sermon · social justice · theology · torah

What does it take to destroy a city?

Sometimes a city must be destroyed.

Sodom was one of those cities. Sulphurous fire rained down from Heaven. The cities and the entire plain were laid waste.[1] Afterwards, all that was left of this once great city was hot smoke rising from its ashes.[2]

Abraham came the next day and saw the wreckage: hissing steam trailing upwards with little evidence that there had ever been a city there, let alone one teeming with human beings.

Had there been human beings there? Abraham had been told that the city must be destroyed. And he had negotiated with God. God, usually so terse with words, had permitted him lengthy bargaining.

“If I find fifty righteous people, will you destroy the innocent of this city with the wicked? … If I find forty-five righteous people, will you destroy this city…? If I find thirty, will you destroy…? If I find twenty… Ten…”[3]

Ten. Ten righteous people is all it would have taken to defend this place from destruction.

Abraham’s stomach churned as he imagined what later generations might say. Some would say it was a myth; that Sodom had never existed. Worse, some would argue that it was destroyed because they were gay. Small-minded people who wanted to shrink God tiny enough to fit inside people’s bedrooms. Bigoted people who wanted to justify their own bigotry.

They would have to understand that God did not take the death of humanity so lightly. This was not a place where consenting adults slept with each other. It was a rape culture, where sexual violence was normalised and celebrated.

In that city, the people saw two angels of the Holy One stay the night in one home and immediately went to hurt them. Within moments of their arrival at Abraham’s cousin, Lot’s, home, the whole city was out at the door clamouring to assault them. And Lot – his own family – had offered up his daughters instead, as if he had become so assimilated into this evil place that he thought raping girls would somehow be an improvement. Then they had threatened to do even worse to Lot.[4]

Sometimes a city must be destroyed. How can a city become so bad? The people of Sodom had been the wealthiest in the world. They had the fattest and best of the land. All of their needs could be met. Perhaps it was their avarice that made them so wealthy. Perhaps it was their wealth that had made them so greedy.[5]

But in the course of accumulating more than they could ever need, the people of Sodom had lost track of Who provided for their needs. They forgot God. They became so selfish that they even cut the branches off fruit trees so that the birds would not share in their bounty. They legislated against charity. They threatened anyone who attempted to strengthen the hand of the poor with burning by fire.[6]

They played with their victims. If a beggar came there, every resident gave him a coin, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each resident came and took back his coin. They turned starving the homeless into a game.[7]

They made good on their threats. Once, a young woman secreted bread in a pitcher to feed it to a poor man. When she got caught giving him the bread, the townspeople dragged her to the edge of the city. They smothered her in honey. Bees came. And ate her alive.[8]

Some would imagine these were just embellished stories from feverish rabbinic imaginations. They could not know the depths that humanity could sink to. They did not know what it took for a city to reach the point where it must be destroyed. Abraham knew.

Sometimes a city must be destroyed. Sometimes a city makes compassion illegal. Sometimes a city makes greed so mandatory that even the charitable do not stand a chance. Sometimes a city institutionalises violence so deeply that there is no way to protest.

In a city where everyone is compelled to do evil, there is no hope for improvement. All that is left to do is burn it to the ground and begin again. That’s what it takes to destroy a city.

Abraham knew this. And he wished he didn’t. Ten is all it would have taken. Ten righteous people. Not ten perfect people. Not ten blameless people. Just ten righteous people.

For those who wish to wilfully misunderstand the sin of Sodom, it is a thing that is done by different people in far-off places. For those who understand that the Torah speaks to every time and place, Sodom is a city close at hand.

Is the city that has made compassion illegal not already where we live? Is it not in the food banks where struggling people turn up and hear they’ve already had their rations? Is it not in the disability assessment offices where workers are rewarded for denying sick people benefits? Can we not already see Sodom here in Britain?

In Sodom, a great and wealthy city of thousands of people, all of whom knew what was happening, nobody objected.[9] Not one person was willing to stand up to the city and say that what it was doing was wrong. Abraham had haggled God down to ten. But he could not find one.

Ever since that time, Jews have gathered together in groups of ten. We call this group a minyan. From the root: מנה – count. A group that is able to be counted.

That is why Abraham sought the first minyan. To find ten people willing to stand up and be counted. To find, in a city, ten people willing to say that injustice is wrong, even if it threatened their own lives. Because ten people is enough to object and withstand institutionalised violence. Because ten people is enough to save a city from destruction.

In fact, Sodom is closer even than that. It is inside our own hearts. It is the part within us that wishes to be greedy rather than giving, violent rather than compassionate, cruel rather than kind. That version of Sodom exists within every person and in every system. And it must be destroyed.

As Jews, that is our calling. To be human where there is no humanity.[10] To be the ones who object. To be the reason that a city is saved.

Shabbat shalom.

burning city

I wrote this sermon for the Leo Baeck College newsletter.

[1] Gen 19:24-25

[2] Gen 19:27-28

[3] Gen 18:24-33

[4] Gen 19:3-9

[5] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 25

[6] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 25

[7] Sanhedrin 109b

[8] Sanhedrin 109b

[9] Sforno on Gen 19

[10] Pirkei Avot 2:5

poem · torah

Lot’s Wife

There are some sadnesses so intense

That they stay in your lungs

And get caught there

So that every time you cry

You feel like you’re choking up the same sadnesses all over again

 

There are some angers so hot

That they sink into your muscles

And tighten up knots in your back and on your shoulders

So that you carry it around like chainmail

Weighing down your body without offering protection

 

There are some memories so painful

That the fact of looking back can turn you into a pillar of salt.

These things don’t happen to people who have names

Only to people who feel things so intensely

And have nobody to tell

lots-wife

I wrote this poem on the theme of Parashat Vayeira.

judaism · liturgy · sermon

Who are these prayers for?

‘These prayers aren’t for me’ a woman said. She was addressing Judith Plaskow, the great feminist Jewish academic. Plaskow and her colleagues were on women’s study retreats in the 1980s. They were trying to wrestle with the Jewish tradition – a tradition they loved and simultaneously felt oppressed them as women. On these retreats, they discussed theology, read poems, studied Torah, engaged in rituals, meditated and wrote new prayers.

‘These prayers aren’t for me. These aren’t the prayers I grew up with,’ a woman told Professor Plaskow. ‘I don’t feel comfortable with them.’

‘We’re not the generation that gets to feel comfortable,’ Plaskow responded. ‘We’re the generation that gets to create a tradition so the next generation grows up in it, and for them it will be the authentic tradition, and they will feel comfortable.’

In my own life, this has turned out to be completely true. Siddur Lev Chadash was the prayer book of my childhood. It was first published in 1995. I remember standing together with Reading’s Jewish community, burying the old siddurim in the ground and celebrating the arrival of our new liturgy. Even at this young age, the event felt momentous. It felt simultaneously like everyone was grieving and celebrating. It was the end of an old cycle and the beginning of a new one.

The prayers of Siddur Lev Chadash were my prayers. I feel sucked in by their rhythm, transported by their ideas and comfortably at home when reciting them. But at the time when they were first introduced, they were scandalous. This prayer book, our prayer book, did something no prayer book anywhere else in the world had done before. It made God gender-neutral.

Nowhere in this siddur will you see God called “He”, “Him”, “Lord”, “King” or “Master”. At the time, this move was ridiculed. People saw it as the excesses of feminism. Even some congregations within Liberal Judaism opposed it as a drastic departure from the theology they were used to. They did not feel comfortable. But as Plaskow warned many years before, they were not the generation who would get to feel comfortable. Mine was.

And for me, the idea that God could be anything other than gender-neutral seems preposterous. How can an infinite being, who transcends space and time, be contained by something as small as a gender? I felt that I had the legitimate, authentic Jewish tradition. Words like “the Lord is my Shepherd” , to me, sounded decidedly Christian. On the other hand, “You are my Shepherd and my God,” the new translation of exactly the same psalm, was an unambiguously Jewish prayer.

The editors of that prayer book took a leap of faith. They created prayers that would make their own congregation uncomfortable so that my generation could have ones that would make us feel more comfortable. They gifted us a Judaism rooted in feminist thought, that taught us about God’s transcendent and unknowable nature. They ended old ways so that others could enjoy new ones.

In fact, this has been the way of Liberal Judaism since its inception. When it was first founded as the Jewish Religious Union, some of its members may have known the siddur of Reform Judaism’s West London Synagogue. Most, however, only knew Orthodoxy. They had little referent point beyond the lengthy Hebrew-language services that dominated London at the time.

They innovated in ways we could not dream of. They hacked up the services, re-ordered all the prayers, cut out every part they found offensive or uninspiring and produced a prayer book that reflected their values. From this, Rabbi Israel Mattuck, the movement’s first ever minister, created what would be the siddur for over forty years. It emphasised God’s universality, focusing not only on God’s special relationship with the Jews, but also on God’s relationship with all of humanity. This must have been outrageously audacious at the time. But if they had not had the courage to innovate, our Judaism would not exist.

In the 1960s, the Liberal prayer book, ‘Service of the Heart’ took a step that no other Jewish liturgy in English had taken before. It decided to focus on God’s personal and intimate character. It spoke about God in the vernacular, saying “You” instead of “Thou”. People were outraged that any liturgy had ditched the holy tongue of Elizabethan English. Today, it feels only natural that we should speak to God the way we speak in our daily lives. We may use grander language than we would in the supermarket, but the basic English grammar is the same. Those Liberal Jews took a decision to leave behind a language that felt comfortable so that we would have one that felt right to us.

Today, as we edit the movement’s new siddur, we are faced with the same challenge. We must ask ourselves not what prayers will make us feel most at ease, but how we want the next generation to feel at ease praying. We have to ask tough questions about what values we want to communicate and what learning of Liberal theology we hope to transmit.

Already, the editors, Rabbis Lea Muhlstein and Elli Tikvah Sarah, have begun that process. They have decided that not only should the English reflect our thinking, but that the Hebrew should reflect the English. Hebrew is a necessarily gendered language, so they have taken the bold step of feminising the Hebrew in some sections. They have diversified the names by which we call God. Not only will you see ‘Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh’ and ‘Elohim’, but you will also find ‘El Elyon’ – God on High; and ‘El Shaddai’, a biblical name for God derived from the word for breasts. You will see ‘Shechinah’, a word meaning ‘dwelling-place’, which in the Kabbalistic literature refers to the feminine aspect of God.

I have no doubt that this will be a difficult adjustment for all of us. It takes courage to leave behind something you know and begin something anew. But every year, at Simchat Torah, we do just that. Every year, we leave behind a year of Torah reading and begin again with the story of creation. We know that this year will be entirely different and we will read it in ways we never have done before. But we are able to let go of the old because we know that is what we must do to progress.

So, as this community moves from the familiar territory of Siddur Lev Chadash into the uncharted waters of Siddur Shirah Chadashah, I ask you to be brave. I ask you to imagine how these prayers will feel in thirty years’ time to somebody who has been raised on them. I ask you to allow yourselves to be uncomfortable. Embrace it. Even though these prayers are not for us, take the decision to make them yours.

068e58e00c8a4b8f7bcd5e8d0851649b

I gave this sermon on Saturday 19th October at Three Counties Liberal Judaism in Ledbury, Herefordshire. 

high holy days · judaism · sermon · theology

Who will cut the heart in two?

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[1]

These are the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. If anybody understood human complexity, it was him. Solzhenitsyn wrote these words from inside a gulag – one of Stalin’s forced labour camps – in the second half of the 20th Century. In this space, he experienced what any impassive arbiter would be forced to term evil: show trials, exile, slavery, massacres, and torture. His documentation of these events helped expose to the world the sheer cruelty taking place in the Soviet gulag system.

Yet, as we heard, Solzhenitsyn was adamant that evil was not something external to himself, nor exclusively the domain of Stalin’s henchmen, but something that could be found in the heart of every human being. How could he arrive at such a conclusion?

He knew the evil in the heart of humanity because he, too, was a war criminal. As a commander for a battery in the Red Army, Solzhenitsyn oversaw atrocities. He witnessed gang rape and murder of civilians. He saw his armies enter Germany not to liberate it but to seek revenge. He felt, yes, that the Nazis and the gulags and the western powers were guilty, but did not believe that he was any better.

Solzhenitsyn eventually found a reconciliation between the evil he had committed and that which was done to him in the form of religion. I do not know enough about the Russian Orthodox Christianity to which he converted to comment on how it might have helped him, but I can see outlines of such a theology in the Jewish tradition. I see it in the traditional Torah readings for Yom Kippur.

Ordinarily, Liberal Jews do not read the parashah concerning the slaughter of goats by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Many of our founders felt that this text fetishised ritual over ethics, and gave too much weight to a practice that was defunct and that, in any case, we had no desire to reintroduce. In his final words, published in LJ Today, Rabbi David Goldberg, z”l, bemoaned that many of the younger Liberal rabbis were turning their backs on the radicalism that he had embraced. For him, that meant cutting out parts of the Scripture that were distasteful or outdated.

While I greatly admire the sincerity of Rabbi Goldberg’s convictions and his pioneering approach to our movement, reading a text is not the same as rehabilitating it. We can engage with a Torah text to see what wisdom it can offer to the present generation without imagining that we have to then institute the arcane rituals it describes. The text that will be read today by Reform, Masorti and Orthodox Jews need not be read as an instruction manual. Instead, let us treat it as an effort by our forebearers to psychologically grapple with the same issues that face us today.

Leviticus 16 is the description of the High Priest’s ritual on Yom Kippur. Here, Aaron is instructed to bring two male goats before God at the Tent of Meeting. He will take lots for the goats – one will be assigned for sacrifice to God; the other will be sent off into the wilderness for Azazel.[2] Having carried out atonement rituals for himself, Aaron will then lay his hands on the goat that has been assigned to Azazel. He will recite over this goat all the sins that had been committed by the Israelites in the previous year and send the goat, carrying all of these iniquities, off into the desert, where it shall be set free.[3]

It is only natural to wonder what these two goats are doing, why one has been assigned to Azazel, and who Azazel even is. Rabbinic tradition furnishes us with some explanations. In some traditions, Azazel is identified with a demon, parallel to God, who has no power over the Jews unless they have committed sins beyond redemption. Then, on Yom Kippur, Azazel will be able to take hold over us.[4] In another tractate, Azazel is identified with the fallen angels, Uzza and Azael, who caused humanity to sin by teaching them violence and brought on the Flood in Genesis.[5]

Whichever of these interpretations we adopt, Azazel is clearly a representative of some demonological tradition within Judaism. This figure represents utmost evil. It is either the cause of all violence in the world or an evil spirit, waiting to take control over us if we are not sufficiently well-behaved. The goat assigned to Azazel, then, is laden with all the parts of the Israelites they do not like, and sent off to be dealt with by this wilderness demon.

By contrast, the other goat, arbitrarily selected for God, acts as an expiation offering. In its sacrifice, the Israelite’s purity and devotion are symbolically offered. This ritual, then, is a demonstration of that need to split the human psyche. Everything in ourselves we do not like can be pushed out into the desert and sent away. Whatever we do like can be ceremoniously paraded in the centre of our communal space.

We have hopefully come a long way from our belief in demons and deities that desire animal blood, but how different are we from our ancient ancestors, who sought to divide the world into good and evil? Today, we do not impose all our fears on goats and hand them over to monsters. Instead, we perform that same psychological distancing with other human beings.

We project onto them the things we fear most in ourselves. They, our inversions, are stupid, ignorant and hateful. They, the opponents we imagine, are conceited, conniving and immoral. We turn anyone we do not know into a container for our fears. The term ‘scapegoat’ is derived from this parashah, and it is a perfectly apt description of how human beings can be transformed into symbolic representatives of all that is in us that we hate.

You may hear this and think, yes, they do that. The others, whoever we perceive them to be, surely think and act in this way. By imagining others in this way, we fall prey to exactly the trap I am describing. Yom Kippur does not call on us to examine the lives of others, but to engage in inspection of ourselves. Yom Kippur asks us, as individuals, how we will improve.

The challenge this parashah poses to us, then, is to consider who we scapegoat. Who is it that we imagine is out there, holding the views we find contemptible and acting in ways we find objectionable? What is it about them that we fear, and hate? And what is it within us, that in making these assumptions about others, we are seeking to ignore or erase?

Solzhenitsyn learnt from bitter experience that the line between good and evil does not run between different parts of humanity but cuts right through the human heart. We cannot do away with the parts of our heart that seek to hate and destroy. We can only examine them and ask ourselves what has really motivated these feelings.

As much as this teaching pushes us to acknowledge our own wrongdoing, it also teaches us that, within all of us, there is goodness. We cannot deny all that is noble and kind and just within us any more than we can deny our own wickedness. It is, in fact, the basis of all growth and change that we accept that there is much within us to love.

While Azazel helps us to think about the monsters inside us we would like to hide, our relationship with the other goat, that which is given over to God, prompts us to remember all that is good within us. Judaism teaches us that we are, whatever our imperfections, fundamentally lovable and worthy.

If we were not, we would never be able to improve. Few of us believe that we are wholly evil, but many of us turn our mistakes into character traits. How often have you heard somebody apologise for being late by saying that they always are? Or, for that matter, excuse themselves for letting you down by saying that they are a bad friend? When we define ourselves by the mistakes we make, we cut off our potential to make better choices.

The ritual of the two goats reminds us that we are not the stories we tell about ourselves. We are neither wholly bad, destined to be consumed by a demon in the wilderness; nor are we wholly good, perfect to be presented before God. We are all of our flaws and all of our successes. We are complete human beings, capable of trying and capable of failing; capable of improving and capable of succeeding.

As we fast and pray our way through Yom Kippur, let us work to embrace all of who we are. Let us seek to remember that the flaws we see in others may also be true of ourselves. Equally, may we not forget that even those we dislike contain the positive attributes to which we aspire. Let us remind ourselves that the flaws we see in ourselves are also balanced by the traits of which we are proud. Solzhenitsyn warned us not to split up the human heart. This Yom Kippur, may we unite it and help it to grow.

May you be sealed for good. Gmar chatimah tovah.

gulag

I gave this sermon for Yom Kippur morning at Lincoln Jewish Community.

[1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

[2] Leviticus 16:7-10

[3] Leviticus 16:21-22

[4] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 46:9

[5] BT Yoma 67b

high holy days · judaism · liturgy · sermon · story · theology

The old man and the goat

Back in the village, when myths were true, an old man used to come round with a goat. In the autumn, when the leaves were turning crispy and the days were getting shorter, he’d walk through the shtetl streets, dressed in rags and a flat cap.

Clopping along behind him came a goat on a rope leash. Although scruffy and somewhat unkempt, the goat was well-behaved. She didn’t eat the villagers’ laundry off their lines or stop and refuse to move, the way goats would normally do. She just casually pattered along behind the old man.

And as they walked along the winding, cobbled pavements, the old man would call out: “Sins! Sins! Bring your sins! Sin collection! Bring your sins!”

And they did. One by one, people came out of their houses, bringing their sins with them. A man with a cane came out, rested his hands on the goat’s head, and whispered in her ear: “I get angry too often. I need to stop losing my rag. I keep boiling over when I don’t mean to.” The goat nodded sagely, and the man hobbled back into his home.

A young girl leaned out of her wooden shuttered windows, rested her hands on the goat’s head, and whispered in her ear: “I make a mess and blame my sister. I tell my mum it was her. I know I shouldn’t lie. I don’t want to lie anymore.” The goat nodded sagely, and the little girl popped back through the windows and into her home.

The old man and the goat walked all through the streets of the village, as people patiently clamoured out from shops and houses to whisper their sins. As each person leaned down to place their hands on the goat’s head and confess their sins, the old man would hold the goat’s rope leash and stare off, wistfully, until they were finished. Then he’d move on and return to his call: “Sins! Sins! Bring your sins! Come see the goat and tell her your sins!”

They winded up and out through the town, into the farmland and countryside. As the houses grew further apart, the villagers came out in drips and drabs. A farmer walked out through the barley fields and stepped over the style to his pastures. He put his hands on the goat’s head and whispered in her ears: “I gossip. I ask other people’s business and I repeat it. I tell everyone private stuff. I know I need to find better ways to talk to people. I need to find better ways to talk about people.” The goat’s eyes glistened and the man returned to farming.

Off they went, the old man and the goat, up a winding road, leading up a mountain, to the castle that overlooked the village. Nobody ever talked about the old man or the goat or what they told them. Nobody gave too much thought to the castle or where the sins went. They just knew that, once the day was over, they felt as if they had been forgiven. Somehow this ritual alleviated their guilt and helped them to change.

Every year, at the same time, on this day, the old man and the goat came round and the people gave their sins. That was how they maintained peace in the village. It was their collective form of self-help.

One year, that changed. One little boy became a little too curious. As the old man came round, shouting “sins! Sins!” he wondered where all those sins went. He wondered why a goat had need of such sins, or whether such a method was really effective at getting rid of guilt. He decided to subtly follow the old man and the goat.

He crept along behind them, keeping his distance, all the way through the village and the farmland and the countryside; all the way up the winding mountain path to the castle, until the old man and the goat arrived at the enormous front door and walked in.

The little boy stood at a distance and watched through a window. Inside a giant hall was a beautiful queen sat on a towering throne. The queen accepted the old man and the goat into her presence. “What sins do you have for me?” she asked.

The goat opened her mouth and replied: “The baker has been holding back bread to drive up the price.”

The queen nodded. “And will he do it again?”

“No,” said the goat. “The baker wants to change.”

“Then this is forgiven,” said the queen. And a white cloud came out of the goat’s mouth and disappeared off into the air.

“Tell me another,” said the queen.

“A teenager in the town keeps staying out late and lying to her parents,” the goat proclaimed.

“And does she want to change?”

“Yes. She wants to be honest.”

“Then this is forgiven,” said the queen. And a white cloud came out of the goat’s mouth and disappeared off into the air.

So that’s where the sins go! The little boy was shocked. All this time it was not the goat that had removed the sins but the queen.

“Tell me another,” said the queen.

“The milkman deals unfairly in business. He dilutes the milk with water and gives people the wrong change. He overcharges to get more for himself.”

“And does he want to change?”

“Not really,” the goat shook her head. “He is weighing out unjust measures as we speak. He will send the same sins next year.”

“Then this will not be forgiven,” she said. A black cloud came out of the goat’s mouth, and floated back down towards the town. The little boy watched as it descended down the mountainside and into one of the farmhouses.

He had seen enough. He fled from the castle and ran back towards the town. He pelted towards home, but just as he was approaching the edge of the village, he heard wailing and sobbing. It was coming from the cow shed, where the black cloud had gone.

“He’s dead! He’s dead!” cried a woman from the farmhouse. She sobbed as she lugged out her brother’s body.

Suddenly the boy understood. What the queen did not forgive she avenged with death and punishment. The boy wanted no part in it. He ran into the village and told everyone what he saw.

“The goat decides if we live or die! The goat is judging us and telling all our secrets to the queen in the castle!”

The villagers were furious. They crowded around the town hall in their outrage. When the old man and the goat next came around, they chased them out of town. The man and the goat ran away into the wilderness and were never seen again.

Then, having calmed down, the villagers realised what they had done. Their whole system for penitence and improvement was gone. They turned to each other once more and asked what they should do.

The mayor held her head in her hands and told them there was only one option. They must go to the castle and visit the queen. She would tell them what to do.

Every single villager in the town huddled together and marched solemnly to the top of the hill where the castle was. They gathered at the drawbridge and walked into the throne room, where the queen was sitting.

She looked up as the entire town flooded into her hall.

“This is most unusual,” she told them, wryly.

The mayor stepped forward: “We’re very sorry, Your Majesty, only we don’t know what to do. We chased away the old man and the goat and now we have no way to process what we’ve done wrong. We have lost our path to repentance.”

The queen sighed. “Once, you used to send me your sins through an old man and a goat. Now, you will need to tell them to me in person. Come into my palace, all of you, and confess together.”

At that moment, every villager began frantically shouting out their sins. Every voice drowned out every other as they clamoured to be heard. From her throne, all that the queen could hear was a roaring, indiscriminate din. She patiently gazed out over the assembled hoard.

It did not take the villagers long to realise that their method was proving ineffective. To make sure they were understood over the din, some villagers began to gather together to confess to having committed similar trespasses.

Ashamnu. We have done wrong. Bagadnu. We have betrayed. Gazalnu. We have robbed.”

Soon some of them had developed a chant to confess everything together: “Dibarnu dofi. We have told lies. Heevinu. We have been perverse. V’hirshanu. We have done wrong.”

Soon, all the hundreds of attendees had joined in and were chanting in unison: “Chamasnu. We have been violent. Tafalnu sheker. We have told lies. Yaatznu ra. We have given evil advice.”

The queen assured them: “When you had your goat, I knew who to judge and how. But now that nobody can tell me who is sincere and who is not, I will judge you together with mercy. If you come together in sincerity, I will accept your petitions. But if you stay home or ignore this new ritual, I will judge you all unfavourably together.”

And every year, the villagers came back and recited the same chants as the queen watched from her throne, going through the entire alphabet of their transgressions. They built up more elaborate rituals, abstaining from food, beating their chests, dressing in white, reciting their prayers from sundown to sundown. Together, they announced their iniquity and took responsibility for each other.

We are their descendants. We, the Jewish people, are the inheritors of the traditions of those people who once whispered to goats. There was a time when our community lived in a small place, and had a Temple, and intermediary priests performed strange rituals with goats to expiate our sins. Perhaps, if we believe the myths we will hear in the Yom Kippur parashah, we once lived in a time when God individually judged our sins and immediately exacted punishment and reward.

We are no longer those people. No longer do we sacrifice animals in a Temple. No longer do we require men to intercede on our behalf. No longer do we believe in immediate divine retribution. But we are their heirs. We have maintained their values. We still feel that, together, we can process our guilt through words and songs. We continue to believe that we can improve as individuals and as a collective. We still come together in the autumn, when the leaves turn crispy and the days grow short, to pray that we may be forgiven.

In the absence of miracles or curses, we, like our ancestors in the village, are called upon to take responsibility for ourselves and each other. We atone with our words and hold each other in this space, as we hope that we can find a path to repentance. Together, let us pray.

goat painting

I delivered this sermon for Kol Nidrei at Lincoln Synagogue on October 8th 2019

article · high holy days · judaism · sermon · social justice · torah

Living up to our ethical calling

If a woman steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving family, has she really done anything wrong?

This moral question is familiar. We have heard it before. We hear the question and all of us intuitively answer “no.” Nobody would hold her guilty.

And I don’t dispute that gut reaction. When it comes to matters of morality, the answer our conscience automatically gives is usually the right one. But what does this answer tell us? What does it mean about ethics?

The question is, in fact, first asked and answered in the Book of Proverbs: “Nobody hates a thief who steals to satisfy hunger.” (6:30) It is the Bible itself, where we also read “thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) that tells us that, of course, we would not hold it against a starving person to steal.

Perhaps, we might conclude, there are limits to the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we should see the sixth dictum not to steal as a guideline rather than a rule. We might even conclude that there is no absolute morality, because there will always be exceptions and extenuating circumstances to mitigate against our moral judgements.

For me, that answer doesn’t feel right. It is not that no sin has been committed, but that a far greater one is hiding in the fact that the very question has been asked. What we should really ask is: how is it possible that this woman’s family is starving? Who has permitted poverty to even exist? That is the moral question facing us.

In these days of awe and religious introspection, most of us focus on our own conduct throughout the year. We wonder how much we have exhibited kindness and generosity since we last stood in synagogue and pledged to do better. But the sound of the shofar calls us to a far greater reckoning than just the state of our own souls. The High Holy Days call on us not only to take responsibility for our own actions, but for the state of our society.

The prophet Isaiah, whose haftarah we read on Yom Kippur, called us to exactly this accountability. He pours scorn on the Israelites’ prayers: “Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness.” (58:4) He tells them in no uncertain terms what is required of them: “Loose the fetters of wickedness. Break the yoke. Give bread to the hungry and homes to the poor.” (58:6-7)

The early Jewish reformers treated this text as the springboard for their theology. Scripture, they argued, was not primarily interested in the minutiae of ritual observances like kashrut and keeping shabbat. God’s direction to the Jews was to perfect the world through the pursuit of social justice.

That demand remains just as relevant today. Our prayers may be beautiful. Our services may be meaningful. We might read the Torah with feeling and precision. But all of that is utterly worthless if it doesn’t direct us towards an ethical life.

But Isaiah is also doing something far more radical. He is transforming morality from an individualistic concern with one person’s behaviour into a collective expectation of equity. Isaiah’s insistence on food for the hungry and houses for the homeless only makes sense if it is directed at society as a whole. Nobody in the peasant smallholder society of ancient Israel would have the power to do that on their own. Isaiah’s is a fundamentally political prophecy.

The moral task of the Jew, then, is not the relatively easy requirement that the comfortable should not steal, but an urgent calling to dismantle poverty entirely.

Never before in my lifetime has that felt so important in Britain. Today, there are well over 2,000 food banks in our country. Academics warn that they are becoming so institutionalised that we may well soon accept these symbols of poverty as normal. They were created to fill the gap left by savage cuts to the welfare to which people were once entitled. Some experts warn that they may soon replace benefits altogether.

When critics call our state today Dickensian, they are not exaggerating. The diseases of poverty-stricken Victorian England are back on the rise. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever and malnutrition are making a very unwelcome comeback. None of us can deny having noticed more rough sleeping, cramped housing or slum-like living conditions.

We cannot blame this increase in poverty on personal failings when there are such clear structural causes. Joblessness and housing shortages; austerity and recession; political policies. These are the causes of inequality in Britain, the world’s fifth richest nation. Individual action alone will never come close to remedying these ills.

Poverty in Britain today is both a political choice and a moral disgrace. As we pray in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we must pay attention not only to our own conduct but to our whole country’s. We must be prepared to live up to the true ethical calling advanced by our tradition. The responsibility rests on us to make sure that poverty is completely eliminated forever.

Nobody should ever have to steal to feed a starving family. Nobody should ever have a starving family.

dickens england

I wrote this sermon for Liberal Judaism’s Days of Awe series

high holy days · judaism · sermon · social justice · theology · torah

On this day, you were created

On this day, you were created.

Although your body was born into this world at a different place and time, today is the day that you were created. This is the day that the part of you that makes you more than a body was born.

On this day, your soul was created. Our Creator had already formed light and darkness, separated water from land, built mountains and rivers, and introduced every living thing from the fruit fly to the tiger onto our planet. Then, on the sixth day, God created you. Today is the anniversary of the day when God crowned the completion of the world by making humanity.

You are already familiar with the story of the first human beings. They were created out of red mud and holy fire. Perhaps you do not yet know that, on this day, God also created every soul that would ever live.[1]

Back then, at the very beginning of our history, God took all the souls of everyone who would ever live around the Garden of Eden. Your soul saw how perfect the world could be, and your Creator instructed you.[2]

“This is the moral truth that I have established for all time,” God said to these souls. “You shall not kill. You shall not hurt animals. You shall pursue justice. You shall create a haven of love and honour.” And you, the part of you that absorbs truths that can’t be understood only with limbs and eyes and senses, took in those teachings.

When you were born, you may have forgotten what the Garden looked like. You may not remember the sound of the voice of your Creator. But ever since birth, your soul has clung to your body, reminding you of right and wrong.

That is, of course, just a story. Few Liberal Jews would say that it was an authoritative account of history. But this aggadic midrash, which appears in many rabbinic traditions, points to something that, to me, feels intuitively true. Our moral claims are real. When we say that murder is wrong or that love is right, we are not simply offering opinions about our personal preferences. We are describing transcendental facts about the universe.

There was a time when few people questioned that morality was real. While Greek philosophers and biblical prophets may have understood the origins of morality differently, or disagreed about their ethical applications, everyone agreed on a fundamental truth. Morality was meaningful.

Centuries of thought have sought to undermine that claim. Sociologists have argued that, instead, morality is simply a set of rules that human beings have developed to function in civilisations. Psychologists have shown that our brains are just machines responding to positive and negative stimuli. Many of the advancements in the name of science have reduced us to amoral automatons.

In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is an affirmation of a fundamental religious truth. This world was given to us as an act of love by the Source of all righteousness. We were born imprinted with an innate sense of how we can bring this world closer to Heaven, or to turn it into a living Hell. This ancient ritual embodies our tradition that humanity was created in the image of God, endowed by our Creator with a profound sense of right and wrong. That belief may not be provable, or even rational. It speaks to something that goes beyond reason.

When we blow the shofar, it is not supposed to sound pretty or musical. It is supposed to sound like an anguished cry. It is the wailing of all creation, calling on the soul to attention. It is a reminder of the truths we learnt in the Garden of Eden, long before our bodies were born.

I believe, I have to believe, that all people do have consciences. Against all evidence to the contrary, I want to believe that people do know good from evil, and do strive to choose good. I know that we don’t always. Most of the time, when we err, it’s because we have been too hurried or caught up in our own struggles to see that a more righteous path is possible. Sometimes we can all make mistakes from callousness or indifference.

But there is a type of evil that people can only do if they wilfully ignore their own consciences. There are evil acts that are cruel and calculated. Such acts can only be performed out of sheer moral nihilism.

It is with that in mind that I read news coming in from the USA. Across the Mexican border, the American president has built holding centres, where migrants seeking a better life are incarcerated. So terrifying are these spaces that some have dubbed them ‘concentration camps’.

We have seen videos emerge of dehydrated women crying out from glass boxes, yelling to journalists: “ayudame! Ayudame!” Help me. Help me. We know that the children in these camps have been denied beds. They are kept awake all hours, never granted the respite of darkness to sleep. Trump’s attorney general has denied that these children need toothbrushes or soap. They do not have adequate food. They have no access to lawyers.

One month ago, Trump’s administration announced that all these practices were legal. They did not even try to claim that these camps were moral. They simply stated that the people living in these camps deserved their suffering, because they were illegal. They crossed the border. They broke the law. These are the consequences for people who are no longer perceived to be human.

How can we talk about these actions as anything other than immoral? If we reject the spiritual truth of moral realism, we leave these camps as a matter of opinion. Whether people should be held in these conditions becomes simply a matter of personal preference. Worse still, we can reduce it to clinical policy choices, with cost-benefit analyses of how worthwhile it is to give prisoners toothpaste.

It is not out of malice that I say I believe those running these camps know they are wrong. Quite to the contrary: it is an affirmation of their humanity. Any one of us can commit acts of evil. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there is another way.

A Jewish group called Never Again Action have taken up that role. They are carrying out direct action to disrupt the functioning of the camps.On Tish b’Av, thousands  of them marched for change. As Jews, they perform our people’s sacred task of being the moral voice to all humanity.

These Jewish activists rightly invoke the memory of Auschwitz with their slogan: “never again”. Our communal history teaches the dangers of holding people deemed “illegal” by dint of their existence in camps.

But these activists may also invoke the memory of Eden. As Jews, they may remember a time, on this day, when God brought their souls into the Garden, and taught them the difference between right and wrong. They can call on our centuries of tradition to remind world leaders of their moral obligations.

Many of their supporters have intoned that history will not judge Mr Trump kindly. But who is history, and why should we care what it thinks? Should the leaders of America only care that one day someone will write in a textbook that what they did was wrong?

I believe these appeals to “history” are really secularised versions of a truth that was once well-known: a moral force outside of time is judging us. God is judging us. God takes note of our deeds.

Even the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest military will have to answer. No matter how powerful anyone is, the moral arc of the universe stands higher. The immutable force that teaches us the difference between right and wrong still takes note. And that force, our God, loves us enough to allow us to change.

Despite everything, I believe we all still want to do good. Even for those whose actions are hurting people today, there is still the chance to turn back. Everyone has it in them to turn away from evil and return to the natural state their souls knew when they were first placed in the Garden at the beginning of time.

This new year, may we commit ourselves to remembering what we learnt in Eden. May the sound of the shofar awaken all of our souls.

Shanah tovah. Happy new year.

GardenOfEden

I delivered this sermon at Lincoln Synagogue for Rosh Hashannah on Monday 30th September 2019.

[1] Pesikta deRav Kahana, Piska 23

[2] BT Niddah 30b