This summer, thanks to my in-laws looking after our kids, my wife Shoshi and I were able to take a couple of days off and to visit the town of Rye in Sussex. It’s a wonderful little place and very close to the Camber sands beach. In the evening, we took the bus down towards the beach and explored a little, when I saw a little church with a wonderful sign. It read:
“This church is not full of hypocrites. There’s always room for one more!”
I loved this sign so much that I had to take a picture of it and share it on Facebook, but the more I thought about it, the more I think this sign has something quite deep to say about our relationship to religion in general, and the High Holy Days in particular.
There are kinds of hypocrisy that the rabbis of our tradition very much objected to. In the Mishnah, Sotah 3:4, Rabbi Yehoshua says:
“a pious fool and a conniving wicked person… these bring destruction on the world”.
The Talmud goes on to explain that that pious fool is a person who is trying to be so pious that they do the wrong thing – their example is a man who sees a woman drowning but refuses to save her as he thinks it would be immodest! Later on Rav Huna explains that that a conniving wicked person is one who “is lenient with themselves but strict with others” – endlessly patient with themselves, such a person is very judgemental of others. We have no time for people whose ‘piety’ leads them to becoming judgemental or to fail to take action when required.
But the church sign is speaking to a different kind of feeling, I think, and it is the feeling that we express every Kol Nidrei, when we explicitly say:
“we are permitted to pray with those who have sinned”.
All of us have sinned, all of us have let ourselves and others down, all of us have failed to live up to our true potential over the last year. We all made grand resolutions to do better and to be better, and yet we come back on Yom Kippur and recognise that once again we have failed God, and we have failed ourselves. And it can feel like rank hypocrisy to again proclaim that we will do better – and yet we do, and indeed we must – how else can we improve, even if only by slow steps?
Too many Jews, I think, identify as ‘bad Jews’, a phrase that I really hate – the only bad Jew in my mind is someone like the pious fool or the conniving wicked person, who believe they are righteous while acting badly to their fellow human beings. To many Jewish people feel like they don’t come to shul, they may struggle to keep kosher, or have any shabbat in their lives, and so wonder how they can come to the synagogue community and pray? They feel that it would be hypocritical to do so.
Luckily, I don’t think that that is the way Jewish tradition approaches the world. We recognise that all of us are struggling, all of us are sinners, and there is no hypocrisy in coming to shul one week, regardless of what happens afterwards. All of us, myself very much included, are on journeys, sometimes moving towards and sometimes away. Any mitzvah you can fulfil is a good one and can be judged on its own, regardless of what came before and what will follow. We are all permitted to pray together.
Our community too always has room for 1 more! Sometimes the buildings we use may be full to bursting, but we can always make room for more people, and as our community continues to grow (3 new members since I last sent a monthly message – welcome!) we will need to make sure they all feel welcome and like they too have a space in our midst.
As the High Holy Days approach, I hope you will help yourselves and others to see that you belong. Even if you feel like a hypocrite, you are in good company, and there’s always room for one more!