”

The Hebrew word used in this sentence for unwitting guilt is ‘chayt’ which comes from the verb ‘chatah’ The original meaning of ‘chatah’ is ‘to miss the goal or the way or the right path’ or as in archery, ‘to miss the mark.’ In the reflexive form it has the meaning ‘to miss or lose oneself,’ or ‘to be bewildered.’ This word therefore implies the thought that losing our way or our goal is a sin.

People like Istvan, in the film, or like my own parents and their generation who survived the camps or went into hiding during the war saw the arrival of the Communist army as a real liberation – almost as the coming of the Messiah, albeit an irreligious one. Because of the very powerful attraction of the Communist promises of equality, social justice and economic well-being for all, many Jews were instrumental in helping the Communists come to power, and many of them rose to leadership positions in the party and the government. (Some of those who had suffered in the camps or while in hiding wanted either revenge against the Fascists or to protect the new government from right-wing reaction, and saw fit to make their contribution in the security forces and secret police.)

Howewer, to be effective in their support of these ideals by getting into leadership positions, it was obligatory to sacrifice all aspects of their Jewish identity, but especially in the area of religion. For many, this latter was not so difficult because the Shoah had already shattered their religious faith. But still it was a real loss of an essential part of ones self to give up all the cultural aspects of Judaism.

As we all know, the communist system didn’t live up to its ideals and eventually failed completely. The sacrifices made by my parents’ generation were in vain. So in a very essential way, all these people who had sacrificed their Jewish selves “missed their mark”, thus becoming a tragic example of the concept of ‘chayt’.

There is a  paradox here: that the sacifice of a whole generation’s identity as Jews was given up to move toward a goal. Then the goal was missed, which traditionally should call for a sacrifice. But what sacrifice could be appropriate in this particular situation?

Today is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. We have just read the few verses in Deut..25 which requires each generation to remember the aggressions of all the Amelekites of the past. This makes me think of a second tragic phenomenon among the survivors of the Shoah: the inability to think or talk about all the horrors that occurred. Their response was to actively not remember any of what happened, and hence none of this knowledge could be passed on to their children. We grew up in a family atmosphere of confused silence, half-uttered thruths, and well or badly disguised secrets about the family past. But though the surviver generation refused to face the traumas, they were nevertheless passed on through their unconscious behaviour and had a dominating effect on the psyches of their children. For instance, I’ve realised over the years that packing for a long trip is very difficult for me. More recently, while discussing this with friends belonging to the second generation of survivors who had the same symptoms, we connected this phobia to the fact that we all had relatives who had been shipped to the death camps. A related problem of many such people is an obsession about having enough to eat while travelling or being in some other unfamiliar setting – with the probable explanation that so many relatives had starved in the camps.

And so you see, in some twisted way, though we were never told the facts, we still remember.

It has been said that if a person doesn’t have a past, then he can’t have a future. The process of remembering is very intimately connected to that of regaining one’s identity. And so we see that those two voids in the life of Hungarian Jews are really one and the same. And this void is what Istvan is expressing in his question “Why do we miss God so much?”

So where can we go from here? How can we deal with this void we have inherited?  How can we repair our own lives?

It is not enough to learn the principles and laws of Judaism from the books. Rather it is by actions, by participation and by experiencing Jewish life.
It is by enjoying the peace of a Shabbat dinner with the family all together, and candles and wine on the table. It is by watching the Purim spiel put on by the children with their finger puppets. It is by sharing in the Community Seder at Pesach, watching the wine of Elijah’s cup being put back in the bottle in hopes that he”ll come to next year. It is in experiencing the release of the old sins with the Tashlich breadcrumbs at the side of the Danube. It is by having Torah Studies where we relate our own lives to those of our Biblical ancestors. It is by telling our family stories at Friday night Onegs and so starting to remember again where we have come from.

It is in formation of a Jewish community with common goals of learning how to do and experience all these things that go to make up a Jewish life.
As many of you have already experienced, the process of forming such a community is a complex and challenging process. I am very happy to report that in the past year we have been able to take many very significant steps in the organising of Sim Shalom.

For the past year we have had a defined structure with a governing committee and Ibi Fischer as Chairperson. A new constitution has just been finished. A Statement of Principles has been drafted and both it and the constitution are scheduled for adoption at a General Meeting next month. An application to join the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Congregations was recently turned down, unfortunately. However, the application will be renewed, and should be more difficult to refuse because of the publicity the first refusal generated, and because of the continuing support of WUPJ. And finally, I’d like to report that we have started on the preparation of the first Hungarian Reform Siddur.

Though it is not usual in a sermon, I can’t close without some very heartfelt acknowledgements for all that has been given to Sim Shalom to make its existence possible. Without the financial and moral support of WUPJ and the European Region,  it would not have been possible for Sim Shalom to get to where it is now,  much less continue for the next few years. Their political support in the battle to obtain recognition from the Hungarian Jewish establishment is also invaluable.

I will always be indebted to the Leo Baeck College for instilling in me a spirit of Reform Judaism that I can now pass on to my community.
And last but not least I want to thank all the Rabbinical colleagues who have been so supportive and helpful as I have been struggling  to learn the art of being a rabbi, with especial thanks to the Rabbis of  our first Beit Din in Budapest  who participated in the recent conversion of five  persons to the Jewish faith.

The theme of our Conference is: Progressive Judaism beyond the Shoah. Very symbolic of what is happening is the tale of our Torah Scroll. Our Sefer Torah was originally the personal property of a Hassidic Jew from Újfehértó in north eastern Hungary, who managed to survive the Shoah. When he made aliyah, the baggage allowance was too small to include a Torah Scroll, so he left it in the care of his non-Jewish daughter-in-law. Many years later, shortly before he died, he asked the daughter-in-law to see, that is got into the hands of Jews, who would use it. A common acquaintance, Sós Aranka, herself a surviver of Auschwitz and one of the founding members of Sim Shalom, heard about the existence of this scroll. Sim Shalom wanted to get a Sefer Torah. And it was just when Rabbi Fred Morgan was paying one of his many visits to Budapest. He went with some members of our community to see the scroll and they were surprised and delighted to find that it was in excellent condition, only needing minor repairs to some of the edges where mice had chewed a bit. Fred bought the Torah on the spot and on behalf of his community North West Surrey Synagogue in Weybridge donated it to Sim Shalom, after it was repaired.

Now, on Simchat Torah, after we have blessed our children, and when everyone in Sim Shalom is taking a turn at dancing with our resurrected Sefer Torah, for us God does exist, and we no longer miss him so.