Can religion play a positive role in progressive politics?

When Keir Hardie set up the Labour Party, he broke with many of the radicals who had preceded him by trying to organise his efforts where working class people really were: in the trade unions and the low church. He reached out to people in both their chapels – the ones where they organised their workplaces, and the ones where they organised their communities.

Since that time, both the trade unions and religious organisations have greatly declined in British public life, and in both cases we’re worse for it. Those traditional ways for people to meet, share culture, build up solidarity and envision a better future have been completely eroded. We’ve been left open to the worst austerity, neoliberal privatisation and attacks on the rights of marginalised people that we’ve ever known. Our lack of organisation and community has meant we’ve been constantly on the back foot, struggling against forces much stronger than us.

On the left, everyone acknowledges the decline in trade unionism for what it has been: a massive setback for working-class organising, an onslaught that has left us weaker, more divided and more isolated. But, to listen to some on the left talk, you’d think that the decline of religion was somehow a victory for our side. Millions of Britons no longer know their neighbours, no longer have any idea about the births, deaths, illnesses, tragedies and joys that are going on in their communities. Young people grow up without any access to traditional songs, stories and culture that was central to previous generations and instead only get the official versions of history. They learn that Churchill and Thatcher were heroes, but they never hear about the religious movements that shaped the country they live in, like the Chartists, Levellers and Quakers. People have completely lost connection to their community, and we’re supposed to somehow celebrate that as an accomplishment.

James-Keir-Hardie
Keir Hardie

Absolutely not. Religion isn’t the dark force that it’s been painted, but has been one of the greatest forces for progress and radical change. Keir Hardie recognised that. Socialists of previous generations were able to see the positive role religion could play because they were able to draw a necessary distinction. I say that Kier Hardie organised in the low church, because that’s where he was. He didn’t go out to the priests and the bishops and the high-ranking officials who’d latched on to state power. He was interested in the lay preachers. And that’s because there is a crucial difference between religion as it is imposed from above and religion created from below.

Like with all forms of culture, religion can go one of two ways: it can be a bourgeois, reactionary force that bolsters the forces of power, or it can be an emancipatory, proletarian force that empowers people to challenge systemic violence. I am not here to defend Iranian morality police, Bush’s crusader Christianity, the violent Islamophobia of India’s BJP, still less Kahanists in Israel. I do not want to defend religion’s connection to that kind of politics in any way.

But we need to be clear: the problem with connecting those politics to religion isn’t with religion itself, but with the politics we connect them to. I don’t want religion to play a role in the state – I want to abolish it. I don’t want religion to play a role in war – I want to abolish war. I don’t want religion to play a role in capital, the police, imperialism or the structures that uphold patriarchy, because in every case I want to abolish them.

The politics I’m interested in is politics from below – the struggles of working-class people, women, LGBT people, colonised, enslaved and massacred people to realise their own destinies and take control over the world. I think religion can play a very positive role there. It has done throughout the ages, and religion can continue to be a source of strength for all oppressed people.

When I talk about this religion for oppressed people, this isn’t an innovation. I’m not taking the message of religion and twisting it to meet my own ends. Quite to the contrary: combating oppression has been built into the meaning of religion since its inception. The earliest written religious texts, the Hindu Vadics, bring together a worldview that opposes all forms of systemic violence, from state warfare to animal consumption. The Torah is the story of rebel slaves turned refugees trying to build a just society. The prophet Amos denounced the ruling class of ancient Judea for stealing the spoils of the poor and hoarding them. The prophet Isaiah tells the rich that their prayers are worthless because they exploit people while they deliver them. Jesus comes to take direct action against money-lenders and the hypocrites that collaborate with a colonising army. The Talmud is a lengthy exegesis in how to bring anti-oppressive practices into every part of a person’s life. The Prophet Muhammad comes to affirm the unity and dignity of all of humanity, and to insist that people are treated as if they all contain the spark of the divine. Sikhism tries to break down all the barriers that differentiate religions, genders and ethnicities into one universalising faith. Religion, at its core, is anti-oppression. Don’t the politicians know that the God they claim to believe in despises them and their prayers?

Holy texts are brimming full of admonishments against the ruling class. Reactionaries leap on passing references to sexuality and gender difference, separate them from all context, and use them as a pretext to persecute people. They take what is a radical idea, focused on bringing about the kind of change socialists want to see, and they manipulate it to suit their own ends. 

But everyone needs to see that the religious tradition of speaking truth to power is much better represented by our heroes than by our enemies. It’s represented by all the religious activists who worked to end slavery, the ones who fought for democracy and debt relief, the anti-colonial fighters and the indigenous revolutionaries. They represent that prophetic tradition.

malcolm-x-9396195-1-402
Malcolm X

Two key people from the Black civil rights movement come to mind here: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Malcolm X – a Muslim minister in the slums of Chicago and New York, Martin Luther King Jr, a Christian reverend in America’s deep south. Both of them built their organising around their religious institutions and the deep network of Black faith communities across the USA. They based their activism around their religious buildings, religious texts, and religious traditions. Are you going to tell me that they didn’t play a positive role in politics?

It’s not like they could have done what they did without their religions either. Certainly they couldn’t have turned to the unions. At that time, the white-run unions were mostly fighting against black inclusion in workplaces and were trying to uphold segregation in places. They could be racist, reactionary lobbies, and their record of beating up protesters against the Viet Nam war and siding with anti-miscegenation politicians shouldn’t be quickly forgotten. That’s the context in which they were organising, and it was the religions that gave them the strength as a group to fight for their rights.

More than that, the turning point in the struggle for civil rights was when the white religious leaders from across the country came down to join the Black protesters in Selma, Alabama and showed that the weight of public opinion and that the moral voice of the country was firmly on the side of those protesters. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was on the frontlines, alongside the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said “when I marched, I felt that my feet were praying.”

When religion is in the hands of the working-class, and when it is used as a fountain for oppressed people to draw strength from, it is a powerful and challenging force. But if you pour scorn on religion, and you say that it’s irredeemable, you hand over religion to the bigots. If you say you don’t want anything to do with it, then you’re leaving that source of power to be controlled by reactionaries. No wonder people wind up believing that God is a homophobic, misogynistic, capitalist demon if you completely disavow religion and leave it in the hands of the right.

Socialists who have engaged with religions have seen incredible success. When the Latin revolutionaries, the Sandinistas, started out with atheistic, anti-religious Marxist arguments, they remained an isolated minority who had no relationship at all to the people. The ultimate success of the Nicaraguan revolution only came about because of the rise in liberation theology and the willingness of socialists to engage with the church.

sandinistas
Sandinistas

Vatican II of 1959 wanted to see the church more closely aligned with the poor and, as part of implementing this, Catholic activists set up “Christian base communities” rooted in poor favelas. These were the first platform from which poor communities could start organising against the capitalist authoritarian Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and it was not an accident. Church theologians of Latin America wrote explicitly about their need to bring their religious beliefs to a political mission. Liberation theology saw that the things most despised by Christianity: individualism, competition, materialism and greed were, in fact, integral to capitalism.

High-ranking bishops and the papacy were, of course, hostile to the work of these low-level bishops and sided with the regime. The upper echelons of the church had to come into direct conflict with their own members initially, but by 1977, the grassroots Catholic activists had been so successful in transforming the church that when Somoza’s newspaper Novedades asked the church to clarify its position, even the high-ranking officials were forced to side with the bishops against what they called institutionalised violence and inequality.  

These are not just interesting facts from history – they have a strong bearing on the present day. In my own organising in the Jewish community, I’ve seen how religions can play such a powerful role in activism. Synagogues have preserved the memory of what it meant to be refugees, how Jews came to this country hidden in the bowels of boats and rushed out on the last trains from Germany. This memory has been preserved so well in our religious institutions that, when the migrant crisis came to public attention, the Jewish community was at the forefront of offering help and refuge. Every synagogue in the country had collection points for aid to refugees. Key shuls in every area now have drop-in centres that provide free help and legal aid to asylum seekers. Young congregants drove out to deliver these aid packages and came back embolded and enlightened. I attended a service at an Orthodox synagogue where one such member came back, agitating in her community to lobby for rights and safe passage for refugees. South London Synagogue has organised for over 200 child refugees to be brought over from Calais and housed here. The Jewish community is not alone here. Religious institutions have played a powerful role in demanding an end to poverty, quality council housing and opposing racism. This is the reality of what religions in Britain today do.

I’ll say it again because it needs stressing: I’m not here to defend the religion of the ruling class – whatever form it takes. I’m here for radical religion that stays true to the message of fighting for justice. There is no doubt that awful things can be carried out in the name of religion, but just a cursory glance at history tells us that people are perfectly capable of carrying out the same atrocious acts without religion. 

Religion has been associated with violence when it’s been connected to state power and reactionary movements. There’s no doubt about that, but to suggest that it has some kind of connection to religious belief itself is completely ahistorical. Haven’t Stalinist gulags, Maoist terror and the genocides of Cambodia and Nazi Germany shown us that people are perfectly capable of committing the utmost evil without religion? The modern states of France and Turkey are perfect examples of how secularist ideology can be just as violent, colonialist and corrupt as any state that calls itself religious. The problem is capital. The problem is the state. The problem is the military. The problem is certainly not God.

The task of religions is to keep alive that moral, prophetic voice that insists on radical equality and seeks to transform the world. It would be a disaster to throw out all that religion has done to transform the political sphere for the better, solely because fundamentalists and puritans have hijacked it. Religion belongs to all those who practice it – and the faith of left-wing revolutionaries is far more sincere than that which connects itself to state power, capitalism and authoritarianism.

The central message of religion – of all religion – is a radical one that every socialist can support. It is that there is a force much greater than anything we can conceive; that though we are small in the grand scheme of the universe, our lives have meaning. Every one of us is indowed with a spark of the divine. The existence of God makes us all equal – in a profound and spiritual way. Religion challenges us to see that all of humanity is one, everyone deserving of dignity, and to bring that claim to life in the world. It is a call to action – to overthrow the Pharoahs of the world as Moses did; to cast out the demons of legions as Jesus did; to demand rights for widows, orphans and disabled people as Mohammed did; to resist sectarian violence as Guru Nanak did.

Faith can give us the courage to fight for a better world. Thank you.

fists raised

I gave this as a speech at Ideas for Freedom, the annual conference of Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a Marxist-atheist sect, back in July 2016. There were two other panelists, arguing that religion could not play a positive role in politics. My speech was not well received.

I doubt I could get away with making the same speech today. My teachers would definitely chastise me for over-simplifying matters, making sweeping generalisations, going off on random tangents, and flattening out history. I stand by, however, the central idea, that religion has a radical core, rooted in resistance. I doubt any of my teachers would question that this was a legitimate and necessary expression of religion.

I was moved to upload it by my brother, with whom I spent a long time discussing this topic over the winter holidays. He asked that I write up some of my ideas, and I remembered that I already had. I will speak on a similar theme, albeit to a very different audience, when I preach this coming Shabbat in Newcastle.

What I inherited from my grandfather

One of the greatest things I inherited from my grandfather was a tattered red paper folder, containing jokes. I’ll give you a pertinent example: “On the first day of school, a new student hands his teacher a note from his mother. It reads: ‘the opinions expressed by this child are not necessarily those of his parents.’”

My granddad, John Rayner, was the rabbi here for decades. I am now a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, where he once lectured on liturgy and codes. Today is Leo Baeck College shabbat: a chance for congregants to see what the future progressive rabbinate might look like. I’ve been invited to speak here because today the LJS will install a new stained glass window in the room named in my granddad’s honour. Rabbi Alex realised that the coincidence of these two events was too fortuitous to pass up. I am here, then, to speak about both Liberal Judaism’s past and its future.

I am often nervous to speak about my grandfather. Whenever I go to preach or lead services at any Liberal synagogue, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much they loved him. I blush and tell them: “he was a wonderful man.”

I think what worries me most when I talk about my grandfather is that I’ll only disappoint people’s expectations. I don’t have his knowledge of Jewish thought. I can’t even repeat his views on it, because I haven’t read enough of his books. I suspect that most of the people who greet me so enthusiastically know what he thought much better than I did. That’s because I never really knew him as a scholar, or a liturgist, or a homiletician. I only knew him as a lovely man.

So, on this day, in his honour, I’ll share with you something of the lovely man I knew. The John Rayner I knew used to skip along by the brook in a park in Finchley with his two West Highland terriers, Sasson and Simcha. He used to love word games and, when driving along, he used to point out to us the registration plates of the car in front to see who could come up with the best word from the letters on the plate before the car drove off. He used to sing. Really, really badly. He broke into song, because he couldn’t find the key. When we went round for dinner at his house, he always had a stash of jokes that he’d memorised to tell. The rest of us would make sure that we also had new jokes.

That’s why the greatest inheritance I’ve received from him is this red folder containing his collections of jokes. He was so organised that he kept them and catalogued them. Some are hilarious. “Saul Epstein was taking an oral exam, applying for his citizenship papers. He was asked to spell cultivate, and spelled it correctly. He was then asked to use the word in a sentence, and responded ‘Last vinter on a very cold day I was vaiting for a bus, but it was too cultivate, so I took the subvay home.’”

Some are only good in the context of sermons, like this advert he found in a shul newsletter: “Don’t let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help.”

Some just seem wholly inappropriate for sermons: “Where do you find a dog with no legs? Right where you left him.”

Some are completely outdated. Jokes about the pitfalls of this newfangled creation called the internet. Jokes about politicians in the Clinton administration. There are some that seem doubtful whether they were ever funny, some that were probably funny at the time but have since become offensive, and some that I just don’t understand.

This little red folder is a treasured inheritance because it reminds me of my grandfather the man. It isn’t valuable or useful. Nobody else would get much out of it. It’s just a collection of old jokes. But when I look through it, I hear again his sense of humour. I see his yeckerish impulse to organise everything, even joke collections. I remember what his laughter sounded like.

This little red folder stands in for something of what matters most about Judaism. Much of it can be read about in books or understood from watching documentaries on TV. But the essence of Judaism, that part of it that makes it really Jewish, is completely intangible. It is the relationships we have with each other. The feeling of lighting shabbat candles with friends. The shared references. The warmth of sitting in a synagogue together and feeling the gentle strength of community.

That is what I inherited from my grandfather. It is what I hope to pass on. Part of the reason why I decided to pursue this path was because that Jewish world meant so much to me. The experiences that those who gave their time to make Judaism live created for me an oasis in a challenging world. I want to pass on those experiences and create that sanctuary for others.

That little red folder is a microcosm of Jewish inheritance. Just as I filter through these old jokes and find ones I want to pass on and discard, so we modern Jews do with our heritage. In every generation, we look anew at the traditions, rituals and beliefs of the past to see what is relevant in our time. Some of what worked in the past might not work today. Some of what did not work in the past might well work today. Going through that process of filtering through what we have received is what keeps Judaism alive, dynamic and engaging.

Right now, Liberal Judaism is going through just such a process. We are reviewing our old liturgies and customs in the hope of developing new ones. As we go through these changes together, we must of course bring our heads and a sense of intellectual integrity. But we must also bring our hearts. We need to be able to look at the changes our movement needs and ask: how can we make this warmer? How can we make it more heartfelt? How can we be more loving to each other as we disagree and work out new ways of being Liberal Jews?

That is the greatest inheritance I received from my grandfather: a little red folder, reminding me that a good sense of humour, and a desire to share it, matters more than anything else.

Shabbat shalom.

granddad
John Rayner z”l

I delivered this sermon on Saturday 9th February 2019 at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood.

How can you condone slavery?

Around this time last year, I overheard a conversation.

Two women met each other early in the morning on a frosty hill overlooking the city. One had arrived slightly earlier than the other, draped in a long, white scarf. She was old but full of life in a way that made her impossible to place. The other joined her not long after. Her blue velvet dress and jewellery would have looked gaudy on somebody else, but somehow on her they were elegant. They sat down on a bench, facing downhill.

At first, they sat in silence, watching the sun rise higher in the sky. Then the lady in blue velvet turned to her friend and said: “You know, I believe in slavery.”

Her friend let out an exhausted sigh. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her roll her eyes. “Yes,” she said, “you’ve told me before.”

“Not cruel slavery,” she insisted. “I’d put limits on it. Seven years. Seven years is enough and then the slave goes free. And the masters have to take care of them properly.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“I know you do, but I’m old. I’m set in my ways and I can’t change.”

“I’m not asking you to change. I just wish you’d realise that times have moved on. You can’t say things like that anymore.”

“Why not? If I thought it once, why should I be forced to change my mind?”

“Because you’re respected. People care what you have to say. They want you to say loving, hopeful things. If you tell everyone you believe in slavery, people will think that it’s OK.”

“But most of the time I do say nice things. And I’m coming from a good place. I want slaves to be treated well. I want them to have good lives.”

“But you still believe in slavery.”

“Yes, I still believe in slavery.”

“You know,” her friend nudged her, “I want to reinterpret what you’re saying. I want to think you’re speaking in a spiritual sense. I want to hear what you’re saying as that we should all be slaves to God. After all, God is our creator and provides for all our needs, and in turn we do God’s work on earth.”

The old lady laughed. “I like that, I like that a lot,” she chuckled… “But, you know, that’s not what I said.”

“No, it’s not what you said.”

“And you can interpret me any way you like, and I’ll accept what you’ve got to say, but nothing I say can depart from its original meaning.”

“Even now?” Her friend was exasperated. “Centuries after the abolition of slavery? Centuries after my ancestors fled Egypt? Even now, knowing everything you do about human history and human dignity, you can’t change just a bit?”

“Sure, I change, in my own way. But the core of me is still there. Like it or not, you’re stuck with me.”

They sat in silence a while longer. I could feel them both seething. A flock of birds murmured in the winter sky. I felt almost rude for eavesdropping, but couldn’t pull myself away.

This time, it was the woman in velvet’s turn to get frustrated: “You knew I would say this. You knew that if you came here, on this morning, at this time, you would hear me say these words. I believe in slavery. I say them at exactly this time every year. If you don’t want to hear me say it, then why do you even come?”

“Because I love you, Torah!” She threw her arms up in the air.

“I love you too, Kehillah,” Torah whispered back.

At once, I realised that I was not listening to any ordinary conversation between two people but the endless dialogue between the Jews and Torah. Torah, on the one hand, was fixed. She had been inscribed centuries ago and would continue to speak the words she always had. The Jews, on the other hand, had grown with history. Their thoughts had developed as God had revealed to them new insights about how to treat people.

They were locked in dialogue. One would always change and the other would always stay the same. But neither could leave each other. Sure, the Jews could get up and leave Torah at any time. Torah could even abandon the Jews. But if either of them walked away from the relationship, Torah would cease to be Torah and the Jews would cease to be Jews. Through their discussions, they drew out all of God’s contradictions: the contradiction between the past and present, between love and justice, between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.

I felt myself transfixed by their conversation. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to insist that, of course, slavery was wrong. I wanted to quote everything else back at Torah that she’d ever said to show how that one section in this week’s parashah was completely at odds with the rest of her message. But I realised that, even if I did, Torah would still say the same thing, and I would still have to wrestle with it. We, the Jewish people, would still have to wrestle with it.

Kehillah got ready to leave. Torah gently held her wrist. “You will come back and visit me, won’t you?” she asked. “I know I’m old and sometimes I say offensive things, but I still want to talk with you. You don’t have to do everything I say. Just sit with me and listen. I’m lonely without you.”

Kehillah sat back down. “Of course I will, Torah, I’ll be here every week. I love you and I need you. I’m lonely without you too. If I don’t come here and have these conversations with you, I’ll forget what my purpose is. I’ll forget that I have work on this earth to do. You ground me.”

“Thank you,” said Torah. “I’ll always be here.”

sunrisehampstead

I wrote this sermon for Parashat Mishpatim for the Leo Baeck College newsletter. I will deliver it on Shabbat for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community.

We know darkness

It was a dark, cold and stormy night. Mendelsohn, an old man, knew that the end was near. “Call the priest,” he said to his wife “and tell him to come right away.”

“The priest? Honey, you’re delirious. You mean the rabbi!”

“No, no,” said Mendelsohn. “Call the priest. Why disturb the rabbi on a night like this?”

Darkness is familiar to most of us.

In this week’s parashah, God brings a plague worse than all those that have preceded. Worse than frogs, blood, boils and locust. God brings on eternal darkness. When it’s day, it’s dark. When it’s night, it’s dark. After a while, people lose track of whether it’s day or night. Nothing grows. It’s never warm. People can feel the lack of sunlight on their skin and in their bones. They’re agitated and grumpy. It sounds a lot like London in January.

The month of January is notorious for being the most miserable. The days are so short. The nights are so long. It’s cold and wet and it feels like it will never end. Personally, I find just getting out of bed a struggle. The idea of slogging along on a bus with cold hands and feet, dripping in my raincoat with all the other commuters, just feels unbearable. It’s not a coincidence that this is the time when people can be most unhappy.

In fact, this coming Monday is said to be the most unhappy day of the year. Perhaps consequently, today is Mental Health Shabbat. People are broke. We’re at our coldest. Our bodies are aching. The darkness feels like it will never end.

A few years ago, the darkness started driving me to distraction. I couldn’t sleep when I needed to, and when I needed to be awake, I felt constantly tired. I was itchy and irritable. I have a spine disease, which fuses the joints in my back, and this was the worst year I’d had for pain. I could barely move. All that pain made sleeping even harder, being awake even more tiring, and my mood even worse.

I tried all sorts of things to get my body back on track. I tried upping the dosage of painkillers. I started drinking camomile tea in the evening to soothe me. I invested in one of those SAD lamps that slowly lights up, creating a synthetic dawn in my bedroom. Still, I felt hopeless.

I tried something else as well. I tried praying. I got up in the morning and said a few words of gratitude. Thank you, God, Creator of the Universe, for giving me this day. I wrapped tefillin on my head and arms and took a few moments for reflection. It was a struggle. It required discipline. I forced myself to say thank you even when I felt like I had nothing to be thankful for.

But that discipline did something new to me. It made me reflect on what was good in the world. Even if everything was dark and cold and painful, I was still alive. That was enough.

I realised, with time, that I’d been trying to push myself to be something I wasn’t. I was cursing my body for being disabled. I was trying to pretend that it was dawn when it wasn’t. I was angry, all the time, at the way the world was. And I was angry at myself just for being angry.

I couldn’t handle that it was cold and dark because that was just the way January was meant to be. January was the way it was meant to be and I was the way I was meant to be. I was comparing January to July, when they’re completely different months. Neither of them are meant to be like each other.

I was comparing myself to healthy people, with all the mobility, flexibility and energy they had. That wasn’t the body I had. That wasn’t who I was. The problem wasn’t me and the problem wasn’t the month. The problem was that I was comparing everything to an artificial standard. As if there was one ideal body, one ideal night’s sleep, one ideal mind, one ideal season, one ideal month, one ideal day. No such thing exists.

Prayer gave me permission to stop trying to live up to false standards. When I pray in the morning, thanking God that I’m alive, I’m not asking to be any different. I’m not saying thank you for things I don’t have or wishing for things I did. I’m just acknowledging one reality: that I’m alive.

We live in a system that teaches us that we have to always live up to this perfect standard. Capitalism requires us to be productive. We internalise that attitude so that we worry when we’re not efficient enough. We can even take that attitude home with us, striving for an ideal of a perfect home that we can never quite attain. And we can’t attain that ideal because it’s impossible. It’s somebody else’s standard.

Judaism teaches us that we are created in the image of God. We are, each one of us, a mirror of the Divine. So, no matter what cards we’ve been dealt, we are the standard. Just by being alive, we are living up to the standard that God set for us.

That’s what’s enabled me to deal with the darkness. When things are at their worst, I remind myself that things can’t always be perfect. I cannot live up to somebody else’s expectations of me. All I can do is accept myself for who I am, and give thanks that I’m alive.

January is a difficult month. This week may feel unusually hard. But I believe that we can get through it. If we are willing to love ourselves for who we are, and accept what we are not, we can make this darkness a little easier.

Shabbat shalom.

rainy london

I gave this sermon at Mosaic Liberal in Harrow for Parashat Bo on 12 January 2019.

 

Who wrote the Torah?

I realise that, this week, people will have a great deal on their minds. We are living in uncertain times. If we knew each other well, this week’s events would very likely be the topic of this morning’s sermon. As it’s my first time here, however, I don’t want to risk offending anyone, or opening up uncomfortable conversations. So I think it best if I focus on talking about something far less contentious: the question of who wrote the Torah.

Once, in my early teens, I sat with my rabbi, helping her to organise some books. As I picked up a chumash, a question occurred to me. “Rabbi,” I asked “who wrote the Torah?”

“God,” she answered, without skipping a beat.

I thought that perhaps I had phrased the question wrong. “But… who published it?” I asked.

“Hmm… if you look in the inside cover of that one, it should tell you. I think that was Soncino.”

Her answer reflected a familiar and tradition of Torah authorship. As we raise the Torah for hagbah before reading it, we sing to each other: “this is the Torah that Moses put before the children of Israel – from the mouth of God, by the hand of Moses.”

It was an answer, but it wasn’t the answer I was looking for. The trouble was that I wasn’t sure what question I was trying to ask.

A few years ago, I sat in a university seminar and did get the answer I’d been seeking out as a teenager. The Torah, my lecturer explained, was written by four main schools over a period of several centuries. Each one represented a different theology and interest group. Their traditions were later redacted into a single document.

It was a revelation. A profoundly disappointing revelation. I felt a bit disillusioned. By explaining the Torah historically, my lecturer had robbed the text of something of its mystery. Part of me wanted to go back to the answer of my rabbi: the Torah was written by God, and that was that.

And yet the conclusions of the historical approach were very hard to ignore. In this week’s parasha, for example, we read the list of “the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites.”[1] Yet our text speaks to a time centuries before the Israelites got their first king. The idea of an Israelite kingdom is, seemingly, completely unknown to the Torah and doesn’t appear in Tanach until the book of Samuel. How could Moses know that there would one day be an Israelite king?

Asking questions like these is, indeed, the basis for the entire enterprise of working out the historical authorship of the Torah. The book of Deuteronomy, for example, legislates for the possibility of monarchy and sets out a series of reforms for the Israelites that match quite closely with the laws set down by King Josiah. As a result, early historians of the text suggested that the two likely came from the same era – the 6th Century BCE, several hundred years after the Torah was said to have been revealed at Mount Sinai.

When the theory that the Torah had multiple authors was first advanced by Protestants in 19th Century Germany, it was embraced by many of the early Reform Jews. Part of the impetus behind the Jewish reformation was a feeling that the tools of science and history were fundamentally challenging old beliefs about the nature of religious truth. Our Reform ancestors felt that they had to adapt to this new knowledge or lose their own integrity.

Understanding the Torah in its historical context can also help us today. There is no getting round the reality that some verses are quite objectionable to modern ears. In our parashah this week, too, we read about Jacob having two wives (Rachel and Leah) and two concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah). The idea that our founding prophet had two women as low-status mistresses in addition to his wives doesn’t do much to elevate his moral status in our eyes. Putting the Torah in its historical context doesn’t necessarily absolve him of our moral concerns, but it does help justify why we would never allow such practices today.

This week, I told a group of adult students who grew up secular and are connecting with their heritage that the question of who wrote the Torah is a denominational difference. One woman was really disappointed. Her reaction was the same as mine when I first heard about historical criticism: “how can you be Jewish and not think the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai?”

It’s understandable to be deflated by hearing that the Torah may not have come directly from God. If it doesn’t come from the Divine Author, what makes it holy? Why is it worth reading at all? Why do we come here each week to hear these words?

There are some good answers that help keep the holiness of the Torah intact. One of these is to challenge the assumptions of the historical critical method itself. How can anyone definitely assert that this text came from multiple authors? If you are willing to accept that an omniscient God is present in the text, there’s no reason why that God couldn’t foresee the future of Israelite kings or anticipate the needs of future societies. Any form of faith involves some suspension of judgement – why can’t we extend that to the authorship of the Torah?

Yet it is hard to deny that human hands were involved in the transmission of our text. In this very portion, there are already dots above certain words, which traditional Judaism teaches were put in by Ezra the Scribe over words he believed might be spelling errors. Even on the most Orthodox reading of the text, there is more going on here than simply God handing down a pristine document.

Perhaps we could say, as some do, that the texts were divinely inspired but written by human beings. God revealed different messages to different people for their own times, knowing that God would continue to work with humanity to help us better understand truth. Just as God spoke to the Israelites at  Sinai, God engages with us today, and helps us to find spiritual meaning for our times. Yet this answer has its own problem: isn’t there an arrogance in us claiming to know more about moral truth than our prophets like Moses did?

Personally, the answer I like best is that what makes the Torah holy isn’t its author but its readership. We, the  Jewish people, through centuries of transmission, questioning, storytelling and interpreting based on this book, have turned it into a holy book. When we engage with it today, God is not waiting in the text to be found, but is with us as an active participant in the conversations we have with Torah. God is in the space where two people pore over this ancient text.

The Torah, then, is not so much a destination for divine revelation, as a mode of transport for getting there. Difficult, challenging, confusing and strange. But it’s a wonderful ride. It’s a journey worth making. Let’s continue to join each other on this voyage of discovery, to uncover the deepest truths we can today.

sinai

[1] Gen 36:31

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vayishlach on Saturday 24th November at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

God will reign forever

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.

Let us pray.

candlelit vigil

 

Go for yourself

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.

white horseman nahum gutman

I gave this sermon on the morning of Thursday 18th October at Leo Baeck College for Parashat Lech Lecha.