sermon · torah · judaism

Why only one God?

Why only one God?

A Jewish scientist finds herself at a conference, presenting a paper. A colleague asks her: “what’s your religion?” Nervous of prejudice, she says: “I’m an atheist.” Her colleague answers: “Yes, but is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?”

As everyone knows, the best jokes are the ones you have to explain. And the very best jokes are the ones you spend a whole sermon unpacking, so strap yourselves in, because we’re going to look at the archaeological and scriptural evidence for why that introduction was, in fact, really funny.

It is a basic assumption of religion in the West that there is one God. Even for those who do not believe, they assume that it is one God in whom they have disbelief. Yet our society is filled with different religions and practices. When we encounter Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Hindus, we assume that underlying the diversity of our doctrines and rituals, there is an underlying unity of belief in a single and universal Being.

But it was not always that way. In fact, the idea of monotheism was novel and contentious throughout the entire development of the Hebrew Bible. The insistence on one God is Judaism’s great innovation, and we have built our monotheism up into an obsession. Knowing God’s oneness is the first commandment.[1] Not worshipping other gods is the second.[2] Worshipping other gods can incur capital punishment.[3] It is treated as an unforgivable crime, on par with murder, and a Jew should choose death rather than worshipping another god.[4] The Deuteronomic insistence on one God has become the centrepoint of Hebrew prayer: “hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God; the Eternal God is One.”[5]

In this week’s portion, Moses exhorts the Israelites: “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”[6]

But why? Why is it so important that there be one God? And why is it so important that the ancient Israelites worship no other? What was so bad about the other nations’ religious practices?

Archaeological excavations help us answer that question.[7] Scientists have dug up altars, shrines, coins and amulets to help us make sense of pre-monotheistic religion. The Canaanites, who preceded the Israelites, had a family of gods: Baal the storm god; Asherah, the fertility goddess; Mot the lord of death; Yam, the judge of the sea; and Moloch, the child-eating fire deity.

This is referenced in Scripture: “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Eternal One hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”[8]

In that case, the issue with polytheism is the unethical behaviour it engenders! The old gods of Canaan required evil practices as part of their worship, like ritual human slaughter. But then why not simply abolish those gods, and leave the others? Or just legislate against those practices but keep the rest of the religion intact? In the mind of the ancient Israelites, there must have been something that directly connected any worship of multiple gods with murder.

Here, archaeology can help us further. Digs from different times show us that polytheism wasn’t suddenly abolished, but fell out of favour when the Israelite religion took off. The Canaanite pantheon reduced down to just a few gods. We can find statuettes representing them at most ancient Israelite Temple sites.

This is backed up by text: Jeremiah condemns the Israelites for baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven and making offerings to Baal.[9] Jeremiah explicitly condemns this because these are the ways of the Egyptians, who held them in slavery. Idol worship, says Jeremiah, means keeping up the practices of theft, murder and lying.[10] It is not just that the old gods require ritual murder, but that their whole religion is based on an Empire that was built on it. Idols are the symbols of captivity.

This point was finally hammered home when Jerusalem was destroyed and Nebuchadnezzar took the Israelites hostage in Babylon. After Ezra led the return to the Land of Israel, we can find no more evidence of idols or their shrines. The people abandoned them altogether.

What could have been more convincing that idols were the work of murderous empires than exile in Babylon? The Israelites saw first-hand how looting, murder, war, conscription and sieges were built into imperial expansion. We know that the Babylonians used their pantheon as a way to legitimise their colonisation, as they brought the local gods of conquered people into their own cult and placed them in inferior positions. We know that the emperors turned themselves into gods and made people throughout their lands worship them.[11]

All those gods in Israelite minds became death-gods. The only way to truly abandon the ways of the oppressors in Babylon and Egypt would be to uproot the idolatrous shrines and eliminate the pagan pantheon altogether.

Monotheism was an act of resistance to these corrupt ways.

God’s unity was not a mathematical question but a moral one.

The One true God could not be co-opted into imperialism because it was universal: no one nation could control it. No ruler could declare himself to be that God because God had no flesh or form. And whereas the many gods constructed hierarchies and different customs for different places, with monotheism came ethical universality.

That is why one God was so important then, and why it remains so important now. God’s unity continues to represent the unity of human beings and the refusal of the faithful to be dominated. So, in answer to the question: “is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?” the atheist could happily answer “neither.” And I will gladly answer “both.” They are One.

Shabbat shalom.

Asherah-figurines
This is a photo of Asherah statuettes, which have been excavated at almost every ancient Israelite cultic site prior to Ezra’s Great Return

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s weekly newsletter, and will deliver it for Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Saturday 15th August 2020, Parashat Reeh.

[1] Deut 5:6

[2] Deut 5:7

[3] Ex 22:20

[4] Yoma 82a

[5] Deut 6:4

[6] Deut 12:2-3 NIV

[7] All references to archaeology in this sermon are derived from ‘The Bible Unearthed’ by Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman

[8] Deut 12:29-31 NIV

[9] Jer 7:5-19

[10] Jer 7:8-11

[11] cf Dan 2

judaism · sermon

Comfort, my people, take comfort

Comfort, my people, take comfort.

This Shabbat and its haftarah take their name, Nachumu, from the opening words of Isaiah 40: ‘Comfort, my people, take comfort, says your God.’[1]

We have entered into the weeks of comfort, the weeks between Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur. Here, the prophets promise us redemption and renewal if only we will correct our ways. It is a great build-up to the High Holy Days, leading us through the remaining summer months with a message of mercy.

After Tisha b’Av, we so need that reassurance. Tisha b’Av – or the 9th of Av – is a day of intense mourning in the Jewish calendar, which occurred during the week from Wednesday to Thursday nights. It recalls the destruction of the First and Second Temples by successive Empires in the days of our biblical ancestors. It summons Jewish congregations to lament our exiled state and God’s apparent absence from the world.

It is not a fast that is marked in all Reform communities, because it involves grieving for the Temple, which we do not want rebuilt, and because it wallows in so much misery, which we do not want to participate in.

Nevertheless, for the last 5 years, I have diligently engaged in Tisha b’Av rituals. This is mostly practical. On Yom Kippur, I’m often so busy curating religious experiences for others that I don’t get round to having one myself. My head is stuck on the next page in the prayer book, recalling the next tune, or remembering the complicated Hebrew I’ll read later. Tisha b’Av gives me a chance to have my own solemn day, where other people lead the services for me, and I can just use the time to reflect.

Most years, I go to Bevis Marks, the impressive Sephardi-Orthodox synagogue in central London. It is quite an experience. The building’s elegant chandeliers are extinguished. The beautiful decor is covered over with black sheets. A chazan chants the haunting melody of Eichah, beginning: “how lonely sits this city that was once full of people.”[2] A choir of harmonious men chants kinot – dirges – recalling the gruesome details of the destruction of the Temple, and connecting them to every tragedy Jewish people have ever endured.

But this year, I couldn’t go to Bevis Marks. Nobody could. Coronavirus has made physical attendance of synagogues too dangerous. Even those that have braved it have only permitted a tiny number to attend, with strict social distancing and masked faces. The Spanish and Portuguese community was especially hit by Covid back in March, so it makes sense that they would be cautious.

But what about me? What would I do? I depended on the spiritual experience of Tisha b’Av to see me through the rest of the year, and now the gates were closed.[3] I found myself wondering how it would be possible to do anything meaningful if I couldn’t do it the way I always had.

But I decided, for my own sake, I would make an effort. On Wednesday evening, I switched off my phone and tuned in to the streamed services from Lauderdale Road. I read through the Reform liturgies on my own, had one last glass of water before sundown, then went to bed. When I got up in the morning, I dressed as if going to synagogue, and watched a recording of the proceedings from the Kotel. I spent the day intermittently meditating, praying, studying texts and thinking about all the brokenness in the world.

For the first time, the loss of the Temple actually meant something to me. It wasn’t that I suddenly had a desire to return to animal sacrifices and priestly hierarchy, but I felt that I could emotionally connect to the verses in a new way. It can be really devastating to be away from the spiritual space to which you are accustomed. It is a shock to the system to realise that you can’t pray the way you used to.

And, strangely, I liked that I had made the connection. I liked that I could feel some new kinship with Jeremiah and the texts of Scripture. I liked knowing that the things I was experiencing had been suffered by others before. Because when I remembered that they had struggled, I also remembered that they had survived. In the face of difficult times, they had renewed Judaism, and changed its practices so that its message could continue.

I found myself enjoying marking the day alone. I didn’t feel like I was performing piety for others, but I was praying sincerely of my own accord. I realised that I, too, could adapt and reinvent.

In this week’s haftarah, Isaiah tells us: ‘The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.’[4] It wasn’t the building that mattered, it was the words that were spoken there.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was among the few sages who remained. He did not try to rebuild the city walls. He tried to rebuild Judaism. He established an academy at Yavne and taught Judaism as he had received it, bringing in new teachings to adapt the religion to post-Temple times.[5] Rabbi Yohanan knew that the words of Torah were more enduring than any citadel.

Every edifice will eventually crumble. Temples, synagogues and familiar buildings get torn down, eroded and replaced. But the moral message of Judaism – the meaning we get from our texts – that will endure forever.

We now begin our ascent to the High Holy Days, with Rosh haShanah only seven weeks away. As we approach these important feasts and fasts, we may feel tempted to despair that the usual building won’t be there. It is true that we will not do things in our usual way. But like generations of Jews before us, we will find new ways to make our liturgy meaningful and turn its moral messages to our own day.

I encourage you to emotionally prepare yourselves for doing the High Holy Days differently. Think about how you can dress, act and participate so that the period will be meaningful for you.

We will explore new ways of praying, meditating, studying and feeling. And we will come out of this experience with a Judaism that has been transformed and renewed. It will be stronger, more versatile, and better equipped to face any crisis that may come. As Isaiah promised, we will soar on wings like eagles and run without ever growing faint.[6]

So take comfort, my people, take comfort.

Shabbat shalom.

5f3ac318f9ec28e284b5bda529754cbc--jewish-art-place

I gave this sermon on Saturday 1st August 2020 for Parashat Vaetchanan/ Shabbat Nachumu at Glasgow Reform Synagogue, over Zoom.

[1] Isa 40:1

[2] Lam 1:1

[3] Lam 1:4

[4] Isa 40:8

[5] Eichah Rabbah 1:31

[6] Isa 40:31

 

fast · liturgy · poem

Coronavirus Lamentations

This is a creative re-translation of Eichah 1 to reflect the current era, where our sacred sites again sit empty and a new enemy feels as if it has besieged us. I have written this partly to distract my mind from fasting on Tisha b’Av, and partly to help process the grief I am feeling around the closures of communal spaces.

1

How is this possible?

As lonely she sits, this synagogue, where once she thronged with congregants

She has become like a widow;

Great she was among people, a power for the prayers

She has become precluded.

2

She cries,

Bawls, in the night and her tears fall on her cheeks

She has no comforter from all her lovers

Her friends have abandoned her

She imagines them as loveless.

3

The Jews are exiled from her

Caused by inequality and sickness; she sits with the nations

She cannot find rest

The virus trounced her

In the narrow spaces where it traps its victims.

4

City streets are mourners,

Don’t welcome congregations any more;

All her doors are bolted

Her leaders are grieving, her lay people lament

She sits in bitterness.

5

Strange are these adversaries

Enemies who carelessly became overlords

A plague pronounced upon a people

That locks toddlers in captivity

Fearing a sickness outside.

6

The sanctuary’s splendour

Fled away from her

Her wardens scarper like deer to nowhere

Running breathless

From the airborne pursuer.

7

She remembers

Grandeur in her grief

All the precious people that made her home at first

Now her people are falling to the power of frailty

And a sickness that ridicules science.

8

Our surfaces

Have become contaminated

Uncleanliness in the air

And all the dangers we cannot see are suddenly laid bare

So she tries to sigh without breathing.

9

Hands spread

Infection over our most treasured relatives,

So once the problem has entered your body

You are commanded

Not to go out in public.

10

Everyone is panting

Just trying to once again enjoy taste

To have their good spirits revived.

Does God not look upon us

And see how much we suffer?

11

Don’t let it happen to you

Know that this is pain unlike all others

It has befallen me

As if God’s nose has flared up

And exhaled sickness in anger.

12

My bones bind

Like spines sticking together

Feet swell, immovable

I cannot turn around

And spend my days lying in pain.

13

My body is

Marked by the signs of disease

Neck scrunched up in knots

Whatever strength I had has failed me

As I find I can no longer stand.

14

The strongest are trampled

Now, God calls out to me, the time has come

To destroy the youth,

Stamping on brides and crushing down grooms

Like grapes in wine presses.

15

My eyes, my eyes

Over these I cry

Droplets fall without a refuge

Even our physicians are dying,

So powerful is our adversary.

16

Love extends her arms

Parting only to find no one there

Such unclear instructions

God of Jacob, this fear is surrounding me

Every centre is infected.

17

God, you take

Revenge against rebellious and uncovered mouths.

Please listen, all peoples,

Won’t you see the pain

Caused by endless captivity?

18

I keep calling my loved ones

So they know I still care

I seek out my elders

And bring food to the vulnerable

That they will not be forgotten.

19

I call out to God

To tell You: ‘I am in distress!’

My heart is turning round

Abroad the people are devastated by statistics

And we see death at home.

20

They can hear

Ululating outcries from loneliness

This indifferent virus listens

Knowing that no matter what you do

That appointed day will come.

21

Let all evil stand before God

Vanquisher and vanisher

Who knows all

Examines every dead

Your saving grace may one day come to those

Zealous attendants awaiting You.

22

Return us to You, O God, and we will return to you. Let us have back the times we had before.

 

empty london

climate change · judaism · social justice · torah

Pass on this Earth to your children

‘Tell your children that this land will be theirs to hold in custody,’ cried out Moses to the Israelites on the precipice of the Promised Land. [1] ‘Tell them to guard it and look after it because you could not. Tell them we brought them here that they would love and care for every plant and tree, but we were not allowed to enter because we were too accustomed to slave mentality. We were too mistrusting and selfish. But our children, we hope that they will have faith. We hope that they will be strong. We hope that they will look after this earth.’

‘Tell your children to tell their children,’ Joel wailed to the elders. ‘Tell them about the environmental destruction we witnessed. Tell them how we saw droughts and crop shortages. Tell them how we saw fertile land turn barren. Tell them how we saw everything devoured and nothing remain. Tell them how we saw famine lead to war and war lead to plagues. Tell them that we knew it was our fault.’[2]

‘Tell your children,’ the prophets said, ‘not to make our mistakes. Tell them to treat every part of the earth as if it is sacred. Tell them to care for the planet because if they destroy it, nobody will come to repair it after them.[3] Tell them that there is only one world and it is precious and it must be sustained. Tell them not to pillage it but to work in harmony with nature.’

And the elders wept. The religious leaders cried before their altars. Even the animals cried out for salvation from God. And the chieftains sulked in their tents and asked: ‘does this mean that God hates us? What have we done to deserve this?’[4]

Scripture records the words of the prophets and elders, but we do not learn how the children responded. What did they say when their elders told them these lessons? History rarely records the words of the young, even on issues of intergenerational justice. Especially on issues that affect the youth more greatly.

During the last uprising of Extinction Rebellion, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg preached to his congregation. He said: “in the synagogues, the elders are asking ‘where are the youth?’ But in the streets, the youth are asking ‘where are our elders?'”[5]

Young people are calling on us to take action for the environment. Their voices matter deeply, especially when the issue is the future of the planet. Climate change presents us with an unprecedented threat, and we are positioned as the elders scorned by the prophets.

I know that the people of my generation and older are not individually responsible for the climate crisis, but that it is a matter of systemic inequality and exploitation of natural resources.

Nevertheless I am increasingly conscious, as a parent, of what the next generation will inherit. Winona LaDuke, a Jewish-Native American activist from an indigenous reservation in Minnesota, urges us: “Be the ancestor your descendants would be proud of.”[6]

We cannot become such people if we don’t heed the call of the greatest call to intergenerational justice facing us. We cannot simply hide our faces in our homes like the elders confronted by Joel.

Of course, this congregation cannot take sole responsibility for ending economic reliance on oil or for replenishing the earth’s devastated ecosystems. But J and S have come to us with practical and necessary actions that we can take.

These students in our bar mitzvah programme have come to encourage us to take serious action. After only a year of teaching them, I have been so impressed by the intelligence, integrity and sensitivity of these young men. They will both become bnei mitzvah at Pesach time. As part of their studies, they have each taken on social action programmes.

J is asking you to recycle your plastic by making eco bricks. I hope that over this summer, every household in the Three Counties will return at least one eco brick to J in support of his project. J will also be appealing to the synagogue council, to ask them to make eco bricks part of the Mitzvah Day project this year.[7]

S is asking you to plant trees and sponsor his work with the Woodland Trust.[8] I encourage every member of the community to support S in some way, either by offering financial support or a place to plant. These projects are practical, necessary and helpful.

Joel tells us that the old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions.[9] In the future he prophesied, the generations were not adversaries in blame and despair, but companions in hope. The young people are offering us an opportunity to join them in healing our damaged planet. Let us take up their call.

Shabbat shalom.

introfigsm-m
This painting is by Winona LaDuke’s mother, Betty

I gave this sermon on Saturday 25th July at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Devarim. This was my last sermon for the community. The names of the children are redacted for obvious  reasons.

[1] Deut 1:39

[2] Joel 1

[3] Kohelet Rabbah 7:13

[4] Deut 1:27

[5] Heard at New North London Synagogue, summer 2019

[6] https://www.mtpr.org/post/winona-laduke-be-ancestor-your-descendants-would-be-proud

[7] https://www.ecobricks.org/

[8] https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/

[9] Joel 2:28

psalms · theology

Sore lungs sing out of sync

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and there we wept as we remembered Zion. 

Why did we weep by those waterways? Some times are harder than others to find songs inside your lungs. Faced with a strange land and held captive by a power you do not understand, it is hard to find the music within.

Some say that we could not sing because we could not stop crying. Every time we imagined we had run out of tears, new wailing broke out of our chests. Panting, we could not hold a note.

Midrash teaches that the rivers of Babylon were the industrial canals of the imperial capital. Where once we had drunk from freshwater springs, we now sat by sewage works and polluted channels. Our choleric lungs heaved and choked the psalms we wished to sing.

There on willow branches we hung up our violins.

Stringed instruments hung on stringed trees. If we cannot make music, maybe these old branches will play our lyres on our behalf. 

Maybe we will sing again, so we won’t lay our tools on the ground, but gently tie them up in knotted bark. We will return to you, violins. 

Maybe we hoped that the long leaves of willows drooping in layers would provide cover so that nobody would know we once used to play such melodies in our religious buildings. Maybe if they don’t know how joyous we once were, they won’t expect us to be joyous again. Pray they don’t ask us to sing.

For the wicked carried us away to captivity, and required of us a song. 

We are in a strange land of captivity. We live in times that people keep calling unprecedented. Six months ago, few of us would have imagined we would be in the midst of a response to a global pandemic. None of us have lived through mass government responses to a pandemic in Britain. It is unusual to realise we do not have the freedoms we once knew.

Even though governments around the world have announced easing of restrictions, we cannot yet return to activities we once knew. We have to be careful, because the captor, Covid, still exists. We have to make choices about how we respond.

The Israelites lasted 70 years in Babylon. We could endure 3 months in our homes.

But in some ways, those 70 years were easier than the ones that followed. In captivity, Jeremiah told us to make the most of where we were because we would not be coming out any time soon. But when Jerusalem reopened, we did not know whether to stay or leave, and every option seemed like it would be the wrong choice.

In some ways, lockdown was easier. We knew what the parameters were and how to operate within them. Now, we are confused about what is the right thing to do is, as the conflicting needs of our mental health, our physical security and our economic livelihoods clash. 

And somehow we are supposed to sing.

How can we sing the song of God in a strange land?

No, we cannot sing. It is one of the highest risk activities. The virus is airborne and transmitted when people dig deep in their lungs and project droplets from their diaphragms into someone else’s mouth. The collective singing involved in synagogue services, music concerts and sports matches is the greatest threat to overcoming the pandemic.

We enter a strange land where, for the first time in many decades, most progressive synagogues will be closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Once, Zoom felt like alien soil, although we have come to comfortably inhabit it for our Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Maybe it won’t feel like such a strange land by the time we arrive.

But how can we sing? Didn’t we try collective singing over Zoom? Everyone goes at a different tempo, completely out of synch, creating disharmony and awkward clangs. The first time we tried to sing together in disunity I felt like I had to go back and patch over all the cracks in our voices.

But in captivity, the Israelites learnt that even in the unprecedented land of Babylon, they had to find a way to sing. The Psalms are testament that even when we felt we could not make music, we still composed new material. 

For centuries, the Hassids have rejoiced in singing out of sync. The nign, a wordless song intended to elevate the spirit, finds its strength in discordance and repetition. These mystics sing the same note sequence repeatedly, without aiming for harmony. They trust that, however it is arranged, the tune will reach God. 

Perhaps we, too, can learn to enjoy singing out of sync.

That challenge feels even more pertinent now in a country whose rhythms have fallen out of sync. Some worry about losing their jobs. Some worry about losing their health. Some worry about losing their minds. And, with these concerns, everyone is making different decisions based on their comfort levels.

It is hard to feel like we are not singing in time with our neighbours. Some wish that everyone would just stay inside until we find a cure. Some wish that everyone would relax and go out. We look at each other with confusion, and struggle to find acceptable social norms.

Like the Israelites in Babylon, we have to find ways for sore lungs to sing out of sync. Anyone in the community who does not feel ready to go out yet should be supported to stay home. Anyone who feels they need to see their loved ones should be encouraged. And people who just need to get their hair cut or buy a coffee from a cafe should feel empowered to do so responsibly.

There is nothing wrong with feeling unease. The terrain we stand on is unfamiliar and there is much we do not know. But of all the things we can sacrifice, trust in the other members of our community should not be one of them. 

The reason the Israelites survived their exile was because they knew they could depend on each other. They had different experiences and different aspirations, but knew they were created by the same God.

As we sit by these rivers in a strange land, let us trust each other to sing out of synch, and know that one day, we will return home, and sing together in harmony once again.

nora-kronstein-rosen-moire-removed.height-588

I gave this sermon on Friday 10th July 2020 for Three Counties Liberal Judaism. I thank my housemate, Joanna Phillips, for her support with the audio recording.

 

judaism · sermon · social justice

What good is remembering?

Jews do not have history, we have memory. Whereas the rest of the world commits itself to dates, names and figures, our engagement with the past consists in rituals and symbols. At Pesach, we are not interested in the historical facts of the exodus from Egypt, but in reenacting its moral meaning. At Shavuot, as has just passed, we do not care so much about the geography of the Sinai peninsula as the words that were spoken on its mountain.

Memory is, in many ways, more powerful than history. Whereas history is focused on clinical facts, memory calls on raw emotion. Whereas history cares about leaders, memory looks at ordinary people’s lives. And although history looks only at the past, memory wonders what its events mean for the future.

Even when it comes to recent history, we are less interested in the architects and perpetrators of the Nazi genocide than we are in the diary of a 15 year old girl. Anne Frank has become a symbol. As one girl, she stands in for the memory of millions. In classrooms and homes around the world, Anne Frank is the way for people to remember the evils perpetrated in the Third Reich.

It is a great act of kindness to the Jewish community here, especially its Holocaust survivors and their descendants, that you have all chosen to join us in remembering. To the Council, for planting this tree in memory of Anne Frank, growing in the Herefordshire soil as a symbol to remember a symbol. To the dignitaries who join is in this service today, and who have been friends to our community, for joining us, please accept our thanks.

Memory turns death into meaning. When we remember our martyrs, we remember what they stood for. We remember Rabbi Akiva, flailed to death by the Romans, and we revive his vision for a Judaism that is creative and rich in interpretation. We remember the decapitated Rabbi Ishmael, and relive his conviction that Judaism must be principled and action-based. Their lives and deaths represent the values they inhabited.

Of course, Anne Frank was no martyr. Martyrs are those who die in the service of a cause, consciously choosing to affirm God’s truth rather than compromise. She did not choose her death. She did not pursue it in search of a cause. She was a teenage girl who wanted to ride her bicycle. Nevertheless, she has left behind a legacy of words, hopeful that something of her life could be recalled. And we have translated those words into a commitment to remember cruelty and have cause for hope.

Yes, memory is supposed to prevent evil being repeated. We recall a teenage girl who had to hide in a room in an attic before she was dragged away by soldiers to die of typhus in a concentration camp. And we commit to prevent bringing about a situation when any child has to live and die like that. 

May this tree call out to people with Anne Frank’s moral lesson. May they be the ones who would hide people who have been declared illegal aliens to stop their deportation. May they be the ones who would protest against the encroachment of civil liberties. May they be the ones who would stand up to resist fascism before there was nobody left to speak out for them.

May that memory of Anne Frank speak loud enough that even our world leaders can hear it. The memory of genocide in Europe was supposed to prevent it happening again, but we know that mass slaughter has not ended. We know that there are still children dying of typhus in concentration camps. We know that there are still forced labour prisons surrounded by barbed wire. We know that the nations of the world have only developed crueller and more effective ways to torture and kill people. May this tree and this service and that diary speak loud enough for that evil to be blotted out.

Many of our prayers this week are turned to the evil perpetrated in the United States. Black Americans, who endured centuries of slavery followed by segregation now face the injustice of police brutality. The world watches as they protest once more for their rights and we hope that they will see the justice for which they have longed.

I do not intend to engage in comparisons. Any attempts at equivalence are facile and destined to turn into competitions nobody wants to win. But the horrors endured in Nazi Germany and for Black people in America are united by the common fact of memory. Both call on their dead as symbols, martyrs and aspirations for a better future.

So George Floyd has become an international symbol. The man who could not breathe under the weight of a police boot is now the spark that has reignited a movement. And we should not underestimate the importance of that memory. Without it, our humanity is compromised. Memory makes people human.

Memorialisation gives people a dignity in their death that they were not afforded in life. By saying their names and recounting who they were, the dead are allowed to be people instead of statistics.

We remember George Floyd, and he is once again a gentle giant who said hello to everyone and was trying to look after his six-year-old daughter. Instead of a man in Minneapolis who was strangled to death by police.

We remember Tamir Rice, and he is once again a twelve year old boy playing games outside his home. Instead of a child who was shot dead by police on the street.

We remember Belly Mujinga, and she is a wife and mother working as a ticket inspector on the London Underground. Instead of a woman who died of Coronavirus after somebody spat in her face.

We remember Joy Gardener, and she is a mature student from Jamaica living in Crouch End. Instead of a woman who died from asphyxiation after she was gagged with adhesive tape by police. 

We remember victims of racial violence and they cease to be only victims, but can be full human beings with histories and dreams and potential.

And because we gather today in remembrance, Anne Frank is not a Jew who died of typhus in a Nazi concentration camp. If only for a moment, Anne Frank can be a teenage girl who wants to ride her bike. 

Thank you. Shabbat shalom. 

Anne Frank tree Saxon Hall 26 May 2020 (1)

I gave this sermon for Three Counties Liberal Judaism in honour of Anne Frank’s birthday on Saturday 13th June 2020. The picture is of the Anne Frank tree in Hereford.

festivals · sermon · theology

Falling in Love is a Choice

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about falling in love. Maybe it’s the spring heat of May. Maybe it’s the newborn baby delighting me with his first smiles. Maybe it’s my boyfriend moving down from Manchester. Or, perhaps, it’s because it’s Shavuot.

The model of a loving relationship in Tanach is of Ruth and Naomi. It may sound strange to think that two women could be such an example even in Orthodox Judaism, but Ruth’s words are used in wedding liturgies to this day, as well as recited by proselytes upon their conversion to Judaism. Why is it that this text connects falling in love, joining a faith and receiving the Torah at Shavuot?

After Ruth’s husband dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, begs her to leave. But Ruth responds:

Entreat me not to leave you, nor to turn back from following you. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May God do so to me, and more, if anything but death parts you from me.

When Ruth tells Naomi she will never leave her, Naomi puts up every possible objection. It would leave her without a husband or income. Her sister has gone. Anybody would leave her. Be sensible. Go. 

But Ruth refuses to see sense. Her choice to stay with Naomi is irrational. She could never explain it in a way that makes sense to anyone else. Something more powerful than reason must have gripped Ruth’s heart. Surely it was love. Messy, confusing, irrational love.

Is that not how falling in love really feels? For anyone who has felt it, is love not completely illogical and nonsensical? Nobody could reason it. It runs not just contrary to reason but is almost its opposite.

And yet, somehow, love is also a choice. Ruth stayed with Naomi because she wanted to. She could have stopped up her heart, grieved and left her mother-in-law. But she stayed. Because love is nothing if it isn’t freely given.

At first it feels like the lapping of an emotion at your insides. And then the waves of longing seem to get bigger as they ask to be allowed to grow. And then you make a choice. If you are not ready to fall in love, you can walk away from its shores. But if it feels right, you will dive in and let its waters subsume you. 

Whether with a first partner or a best friend or a newborn baby or a brother or a mother or a spouse to whom you have been married for years. Love, when it comes, is a choice. But it is a choice we cannot help but make.

I think the same is true of faith. It is not something that can be reasoned or explained, but only felt. Religious belief starts as a nagging feeling of suspicion that there might be something greater than what our senses perceive. After that, we have to make a choice. As Einstein put it, either everything is a miracle or nothing is. 

And so, faced with a latent sense of wonder, the faithful make a choice about how to see the world. For those who believe, God is manifest in everything that exists. Every facet of nature is a revelation of God’s truth and a calling to accept it.

This, to me, was the true miracle of Sinai. It is that, like those who fall in love, the Israelites made an irrational choice that changed their lives and stuck with it. Shavuot is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is the renewal of our wedding vows with God. Whereas anniversaries between human beings celebrate the date of falling in love, Shavuot is the anniversary of our falling in faith.

We are told so much about the fanfare that greeted the Israelites when Moses received the Torah. Thousands of people gathered round and all witnessed exactly the same thing. Thunder and lightning. A giant cloud descended over the mountain. A horn blast sounded loudly from the air. The whole mountain became cloaked in smoke and shook on its foundations.

But a cynic could have looked at all this and said: these are just natural phenomena. Thunder and lightning on the desert are rare, but they happen. It wasn’t really a shofar blasting from the sky, but the sound of sonic shock waves from the lightning. The mountain didn’t really move, it just felt like it from all the noise.

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites were not interested in reason. They were falling in faith.

When Moses came down the mountain, his face was radiant and shining out beams from his cheeks. He carried with him two tablets, inscribed with the laws that would govern the nation for generations. The Ten Commandments. 

Some say that, as he descended, the desert mountain erupted in blossoming flowers. Some say the Commandments were written in black fire on white fire. Some say the mountain was upended and suspended over the Israelites’ heads.

And, of course, any sceptic could have said: this is trickery. God did not write those laws, but Moses made them himself while he was hiding up that mountain. These flowers and fires are just sleight of hand by an adept magician. 

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites had made a choice to accept faith over reason. Thousands of them, huddled together in a strange place, made the decision to accept a beautiful belief over a plausible one. And nobody objected. Out of the many hordes assembled, nobody suggested that it was all a lie or a collective delusion. They let faith dictate to them.

And what did that faith say? That God is personally interested in the lives of people, even in those of refugees and runaway slaves! That the moral fate of the universe rested in the hands of a persecuted people, who were singled out to be light unto the nations. That love, truth and justice mattered more than could be calculated.

As Liberal Jews, we place a great deal of emphasis on reason, and rightly so. Reason keeps us from blind submission to antiquated and offensive ideas. It helps us keep Judaism alive in our own time. But we must also celebrate faith. Sometimes we hold beliefs that cannot be pinned down by logic, but can only be felt. Sometimes our irrational choices are so compelling that we live our lives by them.

Like having faith. Like seeing beauty. Like believing in miracles. Like falling in love.

Chag Shavuot sameach. Shabbat shalom.

love in the mountains

I gave this sermon for Shavuot on 29th May 2020 over Zoom for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.

 

 

debate · israel · sermon

The end of the two state solution

In 1982, Rabbi David Goldberg, z”l, gave a sermon so controversial that half the congregation at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue stormed out. The other half stuck around for the rest of it just to make sure they disagreed.

I have no way of knowing whether this was strictly true, but it is certainly plausible. It is most believable because, even though I haven’t yet mentioned the word, you already know which topic would elicit such a reaction. 

Israel. Of course it is Israel. It is a topic so contentious that friends and families have refused to speak to each other over it. As a result, although I do have strong views on the matter, I have so far managed to go three years without preaching on it. I have been strongly tempted to do the same thing today and just speak about the Torah portion, but I feel that I cannot do so this week.

What has happened in Israeli politics in the last two weeks will likely fundamentally change the way that Diaspora Jewry will engage with the country. Already every major Jewish communal body has released a statement, some of which I know have been circulated among members of this community. It would be a cowardly dereliction of duty if I did not comment. 

If you are surprised by the gravity of what I’m saying, it’s not because you’ve missed anything. There is no new president or prime minister. No new war, no withdrawal, no peace treaty, no assassination. What has happened is really the result of bureaucratic decision making at the end of another stalemate election. But its result is that the fabled two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is now impossible.

Previously, sitting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that if he won the next general election, he would annex the Jordan Valley. In the last year, there have been three elections, each resulting in impossibly hung parliaments, but it looks like Bibi has now secured the majority to pursue his agenda. 

As such, he will now go through with his plan for annexation, supported by the smaller right wing parties in the Knesset. That means that the entire Jordan Valley will become formally part of Israel. There will remain isolated enclaves of Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza, but what remains of Palestinian territory will never form a viable state.

For most Palestinians, this won’t mean much of a change to their daily lives. For some time now, West Bank Palestinians have lived under Israeli rule. Although able to elect representatives to the Palestinian Authority, Israel has maintained control over the military, borders and economy. Israeli control will become tighter and more far-reaching, but annexation will only formalise a policy that has been in place since at least 2005.

Nor will it make a difference to most Israelis. With official backing from Donald Trump and the United States, an international military backlash is unlikely. It is already the case that few Israelis live east of Jerusalem. For those who do live in settlements, their private security will likely be supplemented by state army support. 

There will, however, be a shift in Israel’s relationship with its Jewish diaspora, especially among progressives. Most Jews in Britain do consider themselves connected to Israel, but want a just peace, even if it means giving up land or power. For decades, Diaspora Jewish support for Israel has been contingent on the possibility of a peaceful solution that involved a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

With Israel’s proposed annexation, a Palestinian state will now become formally impossible. I suspect that the two state solution has not been truly viable for some time. But if the door was closed before, it is now being locked.

In response to these unfolding events, Rabbi Lea Muhlstein of the Liberal Zionist group Artzeinu released a statement insisting that the two state solution was still possible.  I am afraid I do not see how. Most efforts to defend the viability of the two state solution seem more concerned with reassuring Diaspora Jewry than with grappling with the conditions on the ground. 

Diaspora Jewry is, however, not reassured, and the British community has seen considerable fallout. The President of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyl, urged communal unity as representatives from StandWithUs, Habonim Dror and LJY-Netzer wrote to express their opposition.

Even in unlikely quarters, people are lining up to attack Bibi’s decision. Sir Mick Davis, former Treasurer of the Conservative Party, has urged against annexation, saying that it would run contrary to Jewish values.

I think that is right, and that the values that would be contravened are given in precisely this parashah. Moses tells the Israelites: “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike.” (Lev 24:22) Both right and responsibility, privilege and punishment, must be the same for all those living under the same rule.

Annexation will create a situation in which a people is formally and irrevocably governed by a party it did not elect and could not deselect. It will formalise a tiered class system, where Jewish Israelis have full rights, Palestinian citizens of Israel have fewer and West Bank Palestinians have none, while all live in the same space under the same rule. This is unjustifiable. 

Most of the attacks against Bibi’s plans seemed to have focused on belated efforts to salvage the two state solution. As I have made clear, I think that option is already politically defunct. But that does not mean progressives must give up entirely on any hope of a just solution in the Middle East.

One possibility which has so far only been advocated from the political fringes is of enfranchising the Palestinians. It is, strangely, a position that unites both some settlers and Israel’s radical left, but has been considered outside of acceptable political discourse among mainstream Diaspora Jewry until recently.

If Israel is to be a single state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, let it be a democratic one, where everyone who lives there has full voting rights and representation. The Palestinians should be able to set the political direction of the country just as much as Israelis, if it is indeed to be one country.

The main reason that this has remained a fringe view is that it would certainly mean an end to a Jewish political majority. The Palestinians living in the region almost outnumber the Israelis and could thus theoretically out-vote them. As such, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state, at least in an ethnic sense.

In that sense, a single democratic state could not be considered within the spectrum of Zionist opinion. But I am less concerned by the certainty of an ethnic Jewish majority than I am by the moral standing of the Jewish people. 

If Israel is indeed willing to implement policies tantamount to occupation, segregation and apartheid, and the Diaspora Jewish community does indeed continue to meet such policies with indifference and even support, what will be left of Judaism? Who are Jews if we refuse our God-given task of being a light unto the nations? What are we if we do not meet but exceed the ethical standards our tradition has taught us?

For years, Progressive Zionists have faced a tension between being progressives and being Zionists. Many have managed to hold nuanced aspirations that balanced their desire for peace with their desire for security; their commitment to other Jews with their commitment to all humanity; their belief that Israel could be both Jewish and democratic. That tightrope has now fallen under the weight of the two poles it was balancing, and most Jews will have to choose one or the other. Politically, they will either be Progressives or they will be Zionists.

Given a choice between a Jewish state and Jewish ethics, I will certainly choose the latter. But even then, I do not think that abandoning the idea of Jewish ethnic majority means sacrificing concern for Israelis’ ability to live and thrive where they are now. I believe it is fully possible for Israel to maintain its cultural autonomy and distinctly Jewish character without clinging to an ethnically based majority or to political supremacy.

The third largest grouping in the Israeli Knesset is the Joint List – a coalition of Palestinian and Jewish leftists. They are non-Zionists who hope for joint political power between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Their leader is Ayman Odeh, a lawyer from Haifa. He has now become the de factol opposition leader as Gantz goes into coalition with Bibi. In 2015, in his maiden speech before the Israeli Parliament, he shared his vision for the country:

The year is 2025, the 10-year plan to combat racism and inequality has borne fruit. Hundreds of thousands Arab employees have been integrated into the private sector, the high-tech economy and the public service.

The social gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens have been reduced remarkably and the economy has been prosperous for the benefit of all residents.

Jews are learning Arabic, Arabs are diligently honing their Hebrew skills. Jewish and Arab students are being introduced to the great thinkers and philosophers of both peoples.

His vision has become my vision. That aspiration for a just, peaceful and shared country chimes more with my idea of what would constitute a Jewish state than one based on racial ideas of citizenship or Orthodox ideas of laws. 

I hope that, as you wrestle with the tensions that will be drawn out over the coming weeks and years, others will be able to support that dream.

Of course, many will not. Despite the calls for unity, I think this is more a time for diversity. A collapse in political consensus need not mean fallout of the Diaspora Jewish community, but could mean a flourishing of new ideas and renewed conversations. We now have a true opportunity to intellectually engage each other about what Israel’s future will be and how we will relate to it.

If nothing else, I hope that at least less than half of you will storm out in anger.

Shabbat shalom.

israel palestine flags

I gave this sermon over Zoom on Saturday 9th May 2020 (Parashat Emor) for Three Counties Liberal Judaism. I am especially grateful to Tal Janner-Klausner, for being my political tour guide of Israel-Palestine, and for all their help with editing this sermon.

judaism · sermon

Whose quarantine?

By this stage in quarantine, you have probably broken down, cried, experimented with an unusual haircut, argued with your partner or room mate, attempted to pick up a new skill, laughed, watched a movie, read all the Corona-related news items, avoided reading all the Corona-related news items, lost your mind, twice, and finally accepted the new reality. Now, it’s time to have breakfast and go through the whole process all over again.

It’s hard to put into words what is happening for us in lockdown right now. Whenever I talk to friends or family about how they’re experiencing this unprecedented life event, we revert to discussing the latest rules or the political ramifications or what they understand of the emerging medical news. We can only really sum up how we’re dealing with the situation in odd phrases, like “getting by”, “finding new meanings”, “struggling” or, “drinking before midday.”

That’s probably why I have trouble finding out what quarantine was like for our ancient ancestors. This week’s parashah is Tazria-Metzora. It is the Torah reading about quarantine. Rabbis rejoice! For so long the processes and rituals around self-isolating for infectious diseases seemed so irrelevant to our lives. Suddenly a pandemic comes along and we can join the ranks of overnight experts with a niche specialism in ancient Israel.

Except, strangely, Leviticus doesn’t really tell me what I want to know. It describes in graphic detail the infectious skin disease our forebearers were trying to prevent – called tzara’at, it resulted in white flaky peeling of the skin and made its sufferers look like the walking dead. It would start as a small patch and gradually expand across the body.1

It also tells me exactly how the priests would deal with it. Anybody with the affliction would have to isolate themselves outside of the camp for 7 days. At the end of these, a priest would come out to inspect the patient. If the patient had been healed, the priest would make ritual offerings of birds to spiritually cleanse him.2 They would be shaved, washed and then readmitted to the community.3 If not, back into quarantine he would go.

Yet for all this detail spread out over chapters of the Torah, it doesn’t answer the question I really want to ask: what were their lives like? How did it feel to have the scaly skin disease in ancient Israel? What did they do when they were isolated from their communities? The Torah provides scarce little information about these questions, and biblical scholars seem surprisingly unconcerned. In fact, the main trend among academics has been to question how much we can even know about the biblical world, shedding great doubt on the texts that have reached us.4

We are told that the isolators were kept outside the camp, or outside the city walls. I wonder whether they had dedicated centres. The harsh desert sun of the Negev must have made simply staying outside longterm impossible. I wonder how they got food. Did people deliver it to them in designated places? Were they expected to scavenge for themselves?

All I can gather from the text is how people were managed, punished, ritualised and redeemed. I cannot work out how the ancient people keep themselves entertained when they had no access to other human beings, nor to Netflix, WiFi, or books to read. I do not know how they loved, supported each other, struggled, found things difficult and ultimately survived. Those positive stories of endurance are hidden between the lines of the text. I do not know how they felt.

But, in this community, I don’t need to just wonder how people feel and how they are managing. Our welfare committee has done an incredible job of checking in on everyone. Our healthy members are going out of their way to ensure that the others get the food and supplies they need. I know that, across this community, people are checking in on each other to find out how they are. This community should be an inspiration to others across the country.

Much is made in the media about people’s acts of selfishness and inconsideration, but for my part I have only seen the reverse. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people reaching out to share in feelings, offering support with shopping and errands, and generally being as supportive as they can in these exceptional times.

When our biblical forbearers wrote about quarantine, they wrote about its rituals. When the scholars wrote about it, they took interest in its medical diagnoses. When the media write about it, they write about everything that goes wrong. These stories of rituals, rules and wrongdoing might make for compelling reading, but they don’t reflect people’s lived reality.

Meanwhile, we are quietly writing a different story through our deeds. We are writing stories of generosity, kindness and self-sacrifice. We are showing every day in little ways how much we care about ourselves, each other and our communities.

One of the surprising facts about crises is that they do not engender selfishness, but altruism. At the time of the last financial crash, I was working in the charity sector, and we were all perplexed when we discovered that, in times of economic hardship, poorer people’s charitable donations went up. This week, a German science journal reported on a significant uptick in people’s compassion in their attitude to others since the crisis began. We see the results of that: thousands of people volunteering for mutual aid groups and the NHS supporters. The more people struggle, the more they care about the struggles of others.

Priests and politicians may want to write one kind of story, but ordinary people write much better ones. May we continue to write those stories, and may they be the ones we pass on to later generations.

Shabbat shalom.

coronavirus-volunteers-list

I delivered this sermon over Zoom on 25th April 2020 for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.

1Milgrom on Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824

2Lev 14:1-6

3Lev 14:9-10

4Watts, Ritual and Rhetoric, pp. 27-32