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Can a dog have a bar mitzvah?

The issue I want to talk about today may be controversial, but I know that you are not afraid to be challenged. It is, in any case, a question that is very dear to my heart. This question has been posed by many over the years, and I feel it is important that I give a serious and considered answer.

Can a dog have a bar mitzvah?

Last year, the ultra-Orthodox Israeli member of the Knesset, Stav Shafir, rebuked progressive Jews by saying “go bar mitzvah your dogs!”[1] I will be honest with you. I didn’t have much of a desire to carry out such a ceremony, but after that outburst, I really did. There was just something about the way he said it that made my contrary spirit think: I can’t wait to get the chance.

To the best of my knowledge, no such ceremony has ever been performed in a synagogue of any variety. There are, however, documented cases of such celebrations taking place in Jewish homes. These simchas have been lovingly dubbed “bark mitzvahs”. As I understand it, these usually take place when the dog turns 13 in dog years, which is at around their 3rd birthday in human years.

But what does it mean to conduct such a ceremony, and why did the idea make Stav Shafir so angry? Surely he must know that, throughout history, dogs have been quite friendly to the Jewish people. According to the Exodus narrative, no dog barked as we were leaving Egypt, so we were able to sneak away in silence.[2]

Perhaps, within Orthodoxy, the idea is risible. Orthodox Judaism is primarily concerned with ritual observance and adherence to halachah. In Orthodoxy, the term “bar mitzvah” is interpreted to mean “liable for the commandments”. To them, becoming bar mitzvah is taking on responsibility for the 613 statutes codified by Maimonides. So we need to know whether a puppy that came of age could engage in such pursuits.

Could a dog switch to a kosher diet? Certainly. There are plenty of kosher meats. In fact, every year, London’s Orthodox Beit Din publishes a list of approved pet foods. There are even brands dedicated to providing such snacks. Unsurprisingly, their price increases significantly around Pesach. According to this list, one can not only have a kashrut-observant chihuahua, but also a halachic hamster, guinea pig, rabbit, rat, goldfish, cat or budgerigar. Dr Dolittle would have no problem maintaining a kosher kitchen after all.

But could our canine friends observe any of the other traditional mitzvot? A Jack Russell terrier could not light shabbat candles. With the best will in the world, that is a task that requires opposable thumbs. Now, some dogs might be able to handle tefillin. The head tefillin could certainly fit on a Doberman, but can you imagine trying to place an arm tefillin on a Dachshund?

A dog might even be able to join in with traditional davening. I once led a Friday night service in East London that was attended by a Giant Schnauzer. When everyone rose for the Amidah, he rose too. When we sat for the psalms, he sat too. When we got up and bowed in Lecha Dodi to welcome the sabbath, yes, the dog bowed. He even covered his eyes when it came to the Shem’a. By the time we were reciting Aleinu, I realised that the dog was mumbling along to the prayers, following along in the Koren Sacks. I said to his owner: “this is incredible. Your dog could be a rabbi!” She said: “Tell that to him. He wants to be a taxi driver!”

If following commands is what it takes to lead a normatively Jewish life, surely that’s what dogs are best at. I am concerned, however, that even if a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel could be trained to follow most of the rules by command, she still would not be able to fulfil the mitzvah of transmitting these teachings to her puppies.

Enough speculation. I clearly do not have the necessary skills to assess a Dalmatian’s suitability for being called up to the Torah. I need to turn to our textual tradition. Thankfully, a book has already been written on this subject. In 2007, the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary published their definitive guide, ‘How to Raise a Jewish Dog’.

I had hoped that this would answer the important theological questions I am posing. As it quickly became apparent, however, this text was only applicable to the specific minhag of coastal North American Ashkenazi secular Jews. It advises dog owners, instead of saying no to your dog, ask him: “how can you do this to me? What did I do to deserve this? Is this my fault? Go on, you can tell me.” When your dog errs, the book suggests, remind him of everything you’ve done for him – and this is the thanks you get! And, of course, as a proud parent of a Jewish dog, you must make sure your pet knows not to mumble when he barks, cover his mouth when he sneezes and not to whine. Either ask for something or be quiet.

The truth is, however, that neither the secular approach nor the Orthodox one will help us ascertain whether any progressive British synagogue will have a Maltese poodle giving sermons from the bimah any time soon. For that, we have to understand what a bar mitzvah means in our own specific context.

When I first sit down to teach bat mitzvah students, I always begin by asking them: what do you think you need to do to become bat mitzvah? Usually, they will answer that they need to learn Hebrew, read from the  Torah, give a drash, and learn the prayers. No, I say. She does not need to do any of these things. All she needs to do to become bat mitzvah in a progressive synagogue is turn 13. So, why then, do we spend with them a year learning Hebrew, Bible, theology, ethics, interpretation and how to politely gossip about the rest of the congregation?

Because, a progressive Jewish bat mitzvah is, first and foremost about choice. It is a young adult’s choice to make informed choices about what being Jewish means to them. They learn all this because they are becoming adults, and adults need to make decisions. They will need to decide how they read the Torah, how often they go to synagogue, what being part of a community means to them, and what role they want to play.

Above all else, our tradition teaches them how to make moral choices about participating in the modern world. Yes, Judaism speaks to the concerns of our society today. This week’s parashah contains a slogan that so perfectly summarises our values it may well be the international strapline for Progressive Judaism: tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice, you shall pursue.[3] Not the justice that can be blindly followed by adherence to commandments. Not the justice that you can achieve solely through creating culture. No. The Torah teaches that we must pursue the type of justice that needs to be reasoned, debated and pursued based on conscientious conviction.

I teach a regular cheder class. Recently, I overheard the students, unprompted, discussing whether they would participate in the Youth Climate Strike. Across the country, school students have been leaving school to protest against the destruction of our planet by corporate greed and government inaction. Their debates were informed and wise. They each discussed the respective attitudes of their schools, parents and peers. They talked about the repercussions if they participated and the possible consequences if they did not. They shared their best understanding of the scientific, moral and political concerns involved.

And I marvelled. No dog could ever have such a conversation. Most 12 year olds would not engage like this. Whatever conclusions these students came to, only a religion school that centred informed choice and civic conscience could generate such discussions. This is our Judaism. And that is why, no matter what criticisms Stav Shafir wants to throw at us, I am proud to be a progressive Jew.

Shabbat shalom.

jewish dog

I gave this sermon at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Shoftim on 7th September 2019.

[1] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-ultra-orthodox-mk-to-reform-jews-go-bar-mitzvah-your-dogs-1.5820653

[2] Ex 11:7

[3] Deut 16:20

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Tikkunistas

Tikkunistas. That’s the word that some Orthodox Jews have derisively given us. The first part “tikkun” is a reference to “tikkun olam”, the centrepiece of Progressive Jewish theology since the 1970s. In English, it means “repair of the world”, pointing to a belief that our world is broken and that we, as Jews, are tasked with fixing it.

The suffix “istas” is, I assume, a nod to Latin American protest movements, like the Sandinistas, Nicaragua’s anti-colonial rebels, made famous in Britain by punk band The Clash.

It is meant to be an insult. Personally, I think it’s a great compliment and an elegant summary of what I believe. You see, I was raised with two religions: Judaism… and Marxism. Both my parents were socialist trade unionists. Most of my earliest memories are of protests, pickets and petitions.

Now, a proper communist family would be avowedly atheist, but somehow, even as a five-year-old, I was adamant I wanted a religion. Grudgingly, my parents took me along to Reading Liberal Jewish Synagogue, praying to Lenin that I’d soon grow out of it.

Unfortunately for them, I fell in love with Liberal Judaism. I loved the songs. I loved the prayers. I loved the discussions. And the food. Oh, the food.

So I became bar mitzvah and kabbalat Torah. I got stuck in. In all honesty, socialism and Progressive Judaism seemed very similar to me as a child. Both were about social justice. Both were based in grassroots communities. Both were building towards something wonderful.

This continues to be my Judaism: the Judaism of social justice. A Judaism of food, community and song. A few years ago, I came to the realisation that if I didn’t invest in preserving this Judaism, it ran the risk of disappearing. So I applied to Leo Baeck College and, to my surprise, they accepted me onto the rabbinic training programme.

For the last two years, I looked after Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. It was a privilege to be with people as they explored their Judaism. Having spent my twenties working mostly in the charity sector as a campaigner, doing rabbinic work has felt like nothing short of finding a calling.

When I came to the inaugural service of Three Counties Liberal Judaism in July, I felt instantly at home. The community is clearly so warm, so engaged and so full of optimism for its own future. I share wholeheartedly in that optimism.

With the year ahead, we will no doubt face challenges as these communities merge into one, but these are also great opportunities. A community that never changes can grow stale. This shake-up gives us the chance to look together at how we pray together, support each other and build community. It may even enable to heal a little corner of our world.
15673
I wrote this as an introduction for my placement at Three Counties Liberal Judaism, based across Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. 
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Does it have to end this way?

“Does it have to end this way?” asks Moses.

“Please, God, I beg you, let me cross the Jordan.”[1]

Forty years of struggle. Forty years of exile. Forty years of wandering. And here Moses stands, on the brink of realising the end of all his labours, only to be denied access.

“God,” says Moses, “you are so strong, so great and so incomparable. Please give me a taste of the Promised Land. Please let me see Lebanon.”

“No,” answers God. “This is enough for you. Don’t speak to me any more on this matter. It’s over.”

How can we feel anything but pity for this great leader, reduced to grovelling as he is faced with death and disappointment?

All that is left in the Torah narrative now, taking us through these last parshiyot of Deuteronomy, is Moses’s final speech and death. Here, in the height of summer, just after Tish b’Av, in the slow climb to Rosh Hashanah, all that is left is to wrap up the story. We join Moses at this juncture, looking back over the wandering in the desert, to the miraculous revelation at Sinai, over slavery in Egypt, back through our ancestors Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, back all the way to God’s creation of the universe. And what do we feel? For all our hope and joy, this part of the story invites mostly longing and despair as we ourselves wonder if the story had to end this way.

The rabbis who devised our lectionary cycle asked the same question. At one time, scholars argue, the Torah was not a Pentateuch – a collection of five books – but a Hexateach – a collection of six. Whereas the Torah we know begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy, a previous version of the Scroll continued into the sixth book of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Joshua.[2]

In Joshua, the Hebrews move into the Land of Israel, conquer it, colonise it and either drive out or subjugate the tribes living there. Some of the stories from this are famous: Joshua’s success in the battle of Jericho, where he tore down the city walls with the sound of the shofar is among the most popular stories we teach in cheder.[3]

For Progressive Jews, it is probably a mercy that we don’t have to regularly read such violent texts today. But from a literary point of view, concluding with Joshua makes far more sense. Concluding here, as we do, with Moses’s demise in Deuteronomy leaves us on a cliff-hanger. Quite literally, as Moses stands on a mountain overlooking the Jordan. We do not know what becomes of the Israelites.

If we ended with Joshua, everything would be wrapped up. The leader dies but the nation is born. The journey is long but the land was reached. If we wanted to make a comfortable, Disney version of the Torah, Joshua would be its climax.

So, why do we today end with Deuteronomy? Do we have to end it this way? Some scholars guess that the answer is yes. In exile, they argue, the trauma of losing the land of Israel was too great. Our rabbis could not stand the great hardship of being removed from their holy land, so they cut off the story early and relegated Joshua to the prophetic texts.

This explanation is highly unsatisfying, and unlikely to be true. The lectionary we have was not devised in the immediate aftermath of exile, when the trauma of dispersion was raw, but in Babylon some time between the 2nd and 6th centuries. During this period, Jews were not outside of the Land of Israel because they were trapped, but because they didn’t particularly want to return. Our rabbis went back and forth between Palestine and Babylon, sharing the teachings of the two communities with each other. Some migrated, but migration out of Eretz Israel to the more prosperous Babylon was more common than the other way around.

The rabbis of the Talmud developed theological positions about their relationship with this country. Some said they were forbidden to move to the Land of Israel. Some said it was only forbidden if they attempted to move en masse. Others said they were entitled. Others still felt it was mandatory.[4]

The reason for such vast divergence in opinion was not simply a tension between their religious text centred on Israel and their economic life in Babylon. It was that Israel, to them, was not simply a location between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, but a symbol of Messianic hope.

Prophets like Haggai[5] and Malachi[6] had assured their ancestors that return to Jerusalem would herald the end of days and the coming of the Messianic age. As a result, the land was more a metaphor for emancipation than a location where they could live.

Israel, Jerusalem, Zion – these words signified something far greater than physical space. They pointed to a time of complete liberation. Arriving there was not reaching a destination but reaching the climax of history – when justice would reign supreme. I believe, then, that the Torah had to end with Deuteronomy not because the Jews were distanced from the land of Israel, but because they were so removed from the vision of social justice that this word symbolised.

In Progressive Judaism especially, that is what this national language signifies. On a theological level, it does not speak to us about aspirations for migration or statehood, but about our sacred task on earth to perfect the world. The Reformers who founded our movement taught that the task of every Jew was to heal what was broken in humanity and advance all of us towards a messianic age of truth and righteousness..

The language of our liturgy reflects this interpretation. In the weekday amidah, we recite that God will build Jerusalem and bring forth a sprouting of justice.[7] Our prayers are structured to give Jerusalem a deep meaning no matter where we live, as a locus for reflection on our hope of living in a world of justice. Jerusalem can stand as a meaningful word to everyone regardless of their political opinions about Zionism and the State of Israel because it does not refer to an earthly city but to a Heavenly kingdom

It was, undoubtedly, this interpretation of the Promised Land that Martin Luther King had in mind when he gave his last speech. Preaching in Memphis, at the height of the black civil rights struggle, that great Christian minister concluded his sermon to his congregation:

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[8]

The next day, he was assassinated. King’s Zion – an America where Black people would live with equality, dignity and safety, was not realised in his lifetime. Nor has it yet been realised in ours. But we can have no doubt that he took the world closer on its journey to that destination.

The story of Moses ended with Deuteronomy. Martin Luther King’s ended in 1968. And what about us? Must our story end this way too? Must we finish our lives glimpsing at the world of social justice to come from the other side of the river, or may we yet cross the Jordan into a world where the whole of humanity is emancipated?

We cannot know what the products of our efforts will be. All we can do is try. Together, without Moses, we the Jewish people must continue to march. And although we can see our endpoint only faintly, we must walk towards it with the certainty that it exists. We must try to perfect the world, hopeful that for somebody, someday, it will not have to end this way.

Shabbat shalom.

cornwall shore
By Malcolm Ludvigsen

I gave this sermon on Saturday 17th August 2019 at Kehillat Kernow, in Cornwall.

[1] Deut 3:25

[2] cf Wellhausen

[3] Joshua 6

[4] Ketubot 111a-111b

[5] Haggai 2:9

[6] Malachi 3:1-4

[7] Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 81

[8] https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

The Fragility of Progress

When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.

The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.

I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”

“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”

She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.

She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.

A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.

Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.

It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.

This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.

Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.

What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.

Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.

History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.

How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?

The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.

The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.

Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”

The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.

But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.

Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.

hopeful sunrise

I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019

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J K Rowling has lost the plot

JK Rowling has lost the plot.

Although considered a national treasure by most, recently her most committed fans have turned on her. They feel that she has lost control of her own narrative and left grave inconsistencies in her folklore.

I grew up reading the Harry Potter books. That young wizard started at Hogwarts around the same time that I started secondary school, and finished around the same time that I finished. His stories were an important part of my teenage years.

I began to suspect, however, that JK Rowling might struggle to live up to the hype when I saw how tightly she wanted to control her own stories. Fan fiction writers, she said, were all making grave errors. Other books published set in the same universe could not be trusted. Only she knew the true nature of what went on in the wizarding world.[1]

The most intriguing case of her guarding these stories came when a fan asked her whether there were any Jews at Hogwarts. In 2014, she responded on Twitter with the name of one such student: “Anthony Goldstein, Ravenclaw, Jewish wizard.” She followed up with a clarification: “Anthony isn’t the first Jewish student, nor is he the only one. I just have reasons for knowing most about him!”[2]

I was, of course, deeply interested in this Jewish Hogwarts student. As an avid reader, I wanted to know more about him, but as JK Rowling had made clear, I could not even imagine. Only she knew what happened to this character. I just had to wonder what her reasons were for knowing most about him. Did she teach him English in primary school then wistfully say goodbye to him as he left for a secret school elsewhere? Did she meet him as a young adult and have a summer-long affair with him on the Costa del Sol before they tragically had to part ways as he realised their worlds were not compatible? I could only imagine. Only JK knew.

In recent months, however, her fans have begun to doubt whether JK Rowling really knew everything in the wizarding world at all. They began to lose faith in her after she informed them that Harry Potter voted to remain in the EU referendum[3] and that Dumbledore was a strong supporter of Israel.[4] But the real clincher came in the recent film of Fantastic Beasts, when she inserted a character who, according to the legend she had established, was not yet born. In the same film, wizards also used spells in ways that contradicted her existing narrative.[5]

Personally, I am not too bothered about all these inconsistencies. I think that what JK Rowling and her superfans really need is an introduction to the great Jewish craft of midrash. Midrash is the ultimate form of fan fiction. When you read a book as often as we read the Torah, you have to come up with new stories. Sometimes those stories fill in gaps. Sometimes they provide moral instruction or theological meaning. But, more than anything, midrash just makes a good story even better. It doesn’t matter whether the story is contradictory or whether the timelines don’t add up or whether impossible things happen. What matters is that you tell a good story.

This week’s parashah is a perfect example of great storytelling, and lends itself so well to midrash. In it, the Moabite king, Balak, calls on a great prophet, named Balaam, to go out and curse the Israelites. The Moabites think that, if Moses can do such great things with words, a soothsayer will be able to destroy the Israelites with words. Balaam initially declines, but the king is insistent. Balaam straddles his donkey and heads out.

Suddenly, in the middle of the road, an angel of G?d appears before Balaam and stops his donkey in her tracks. Balaam can’t see the angel, but the donkey can. The donkey stays firmly rooted to the spot, so he hits the donkey. The donkey squeezes in against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot, so he hits her again. She lies down on the ground. He hits her again. The donkey opens her mouth and tells off Balaam for being so rude: ““What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Is this how I normally behave?” Suddenly God opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel standing in front of him and Balaam realises that he has made several big mistakes.[6]

As you can imagine, the rabbis had a whale of a time with this story. They told tales of the sorcery of Balak and Balaam. They invented complicated genealogies for all the characters. They elaborated on every part. But, to my mind, the best bit of all, is what they do with the donkey. This talking donkey, they say, was not just any old animal (otherwise we would be able to have conversations with all our pets) but was miraculously made on the sixth day of Creation. The donkey had once been owned by Adam, and later by Jacob, then passed on by Pharoah to the Moabites.[7]

If you were concerned about donkeys being able to see angels, don’t worry. The darshans – the rabbis who wrote midrash – have got you covered. They explain that, in fact, all animals can see greater things than we can. But God forbids them from talking, otherwise they would embarrass us. And embarrass Balaam was exactly what his donkey did, over and over again.

The midrash fleshes out the conversation between Balaam and his donkey, standing in that ravine. Balaam shouts at the donkey: “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”[8] The donkey replies: “You can’t even kill me with a sword in your hand. How do you expect to go and kill an entire nation with just your mouth?” To hammer the point home, the rabbis let us know that the donkey speaks much better Hebrew than Balaam.[9]

The donkey went on to embarrass Balaam in front of all of the elders of Moab. These officials asked him: “Why did a great prophet like you come on a donkey, and not on a horse?” He tried to inflate himself, saying: “I have a fancy saddlehorse, but it’s in the pasture, so I decided to bring my donkey, which I usually use for travelling.” The donkey interrupted him: “That’s not true! You have ridden me since the earliest days and you’ve treated me with as much affection as a man treats his wife!” The elders of Moab burst out laughing at Balaam. Then, to close the midrash, G?d kills the donkey, in case she embarrasses Balaam any more.[10]

Now, I love this story. For Orthodox Jews, this great comedic tale came with the whole of the Torah as an oral tradition with Moses at Sinai. For academic students of rabbinic literature, we should look at this for what moral instruction or political meaning it adds to the original story. If we are honest with ourselves, this story probably isn’t that old and doesn’t really add that much. It’s just a great story. It’s just fun.

It doesn’t need to make sense or fit neatly into a particular box. For me, that’s what really gives it life. By experimenting with creative retellings like this, the original story itself is boosted. Out of one great story, a whole new world is created, in which even more things are made possible. If midrash teaches us anything about storytelling, it’s that a story only really takes hold when you completely lose the plot.

Shabbat shalom.

smiling-donkey

I gave this sermon at Mosaic Liberal on Saturday 13th July for Parashat Balak.

[1]https://web.archive.org/web/20080415224902/http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/books/04/14/rowling.trial.ap/index.html

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/17/jk-rowling-confirms-that-there-were-jewish-wizards-harry-potter

[3] https://www.thebeaverton.com/2019/03/jk-rowling-reveals-harry-potter-voted-against-brexit/

[4] https://time.com/4088550/rowling-defends-opposition-israel-boycott/

[5] https://www.insider.com/fantastic-beasts-crimes-of-grindelwald-harry-potter-inconsistencies-contradictions-2018-11

[6] Numbers 22:2-41

[7] Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, p. 363

[8] Num 22:29

[9] Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, p. 365

[10] Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, p. 366

 

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Towards Jewish polyamorous marriages

There is a joke that the Orthodox tell about us. They say, “at an Orthodox wedding, the mother of the bride is pregnant. At a Masorti wedding, the bride is pregnant. At a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant. At a Liberal wedding, the rabbi is pregnant, and so is her wife.”

I’ve always seen this joke as quite a compliment to our inclusivity, so respond: “only one wife? How very conservative. In this day and age, she could have another husband. And he could be pregnant too.”

Yes, it is true that we treat relationships very differently across the Jewish denominations. Although some strands of Judaism are beginning to catch up, there are also those who prefer to hold onto the biblical view of marriage.

In this week’s parashah, we get to see some of what that biblical view of marriage looked like. It begins by telling us what should happen if a wife has an affair and her husband doesn’t know about it.[1] It is hard for a modern reader not to notice the lack of gender parity in this parashah. Only women can cheat. Men can marry as many women as they like (Solomon had 700 wives).[2] They can have concubines (Gideon had more than he could count).[3] They also had the right to sex with their wives’ servants (as Jacob did with Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah and Leah’s maidservant Zilpah.)[4]

Then, even with all these different categories of kosher relationships a biblical man can have, there seem to be very few stipulations on what should happen if he has sex outside of these expansive confines. Women, on the other hand, are lumbered with the same man to whom their father sold them when they were 12. For the rest of their lives.

That is not even the most challenging part of this parashah. Naso then goes on to tell us what should happen if the husband is gripped by a fit of jealousy even if his wife has done nothing wrong.[5] Now, I am an avid reader of glossy magazines and newspaper supplements, so this situation seems quite familiar. I tried to read the parashah as if it is a letter to an Agony Aunt.

A woman’s husband has flown into a fit of uncontrollable jealousy, despite her having remained faithful. With my Agony Aunt hat on, I think about how best to counsel this situation. Yes, jealousy is a natural emotion, and can even be a healthy one. You can talk through what has caused these feelings, and perhaps see a couples therapist, so that he can work through his issues.

The Torah takes a different approach. It instructs that the woman be taken before a priest to perform a magic ritual. Her husband will bring flour and the priest will bring mud from the Temple floor. They’ll then mix it up in water as the priest recites magic incantations over it. The woman will drink it. If she’s fine, she didn’t cheat. If her belly sags, she’s a cheater.[6] The whole thing sounds like a medieval witch trial. The ritual ends with a postscript that really makes for the icing on the cake: whatever the man does, he is free from guilt. Only the woman can incur guilt.[7]

It goes without saying that progressive Jews do not share the biblical view of marriage. In Liberal Judaism, especially, we are the only Jewish community in Britain that has complete gender equality when it comes to divorce. In Orthodox Judaism, divorce is one-directional. A man drops a document into the hand of his spouse, announcing their separation. In Liberal Judaism, thankfully, we have no such thing.

We strive for equality in marriage, too. Our ketubot – our documents of marriage – were rewritten decades ago so that the text would not just have a man taking a woman as a wife, but both partners take each other as equal man and wife. These documents carried over nicely when we began performing same-sex weddings. In the last couple of years, the beit din has updated the ketubot further so that we now have gender-neutral marriage certificates in Hebrew, reflecting the real relationships our congregants have.

Talking about this and contrasting it with other institutions’ approaches to relationships is what fills me with pride for my movement. Yet I wonder if we still have further to go. The discourse about monogamy, jealousy, shame and control in this parashah has made me think again about different models of relationships.

Marriage is a wonderful thing. I am so glad that we can share it with couples in committed relationships, regardless of their genders. At present, however, we restrict marriages to monogamous relationships. Of course, none of us want to return to a time where men could do as they pleased and women were confined, but I am learning from my peers that this is not the only way relationships are conducted. We do not have to choose simply between monogamy and oppressive male control.

Increasingly, I meet people who are in polyamorous relationships. They take the approach that they do not need to have just one partner for the rest of their lives, but that they can build multiple meaningful connections. Cheating, for them, is not about whether a partner has a relationship with somebody else, but about whether they are dishonest and secretive. Their approach takes the emphasis away from acts and onto attitudes. It makes the ideal relationship about how honest and open communication is. I can’t help but feel that if the couple in our parashah had this, rather than a priest performing magic, they might have had a healthier relationship.

I don’t think that style of relationship is for me, but it is for some people. Liberal Judaism should be able to deal with it. The future of marriage in our synagogues may well involve multiple-partner ceremonies. It may involve renewing discussions about what fidelity, jealousy and honesty look like in relationships. Such conversations could benefit all couples.

I would love to be able to turn to the Orthodox who make fun of our approach to relationships, and say without irony or humour, that we have a woman rabbi who has a wife and a husband and all of them are pregnant. And that we celebrate all their lives.

Shabbat shalom.

polyamory silhouette

I delivered this sermon on Friday 7th June at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community for Parashat Naso.

[1] Numbers 5:11-13

[2] 1 Kings 11:3

[3] Judges 9:56

[4] Genesis 30

[5] Numbers 5:14

[6] Numbers 5:15-30

[7] Numbers 5:31

liturgy · sermon

What makes a life worth grieving?

The advent of Eurovision on Saturday reminded me of another anniversary I needed to mark. A year ago, at this time, many of us assembled in Parliament Square to publicly grieve the killing of Palestinians at the Gaza border. At the time, I wrote this sermon. While I shared it with friends and colleagues, the climate felt far too hostile to publish this. Perhaps I should have done. A year on, here is the sermon I never delivered at the time.

We tell ourselves that the grave levels all distinctions. Kittels don’t have pockets. You can’t take any of it with you when you’re gone. In death, all are equal.

Anybody who has ever lost somebody knows that is untrue. The grave shines a light on differences that we could otherwise ignore. As we scramble together the funds for a funeral, often several months’ wages, we realise how much class mattered in life. The poorest families cannot even attend the funerals of their loved ones, as councils bar them while they dispose of the body. People find out how much they were worth in round figures.

Grieving rituals reflect strongly on a person’s life. At the graveside, you can see what a dead person valued, and what people valued about them. You find out how many people their lives touched, and how much. Even early in our roles as rabbinic students, my classmates and I have begun to see what a profound impact a person’s death can have on the people who loved them. You find out what value gets placed on a life.

Jewish mourning rituals help us to make sense of such loss. The kaddish prayer is a blessing for the living; an Aramaic chant in praise of the Almighty; an appeal to Whoever is Up There to intervene and give us peace in every sense of the word. Conducting Yizkor services at Yom Kippur, I have seen how just the fact of reciting those words once a year can alleviate pain and bring healing. Its rhythm has its own power.

But the rules around these rituals can hurt as well as heal. Judith Hauptman, a Talmud scholar, has recorded how the limits on who can be mourned have narrowed over time in Orthodox halachah. A shorter version began as a blessing for any learning experience. From there, it became a graveside prayer one could say for all family members and teachers. Over time, it has been slowly whittled down to include only a mourners’ own parents. Hauptman points out that this system poses a problem in the modern world, where parents regularly re-marry and families are often cobbled together in ways that don’t match up with normative expectations.

I feel like limiting who can be ritually mourned poses a much deeper, existential question: what makes a life worth grieving? How do we decide what makes a death worth commemorating? What does it say about the value we place on somebody’s life when they were living, if we can’t remember them when they die?

In the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, Liberal Jews began saying kaddish weekly, independent of who was in the synagogue. There were too many people left behind who had nobody to mourn for them. There was too much unspeakable suffering to moderate who could be mourned and how much. It was a way to affirm the dignity of Jewish life against a racist movement who sought to wipe it out completely.

That was how I was raised: reciting a blessing every week for members of my family I never knew, and people I’d never met, to sanctify their memories lest they should be forgotten. We prayed, too, for earthquake victims, people dying in famines, those killed in school shootings and terrorist attacks. Whenever there were people whose names needed to be remembered, we remembered them.

Perhaps, my more conservative friends suggest, that ritual expands the bounds of mourning too far. I do not know what it is like to grieve for a parent. I haven’t had that experience. I don’t know how it compares to the loss you feel when you lose a friend, or another family member. I only know what it is like to have somebody die and wonder whether I can grieve for them, and how much I’m allowed to do it.

I know that feeling too well. The gay community is famous for its statistics. Alcohol, drugs, suicide, homelessness, murder, depression, loneliness. I have had friends die and wondered whether I could pray for them. And wondered what I could pray for them. In that moment, I have found out the uncertain value that I myself place on a life. We cannot mourn everyone equally, but we surely can mourn. Somehow. The kaddish is the only vocabulary I have for sanctifying death, so I have said kaddish for people who were not my parents; who were not Jews; who I did not know.

That is the question of deep religious significance behind the conflict in the Jewish community over the recitation of kaddish for those the IDF killed in Gaza last month. Everybody has their own views on who is responsible for violence in the Middle East and how it can be resolved. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has changed their mind significantly on that front. My views on the matter are well-known, and I won’t go into them here. But I do want to talk about the halachic and spiritual concerns that this issue has raised.

I want to affirm, without reservation, that I believe we were right to say kaddish for the Palestinians. Reciting that prayer said something that no other kind of protest or placard or petition could. It said that the souls of those killed were worth grieving. It said that their lives were worth living. In a world beset by war and injustice, that prayer, for those people, at that time, reminded the whole world of the existence of a loving Creator, Whose ways are peace.

They were not the parents of anyone present there. Nobody davening in Parliament Square knew any of the Palestinians who were killed. In a sense, that might make the prayer inappropriate. But only if you accept that we can only grieve for the people who gave birth to us. If that is your position, I respect it, but I don’t agree with it. I think we are right to mourn people with the only religious language we have when we are moved to do so.

None of the people killed in Gaza were Jews. Like most Palestinians living in that area, most of those who died were Muslims. There are some who claim that kaddish should be a prayer reserved only for Jews. If that is your position, I cannot even respect it. Kaddish does not make any religious claims about the status of the person being mourned. It does not have any impact on their metaphysical state. It is a prayer for the living, to help them cope with the trauma of death. If we limit that prayer only to other Jews, we limit ourselves and our capacity to care for others. We send out the horrifying message that only ‘our own’ deserve to be remembered. We suggest that only ‘our own’ led lives worth living.

Perhaps they were members of Hamas. It is, after all, the largest political organisation in Gaza, acting both as an armed militia against Israel and as the primary provider of welfare services to Palestinians. It is a reactionary, fundamentalist, sexist and homophobic party. It is not a group I would ever support or join. But even its members led lives worth living. They had deaths worth mourning. They were created in the image of the Holy One, Whose will brought the Heavens and the Earth into being. No amount of political disagreement can detract from that.

Hamas’s views on Jews are unconscionable. If they ruled the world with the views they hold now, the lives of all Jews would be a misery. But they do not rule the world. They barely have control over a small strip of land, locked in by Egypt and Israel as a military buffer zone. They do not have any control over their neighbouring Mediterranean Sea, where Israel, Cyprus and Turkey police what goes in and out. Even how much food and aid enters the land is rationed by the United Nations. Their skies are not their own. However horrid their ideology, they have no power to enact it. They are, by far, the weaker party.

Perhaps the very fact of how vulnerable they are makes them less worthy of being mourned. In Frames of War, Jewish academic Judith Butler writes about what makes life grievable. She looks at how a media culture that showcases war as a daily occurrence has desensitised people to its unimaginable suffering. She shows that the people whose lives are most precarious – that is, those who we already don’t expect to live very long – are treated as if they are most disposable. Their lives are hardest to completely mourn.

Intuitively, we know this is true. We are so used to hearing about people there dying, or so accustomed to the idea that war is normal in ‘places like that’ that they don’t induce international horror any more. But they should. If we were fully human, living up to the highest values taught in our Torah, we would live in a permanent state of distress. But we don’t, because we have to survive. We treat precarious lives as if they are disposable.

Critics of the kaddish for Gaza have pointed out that the protesters didn’t pray for people killed in Syria, Congo, Central African Republic or Yemen that week. We didn’t. We should. If they are criticising the protesters for not grieving enough, I extend a wholehearted invitation to cry with me about the state of our broken world. There are too many tragedies left ignored. But they want people to hurt less, or not at all, how can we possibly accept? How can anyone agree not to feel rage and sadness at unjust killing and remain human? And call themselves Jewish?

Despite all desensitisation, when Israel gunned down the Land Day protesters in Gaza, suddenly we could not ignore it any more. Only the day before, Netta had won Eurovision. President Trump was in Jerusalem, opening an embassy. All eyes were on Israel. And Israel shot 63 people in one day. Israel, that declares itself the Jewish state, a body politic that has taken up the mantle of our sacred task on earth to be a light unto the nation and spread the message of ethical monotheism, shot down 63 people in one day. They sent out one message about what value they placed on certain lives. The Jews in Parliament Square sent out an alternative message.

I don’t know what makes a life worth grieving. I don’t know who should mourn for whom and how much. I don’t know where to place the limits. But I know that when people do decide to grieve, they decide that a life was worth living. Those Palestinians’ lives were worth living. Their deaths were worth grieving. Their mourners were worth supporting. They did not deserve to die.

By making the decision to pray for the Palestinians, the people in Parliament Square did the most Jewish thing we could. We sanctified life in the name of the Holy One. We recognised that the bonds of faith that bind together humanity are stronger than the bonds of blood that bind together one people. With our words, we gave each other hope for a redeemed world, saying:

“May the Almighty’s Sovereignty be established in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire Jewish people, speedily and soon.”

And let us say: Amen.

kaddish for gaza

The fallout from this action can still be felt, and many in the community are hurting. I hope that publishing this does not reignite flames but helps demonstrate that we were coming from a place of heartfelt Jewish religious feeling, even for those who disagree.