How to be Good?

A Chat with a Jewish Rabbi

December 14, 2020 Sarah Buckmaster Season 1 Episode 1
A Chat with a Jewish Rabbi
How to be Good?
More Info
How to be Good?
A Chat with a Jewish Rabbi
Dec 14, 2020 Season 1 Episode 1
Sarah Buckmaster

What does it mean to be a good person within Judaism? 

We ask Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah to share her opinions on being good according to Jewish teachings. 

Rabbi Elli has been Rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue for 20 years (since 1 December 2000), and was the first ordained lesbian Rabbi in the world to lead a mainstream synagogue. She is a profoundly passionate Jew with a deep love of the spiritual, theological and practical aspects of her faith, and has a real passion for including everyone in the community, regardless of background. As a feminist lesbian, she is an unwavering voice against inequality and discrimination, and has a long history of activism both inside and outside the world of Judaism. In this conversation about what it means to be "good" within Judaism, Rabbi Elli demonstrates an inspirational energy as she shares personal stories alongside Jewish teachings.

If, after listening, you’d like to learn more about Rabbi Elli, you can visit her website, and find out more about Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue - and Elli's book, Trouble-Making Judaism, is available on Amazon

*please note that Rabbi Elli mentions teaching "Exploring Judaism" on Shabbat afternoons but as she is preparing for her retirement at the end of April 2021, she is no longer teaching that course - she continues to teach Access to Hebrew.

Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a good person within Judaism? 

We ask Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah to share her opinions on being good according to Jewish teachings. 

Rabbi Elli has been Rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue for 20 years (since 1 December 2000), and was the first ordained lesbian Rabbi in the world to lead a mainstream synagogue. She is a profoundly passionate Jew with a deep love of the spiritual, theological and practical aspects of her faith, and has a real passion for including everyone in the community, regardless of background. As a feminist lesbian, she is an unwavering voice against inequality and discrimination, and has a long history of activism both inside and outside the world of Judaism. In this conversation about what it means to be "good" within Judaism, Rabbi Elli demonstrates an inspirational energy as she shares personal stories alongside Jewish teachings.

If, after listening, you’d like to learn more about Rabbi Elli, you can visit her website, and find out more about Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue - and Elli's book, Trouble-Making Judaism, is available on Amazon

*please note that Rabbi Elli mentions teaching "Exploring Judaism" on Shabbat afternoons but as she is preparing for her retirement at the end of April 2021, she is no longer teaching that course - she continues to teach Access to Hebrew.

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03  
Hi, everyone, I'm Sarah and this is 'How to be Good?', the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world. Today I'm talking with Jewish Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah.

[Podcast Theme Music]

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  0:17 
"but we don't have a concept of a good person or a bad person. There's no such thing in Jewish teaching. Every human being has a good inclination and a bad inclination. These are possibilities within us, potentialities within us.

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Sarah Buckmaster  0:32 
Rabbi Elli has been Rabbi of Brighton and Hove progressive synagogue for 20 years, and was the first ordained lesbian Rabbi in the world to lead a mainstream synagogue. She is a profoundly passionate Jew with a deep love of the spiritual, theological and practical aspects of her faith. What I find really inspiring about Rabbi Elli is her passion for including everyone in the community regardless of background. As a feminist lesbian, she is an unwavering voice against inequality and discrimination and has a long history of activism both inside and outside the world of Judaism. Elli takes action and is a self described "troublemaker". Her direct nature holds such a fierce power and a 30 minute conversation wasn't nearly enough time to ask her everything I wanted to. There is so much to learn about Rabbi Elli. Everything she does is so thoughtful; from her teaching and the book she's written, to the journey she's been through to get where she is. Even everything about her name is chosen intentionally. Elli Tikvah Sarah. She spells Elli - E-L-L-I - so it's not a gendered spelling. And she adopted her middle name 'Tikvah', which means hope, during a time when she was experiencing some particularly bad prejudice.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  1:46 
That was me, you know, that's how I deal with people dissing me. I say, "hope - make it my middle name!".

Sarah Buckmaster  1:54 
I hope you'll enjoy the information and the energy of this conversation, which happened just before Jewish New Year. So I'm excited to introduce to you all - Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah.

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Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  2:07 
After sunset tomorrow evening, the new year will begin.

Sarah Buckmaster  2:11 
Wonderful, well Happy New Year for then.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  2:13 
Thank you. Thank you.

Sarah Buckmaster  2:14 
So maybe I'll start with that first big open question. Because many of the people that will be listening to this won't know too much about the Jewish faith. And so will be coming to this podcast with a lot of curiosity. What can you share with us about what being a good person means within Jewish teaching?

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  2:32 
Well, you've asked me about what being a good person means in Jewish teaching. But we don't have a concept of a good person or a bad person. There's no such thing in Jewish teaching. Every human being has a good inclination, and a bad inclination. These are possibilities within us, potentialities within us. And so there's no labelling of people as if you're a bad person. You may do bad things, you may do things that are harmful, hurtful, violent, destructive. Things that are oppressive and persecutory. I can do bad things, but I can also do good things. I can be kind and compassionate, and caring. And, you know, I want to pursue justice and peace. So we don't really have, well we don't have a concept of being a good or bad person as an absolute. We are born with these potentialities, but it's actually even more complex than that. Because it's not just that we're born with these potentialities to do good or to do things that are bad. There's also this wonderful rabbinic teaching that says, what's labelled as bad inclination, which is essentially your drive, is good. Because without the inclination to go and do things and be driven to create things in the world -- and that is put in terms of building a house; to build a house, if you think about it, you have to disrupt land, don't you? You have to, you know, take up lovely green earth. But you need that drive. And in fact, the idea of people only having a good inclination and not a bad inclination would mean, actually, that nothing ever happens. You'd have a situation of inertness and passivity. That active drive which can lead to destructive things, can involve destructive things, is the drive that also makes things constructive and good. So it's not even as simple as to say that we've got these both inclinations and we should only do the good inclination because we actually need the other one.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  2:34 
So Jewish teaching embraces all it is to be human which is complex, and encourages us and says, what we must strive to do is do as much good as possible - being aware that actually some of the inclination within us that is not helping us to be kind, but helping us to forge ahead to do something, some of that can be really good as well.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  5:07 
But to be concrete about it, we talk about good deeds, and deeds of loving kindness. So we should be trying - as we go about every day - to think about... what can I do that will be helpful and kind and compassionate? And how can I repair relationships? And if I see something going on that is harmful to someone else, what do I do? You know, being a bystander is a very un-Jewish thing. We don't do bystanding. We do intervening. And that's really important, and that can be embarrassing. I remember when I was a kid, my Mum was always intervening in things and I used to be so embarrassed about her talking to people we didn't even know because she saw something - you know, she saw somebody talking harshly to someone or a child being slapped. And she'd go up to them and say, "don't slap your child". But that kind of intervening is important and intervening on behalf of values which have to do with treating people with respect and compassion.

Sarah Buckmaster  6:22 
It sounds like it is really about the actions. The Jewish religion is really about taking action?

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  6:28 
It is. It's about what you do. And so obviously, how we treat other people. The notion of how we behave and act is actually quite structured into what we call Mitvot - which are translated as commandments - we are commanded. So, we are commanded to offer hospitality. We are commanded to visit people who are sick, to go to a funeral, and attend the dead and give comfort to mourners. There are a whole range of things (that are just ordinary things of life) that we are positively commanded to do. I'm using the word "commanded" because it's as strong and as powerful as that.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  7:13 
And an example of something that gets translated differently, and it is an interesting difference between Christianity and Judaism is the notion of charity. So charity comes from the Latin word 'caritas', and caritas is about the feeling that you have of care and concern for someone else. From a Jewish point of view, that's not enough because I could feel really moved to do something for somebody, but I may not feel like that. So the Jewish word is 'Tzedakah' - and Tzedakah is related to the word Tzedek, which means justice. And it's an act of justice to help another person and to give them financial aid if they're poor or they're homeless. And it's an act of justice that I must do. So it can't just rely on whether I feel like doing it. I might feel like doing it one day and not feel like doing it the other day. It's something I am commanded to do. It's an imperative that I do it. And so that's where the emphasis lies.

Sarah Buckmaster  8:23 
I'm interested in this thing between intentions and actions. Within Jewish teachings, you could have an intention, but if you didn't act on that, then there's no real kind of pat on the back for that?

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  8:34 
Absolutely! You do not get a pat on the back, and on the contrary. The truth is - the number of times, because I know my frailties - the number of times I do something, and it's hurtful to someone and I don't mean it. And I say, "well, I didn't intend to do that". But it doesn't really matter what I intended to do. If the impact of it is something negative and hurtful, that's all that matters. People always go on about their intentions. But what matters is what you do. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; if the other person feels that what you've done is positive, then you've done something good, nice and helpful. And if they feel that what you've done is actually trample on their rose garden, then even though you intended to be helpful, then you've hurt them. And it's no good saying you didn't intend that.

Sarah Buckmaster  8:36 
I watched a beautiful short portrait video on your website. And something in that really struck me. You spoke about how shortly before you were ordained as a rabbi, the then Executive Director of the Reform Movement took you aside to say he knew you were going to be ordained and there was nothing he could do about it but he wanted you to knowhe was completely against it. It made me think - the activism that you're involved in, and the movements where you've really tried to shake things up, I imagine that you have experienced, in some cases, really strong opposition to what you're trying to do. I'm curious whether any of that opposition has ever made you doubt whether the actions you were taking were good - did you ever doubt that when you had the opposition coming at you from a different perspective?

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  10:00 
Never. Never.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  10:01 
I mean, I'm a middle child. And middle children are very concerned about fairness. You're not the older one so you don't get the special things that they get - particularly if you've got an older Brother and I have an older Brother. And you're not the little one, so you don't get indulged and get away with things. So I've always been concerned with fairness. And so no, I don't doubt. I have very strong principles. And when people challenge me in that way, I know that they're just being prejudiced and persecutory. So I've experienced a lot of - in the past and on this journey, in the early days - incredible amounts of persecution, homophobia, and misogyny - the whole range of things. And I just knew I had to overcome it. I couldn't allow that to floor me. I couldn't allow it to stop me, even though it was incredibly painful. And I had major issues that came up in my career as a result of it, and spanners in the work to say the least.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  11:05 
But no, I mean, it's not that I don't have doubts but I don't have that kind of doubt. When I know somebody is motivated by prejudice, or they're doing something out of prejudice, or deliberately saying something undermining, I just know that they're wrong.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  11:20 
And in that situation, I was very pleased that, in fact subsequently (and it wasn't that long afterwards - two years later), I was actually asked to be the first woman to give the sermon at the National Conference of the Reform Movement. And, he - this person - couldn't help himself but make a positive comment to me about how impressive I looked in the pulpit. He couldn't help himself. So I thought, well, there you go!

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  11:55 
And that's the other thing - because I might sound like I'm arrogant, I don't mean to be arrogant. It's just that when you're dealing with something challenging and people are trying to stop you, if you know that what you're doing is a positive, constructive thing, you've just got to keep doing it.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  12:12 
And partly what I've learned is that people change. And so why I've been able to be effective is because I didn't allow myself to think, 'oh, you're a bad person'. I always have this thing in me that I will change your mind. And in fact, the congregation I've been Rabbi of for nearly 20 years - when I first applied for a job there, I wasn't even invited for an interview. And I tried again three years later, they employed someone else, and I tried again three years later when the vacancy was up. And they were very "why should we take you?" - there had just been something in the Jewish Chronicle about a book I'd had an article in and it was all about "Lesbian Rabbi" - and I said, well, if you make the decision to employ me, I'll make it worth your while. I will change your minds. And they had to decide whether to put it to a general vote at the general meeting whether to employ me or whether the council itself should make the decision. I said, well, don't go to your congregation and ask if they want to employ a lesbian Rabbi because they'll say no. If you think that I've got what it takes to do the job, and I have the skillset and everything, then you make that decision on your behalf. You take responsibility as the representatives; you've been elected and the Council is elected by the membership to make those decisions. It's a bit like having a referendum and parliamentary democracy. Have the courage of your convictions, and make that decision, and I'll make it worthwhile, and I will help change those minds. So the people who you are afraid of, I will do what I can to make them have different attitudes. Well, half a dozen people left in the first six months. But then the story of my time with the congregation is that it has been transformed into an inclusive congregation.

Sarah Buckmaster  14:14 
With everything I've read about your synagogue, that's the key thing that kept coming up - how inclusive it is, and how you've created an open community. It seems like a very open door policy, and it sounds like your motivation comes because you've really lived in line with your values, the things you strongly believe in. So, if you could give people listening one piece of advice about how they could do good - thinking about specific actions - if they could go out tomorrow and do one good thing, what would you recommend?

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  14:45 
Well, first of all, it's about being open. I mean, people are afraid of what's new and different. It's about being open and being aware of people around you. Sometimes people are like tunnel vision; they go out, they're doing whatever it is they've decided to do, they're not really aware of the other person in the queue or the other person along the road - or what's happening to somebody over there. They're not seeing, they're not looking around and getting that kind of full 360 view of what's happening. It's being aware of people, and when you start being aware of people, you might see a person who looks like they're in need of help. Don't just be focused on "I've got to achieve this goal right now" - but think about others, be helpful, intervene... you see somebody having a bit of difficulty, of course you can't drag them across the street if they don't want help - but you ask the question; are you okay? Do you need help? Can I help you in any way? And maybe they'll say, "No. Mind your own business?". Or, maybe they'll say, "Yes please, actually I'm lost", or "I've dropped something and I can't find it, can you help me find it? I can't bend very well", or whatever it is. And it's just being aware of others and being compassionate.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  16:03 
And the irony of my approach altogether is that I don't write people off. I've come across the most unbelievable prejudice. But I think all of us have the capacity to change. If they're given the opportunity to be more caring and inclusive, then let's see how and where that goes - and not say, "that's a bad person, I wouldn't bother".

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  16:28 
And it's little things. We've seen it during the coronavirus crisis, haven't we? That people have been more neighbourly, have been more aware of the people in this street. And there has been that kind of consciousness of the need to connect, and it's about developing that and being concerned.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  16:44 
And one of the main things is that when you see somebody who's got a different kind of skin than yours, or looks different in whatever way, instead of just rushing past them, smile at them and smile at people when you're going along. I always say good morning to people. I'm very old fashioned. I go for a walk every morning. I'm always saying hello; some people don't say good morning to me but I don't let that bother me. I will say good morning to everyone. And in particular, if you see somebody who's a little bit different, you might think that they possibly are finding it quite difficult walking around today because other people can be unkind. So you smile - smile and say hello. That can make a big difference to people's day.

Sarah Buckmaster  17:24 
That is wonderful. Thank you.

Sarah Buckmaster  17:25 
The time has gone so quickly and I completely want to respect your time, especially as you've have so much on right now. Is there anything you would like to share around this topic that we haven't covered? - any final words or reflections?

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  17:40 
I suppose one thing I might like to reflect on is in 2012, I had a book published called Trouble-making Judaism, and people often say troublemaking is very negative. But troublemaking can be negative, but it can also be positive. Because it means taking the trouble and it means being troubled. And it means yes, challenging something when it's wrong and unjust. And so I would love it if more people were troublemakers in the sense that they took the trouble and they cared; they were troubled by what's going on in the world around them. And you know, we tend to label people in negative ways because maybe they're hard to handle, they're difficult to handle - how do I handle this person? I'd rather they were a bit quieter - but  what's so great about being quiet? Being quiet and being a bystander means a lot of unpleasant things can go on, and you don't do anything at all. You think, well, I'm being okay - I'm just not saying anything. Well, not saying anything can be a really terrible thing to do. So I just want to say a vote for the troublemakers who try to actually make the world a better place.

[Podcast Theme Music comes in, and then gently fades so it's quietly playing in background as Sarah begins talking...]

Sarah Buckmaster  19:05 
My hugest thanks go to Rabbi Elli for taking the time to talk with me, especially at such a busy time for her. If after listening to that conversation you'd like to learn more about Rabbi Elli or Judaism, you can visit http://www.rabbiellisarah.com - I'll put a link in the show description - and Elli's book, Troublemaking Judaism is available on Amazon. If you're local to the south of England and are interested in finding out more you can pop along to the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah  19:33 
Look up the synagogue - Brighton and Hove progressive synagogue. We're not open as a physical building at the moment because of COVID-19. But we're very open in terms of activities. We have our services online, and find out about us. I teach every Saturday afternoon, access to Hebrew, people want to come along I'm only too pleased to welcome you.

Sarah Buckmaster  19:58 
And if you've enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please consider hitting the subscribe button. And, if you have time and like what you heard, then I would love you to leave a review and share with your friends. I'm in the early stages of this podcast and very much learning as I go - any help and support is really appreciated. Thank you for listening. And if you have any questions or suggestions, please email me at any time. It's Sarah@howtobegood.co.uk and I would love to hear from you. Thank you

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Transcribed by https://otter.ai and Sarah Buckmaster