The Torah was given to all of us

The Reform liturgy for Yom Kippur takes on a tour through the progression of Judaism. The reading choices are different to in Orthodoxy. Whereas in Orthodox synagogues, you would hear the story of the High Priest’s atonement rituals with the two goats in the morning and the rules of illicit sexual relations in the afternoon, the editors of the Reform machzor felt these texts did not reflect their values and substituted them. In the morning, in our community, we read Nitzavim, Moses’s final address to the people. For the haftarah, we read Isaiah’s denunciations of exploitation. Then, in the mussaf service, we read the stories of the martyrdoms of our sages with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Through this history, we see the values of progressive Judaism elucidated at each stage: freedom, personal responsibility, decentralisation and anti-authoritianism. For my Yom Kippur sermon this year, I retold those stories to show how those values emerged.

“You are all standing here today,” said Moses.

He looked out over the vast plains of Moab. He gazed at his assembled audience, stretching far back into steamed blurry visions in the distant desert. He saw their weariness and felt his own. At 120, his physical strength had not weakened. His eyes still saw clearly and his teeth worked perfectly. Although he carried a stick, he did not depend on it. Physically, he was fine. But, mentally, he was drained.

For forty years, Moses had presided over the people. Gradually, he had tried to cede power. He had appointed judges and officials who would help resolve disputes. He had tried to teach people as far as possible all the laws that he had received from God on that great mountain in the Egyptian desert. More than ever, he felt ready to go. But the question was: were the people ready to be without him? What could he tell them in this last speech to prepare them for a society where they would have to lead themselves?

“You are all standing here today,” Moses repeated. “All of you.”

“But, really, all of you. Women and men. Children and the elderly. All of you are here. All of you were present at Sinai. I need you to know that it wasn’t just me and Aaron who did all this. You emancipated yourselves. Nobody forced you to leave Egypt. You got up and went because you knew you deserved better. You could have turned back to Egypt any time, but you didn’t, because you had faith. Hold on to that feeling now.”

Perhaps, Moses thought, he had not been specific enough. “Yes, the strangers too. All the foreigners who have joined us on the way. And the wood-choppers and the water-drawers. The people who do the most menial work among you. The most neglected among you. I want to mention you especially. I want you to know that you were at Sinai. Nobody can take that away from you. You experienced the full might of God and you choose to be God’s people. Never let any priests or princes tell you this was all their work. It was yours.”

“This,” said Moses. “This covenant that God made stands for all time. It speaks to all future generations to come. The soul of every Jew is here with me. All of you are witnesses. All of you have had the responsibilities of this religion entrusted to you. Even if you are scattered to the ends of the Earth, God will find you there. This religion stands firm in every time and place.”

The Israelites stared back at Moses in a calm silence. Only the sounds of gentle winds and crickets interrupted Moses’s speech. These followers had long known that this speech was coming. They had had plenty of time to prepare for it, and yet felt completely at a loss.

“What I’m saying,” said Moses, “is that the Torah is yours. God didn’t give it to me or to the scholars. God gave it to you, to read it and learn it and interpret it in the way that works for you. These commandments that I put before you today are not too incredible for you, nor are they too far from you. They are not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the Heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No. It is right with you. It has been with you all along. You are in charge of your lives. You are responsible for your destinies.”

That was the message Moses left with the Israelites and through them with us, the Jewish people. It has a stronger bearing on us now than we may realise. It demands of us way more than we might be prepared to accept. When Moses died, he did not place power in the hands of priests and kings. He handed it over to everybody. There would not be anyone to frighten the masses into following orders or to offer up commands. The rules were all already there. The people had been entrusted to follow them for themselves.

With time, certain leaders did try to control Judaism. With the rise of the Temple, a centralised cult in Jerusalem set out the rules. The priests insisted that penance could only be paid with animal sacrifices and ritual fires. They tithed the people and brought them under authoritarian rule. Outside the centre of the city, the prophets chastised the priests. Among the urban poor and the rural peasants, the prophets cried out that God had given the Torah of justice to everybody, that God abhorred inequality and would never give religious power to the elites.

That is why, today, we read also the haftarah of Isaiah. Isaiah looked upon the centralised cult and was revolted by it. He saw a nation rife with exploitation and hypocrisy. He chastised the wealthy: “On the days when you fast, you exploit the workers! You fast and you strike with a wicked fist.” Such fasts, said Isaiah, meant nothing to the Almighty. God would not listen to the pleas of the wicked. Instead, insisted the prophet, God sought for every oppressed person to be free, for every chain to be broken, for every mouth to be fed and every soul to be remembered. This religion, said Isaiah, was never given to the exploiting class. It is the blessing of the oppressed. It is the hope of freed slaves and menial workers. It is a promise of redemption for people who could never quite believe their lives had meaning. We are the heirs to their Judaism: to the Judaism of the prophets.

When the Temple was destroyed, a group of visionary rabbis realised that the time had finally come to take back control from the priests and hand it over to the people. Chief among them was Rabbi Akiva Rabbi Akiva had been a peasant farmer. He did not even learn to read until he was 40. He came from the poorest class and knew their struggles. He saw the Priesthood trying to control our religion in their own interests and vowed to resist them.

Akiva insisted that the Torah was not a dead letter, but the word of a living God. Everyone could read it and find something in it. Every letter could be analysed. Whole worlds lay hidden in subtle sentences in our holy text. Akiva and his disciples replaced Temple sacrifices with prayers, good deeds and study. These were acts of piety available to everyone, no matter what their wealth our status. He created a Judaism of the people, by the people, for the people.

Our parashah today says “the Torah is your life and the length of your days.” Akiva agreed. He said that Torah was to the Jews what water was to the fish.[1] Akiva truly understood what it meant for everyone to receive the Torah. All of us were there for it. Everyone in this room. So all of us know something unique about the words of the living God. All of us have something important to contribute.

Akiva handed us over freedom. He took Judaism out of the hands of invested leaders and put it into the lives of the Jewish people. Read it, he said. You will find your life’s meaning in it. You will see that these are the words of a loving God. You will realise that you were created in a Divine image and that everyone else was too. You will understand the need to pursue justice.

Moses, Isaiah, Akiva. The progenitors of our Judaism. All of them with a simple message: this is your Judaism. You are free to follow it as you wish. With that freedom, they gave us the greatest gift they could. They gave us responsibility. Pharaohs would not govern our lives. Nor would bearded men in big gowns. We would govern our lives. We would have to choose for ourselves between right and wrong. We would have to live according to the justice demanded on High, with nobody to judge us but the still, small voice of conscience God had planted within us.

Take this day of Yom Kippur and realise that your life is in your own hands. Whether the world is just or unjust is up to you. Whether you are kind or unkind is up to you. Whether the oppressed remain oppressed or go free – that is up to you.

Let us resolve this day to take the true meanings of our religion to heart and to pursue justice in every quarter.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

isaiah chagall

I gave this sermon on Yom Kippur morning at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community in Cornwall. If ever you are in the area, I highly recommend going to this warm, welcoming spiritual community.

[1] Berakhot 61b

Forgive yourself

Forgive yourself.

I’ve always struggled through Yom Kippur. It’s not just the fasting or the sitting in shul all day. That stuff’s tough, but there’s something more existentially difficult about Yom Kippur. I find the prospect of judgement quite scary.

What makes Yom Kippur harder than any other day of the year is I feel myself somewhat stranded without excuses. Any other day, if I get angry or petty or unkind, I have good excuses. I’m busy. I’ve got too much on. I’m tired. On Yom Kippur I have to reflect over all those occasions and my excuses seem pretty inadequate. On Yom Kippur we are stripped bare in front of our Maker, and as I recount the extenuating circumstances to exonerate me for going wrong, I can hear God saying: “Really though?” My reasons don’t cut it when I have to face up to Infinity.

As Kol Nidre comes in, I always feel deeply unprepared for the questions my conscience has prepared for me. By the time we’ve been through 24 hours of praying, studying, silent meditation, chest-beating and singing, the shofar blasts loudly for the last time and I’ve as good as promised myself that the next year I’ll be a saint. Next year, I’ll never get angry. Next year, I’ll never be impatient. Next year, I’ll go to synagogue every week. (Actually that one I probably will do, but you get the idea.) The process of Yom Kippur makes me set the standards for myself so high that by the following Kol Nidre I can only look at myself and realise that I’ve failed to meet them.

This year I’m going to try a new discipline. I’m going to try to forgive myself.

The process I described really is important. Faced with a perfect Being, as we are with God on Yom Kippur, every one of us is lacking. All of us have something to feel genuinely guilty about. All of us need to set our standards for ourselves just that little bit higher. But we also all need to learn to forgive ourselves.

There is a wonderful Chassidic story. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, a great Polish tzaddik of the 18th Century, approached the gates of Heaven. He stood before the Almighty and was asked: “Did you pray enough?”

“No,” answered the rebbe. “I’m afraid I did not.”

“And did you study enough Torah?”

“No,” said Elimelech. “I didn’t.”

“Did you give enough to support the needy?”

“I did not.”

“Were you kind enough?”

“No.”

“Elimelech,” said the Holy One, “you have told the truth and for that you will pass through to Heaven.”

The truth is none of us can ever do enough. Nobody can ever pray hard enough, read enough Torah, give enough to support the needy or exercise enough kindness. All we can do is be honest with ourselves, and keep trying.

On Kol Nidre, we are faced with the same questions as Elimelech was. We have to inspect the content of our souls in just the same way as he did. Have we prayed enough? Studied enough? Done enough to support others? Been kind and charitable and loving? No, we have not.

And we should not kid ourselves that the stakes are any less high than they were for a man standing at the gates of Heaven. If anything, they are higher, because while Elimelech was dead and could not do anything further to improve, we are still alive and have the chance to be better than we have been.

The rituals around Kol Nidre help to convey the gravity of that situation. First of all, we are supposed to feel a little bit closer to death. Ashkenazi Jews wear kittels, the garments in which we will be buried, to convey that sense of mortality. In reciting Viddui, we say the same words that repentant souls recite on their deathbeds. In fasting, in huddling together, there is some deeper feeling of an intimate proximity to death.

Tonight, everyone wears tallits. This is the only time of the year when the whole community drapes tzitzit from the long white garments over their shoulders. Why do we do this? Because these are the vestments of dayyanim – judges. Tonight, we are a court room. We take the scrolls from out of the ark and swear on them as holy texts. We are a mirror of that divine court that has sat in Heaven to weigh up the balance of our lives and pass judgement.

Now, feel yourself in that position. Realise that you are not just judged but you are also the judge. You are in a room full of other people in the same position. Is there anyone in this room so guilty, so impossibly unrepentant, that you cannot forgive them? Entrusted with the full power of a heavenly court that can choose between life and death, is there anybody you would not forgive?

Now turn that same judgement on yourself. Forgive yourself. Over the next day, we will all carry out moral audits on our lives. We will be encouraged to think through everything we have done wrong and to recount our misdeeds. But let’s focus, too, on forgiving ourselves. Let’s treat our own souls with the love and kindness we wish upon others. Nobody can be a harsher critic of you than yourself, and you know that there are times when you talk about yourself in ways you wouldn’t talk about your worst enemy. So give yourself a break.

I think part of the reason why we recite Kol Nidre, annulling all our vows, right at the start of Yom Kippur, is so that we can do just that. This prayer asks God to realise that all the promises we made from the last year to this one could never be met. This asks God’s forgiveness for the fact that we made promises at all. Because all the vows we made last Yom Kippur were impossible. We said we’d be better Jews this year than we were last year. We said we’d be kinder, more conscientious, and more humble. We said we’d pray more and study more. And we didn’t. Not enough anyway. And that’s OK.

Perhaps among all the promises that we make to ourselves this Yom Kippur, we can add an additional promise that this year we will forgive ourselves. We will be gentler with ourselves. We will love ourselves more. And, even if we don’t succeed, we can be merciful. We can forgive ourselves.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

 

kittel

I gave this sermon for Kol Nidre at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community of Cornwall. It was a wonderful place, and I will write more about it at a later date. One piece of critical feedback I received stuck with me: a woman said that, by saying that we all wear tallits, she felt I had excluded her. She had grown up Orthodox and always felt that the Jewish community was excluding her. My comments, which seemed to only address men, had projected her back to her childhood. At the time, I defended myself, saying that I’d grown up in the progressive world and so had never known a place where women didn’t wear tallits. On reflection, I am not happy with the answer I gave. I was trying out more ‘frum’ practices this year, by wearing slippers and kittel. I know from my own experience that seeing people seemingly adopt Orthodox forms can bring up memories of exclusion and discrimination. In light of that, if I want to experiment with it, I need to be much more explicit about what my values are: how I reconcile socialism and feminism with an interest in halachah. Moreover, Yom Kippur already can feel quite daunting for everyone. It’s supposed to be a time for huddling together and bringing everyone ‘inside the tent’. I need to constantly remind myself that the shared belief of progressive Jews in feminism, queer liberation and anti-racism is not additional to what we do but is at the core of who we are. In future sermons, I hope to be more explicit about that.

Bring on the broigus

It’s never a boring time to be a Jew.

The life of a Jew is one that is constantly wrapped up in ideas, actions and movements. Centuries of precarious existence, an intimate relationship with texts and an intense struggle with God have implanted in us a restless culture that thirsts after new ideas.

It’s never a boring time to be a Jew, and this year has been no exception.

This week’s readings give an insight into just how important ideas are in our community. We read the stories of three remarkable women and three remarkable births of three remarkable sons. In our Torah portion, Hagar, an Egyptian princess transformed into Abraham’s nomadic handmaid, gives birth to Ishmael, in the stead of her mistress, Sarah. Then Sarah conceives Isaac at the age of 90. In our haftarah, Hannah, an infertile woman, prays so fervently that she gives birth to Samuel. Three unusual births.

These three boys then all suffer a similar fate: they all come close to dying. Isaac, as we know, is taken up Mount Moriah to be sacrificed by his father and ends up bringing about an end to all child sacrifice. Ishmael becomes stranded in the desert with his mother and comes so close to dying of dehydration that his mother considers putting him out of his mystery when the two are saved by a miracle well. Samuel really does die but comes back as a ghost to give advice to the king.

All the figures in these texts are more than just interesting people living interesting lives: they are models of ideas. According to the 15th Century Spanish mystic, Isaac Arama, Sarah is the representative of Jewish Torah, and Hagar of universal philosophy.[1] In the traditions of both religions, Isaac was the founder of Judaism and Ishmael the progenitor of Islam. Hannah is a model of piety and a symbol of how we should all pray. Her son, Samuel, was the archetypal prophet, and the first to establish monarchy in Israel by crowning King David.

Three remarkable women. Three boys conceived in impossible circumstances. Six ideas. Three ideas that nearly died. Six ideas that have come to define our modern world. Throughout our stories these characters sometimes come into conflict. They sometimes try to kill and banish each other. They sometimes come together. So it has been throughout our long history, that complicated and contradictory ideas of philosophy, Torah, piety, power and faith have interacted to do fascinating things.

I spent this summer in Jerusalem, as in previous years, and this time, decided that while I was there, I would try to read up on Jewish ideology. I took copies with me of Rabbi David Goldberg’s book, ‘To the Promised Land: A History of Zionist Thought’, and ‘Revolutionary Yiddishland’, by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg. These were archetypes of the exciting thought in European Jewry before the Second World War: the first of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, and the latter of Jewish socialism. Both books reveal an era full of ideas, when Jews were passionate and tenacious enough to imagine every possible utopia. You get the feeling as you read them that anything is possible.

Indeed, it seems that pre-war Europe really was a time when ideas felt alive. Reading biographies of the time, you get the feeling that every street corner and café was abuzz with discussion about who the Jews were and what they could become. On the one hand, there were Bolsheviks, agitating for Jews to throw off their heritage, join the ranks of the working-class and commit themselves to overthrowing capitalism as citizens of the world. There were the Zionists, who maintained that Jews would never be safe or able to flourish until they had their own state. There were assimilationists, who wanted Jews to transform themselves and become loyal citizens of the countries where they lived. There were Bundists, who wanted to see Jewish cultural renewal in the Diaspora as part of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

Out of this great social upheaval came, too, spiritual revival. There were the Orthodox, who insisted that Jews should focus on keeping halachah and not think about moving anywhere until the Messiah came. There were the reformers, the founders of our movement, who felt that Jews should cleave to their God and to the spirit of the prophets, so that they could be a light unto the nations in the Diaspora. These truly were interesting times to be a Jew.

The Nazis extinguished much of that discussion. Not only did they kill the people in their gas chambers, but they also destroyed their ideas. In the aftermath of a genocide, it was hard to believe that the Jews could ever be a light unto the nations. It was hard to believe that Jews could integrate, still less thrive in the Diaspora. It was hard to believe in halachah. It was hard to believe in God. There were certainly great ideologues in the generations after the genocide, but they had to make up in passion what they lacked in number.

When I left this synagogue and went to university, I felt very profoundly the absence of the ideas with which I had been raised here. I left behind here the ideas of community, of ethical mission and of religious hope. I wondered if perhaps those ideas only really belonged in my childhood. Among my Jewish peers, it seemed that one idea remained as the last man standing in post-war Europe: secular nationalism.

The reasons for that are unsurprising: across the whole of British society, the importance of collective religion had slowly declined. So, too, had the trade unions, community centres and political parties that had animated the ideas of public life. Israel, on the other hand, existed, and offered people a sense of security. Publicly supporting it, right or wrong, offered people a sense of purpose. The religious meanings ascribed to statehood, Diaspora and internationalism faded into the background as Anglo-Jewry invested much of its efforts in public advocacy for Israel.

This threatened to become the only manifestation of Jewishness in Britain. So great was the convergence across the movements among Jews in Britain that people had begun to talk about post-denominational Judaism. The great debates of the preceding decades had been laid to rest. Progressive Jews had fought so hard for women’s and LGBT liberation that even the most bigoted conservatives were powerless to resist it. Indeed, this year Britain gained its first Orthodox woman rabbi and only last week the Office of the Chief Rabbi issued a briefing on welcoming LGBT people into synagogues.

As feminism progressed, a consensus emerged in the Jewish community around a progressive, secular, nationalist vision: Jews in Britain would be liberal, atheistic, and attached to the state of Israel. Just as Fukuyama saw the end of history with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, leaving only liberal capitalism, Anglo-Jewry’s ideological debates tailed off, leaving only secular Zionism.

But it’s never a boring time to be a Jew, and this year has proved it. Like Samuel, Isaac and Ishmael, ideas that seemed dead suddenly found new life this year. The whole community has been abuzz with conversation. At Pesach, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, attended, Jewdas’s seder. Jewdas, a group that has done amazing things to help me find my own place in the Jewish community, promotes ideas of internationalism, Diasporism and socialism. Corbyn’s attendance opened up anew the questions in our community about antisemitism, our role in the world, and the values we support.

Only a few months later, a group of young Jews, most of whom had grown up in Zionist youth movements, stood in Parliament Square and recited kaddish, the prayer for the dead, over the Palestinians who had been killed in Israel’s attack on Gaza. This simple act of public prayer re-opened old conversations about Jewish religious practice, the significance of halachah, and Anglo-Jewry’s relationship with Israel. They challenged everyone to question what the limits were of liberal Zionism. Ideas that some imagined were buried – of Liberalism, Bundism, Orthodoxy, integrationism and Diasporism – re-emerged from their graves.

In the shock at seeing a consensus broken, some of the initial discourse was less than edifying. Perhaps what caused people to lash out so much was that they hadn’t realised how fragile the apparent consensus was or how safe it had made them feel.  Although hardly part of the mainstream within Anglo-Jewry, I was surprised in myself at how frightened and threatened I felt by the sudden and very public disagreement.

But disagreement need not be a cause for fear. The vitality of diverse ideas is an indication of the strength of feeling within the community. It means that, once again, Jews are wondering how the world can be different. After decades spent recovering from the shock of genocide, we may now be ready to imagine alternative futures and retell the stories of our past.

This year has been one of tumult and change, and we can only expect that the next one will see more of the same. We cannot stop the breakdown of consensus: we can only jump into it and embrace it. Anglo-Jewry is resourceful and resilient enough to have energetic conversations and remain a united community. We shouldn’t shy away from those conversations but should embrace them with whole hearts and open minds.

Ideological disagreement is far better for all of us than staid consensus. Indeed, in the conclusion of Rabbi Goldberg’s book on Zionism, an idea to which he is very sympathetic, he warns that without alternative ideas against which to pit itself, Zionism could become reactionary, conservative and devoid of the ability to be creative. Debate helps us to be imaginative, innovative and dynamic. This coming year presents us with opportunities to be upfront about our values and have real conversations about what God, religion, ethics, Diaspora and homeland really mean to us.

I cannot say definitively what Liberal Judaism’s position will be, or even whether it should have one at all. What excites me about the new culture of debate is that it is open-ended, and none of us know where it will lead. Yet there is one role that progressive Jews have always played, which is needed now more than ever: we need to offer hope.

It’s never a boring time to be a Jew. May the next year be even more interesting.

Shanah tovah.

bund
A poster of the Jewish Labour Bund

[1] Louis Ginzberg, Jewish Folklore, 1955

Building a home

Building a home

A young Talmud scholar moves from Lithuania to London. Years later he returns home to visit his family.

His mother asks: “Yossele but where is your beard?”

“Oh, mama, in London, nobody wears a beard.”

“But do you at least keep Shabbat?”

“No, mama, in London people work all the time. We have to make money.”

“Oy vey. But do you still keep kosher?”

“Mum, I’m sorry, kosher food is expensive and hard to find.”

“Yossele…” she says. “Are you still circumcised?”

Coming home from rabbinical school for Rosh Hashanah, I feel like I have my parents asking the same questions in reverse. “Lev you’re laying tefillin now? You’re keeping shabbat now? You’re training to be a rabbi now?! Lev, are you still patrilineal?”

I can confirm with great pride that I am still not Jewish according to the Orthodox beit din. I still have no desire to leave a religious movement that embraces me for one that doesn’t.

Still, anxieties are understandable. I have to admit that I am more than a little daunted coming home for the High Holy Days this year. It is quite one thing to lead services for strangers in far-flung places like Cornwall and Newcastle. But giving a sermon to the community that raised me, in front of my cheder teachers and old friends, adds a whole new level of pressure. It turns out it’s easier to talk to strangers about God than it is to engage with your family. Perhaps Chabad are onto something after all.

Reading Liberal Jewish Community is now celebrating its 40th year. Everybody who attended the birthday celebrations in July fed back what a great time they had, and members of the community who I met at Liberal Judaism’s biennial told me how inspired they were to keep this community going and make it even stronger.

Rosh Hashanah is a good time to take stock of that. We are at the start of autumn and ten days before Yom Kippur. In the time of our ancestors, this was when the harvest season finished, and the Torah cycle came to its end. The days became darker and insecurity about rainfall set in. Farmers and nomads wondered what the new year would bring, whether they would have enough food to feed their families, and what new challenges they might face. So they set this period as a time for reflection on how their lives had gone and where they would go in the coming year.

Rosh Hashanah is a time when we return to the same place as we have always been and look at it again with fresh eyes. This is, then, a poignant moment for all of us, to reflect on where we as a community have been and where we will go. I think then that the best I can offer in this Rosh Hashanah sermon is not so much Torah learning but reflections on the amazing impact this community has had, both on my life and on the life of Judaism in Britain.

This synagogue really has pioneered a future for Liberal Judaism. For such a small community, it is remarkable how many of the children who were in cheder at the same time as I was have gone on to be engaged Jews. Graham has worked for various Jewish charities; Abs has led Limmud; Katherine attends services when she can fit them into her busy schedule as a doctor. (The list goes on, so if anybody has some naches they want to share, do feel free.) This is not, by any means, a coincidence. This synagogue created such an amazing intergenerational community for us. At cheder, we learnt not just the facts about Judaism but how to really engage with it, have opinions on it, and integrate it into our lives.

All that fostered strong relationships between people of all ages. My brother loved being able to go round to Susanna’s house and speak German with her. Across the board, people fostered really meaningful bonds. Today, the buzzword in Jewish circles is “relational Judaism” – the idea that Judaism is not a transaction where congregants purchase a service off a rabbi, but that Judaism is something we build through our relationships with each other. I think we can say with some pride, we were doing that long before it was cool.

Perhaps what made Reading’s community so special was Meir’s farm. When I tell people that this existed, often people barely believe me. One day, we will need to write down the history of this community, or in fifty years the idea that there was a religious community in Berkshire living out a kibbutznik’s dream on a crop farm in Berkshire will be just a strange myth. The experiences of Meir’s farm were unbelievably special. Harvesting rhubarb on Shavuot, building a Sukkah out of real twigs and greenery, seeing how the biblical year lined up with an agricultural cycle. One of my strongest childhood memories is of when we buried the old siddurim, Service of the Heart, at Tu B’Shvat, and planted on top of them a Burning Bush.

This all made such an impression on me that, when I moved to London, I wondered where they went to plant trees on Tu B’Shvat. I thought that perhaps the councils gave them permission to do something in the public parks or that they might link up with one of the city farms. I was shocked to realise that this practice of earth-based Judaism was something special and unique to Reading. I felt like Londoners were really missing out on a proper Jewish experience. How can you live Judaism properly in a big city like London? Apparently, some other people agreed with me, because in the last few years a group of young pioneers have set up Sadeh, a Jewish farm in rural Kent. That farm has become a magnet for young Jews across Europe and restored an important sense of community around agrarian Judaism. We at Reading anticipated that and I am sure there is much wisdom that established members can share with those people if they so choose.

What sticks out for me most, however, was how much this community embraced diversity. I have amazing memories of dressing up as Dana International for Purim here, and performing her Eurovision-winning hit ‘Diva’ on the bimah. This world is not an easy place to grow up LGBT, but this community made it so much easier and created a genuinely warm and accepting environment. As an adult, I have seen many of my friends struggle with their sexuality and gender and wonder if they have a place in this world. I am so incredibly grateful that I never had to doubt that I had a God and a religion that loved me exactly as I was.

Reflecting on all this, and on the wonderful Jewish upbringing I had in this community, what I really want to say is thank you. You enriched my life and have done for so many Jews who come through these doors. Keep going, stick with it, because you never know what great things you are achieving with small gestures. This synagogue is not just my home community, it is a home for everyone who needs it.

As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and a great 20th Century mystic, said: “Through returning home, all things are reunited with God– returning home is, in essence, an effort to return to one’s original status, to the source of life and higher being in their fullness; without limitation and diminution, in their highest spiritual character, as illumined by the simple, radiant divine light.”[1]

I’m pretty sure he was talking about Berkshire.

At the grand age of 40, I say to this Jewish community: may you live to be 120! And then some.

Shanah tovah.

rljc trees

I gave this sermon in the synagogue that raised me, Reading Liberal Jewish Community. It was a very tender and nostalgic experience.

[1] Orot HaTeshuva, 4:2

Pinchas joins us on the Pride march

In the time of Moses, love across boundaries was common. Israelites fell in love with people no matter what boundaries were set down by their priests, and openly entered relationships with people of every background. Intermarriage with the Midianites – a tribe from the Arabian Peninsula – was quite common. This incensed the priests.

Pinchas, the son of a leading priest, saw an Israelite man going home with a Midianite woman. He took a sword and killed them both. One cut straight through the belly. According to the Torah, this stopped a plague that had killed 24 thousand people.[1] That is our week’s parasha: a zealot stabs people in the stomach because he doesn’t like their relationship.

The rabbis showered Pinchas in glory. He was, in their minds, the guardian of Jewish tradition.[2] The Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, an early Aramaic translation of our text, holds Pinchas in such high esteem that it says he was made immortal. He has God make him an angel of the covenant, living forever, so that he could announce Redemption at the end of days.[3]

This is how our tradition treats a violent zealot. In 2015, Yishai Schlissel, a Haredi man in Jerusalem, went out to the city’s Pride parade and stabbed the LGBT people who were celebrating there. One young woman, Shira Banki, died from the wounds. She was 16. Schlissel had done the same thing ten years earlier, and had just been released from prison.[4] In his defence, Schlissel claimed he was inspired by Pinchas. Like Pinchas, he was protesting sexual immorality. Like Pinchas, he was a zealot taking direct action. Like Pinchas, he stabbed them in the belly.[5] On the streets of Meah Shaarim, an Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, posters went up celebrating Schlissel’s violence by quoting this week’s parasha: ‘and the plague was lifted.’[6]

This text’s history is painful. The tradition is so horrible that it makes me wonder why we study these texts at all. What can we possibly gain from them? How can this story form part of our Torah of love and justice? There is a part of me that would prefer to pretend Pinchas never existed, and to hope that Yishai Schlissel will simply rot in a jail cell somewhere and never have his name mentioned again. But we cannot gloss over it and pretend that Jews who hold these violent views do not exist. We have to engage with it.

What can we say to it? If you sat face-to-face with Pinchas, what could you tell this biblical figure about morality? How can we speak back to this troubling text?

I want to propose an alternative reading of the story of Pinchas. The Targum only tells us that Pinchas lived forever, but not what happened to him afterwards. I want us to imagine together that Pinchas was kept alive, not as a reward, but so that he could learn the error of his ways. Pinchas, as an immortal angel, has had to follow the progress of the Jewish community and see the accomplishments of the queer liberation movement.

He stayed alive to see the unbridled love between Ruth and Naomi. Ruth, a Moabite woman, devoted herself utterly to her mother-in-law, followed her everywhere she went and accepted all the ways of the Jewish people.[7] She became the ancestor of King David.[8] As Pinchas followed them on their harsh wanderings through the desert, Pinchas wondered what he had been so afraid of. Were foreign women really such a threat to Jewish existence?

In the time of the rabbis, Pinchas sat on the banks of the Galilee and saw Rabbi Johanan fall in love with Resh Lakish. Johanan stunned Resh Lakish with his long flowing hair and androgynous good looks. Resh Lakish, a gladiator, turned away from violence just so he could spend his life studying halachah with Johanan.[9] They never touched each other, because the times would not allow it, but gazed at each other fondly as they pored over pages of the Torah together. They learned to control an uncontrollable love.[10] Pinchas watched them and wondered: “Could this be so bad?”

In the Middle Ages, Pinchas was transported to Spain. He sat in the courtyards of Arabic-speaking rabbis who drank wine and unabashedly serenaded each other with love songs. He saw the great Jewish poets of the generation ring out praises for same-sex love in the sun of Al-Andalus.[11] Pinchas sat at their feet and thought about what he had thought sexual impropriety was. Was this it? Were these loving sages, so dedicated their Judaism, the thing he had so much feared?

Pinchas saw the rise of the queer liberation movement. He saw modern gay, bi, lesbian and trans people gather together in Magnus Hirschfield’s flat in Berlin. He saw how, at the turn of the 20th Century, European Jews led the charge for freedom to live and love.[12] He witnessed them insist that this was the articulation of their Jewish values: that to live unabashed and unafraid was a far greater representation of the prophetic message of Judaism than the narrow nationalism others espoused. Pinchas asked himself: “Are they talking about me?” Pinchas saw the Nazis destroy everything Magnus created.[13]

I hope that Pinchas came to England too. I hope he saw Rabbi Lionel Blue (z”l) give hope and heart to all those who worried that they could never be gay and Jewish. I hope Pinchas saw Lionel proudly come out and preach the words of a loving G?d to an audience of millions.[14] I want to imagine that Pinchas sat in the beit midrash with Rabbi Sheila Shulman (z”l), and heard her expound radical lesbian Jewish theology.[15]

Pinchas was there on that Pride Parade in Jerusalem in 2015. Pinchas saw a 16-year-old girl murdered in his name. Pinchas saw the people who celebrated it. Pinchas buried his head in his hands and wondered: “Is this my Judaism? Is this my Judaism?”

No, Pinchas, this is not your Judaism. We have come a long way from the tribal zealotry of the past. Across the entire Jewish community, people are waking up to the joys of love. It will win.[16] There are others who are slow to accept us, but they will, with time. Like you, Pinchas, people are learning through the struggles of queer people that progress is nothing to fear.

So, Pinchas, come join us at Manchester Pride Parade this year. The season is just starting. There will be an entire marching bloc of Jews from all the best synagogues in this great city. Come and turn your zealotry to the cause of progressive Judaism – its inclusion of every Jew and its promise of a relationship with a loving God. March with us, and fulfil the role that God set out for you – that you should be an angel of the covenant and a harbinger of Redemption.

Shabbat shalom.

shira-banki
Her name was Shira Banki.

I gave this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on 7th July 2018 (Pinchas 5778) on the day when the Pride season kicked off in London. Manchester Pride march will be on August 25th. To join the Jewish bloc on the demonstration, get in touch with Jacksons Row Synagogue, who are coordinating it.

[1] Numbers 25:7-8

[2] BT Sanhedrin 82a-b

[3] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Numbers 25:12

[4] https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-pride-parade-stabber-to-undergo-psychiatric-evaluation-1.5383572

[5] https://www.jewishideas.org/article/zealotry-and-its-consequences-case-yishai-schlissel

[6] https://www.timesofisrael.com/praise-for-gay-pride-parade-attack-posted-in-jerusalem/

[7] https://www.jewdas.org/ruth-and-naomi/

[8] Ruth 4

[9] Bava Metzia 84a

[10] Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct, 1997

[11] Norman Roth, Deal Gently with that Young Man, 1982

[12] https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1868-the-einstein-of-sex-is-born-and-dies-1.5361786

[13] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/lgbtq-institute-in-germany-was-burned-down-by-nazis

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/19/rabbi-lionel-blue-gay-liberal-thought-for-day-star-dies-86

[15] http://www.rainbowjews.com/rabbi-sheila-shulman-a-true-pioneer/

[16] https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-london-rabbi-preaches-inclusivity-toward-gays-sets-off-uproar-1.5482362

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob

Balaam was nervous. He rode his donkey to the steppes of Moab. The donkey trotted slowly in the desert heat, weighed down by Balaam’s travelling bags. Balaam looked this way and that, up and down at the craggy mountains, and back to the land he’d left behind. He fiddled with the donkey’s harness, twitching at the leather straps.

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me,” King Balak had told him. “Come now, put a curse on them for me, for there are too many of them for me. Maybe, with your help, I can defeat them and drive them out of the land. I know that whoever you bless is blessed indeed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”[1]

It was true. Since childhood, Balaam had known he had a gift. Whatever he said came true. The right words just came out of his mouth and took meaning. As an adult, Balaam had become something of a blessing mercenary – offering prayers for kings across the world in exchange for payment.[2] Normally, he turned up, said the words, and left with enough money to feed his family for a few more weeks.

But this time was different. Before being asked to curse the Jews, Balaam had never heard of them.[3] Then, the second he’d been asked to curse them, their God appeared before him. God told him: “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.”[4] Initially, he’d refused, but King Balak had been insistent. Mercenaries cannot say no to kings. So he agreed.

Balaam sidled up to the edge of the valley where the Jews were camped. He looked out over all their tents, pitched in the desert. He saw the speckled silhouettes of people wandering about between the marquees. He opened his mouth to curse them. But the words to curse weren’t coming. Every time he tried to curse them, his tongue dried up and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He felt a heavy marble in his gullet, choking up all his words. Then, from somewhere outside of him and deep within, a voice came out of his own mouth:

“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”[5]

To this day, those are the first words Jews say on entering a synagogue. We Progressives sing them together when we begin our services. Orthodox Ashkenazim recite them as they approach a community’s door, or even idly walking past a shul.[6] Why is it that the words we say when we come to a synagogue are the words of a non-Jew, who knew nothing of the Jews, but was somehow overwhelmed by the Divine Spirit? What has made us decide to use this blessing in such a way?

I suspect part of the answer is that, when we go into a synagogue, all of us feel like non-Jews. Whether we attend shul weekly, or only turn up for Yom Kippur, something about the space can make anyone feel not quite Jewish enough. We can all feel like we are saying somebody else’s words, tentatively mouthing out sounds that don’t quite feel right.

I rarely meet Jews who feel completely comfortable in their own Jewishness. Everybody feels excluded in some way: not quite learned enough, not quite spiritual enough. A stranger recently told me he was just not quite brave enough. Being a people who don’t belong is hard enough without worrying who belongs to that people. Many people have come up with their own definitions for what makes a Jew Jewish, but my favourite is: a Jew is somebody who worries they are not quite Jewish enough.

This prayer goes some way to honouring that feeling. All of us, no matter how observant or learned, recite the words of a non-Jew who has been bowled over by the Jewish God. The prayer reassures us: you may feel like you don’t belong, but you are home.

I used to wonder if I would ever reach a point where I felt like I knew enough. As a teenager, I stumbled over Hebrew words as the people around me seemed to recite them so confidently. I thought that perhaps when my Hebrew was good enough I would feel secure in my Jewishness. Then, having learnt Hebrew, I realised how little of the Torah I knew. I thought that if I could only master the Scriptures, I wouldn’t worry if I belonged.

Last week, I finished my examinations for my first year at rabbinical school. Our teachers assessed us on sections of Talmud, Hebrew grammar, Aramaic language, leyning the Torah, philosophy and biblical criticism. As I came to the end of them, I realised how much I still did not know. The rabbinical course gives us the tools we need to be able to explore every part of Judaism, but it cannot fill us up with everything. Our religion’s traditions are too diverse; our interpretations too vast.

I have come to embrace that feeling. Judaism is a bit like star-gazing. You lie on your back and set your eyes above you. You realise there is no way you could ever count all the stars you see. After a few moments, your eyes adjust, and you realise that there is another layer of stars behind the ones you couldn’t count. Suddenly, you’re humbled as you realise you’re facing upwards to infinity, beyond an entire galaxy with no end in sight.

This is our Judaism: layers of complexity reaching out to infinity. All we can do is stare at it in awe, flummoxed by our God, and say: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”[7]

stars moab

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College‘s weekly parasha blog.

[1] Numbers 22:5

[2] Midrash Tanhuma Balak 4

[3] Rashi on Numbers 24:14

[4] Numbers 22:12

[5] Numbers 24:5

[6] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mah-tovu

[7] Numbers 24:5

We are asked to believe in something impossible

We are asked to believe in something impossible.

We are asked to suspend everything we know and accept that a God of fire and cloud descended on the place where the Israelites were camped.

In the day, God came down to earth like a pillar of cloud, encompassing the tents where people lived. At night, God rose up like a pillar of fire, showing people the way.[1]

The movements of these clouds or the fiery appearance would signal that the people were to either break up and move, or make camp, as the case might be.[2]

Ever since the Torah was first canonised, people have exercised a healthy scepticism about what these words might mean. We have rational doubts about whether pillars of fire and cloud could come out of nowhere.

Even in the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, one of the earliest translations of the Torah, this text is altered to say that what they say was “like a vision of fire.” Here, as elsewhere, the Targum tries to keep people from taking the words of the Torah overly literally. It is not, the Targum suggests, that a real pillar of fire descended from the sky, but that people had visions of something that looked like fire. This is more digestible.

Commenting on this problem, the medieval Spanish philosopher Maimonides tells us that such ideas “come from dreams and visions.” He argues that “the imaginative faculty achieves so great a perfection of action that it sees the thing as if it were outside.”[3] The Israelites only saw the fire and cloud in their minds, but their vision was so powerful that it was as if they could see it out in the real world.

Where Maimonides can’t explain such phenomena, he tells us that they are metaphors. When the Torah says that God wrote the Torah by hand, it doesn’t really mean that God has hands. When the Torah says that God walked about in the Garden of Eden, it doesn’t really mean that God has feet. It’s using language we understand to explain something we cannot.

The idea that this is all a metaphor is powerful. After all, if we want to understand God or Divine Revelation, we must accept that we’re thinking about something way beyond our comprehension. None of us are really enlightened enough to see God or to understand what God wants of us. These descriptions are just tentative imaginations to tell us about something too profound and complicated to be described.

In modern times, historical criticism has gone even further to rationalise what is written in this parashah. The pillars of cloud and fire weren’t visions. They weren’t even metaphors. For some historians, these were probably just burning wood pyres and incense sticks, guiding people through the desert.[4]

I can completely see why people would interpret the Torah this way. It fits better with our experience of the world and keeps us from straying into fundamentalism. We need to keep critical distance so we can remember that this was a book written by men, who were fallible. That is especially important in a community like ours, where we know that the sense of justice we get from our own consciences is far more important than the rules written in an ancient book.

But, in a way, I also find the efforts to rationalise stories like these quite disappointing. By dispelling myths as just visions or metaphors or the hocus-pocus of priestly magicians, we do these texts a disservice. The Torah is not a book of scientific or historical truth. It is a book of spiritual truth. It is trying to tell us something much deeper about the world than science or history ever can. We can’t judge the claims of the Torah, then, on the same terms as we would a physicist’s estimate of how old the universe is. It is talking about truth of a wholly different kind.

For a while, in my teens, I was something of an atheist. I was suspicious of all religious stories, felt the Tanakh to be riddled with contradictions, and faith in God to be a bit ridiculous. At that age, I didn’t realise that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally, that the contradictions were questions waiting to be explored, or the powerful role that God would come to play in my own life.

Reflecting on the views I once had, I know why I dismissed stories like these so readily. A God of cloud and fire who descends over wandering people in the desert is, of course, impossible. It’s just that now, I have much more room in my heart for impossible things.

Everything about the story is impossible. A God of cloud and fire who wrenches slaves out of Egypt, rains down plagues and parts the seas. Unfathomable.

A nomadic people stranded in the desert approach a mountain and hear out of it thunder and lightning, declare that it is their God, the Eternal One, and that they should have no other gods. Completely unrealistic.

A slave people, who had never known anything but the bitterness of toil and struggle, are told that they will all be priestly people, all have regular complete days of rest, all strive to live in equality and justice with one another. Unbelievable.

An immigrant people with no home, dispersed and lost, hear it promised that every foreigner will be treated with the same decency and equality as everyone else. They hear that nobody would ever hurt people for being different again. Inconceivable.

A people who had known nothing but hatred and turned their anger on each other heard that One True Creator of the Universe loved them wholeheartedly and would cherish them as a treasured people. They heard that it was their task on earth to live up to the highest standards of morality and lead the world as a living example of what an ethical life could be. Absolutely, completely impossible.

And yet. And yet somehow, for thousands of years, we have held on to this idea that we can be beacons of justice, exemplars of love and heralds of a better world. Somehow, despite everything our people has suffered, we still have a sense that a world where people treat each other with dignity is within our reach.

We are asked to believe in something impossible, but all that cloud and fire does not matter half as much as the mission that comes out of it. The mission of the Jews, our sacred task on earth to sculpt it in God’s image, may be impossible, but impossible things are worth believing in. As a people, we are called upon to make the impossible possible. And we will succeed.

Shabbat shalom.

 

fire cloud

I gave this sermon on Saturday 2nd June 2018 at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community for Parashat Bhaalotcha. Partly, I was trying to work out in my own head the answer to the question of whether a Jew in the 21st Century must believe in G?d; and, if so, what that meant. In the lunchtime discussion, I found many congregants had similar concerns. Many of us felt that we believed in G?d, but struggled to find the language to describe what that meant. I went away feeling that, in a sense, the questions were more important than the answers.

[1] Num 9:15

[2] Tur haAroch 9:15:1

[3] Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:36

[4] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pillar-of-cloud-and-pillar-of-fire