sermon · theology

A chosen people

You are a chosen people.

Singled out from every other people on the planet and selected by the one true God to have a unique and special relationship spanning generations into the past and future. You are among the chosen people, because you are a Jew. And you, particularly, have been chosen. As a Jew.

How do you feel?

Well, bloody uncomfortable, I expect. The very concept of chosenness is quite toe-curling. It has so many airs of superiority. It sounds smug at best and racist at worst. It feels incompatible with everything else we think about ourselves and about God. 

But it’s there. It’s there in this week’s parashah. God calls out to Moses and tells him:

I am the Eternal One. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my ineffable name I did not make myself fully known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. And now I have heard the wailing of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.

This is the holy relationship between us and God. It was laid down to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was repeated to Moses, where it grew stronger. It was on the basis of this special relationship that God drew us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand so that we would be a holy people and God would be our God. God, universal and everlasting, would be a God to us, personal and special. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

In the mouth of God, it certainly does. It sounds like a real and loving relationship that we can sustain together. In the mouth of another Jew, it sounds slightly narcissistic. The idea of being a ‘chosen people’ is something rarely discussed among Jews. It features little in our understanding of ourselves. Which means we hear it most commonly in the mouth of antisemites. In their mouths, it sounds like either an accusation or a taunt. 

As an accusation, it is recriminating. How can you believe you are so special? Does this status give you the right to do whatever you want? What must it mean for the rest of us, we whom you have decided are unchosen? How can you hold by such an insulting theology? As a taunt, it is a reminder of our weakness. Is this God’s chosen people? Is this dispersed and tiny group supposed to be somehow special? Is this deeply flawed group, so easy to criticise for our conduct, supposed to be exemplary?

Many of us would have a hard time agreeing with the idea of chosenness when it is framed in this way. Some have sought to downplay or erase the idea. When the Enlightenment came and we moved out from the ghettos, many Jews began to resist the idea of chosenness, saying that we were not chosen at all. But this seems to turn external hatred into self-hatred. Yes, it is hard to maintain an idea of chosenness when you have to explain it to others. But in doing so it may feel like we are also giving up some of the richness of Judaism.

An alternative approach has been to neutralise the claim. In our liturgy, Liberals will often say “על ישראל ועל כל בני אדם” – for all the Jewish people and for all of humanity. We universalise this theology – affirming that we have a special relationship with God and asserting that others can do so too. This was summarised by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks when he was going through his postmodernist phase. He said

God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims . . . God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.

These words were met at the time with anger and ridicule. Rabbi Sacks was forced by the Conservative wing of Orthodoxy to rewrite the book. In the second edit, Sacks suggested that with the coming of the messiah, eventually everyone would be Jewish. At the time, most progressives came to his defence on the matter, and understandably so. He was vilified for holding a position that most believers in a universal God would say was intuitively true. Yet, with hindsight, it is also right to probe this position. What does chosenness even mean if everyone is chosen? The word loses any of its value.

So we have three positions, none of which feel particularly palatable. We can either dig our heels in and insist that we are, in fact, the chosen people, and that everyone else is not. Alternatively, we can scrap the whole business and say that we are not chosen and neither is anyone else. Or we can insist that we are chosen and so is everyone else. All of them are valid. All of them are somehow disappointing.

I want to propose another way of thinking about chosenness. Let us return to the text and ask instead: why were the Jews chosen? God says: “I have heard the wailing of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving.” In this narrative, we were not chosen because we were great. We were not chosen because we had any special skills or qualities. We were chosen because we were oppressed. 

This carries a different meaning entirely. It suggests that God stands with those who suffer. And that God continues to stand with us in memory of our suffering. Being chosen, in this context, does not mean having priviliges, but being heard. We are recognised by our Creator for our suffering. And when we remember that suffering, we experience the chosenness again as we realise the moral consequences of the cries of others. God, the voice of morality in every generation, stands by the side of the victims of injustice, even when they do not experience miraculous interventions. 

We are approaching Holocaust Memorial Day. This somber time is a reminder to us of the divine help that never came for the 6 million Jews and 3 million others who died in the Nazi genocide. In the face of such tragedy, it is hard to sustain a theology that says that God protects us. But we must nevertheless affirm the belief that God stood by our side. Through the horrors of Auschwitz no less than slavery in Egypt, God heard the cries of the oppressed.

If being chosen means anything, it should mean being obligated to hear those cries. We should hear the wailing of those who went before as reminders to us of who we are. We should hear the oppression of all those who still cry, and whose oppression goes on, often in the face of indifference. 

Marek Edelman, a fighter in the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis said: “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.” May we, like God, always count ourselves among those who stand by the oppressed.

Shabbat shalom.

 

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vaera on Saturday 25th January 2020 at 3 Counties Liberal Judaism

sermon · torah

Are we supposed to like Joseph?

Are we supposed to like Joseph? Are we supposed to find him endearing?

Are we supposed to cheer for him as the story progresses? Because, honestly, I find it hard.

He is the protagonist for more than half of the Book of Genesis. Other than Moses, nobody in the Torah gets as much airtime as Joseph. So you would think that the hero of our story would be a bit more, well, heroic. Instead, in this week’s parashah, Joseph comes across as pretty conceited.

It is one thing that his father made him a colourful coat to show Joseph that he was the favourite. He can’t help that. Such blatant favouritism is probably bad parenting on Jacob’s part. It’s not something that Joseph had any control over. But did he have to wear the coat? Did he have to wear it all the time?

The very first thing we hear about Joseph is that he snitches on his brothers to Jacob. He follows them around while they’re working and then runs back to their dad to tell on them. When we hear that Joseph’s brothers wouldn’t talk to him, we can hardly be surprised. What did he think would happen?

And then he has his dreams. He tells his brothers that they were harvesting wheat in the fields, when his sheath stood upright, and theirs all bowed down to his. ‘What could it possibly mean?’, he asks them? Perhaps, Joseph, it means some dreams are better kept inside your head.

Then he has another dream, where he is the shiniest star in the sky, and all the other stars, plus the sun and the moon, all bow down to him. Jacob wastes no time picking up the suggestion that not only are his brothers bowing down to him, but that his mother and father are prostrating themselves too.

Honestly, I know we know how the story ends, and yes it all turns out OK, but it really is hard to sympathise with him. I’m not saying he deserved to be sold into slavery. Nobody deserves that. It was definitely an overreaction on the part of his brothers. I’m just saying that he didn’t really make life easy for himself.

And does he even change? His brothers go on a sincere journey of self-discovery. They learn to feel remorse, to repent, and not to make the same mistakes again. That’s why, when Joseph sets up a test at the climax of the story to see whether his brothers will stand up for Benjamin, they do. Judah even volunteers himself as a slave to defend Benjamin. The brothers learned their lessons.

What does Joseph learn? He endures slavery, false accusations and imprisonment. But in the end he becomes vizier for all of Egypt. And, having reconciled with his brothers, he reassures them that this must have been God’s plan all along. Joseph started out the story believing that he was destined for greatness, and ended it by finding out he was right.

What is the moral lesson we are supposed to gain from Joseph, then? Or, rather, what could Joseph have done differently that I might give a more favourable sermon on him?

The answer, I think, comes from a man who was very similar to Joseph, and yet separated from him by many thousands of years: Oscar Wilde. Like Joseph, Wilde was a youngest brother. Like Joseph, he wrongly spent a long stint in prison. Wilde even had a multi-coloured coat. While other Victorian gentlemen wore drab black suits, Oscar Wilde pioneered the aesthetic movement with purple velvet outfits, colourful corsages and impressive top hats. Most importantly, like Joseph, Oscar Wilde was an individual. He was different, and he knew it.

What differentiated Wilde from Joseph was that Wilde had a much better analysis of his situation. Wilde knew that he was an individual, and he did not try to change that. But he also knew that the hostility to his individualism came from inequality.

In 1891, inspired by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde wrote his only major political work, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’. In it, he rails against the reality that individual expression, through art, poetry and philosophy, is only the preserve of a privileged few, while the poor are required to toil in repetitive drudgery. This inequality, he argues, means that most people never access their individualism, and so despise those who are privileged enough to be able. In a startling polemic, he calls for the abolition of private property altogether.

I think his analysis is really correct. We know that groups need individuals. But it is equally true that the individual needs the group. Human beings are pack animals, and we need to find some collective expression if we are to have any chance of standing out as individuals.

Perhaps, then, Joseph wasn’t so bad. He was a product of his circumstances. Had Jacob treated all the brothers with equal love and nurtured what was special in all of them, there might not have been such a need for bitterness and jealousy. Joseph may have been able to dream his dreams in a position of humility, and fulfil his destiny without infuriating everybody else. Granted, it wouldn’t have made such a good story, but I’m not aiming for good literary tension here.

And yet what we have really is a good story. Part of the reason why I find Joseph so objectionable is because I find him so relatable. I know I am prone to all the same behaviours for which I have criticised Joseph. I know that I can just as easily bluster my way through life and try to stand out. The Torah tells us this story because it is telling us something honest about ourselves.

And yet Oscar Wilde is also right. The problem is not that one person should want to express themselves, but that not everyone should feel able. As Liberal Jews, we prize the individual and we give great value to people’s personal expression. 

As a community, Harrow is now in the process of deciding who to recruit as your new rabbi. Like every community in a similar position, you are faced with an impossible task. You will want to find someone who is energetic, but experienced. Traditional but innovative. And, as in the protagonists of this story, individual but able to be part of a collective. 

Often conversations about this focus on who the individual should be and what they should do. The truth, as we learn from this story, is that it’s never just about one person. It’s about the culture we build as a community. It’s about how people work and grow together.

Let us not only ask that everyone feel able to live their own Jewish journey, but go further and ask how we collectively empower each other to journey together.

Shabbat shalom. 

Wilde

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vayeishev on Saturday 21st December at Harrow Mosaic Liberal.

sermon · torah

Children are a blessing

Children are a blessing.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be in a community with so many children. At Sukkot, it was a precious experience to gather round with the young people as they built the sukkah, then shook the lulav and etrog. Tomorrow, the cheder year will begin and I am so excited to start studying with our young people – from 5-year-olds who will be coming to their first ever class, through to 18-year-olds who have stayed on to offer support. This is the sign of a truly intergenerational community that values its members of all ages.

The Torah goes to great lengths to convey to us just how important children are. At the beginning and end of most of the parshiyot in Genesis, we read a list of descendants, telling us who begot whom from the first human being up until the next point in the story. It is a way of letting us know that Judaism is passed on as an inheritance from generation to generation over great spans of time.

In previous weeks, we read how difficult having children can be. We were confronted with Sarah’s dismay at her inability to have children in her old age.1 We learned about Hagar’s surrogacy, and the ensuing rivalry between Abraham’s two wives.2 The parallel haftarah to that week is of Hannah, who is so desperate to have children that, when she prays in the Temple, the Priest believes she is drunk. The Torah lets us know that children are not something that can be taken for granted. Fertility can be a precarious thing, and children are not always a guarantee.

The Torah communicates its message that children are a blessing. Yet, as this week’s parashah shows, children can be… a mixed blessing. Rebecca and Isaac want to have children, but once they arrive they are fraught with problems. Even in the womb, Rebecca can feel the foetuses kicking at each other and struggling together. It is as if God has only answered her prayer to punish her.3

When they are born, the reason for their strife becomes obvious. In character and demeanour, Jacob and Esau are polar opposites. Jacob was a meek, introverted boy who worshipped God and read books. Esau was a hunter who loved the outdoors.4 I am told by natal doctors that children really are born with personalities. Some come out curious; some terrified; some as if they’re already the life of the party. This tension between different personality types is what makes the Torah, and life itself, interesting.

Immediately, Isaac and Rebecca understand that these different children need different parental approaches. Isaac focuses on Esau; Rebecca on Jacob. They raise them according to their respective strengths. The children are treated as blessings for who they are in their own right, and grow up to blessed in their own ways.

Rabbinic literature takes this idea even further. The midrash teaches in the name of Rabbi Yehudah: “Come and see how beloved small children are by God. The rabbis were exiled [to Babylon], and God did not leave with them. The priests were exiled, and God did not leave with them. Only when the children were exiled did God leave with them.”5 It is as, if, for the rabbis, the very life of a community depends on the presence of children.

So, why all this talk about children? I am certainly not trying to say anything negative about those who cannot have them; still less about those who have chosen not to. Our community is made up of myriads of different households, including loving relationships in many different permutations. All of them are welcome and celebrated in this synagogue. But the issue of children has been forefront of my mind.

In part, this is a donkey story. In her incredible Ted Talk, Rabbi Benay Lappe coins the term “donkey story” to describe how people look into the Torah and see themselves. She begins by quoting her teacher, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, who said, “if donkeys could read Torah, all the donkeys would jump out at them. All the stories about donkeys, they’d see. All the stories that we completely skim over.” Rabbi Lappe says that, in reading Talmud, she saw her own donkey stories: as a woman, a queer person and a radical. Ever since hearing her explain it, I’ve realised that the Torah often reflects back to me my own anxieties and hopes.

Right now, I am about to move in with my best friend, who is expecting a baby. We are both gay, but made the decision some time ago to engage in queer Jewish co-parenting. Or, as most people would call it, parenting. The baby is due (please God) at the end of March. I am both filled with excitement and racked with anxiety. I am excited because the thought of waking up in the morning to put a baby in a sling and take it outside to pray shacharit with me fills me with a joy I can’t decribe. I am excited because I had for so long imagined that parenting was something restricted to straight people and that it would never be something I was allowed to do.

And I have all the anxieties that people normally do when expecting children, like being able to afford them, spend enough time with them, keep them healthy, pass on enough Jewish knowledge without too much Jewish trauma and create a loving home.

Yet there is an anxiety I have that I had not expected. Just as I see children everywhere in the Torah, I also see how unfriendly so many spaces are to children and parents. For the first time, I walk into familiar meeting rooms, classes, and buildings and wonder how welcome I would be in them with a child. I am realising how many spaces I have created where I thought about how the experience would be for almost everyone, except families.7

I now come to synagogue and ask the same questions. How are children being treated here? As a blessing, or as an inconvenience? As participants in services, or as distractions from them? Are all kinds of families welcomed fully, or are they merely tolerated?

And, of course, welcoming people of all ages is not easy. The haftarah this week has an obvious link to the parashah, in that it talks about Jacob and Esau, but there is a more subtle link at the end. Malachi’s last words, the last words of all prophecy, are that parents need to turn their hearts towards their children and children towards their parents.8 Both need to acknowledge each other for successful community.

There will always be conflicts between the needs of some and the needs of others. Some people come to synagogue wanting nothing but peace and quiet, while others – especially children – will want to make as much noise as possible. Building truly intergenerational community requires all of us to make compromises, and for everyone to adjust slightly.

I recently witnessed a good model for this at Westminster Synagogue, an independent shul that split from West London Reform Synagogue. At this very posh place in Kensington, congregants are immediately greeted with small cards on their seats that give small pointers on how to make young and old feel welcome in the space. The card encourages older people to show children where we are, tell them about what the service means, and point out to them the ritual objects, like tallits, ner tamid, aron kodesh and rimonim. At the same time, it encourages parents to make full use of the space, including taking children outside and into the lobbies if they need to.

As a community, I hope we might be able to have conversations and reach our own conclusions about what compromises everyone can make so that this synagogue is as welcoming to everyone as it should be. We are already doing very well. I have been to synagogues where there were no children at all. I have worked in synagogues where there are no older people at all. We are doing really well by the simple fact that people are already here. If we want to move to the next stage as a community, we need to discuss not just how we get people here, but how we make sure everyone feels at home here.

May everyone who comes to this community know that they are truly a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

kids and animals

I gave this sermon at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Toldot on 30th November 2019.

1 Gen 18:11-15

2 Gen 15:1-6

3 Gen 25:21-22

4 Gen 25:27-28

5 Eichah Rabbah, 1:33

7Two books have been especially helpful for thinking about this: “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” by China Martens and Victoria Law; and “Rad Dad,” by Tomas Muniz and Jeremy Adam Smith.

8Malachi 3:24

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

What does it take to destroy a city?

Sometimes a city must be destroyed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

burning city

I wrote this sermon for the Leo Baeck College newsletter.

[1] Gen 19:24-25

[2] Gen 19:27-28

[3] Gen 18:24-33

[4] Gen 19:3-9

[5] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 25

[6] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 25

[7] Sanhedrin 109b

[8] Sanhedrin 109b

[9] Sforno on Gen 19

[10] Pirkei Avot 2:5

poem · torah

Lot’s Wife

There are some sadnesses so intense

That they stay in your lungs

And get caught there

So that every time you cry

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

 

There are some angers so hot

That they sink into your muscles

And tighten up knots in your back and on your shoulders

So that you carry it around like chainmail

Weighing down your body without offering protection

 

There are some memories so painful

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

These things don’t happen to people who have names

Only to people who feel things so intensely

And have nobody to tell

lots-wife

I wrote this poem on the theme of Parashat Vayeira.

judaism · liturgy · sermon

Who are these prayers for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

high holy days · judaism · sermon · theology

Who will cut the heart in two?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you be sealed for good. Gmar chatimah tovah.

gulag

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

[1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

[2] Leviticus 16:7-10

[3] Leviticus 16:21-22

[4] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 46:9

[5] BT Yoma 67b