Tonight, at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community, I won’t speak much, in order to give everyone a chance to express their sadnesses, fears and hopes. The Jewish community is still reeling from shock at the shooting at Eitz Chayyim synagogue in Pittsburgh. I know I am not alone in fearing the rise of fascists in Brazil, Italy and Hungary. People will need to name their fears and have them heard. But I will say a few words before we daven to set the tone. I share them here.
I have a secret love, perhaps unbecoming of a Liberal Jew. I love Chassidic house music. Shwekey, Nachas, Beri Weber… I love the upbeat, pop-py, happy tunes with Jewish liturgical slogans chanted over them.
A couple of months ago, a housemate came in to find me singing along to it as I cleaned the kitchen. I spritzed the table and mopped it up, chanting “Hashem melech! Hashem malach! Hashem yimloch le’olam va’ed!” The song’s lyrics mean “God reigns, God has reigned, and God will reign forever.”
My housemate, who had grown up in Habonim Dror, a secular socialist Jewish youth movement, was horrified. “How can you say that? You of all people?”
I reflected on his question. Of all the Chassidic house music I’ve sung along to, this seemed the least offensive lyrics I could think of. These were words that we say regularly in prayer.
I think the problem is that we have different views about what God is. What he thought I was singing for was theocratic tyranny. If I imagined that God was that bearded, judgemental man in the sky, I would do everything possible to stop Him from reigning anywhere. Indeed, we have all seen what happens when religious people that do believe such things take power.
For me, God is not that judgemental man, but the force of love and justice that gives morality meaning. God is an indescribable binding power, an energy of love that hums beneath the chatter of man-made hate.
And yes, I believe that force reigns, has reigned, and will reign forever.
Today, when we see the rise of fascists and we mourn murdered Jews, the underlying force of love and justice is still there, and still has power.
In our darkest moments, when we have witnessed personal tragedies and collective atrocities, the power of morality still reigned. Our lives still possessed a deeper meaning.
And God – our God – the God of love – will outlive every antisemite, every president, every nation, every empire. No matter how dark things seem, I know that God will reign forever.
Trying to get by with biblical Hebrew with modern Hebrew speakers is difficult. Among a group in Jerusalem this summer, I tried to coax out a dog, saying “Lech lecha, celev.” The Israelis around me burst out laughing. “What? What did I say?” I asked. “Nothing,” they said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
I had just repeated the first words of our parashah, when God instructs Abraham to get out of Haran and go to Canaan. Without context, the expression was bizarre. Phrases that were once meaningful in this language can lose their sense. But, for our commentators throughout history, this specific phrase has been perplexing. Without the vowels we might think it is emphatic – a repetition of the same verb, telling Abraham “go, go, get out.” But the Masoretic markings are quite clear. This is not “lech lech” but “lech lecha” – which could be read ‘go to yourself’, or ‘go for yourself’, or ‘go as yourself’… It is a strange construction.
Ramban suggests that it’s just an idiom of biblical Hebrew. He points to other examples in Jeremiah and Deuteronomy where similar constructions are used. But that answer feels disappointing. Why this idiom? And why here? Every idiom has a purpose, even if that purpose isn’t even entirely clear to the native speaker.
The answer I like best comes from Rashi. Rashi says “go for your own benefit, for your own advantage”. This puts the rest of the sentence into context: “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” Don’t go for their sake. Go for your own sake. But when you go for your own sake, when you go knowing that you are seeking out a blessing for yourself, then everyone will receive that blessing too.
It calls to mind the distinction between charity and solidarity. That idea was summarised by Lilla Watson, an Australian indigenous rights activist, in her address to the UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Watson herself has challenged the attribution, saying that it was thinking that had come out of collective work by indigenous women in Queensland over a long period of time.
Indeed, differentiating between charity and solidarity has long been a feature of thought for oppressed peoples. Charity, seeking to help people for their own sake without any regard for your own, is surely a noble feeling. But it leaves the person who gives it feeling better than the one who receives it. For the one who gives it, it leaves them feeling helpful, assuages their conscience, and contributes to a sense that they are doing the right thing. For the recipient, it can leave them feeling powerless, pitied, supported, and not treated as a full human being.
Charity is ultimately, too, not that helpful to the one giving it. It turns human interaction into a form of sacrifice, based on guilt, self-effacement and pity. It forces people to ignore their own lived realities and struggles, and put themselves at a position of distance from others.
While charity can address material needs in a positive way, it reminds everyone of the power relations that caused the need for charity in the first place. It reminds the donor of their power and the receiver of their lack. It can even reinforce those structures, as the impoverished turn to the donors as a source of wealth rather than looking to their own talents. The donor can impose restrictions on how the money is used or on how the receiver might conduct themselves in ways that ultimately secure the authority of the donor.
Solidarity asks us to “lech lecha” – to go for ourselves, to go as ourselves. It asks us to come to problems as full people with our own issues and concerns that we need to address. It asks us to treat everybody as if they, too, are going for themselves: full human beings who have a great deal in common with us and their own unique purposes.
Solidarity requires both parties to feel vulnerable together. It asks that the person motivated to give charity considers their own interests and what stake they have in changing the current circumstances. It also asks both parties to work together: they have a common interest and need to empower each other. Solidarity places people’s self-respect and cooperation at the centre of organising change.
Rambam picks up this theme in his eight levels of ‘tzedaka’. The word ‘tzedaka’ is often translated as ‘charity’, but it shares a common root with the word for ‘justice’. The concepts of charity and solidarity are held together by this same word, so Rambam needed to spell out the differences between different forms of giving. Like the indigenous activists of Australia, Rambam puts solidarity on a much higher level than charity. He considers “empowering others with meaningful employment” to be the highest level of tzedaka. Unlike giving into the hands of the poor, empowerment such as this ensures that everyone’s dignity is preserved, and everyone benefits from the work.
So it is that G-d says to Abraham: “Go for your own sake and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” When you go out considering your own self-respect first and foremost, it follows that everyone else can act from theirs. Abraham does not go out to save the world. He goes out to save himself. But by being prepared to take risks for his own soul, he sets an example and sets the wheels in motion that everybody can seek out G-d’s blessing.
That is how the nations became blessed through Abraham. As we approach the challenges of our day, we should seek to ask the same questions as he was forced to. What do I really need? What does G-d require of me? How can I see others as full human beings and respond to their needs? How can I go for myself, so as to be a blessing for others?
Go for yourself, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.
I gave this sermon on the morning of Thursday 18th October at Leo Baeck College for Parashat Lech Lecha.
“I want to stay in this country after I finish studying, but the government won’t let me.”
“If they send my wife back, I don’t know what will happen to our children.”
These are all sentences I have heard in the last few months. Some from Jews. Some from non-Jews. All from people I never imagined would have to go through such trauma.
At first, these stories felt like anomalous tragedies. Now, I have begun to hear so many stories of visa and migration problems that I can’t dismiss them as individual instances. A government policy is underway, and it scares me.
As prime minister, May has strengthened and extended that ‘hostile environment’ policy. Commonwealth citizens, students, people on marriage visas, immigrants who have been here for over 50 years – all have felt the blunt force of the UK’s strict border policy. There are, inevitably, fears that this will soon come to affect EU nationals.
Perhaps I should not be so alarmed. The UK’s strict controls over immigrations are over a century old. In 1905, Parliament first passed a law placing restrictions on who could come into the country, dubbed ‘the Aliens Act’, whose express intention was to stop migration of Jews from eastern Europe. The parliamentary debate called Jewish immigrants “dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal.”
For as long as I have been alive, successive governments have promised to get tough on immigration. Tony Blair boasted about doubling immigration officers, increasing raids, clamping down on migration and turning away asylum seekers. Gordon Brown famously pledged “British jobs for British workers.” David Cameron called the refugees at Calais “a bunch of migrants.” During Ed Miliband’s election campaign, he brandished red mugs with his top five election promise: “Controls on immigration.”
Until recently, however, the UK’s hostility to immigrants had felt like low background noise. It was like the buzz of a dodgy lightbulb in a house I’d always lived in, humming away almost imperceptibly. Now, that noise has become a din. It has gone from being an irritant to a major problem, affecting people I care about deeply. And I am scared.
Beyond the fear I feel for those who are affected by this, what worries me most is the attitude that is seeping into our society. Underpinning all this anti-immigrant action is a pernicious culture. Fear of difference. Hatred of others. Desire for homogeneity. A striving for monoculture. A reactionary and regressive drive to return to a mythical, ethnically-pure past.
Our Torah portion has much to say on this issue. In the beginning, Genesis tells us, the whole world was of one language and of one speech. The people gathered together in fear: “let us make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” A homogenous, fearing society, they decide to build a tower reaching up to Heaven to challenge even God. Out of this culture emerged an attitude where human life no longer mattered. Pregnant women were forced to do hard labour. If a person fell and died they paid no attention, but if a brick fell they sat and wept, saying, ‘Woe upon us! Where will we get another to replace it?’
In response, God recognises that there is only one solution: “let us go down, and confuse their language, so that they may not understand each other.” When the people no longer understood each other, they could no longer exploit each other. They gave up their meaningless work. The antidote to tyranny is diversity.
While Babel may initially have seemed like a curse, it became a blessing. The bedrock of our civilisation is its diversity. Because of the scattered peoples of the earth and its variant languages, we have been given many gifts. We have the Diaspora. We have a world full of incredible cultures. We have Jews spread out across the world, spreading our vision of ethical monotheism. We have the joy of learning to communicate across all these barriers. What diversity of peoples means is that nobody can exploit another without first learning to understand them. We have to really speak to each other. And, when we do, we find in each other that great spark of divinity that guards us against oppression.
What is happening in Britain today feels like Babel in reverse. All my life, I have known this island as one teeming with diversity. I have come to meet people from every different language, religion and background. It has not been perfect. It has not been easy. But the fact that it isn’t easy is what makes it so wonderful. We learn from each other and try to understand each other. We all muck in together to build a country that works for everyone.
In this ‘hostile environment’, people are turning to each other in fear. The undertones of oppression and exploitation are becoming explicit. We are building our own tower: a monolith that refuses human compassion. It should be a source of concern to all of us.
Solutions are not forthcoming from the political parties. The Conservatives are dead set on their agenda. During their recent party conference, Diane Abbott told delegates: “Real border security – to stop drug traffickers, sex traffickers, gangsters and terrorists – that is what Labour stands for.” What made Abbott’s speech most disappointing was that, up until this point, she had been one of very few politicians to resist such rhetoric. It seems our politicians genuinely believe that the public are committed to their programme of fortifying the borders.
We must challenge their narrative. It is not too late to turn back. Babel granted us the gift of communication. I cannot be alone in having heard so many stories of problems with migration and borders. We need to tell each other those stories. We need to share our own family histories. We need to discuss our anxieties about what kind of country can be created out of fear.
We can challenge that fear with the greatest tool we have at our disposal: love. Babel created strangers and gave us the opportunity to love them. It turned us into strangers. Our Torah teaches us that we know the heart of the stranger. Not the pain or the suffering or the struggle. But the beating, loving, creative heart of somebody who has to move from one country to another and strives to make the best of it. With love, we can defeat fear. With hope, we can end this hostile environment.
The story of creation is probably the most well-known and most misunderstood of our Torah. Full of powerful imagery, t he Talmud says that it is forbidden to study the text alone because it is too easy to misunderstand. Because it is so close to the High Holy Days, many Jews miss this reading in our liturgical cycle, having been exhausted by the great process of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, all festivals crammed together into a very short period of time.
The danger of Jews not hearing these texts and of religious leaders not teaching them is that people go away believing that the version we pick up from our surrounding culture is the only version of events. The story of Adam and Eve, in particular, has such currency in that all of us have likely imbibed a version of their story. We have seen paintings in art galleries of European-looking men and women covered with fig leaves. We have heard the stories told in different ways through popular culture.
The story we are accustomed to is one of binary gender. God made a man on the seventh day of creation. God then made the first woman out of Adam’s rib. They are a model of the natural male-female binary in the world and an example of the heterosexual monogamy God has intended for all of us. I am not going to question whether that is a legitimate or authentic tradition. None of us can say we speak with divine authority, so we have to be able to live with different and contradictory interpretations. What I do want to do is offer up an alternative version of the story of Adam and Eve: a Jewish, rabbinic, midrashic version of the story.
I’m sure it goes without saying that, in the progressive Jewish tradition, these stories are considered metaphors. The question is, however, metaphors for what? The stories we tell are important. If we tell stories, even metaphorical ones, of gender as fundamentally binary, and the natural order as fundamentally patriarchal, then we give credence to that worldview. We betray our feminist values and exclude our congregants who don’t fit into that binary. The rabbinic version of the Bereishit story does not only go against the grain of that perspective, but fundamentally overturns it.
First of all, it is not clear from our story that Adam was the first man. The word “adam”, as it is used in Genesis 1, acts as a noun, not a name. It speaks about a person, a human being. The word shares a root with “adamah”, meaning earth or clay. Adam, therefore, might best be translated as “earthling”.
Nor is it clear that Eve was the first woman, or that she was created from Adam’s rib. The biblical telling of her creation is somewhat inconsistent. In the first version of the story, in Genesis 1, a man and a woman are created at the same time. In the second version, in Genesis 2, Eve is created from Adam’s rib. The rabbis picked up on this strange disjunction. They also noticed that in the second version, when Adam meets Eve, he says “this one at last is the bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh.” That word “at last”, in the Hebrew is “pa’am”, which could mean “this time around.” Our sages inferred therefore that the two stories tell of different relationships: the first of one between equals; the second of one with a dominant man and subordinate woman.
So, first, what was this relationship between equals? The rabbis suggest that man and woman were not just made at the same time. They were, in fact, the same person. The original human being, according to their midrash, had one body, two sets of genitalia and two faces. Professor of Talmud, Daniel Boyarin, calls this person “the primordial androgyne.” Rather than binary gender being the model of original humanity, the first person is intersex.
What then happened to this original intersex person? According to another midrash, they were split into two: Adam and Lilith. Notice that Lilith is not cut from Adam but that both are cut from each other: our original progenitors are equals.
The Ballad of Ben Sira, a medieval religious text that combines previous mythical traditions, tells the story this way:
“When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth. God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled.”
What follows is a high-speed chase across the world involving angels and monsters. Ultimately, Lilith fights against Adam, the patriarchy and even God to become liberated. Undeniably, some tellings of this story are misogynistic, painting Lilith as a demon and a baby-killer, but the fact remains that a crucial part of the Jewish tradition is the story of an empowered woman who refuses to be subordinated. Our model of gendered relationships is a complicated mess of power struggles and queer subversion. It is, really, much closer to the relationships people really have.
The rabbinic tradition on creation tells us stories about intersex people, gender confusion, and resistance to patriarchy. Right now, the telling of those stories matters greatly. The government is debating an update to the Gender Recognition Act. When it was first passed in 2004, this act was a great sign of progress. It enabled trans people to legally change their gender on some certificates. As it stands, however, that process is highly medicalised and expensive. The new legislation would enable trans people to ensure that their gender is reflected on their birth certificates without having to jump through great hoops.
This might seem like simply a bureaucratic change, but it has invoked great ire across the political spectrum. Underpinning much of the backlash is the idea that gender is both binary and innate. For the ideological opponents of the upgrade to the Gender Recognition Act, a gender cannot be changed. Much of their discourse has been quite hateful and aggressive. Transphobic abuse has become exceptionally loud, especially online.
What we can say in response to this is: in our religious tradition, binary gender is deeply disputed. In rabbinic Judaism, the first person was intersex, and transitioned from being one intersex person into two people: men and women. In our religious tradition, gender is complicated and malleable. Perhaps, armed with Jewish understandings of human nature, we may be able to push back against some of this hate.
The Reform liturgy for Yom Kippur takes on a tour through the progression of Judaism. The reading choices are different to in Orthodoxy. Whereas in Orthodox synagogues, you would hear the story of the High Priest’s atonement rituals with the two goats in the morning and the rules of illicit sexual relations in the afternoon, the editors of the Reform machzor felt these texts did not reflect their values and substituted them. In the morning, in our community, we read Nitzavim, Moses’s final address to the people. For the haftarah, we read Isaiah’s denunciations of exploitation. Then, in the mussaf service, we read the stories of the martyrdoms of our sages with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Through this history, we see the values of progressive Judaism elucidated at each stage: freedom, personal responsibility, decentralisation and anti-authoritianism. For my Yom Kippur sermon this year, I retold those stories to show how those values emerged.
“You are all standing here today,” said Moses.
He looked out over the vast plains of Moab. He gazed at his assembled audience, stretching far back into steamed blurry visions in the distant desert. He saw their weariness and felt his own. At 120, his physical strength had not weakened. His eyes still saw clearly and his teeth worked perfectly. Although he carried a stick, he did not depend on it. Physically, he was fine. But, mentally, he was drained.
For forty years, Moses had presided over the people. Gradually, he had tried to cede power. He had appointed judges and officials who would help resolve disputes. He had tried to teach people as far as possible all the laws that he had received from God on that great mountain in the Egyptian desert. More than ever, he felt ready to go. But the question was: were the people ready to be without him? What could he tell them in this last speech to prepare them for a society where they would have to lead themselves?
“You are all standing here today,” Moses repeated. “All of you.”
“But, really, all of you. Women and men. Children and the elderly. All of you are here. All of you were present at Sinai. I need you to know that it wasn’t just me and Aaron who did all this. You emancipated yourselves. Nobody forced you to leave Egypt. You got up and went because you knew you deserved better. You could have turned back to Egypt any time, but you didn’t, because you had faith. Hold on to that feeling now.”
Perhaps, Moses thought, he had not been specific enough. “Yes, the strangers too. All the foreigners who have joined us on the way. And the wood-choppers and the water-drawers. The people who do the most menial work among you. The most neglected among you. I want to mention you especially. I want you to know that you were at Sinai. Nobody can take that away from you. You experienced the full might of God and you choose to be God’s people. Never let any priests or princes tell you this was all their work. It was yours.”
“This,” said Moses. “This covenant that God made stands for all time. It speaks to all future generations to come. The soul of every Jew is here with me. All of you are witnesses. All of you have had the responsibilities of this religion entrusted to you. Even if you are scattered to the ends of the Earth, God will find you there. This religion stands firm in every time and place.”
The Israelites stared back at Moses in a calm silence. Only the sounds of gentle winds and crickets interrupted Moses’s speech. These followers had long known that this speech was coming. They had had plenty of time to prepare for it, and yet felt completely at a loss.
“What I’m saying,” said Moses, “is that the Torah is yours. God didn’t give it to me or to the scholars. God gave it to you, to read it and learn it and interpret it in the way that works for you. These commandments that I put before you today are not too incredible for you, nor are they too far from you. They are not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the Heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No. It is right with you. It has been with you all along. You are in charge of your lives. You are responsible for your destinies.”
That was the message Moses left with the Israelites and through them with us, the Jewish people. It has a stronger bearing on us now than we may realise. It demands of us way more than we might be prepared to accept. When Moses died, he did not place power in the hands of priests and kings. He handed it over to everybody. There would not be anyone to frighten the masses into following orders or to offer up commands. The rules were all already there. The people had been entrusted to follow them for themselves.
With time, certain leaders did try to control Judaism. With the rise of the Temple, a centralised cult in Jerusalem set out the rules. The priests insisted that penance could only be paid with animal sacrifices and ritual fires. They tithed the people and brought them under authoritarian rule. Outside the centre of the city, the prophets chastised the priests. Among the urban poor and the rural peasants, the prophets cried out that God had given the Torah of justice to everybody, that God abhorred inequality and would never give religious power to the elites.
That is why, today, we read also the haftarah of Isaiah. Isaiah looked upon the centralised cult and was revolted by it. He saw a nation rife with exploitation and hypocrisy. He chastised the wealthy: “On the days when you fast, you exploit the workers! You fast and you strike with a wicked fist.” Such fasts, said Isaiah, meant nothing to the Almighty. God would not listen to the pleas of the wicked. Instead, insisted the prophet, God sought for every oppressed person to be free, for every chain to be broken, for every mouth to be fed and every soul to be remembered. This religion, said Isaiah, was never given to the exploiting class. It is the blessing of the oppressed. It is the hope of freed slaves and menial workers. It is a promise of redemption for people who could never quite believe their lives had meaning. We are the heirs to their Judaism: to the Judaism of the prophets.
When the Temple was destroyed, a group of visionary rabbis realised that the time had finally come to take back control from the priests and hand it over to the people. Chief among them was Rabbi Akiva Rabbi Akiva had been a peasant farmer. He did not even learn to read until he was 40. He came from the poorest class and knew their struggles. He saw the Priesthood trying to control our religion in their own interests and vowed to resist them.
Akiva insisted that the Torah was not a dead letter, but the word of a living God. Everyone could read it and find something in it. Every letter could be analysed. Whole worlds lay hidden in subtle sentences in our holy text. Akiva and his disciples replaced Temple sacrifices with prayers, good deeds and study. These were acts of piety available to everyone, no matter what their wealth our status. He created a Judaism of the people, by the people, for the people.
Our parashah today says “the Torah is your life and the length of your days.” Akiva agreed. He said that Torah was to the Jews what water was to the fish. Akiva truly understood what it meant for everyone to receive the Torah. All of us were there for it. Everyone in this room. So all of us know something unique about the words of the living God. All of us have something important to contribute.
Akiva handed us over freedom. He took Judaism out of the hands of invested leaders and put it into the lives of the Jewish people. Read it, he said. You will find your life’s meaning in it. You will see that these are the words of a loving God. You will realise that you were created in a Divine image and that everyone else was too. You will understand the need to pursue justice.
Moses, Isaiah, Akiva. The progenitors of our Judaism. All of them with a simple message: this is your Judaism. You are free to follow it as you wish. With that freedom, they gave us the greatest gift they could. They gave us responsibility. Pharaohs would not govern our lives. Nor would bearded men in big gowns. We would govern our lives. We would have to choose for ourselves between right and wrong. We would have to live according to the justice demanded on High, with nobody to judge us but the still, small voice of conscience God had planted within us.
Take this day of Yom Kippur and realise that your life is in your own hands. Whether the world is just or unjust is up to you. Whether you are kind or unkind is up to you. Whether the oppressed remain oppressed or go free – that is up to you.
Let us resolve this day to take the true meanings of our religion to heart and to pursue justice in every quarter.
Gmar chatimah tovah.
I gave this sermon on Yom Kippur morning at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community in Cornwall. If ever you are in the area, I highly recommend going to this warm, welcoming spiritual community.
I’ve always struggled through Yom Kippur. It’s not just the fasting or the sitting in shul all day. That stuff’s tough, but there’s something more existentially difficult about Yom Kippur. I find the prospect of judgement quite scary.
What makes Yom Kippur harder than any other day of the year is I feel myself somewhat stranded without excuses. Any other day, if I get angry or petty or unkind, I have good excuses. I’m busy. I’ve got too much on. I’m tired. On Yom Kippur I have to reflect over all those occasions and my excuses seem pretty inadequate. On Yom Kippur we are stripped bare in front of our Maker, and as I recount the extenuating circumstances to exonerate me for going wrong, I can hear God saying: “Really though?” My reasons don’t cut it when I have to face up to Infinity.
As Kol Nidre comes in, I always feel deeply unprepared for the questions my conscience has prepared for me. By the time we’ve been through 24 hours of praying, studying, silent meditation, chest-beating and singing, the shofar blasts loudly for the last time and I’ve as good as promised myself that the next year I’ll be a saint. Next year, I’ll never get angry. Next year, I’ll never be impatient. Next year, I’ll go to synagogue every week. (Actually that one I probably will do, but you get the idea.) The process of Yom Kippur makes me set the standards for myself so high that by the following Kol Nidre I can only look at myself and realise that I’ve failed to meet them.
This year I’m going to try a new discipline. I’m going to try to forgive myself.
The process I described really is important. Faced with a perfect Being, as we are with God on Yom Kippur, every one of us is lacking. All of us have something to feel genuinely guilty about. All of us need to set our standards for ourselves just that little bit higher. But we also all need to learn to forgive ourselves.
There is a wonderful Chassidic story. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, a great Polish tzaddik of the 18th Century, approached the gates of Heaven. He stood before the Almighty and was asked: “Did you pray enough?”
“No,” answered the rebbe. “I’m afraid I did not.”
“And did you study enough Torah?”
“No,” said Elimelech. “I didn’t.”
“Did you give enough to support the needy?”
“I did not.”
“Were you kind enough?”
“Elimelech,” said the Holy One, “you have told the truth and for that you will pass through to Heaven.”
The truth is none of us can ever do enough. Nobody can ever pray hard enough, read enough Torah, give enough to support the needy or exercise enough kindness. All we can do is be honest with ourselves, and keep trying.
On Kol Nidre, we are faced with the same questions as Elimelech was. We have to inspect the content of our souls in just the same way as he did. Have we prayed enough? Studied enough? Done enough to support others? Been kind and charitable and loving? No, we have not.
And we should not kid ourselves that the stakes are any less high than they were for a man standing at the gates of Heaven. If anything, they are higher, because while Elimelech was dead and could not do anything further to improve, we are still alive and have the chance to be better than we have been.
The rituals around Kol Nidre help to convey the gravity of that situation. First of all, we are supposed to feel a little bit closer to death. Ashkenazi Jews wear kittels, the garments in which we will be buried, to convey that sense of mortality. In reciting Viddui, we say the same words that repentant souls recite on their deathbeds. In fasting, in huddling together, there is some deeper feeling of an intimate proximity to death.
Tonight, everyone wears tallits. This is the only time of the year when the whole community drapes tzitzit from the long white garments over their shoulders. Why do we do this? Because these are the vestments of dayyanim – judges. Tonight, we are a court room. We take the scrolls from out of the ark and swear on them as holy texts. We are a mirror of that divine court that has sat in Heaven to weigh up the balance of our lives and pass judgement.
Now, feel yourself in that position. Realise that you are not just judged but you are also the judge. You are in a room full of other people in the same position. Is there anyone in this room so guilty, so impossibly unrepentant, that you cannot forgive them? Entrusted with the full power of a heavenly court that can choose between life and death, is there anybody you would not forgive?
Now turn that same judgement on yourself. Forgive yourself. Over the next day, we will all carry out moral audits on our lives. We will be encouraged to think through everything we have done wrong and to recount our misdeeds. But let’s focus, too, on forgiving ourselves. Let’s treat our own souls with the love and kindness we wish upon others. Nobody can be a harsher critic of you than yourself, and you know that there are times when you talk about yourself in ways you wouldn’t talk about your worst enemy. So give yourself a break.
I think part of the reason why we recite Kol Nidre, annulling all our vows, right at the start of Yom Kippur, is so that we can do just that. This prayer asks God to realise that all the promises we made from the last year to this one could never be met. This asks God’s forgiveness for the fact that we made promises at all. Because all the vows we made last Yom Kippur were impossible. We said we’d be better Jews this year than we were last year. We said we’d be kinder, more conscientious, and more humble. We said we’d pray more and study more. And we didn’t. Not enough anyway. And that’s OK.
Perhaps among all the promises that we make to ourselves this Yom Kippur, we can add an additional promise that this year we will forgive ourselves. We will be gentler with ourselves. We will love ourselves more. And, even if we don’t succeed, we can be merciful. We can forgive ourselves.
Gmar chatimah tovah.
I gave this sermon for Kol Nidre at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community ofCornwall. It was a wonderful place, and I will write more about it at a later date. One piece of critical feedback I received stuck with me: a woman said that, by saying that we all wear tallits, she felt I had excluded her. She had grown up Orthodox and always felt that the Jewish community was excluding her. My comments, which seemed to only address men, had projected her back to her childhood. At the time, I defended myself, saying that I’d grown up in the progressive world and so had never known a place where women didn’t wear tallits. On reflection, I am not happy with the answer I gave. I was trying out more ‘frum’ practices this year, by wearing slippers and kittel. I know from my own experience that seeing people seemingly adopt Orthodox forms can bring up memories of exclusion and discrimination. In light of that, if I want to experiment with it, I need to be much more explicit about what my values are: how I reconcile socialism and feminism with an interest in halachah. Moreover, Yom Kippur already can feel quite daunting for everyone. It’s supposed to be a time for huddling together and bringing everyone ‘inside the tent’. I need to constantly remind myself that the shared belief of progressive Jews in feminism, queer liberation and anti-racism is not additional to what we do but is at the core of who we are. In future sermons, I hope to be more explicit about that.
The life of a Jew is one that is constantly wrapped up in ideas, actions and movements. Centuries of precarious existence, an intimate relationship with texts and an intense struggle with God have implanted in us a restless culture that thirsts after new ideas.
It’s never a boring time to be a Jew, and this year has been no exception.
This week’s readings give an insight into just how important ideas are in our community. We read the stories of three remarkable women and three remarkable births of three remarkable sons. In our Torah portion, Hagar, an Egyptian princess transformed into Abraham’s nomadic handmaid, gives birth to Ishmael, in the stead of her mistress, Sarah. Then Sarah conceives Isaac at the age of 90. In our haftarah, Hannah, an infertile woman, prays so fervently that she gives birth to Samuel. Three unusual births.
These three boys then all suffer a similar fate: they all come close to dying. Isaac, as we know, is taken up Mount Moriah to be sacrificed by his father and ends up bringing about an end to all child sacrifice. Ishmael becomes stranded in the desert with his mother and comes so close to dying of dehydration that his mother considers putting him out of his mystery when the two are saved by a miracle well. Samuel really does die but comes back as a ghost to give advice to the king.
All the figures in these texts are more than just interesting people living interesting lives: they are models of ideas. According to the 15th Century Spanish mystic, Isaac Arama, Sarah is the representative of Jewish Torah, and Hagar of universal philosophy. In the traditions of both religions, Isaac was the founder of Judaism and Ishmael the progenitor of Islam. Hannah is a model of piety and a symbol of how we should all pray. Her son, Samuel, was the archetypal prophet, and the first to establish monarchy in Israel by crowning King David.
Three remarkable women. Three boys conceived in impossible circumstances. Six ideas. Three ideas that nearly died. Six ideas that have come to define our modern world. Throughout our stories these characters sometimes come into conflict. They sometimes try to kill and banish each other. They sometimes come together. So it has been throughout our long history, that complicated and contradictory ideas of philosophy, Torah, piety, power and faith have interacted to do fascinating things.
I spent this summer in Jerusalem, as in previous years, and this time, decided that while I was there, I would try to read up on Jewish ideology. I took copies with me of Rabbi David Goldberg’s book, ‘To the Promised Land: A History of Zionist Thought’, and ‘Revolutionary Yiddishland’, by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg. These were archetypes of the exciting thought in European Jewry before the Second World War: the first of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, and the latter of Jewish socialism. Both books reveal an era full of ideas, when Jews were passionate and tenacious enough to imagine every possible utopia. You get the feeling as you read them that anything is possible.
Indeed, it seems that pre-war Europe really was a time when ideas felt alive. Reading biographies of the time, you get the feeling that every street corner and café was abuzz with discussion about who the Jews were and what they could become. On the one hand, there were Bolsheviks, agitating for Jews to throw off their heritage, join the ranks of the working-class and commit themselves to overthrowing capitalism as citizens of the world. There were the Zionists, who maintained that Jews would never be safe or able to flourish until they had their own state. There were assimilationists, who wanted Jews to transform themselves and become loyal citizens of the countries where they lived. There were Bundists, who wanted to see Jewish cultural renewal in the Diaspora as part of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.
Out of this great social upheaval came, too, spiritual revival. There were the Orthodox, who insisted that Jews should focus on keeping halachah and not think about moving anywhere until the Messiah came. There were the reformers, the founders of our movement, who felt that Jews should cleave to their God and to the spirit of the prophets, so that they could be a light unto the nations in the Diaspora. These truly were interesting times to be a Jew.
The Nazis extinguished much of that discussion. Not only did they kill the people in their gas chambers, but they also destroyed their ideas. In the aftermath of a genocide, it was hard to believe that the Jews could ever be a light unto the nations. It was hard to believe that Jews could integrate, still less thrive in the Diaspora. It was hard to believe in halachah. It was hard to believe in God. There were certainly great ideologues in the generations after the genocide, but they had to make up in passion what they lacked in number.
When I left this synagogue and went to university, I felt very profoundly the absence of the ideas with which I had been raised here. I left behind here the ideas of community, of ethical mission and of religious hope. I wondered if perhaps those ideas only really belonged in my childhood. Among my Jewish peers, it seemed that one idea remained as the last man standing in post-war Europe: secular nationalism.
The reasons for that are unsurprising: across the whole of British society, the importance of collective religion had slowly declined. So, too, had the trade unions, community centres and political parties that had animated the ideas of public life. Israel, on the other hand, existed, and offered people a sense of security. Publicly supporting it, right or wrong, offered people a sense of purpose. The religious meanings ascribed to statehood, Diaspora and internationalism faded into the background as Anglo-Jewry invested much of its efforts in public advocacy for Israel.
This threatened to become the only manifestation of Jewishness in Britain. So great was the convergence across the movements among Jews in Britain that people had begun to talk about post-denominational Judaism. The great debates of the preceding decades had been laid to rest. Progressive Jews had fought so hard for women’s and LGBT liberation that even the most bigoted conservatives were powerless to resist it. Indeed, this year Britain gained its first Orthodox woman rabbi and only last week the Office of the Chief Rabbi issued a briefing on welcoming LGBT people into synagogues.
As feminism progressed, a consensus emerged in the Jewish community around a progressive, secular, nationalist vision: Jews in Britain would be liberal, atheistic, and attached to the state of Israel. Just as Fukuyama saw the end of history with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, leaving only liberal capitalism, Anglo-Jewry’s ideological debates tailed off, leaving only secular Zionism.
But it’s never a boring time to be a Jew, and this year has proved it. Like Samuel, Isaac and Ishmael, ideas that seemed dead suddenly found new life this year. The whole community has been abuzz with conversation. At Pesach, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, attended, Jewdas’s seder. Jewdas, a group that has done amazing things to help me find my own place in the Jewish community, promotes ideas of internationalism, Diasporism and socialism. Corbyn’s attendance opened up anew the questions in our community about antisemitism, our role in the world, and the values we support.
Only a few months later, a group of young Jews, most of whom had grown up in Zionist youth movements, stood in Parliament Square and recited kaddish, the prayer for the dead, over the Palestinians who had been killed in Israel’s attack on Gaza. This simple act of public prayer re-opened old conversations about Jewish religious practice, the significance of halachah, and Anglo-Jewry’s relationship with Israel. They challenged everyone to question what the limits were of liberal Zionism. Ideas that some imagined were buried – of Liberalism, Bundism, Orthodoxy, integrationism and Diasporism – re-emerged from their graves.
In the shock at seeing a consensus broken, some of the initial discourse was less than edifying. Perhaps what caused people to lash out so much was that they hadn’t realised how fragile the apparent consensus was or how safe it had made them feel. Although hardly part of the mainstream within Anglo-Jewry, I was surprised in myself at how frightened and threatened I felt by the sudden and very public disagreement.
But disagreement need not be a cause for fear. The vitality of diverse ideas is an indication of the strength of feeling within the community. It means that, once again, Jews are wondering how the world can be different. After decades spent recovering from the shock of genocide, we may now be ready to imagine alternative futures and retell the stories of our past.
This year has been one of tumult and change, and we can only expect that the next one will see more of the same. We cannot stop the breakdown of consensus: we can only jump into it and embrace it. Anglo-Jewry is resourceful and resilient enough to have energetic conversations and remain a united community. We shouldn’t shy away from those conversations but should embrace them with whole hearts and open minds.
Ideological disagreement is far better for all of us than staid consensus. Indeed, in the conclusion of Rabbi Goldberg’s book on Zionism, an idea to which he is very sympathetic, he warns that without alternative ideas against which to pit itself, Zionism could become reactionary, conservative and devoid of the ability to be creative. Debate helps us to be imaginative, innovative and dynamic. This coming year presents us with opportunities to be upfront about our values and have real conversations about what God, religion, ethics, Diaspora and homeland really mean to us.
I cannot say definitively what Liberal Judaism’s position will be, or even whether it should have one at all. What excites me about the new culture of debate is that it is open-ended, and none of us know where it will lead. Yet there is one role that progressive Jews have always played, which is needed now more than ever: we need to offer hope.
It’s never a boring time to be a Jew. May the next year be even more interesting.