judaism · sermon · torah

Shavuot 5778

Chag Shavuot sameach.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here.

I have come here, first of all, to represent Leo Baeck College, where I am going into my second year of studying to be a rabbi. But there is a special reason why I’ve been invited to this specific synagogue on this specific day. Today, for the first time ever, my friend Rokhl leyned from the Torah. Her teacher, my teacher, and a figure well-known in this community, Chani Smith, suggested it might be appropriate if I come and join in today’s celebrations by preaching. It is an honour to be able to do so.

With that in mind, I hope everyone will excuse me if I indulge in kvelling a little bit before I start. Rokhl, watching you leyn Torah was an incredible experience. Growing up as a girl in the Orthodox world, I know that you were denied the chance to engage with Torah in the way you wanted. You told me of how intense it was, earlier this year, when you held a Torah for the first time. You have done so much to bring Jewish life to people who might otherwise feel excluded from it – as a singer here, through your Yiddish song classes and in the way you have reached out to people to create Judaism with you, especially women.

It is fitting, then, that your occasion to read Torah should fall on Shavuot. Shavuot is a multi-faceted festival: it is a time when we stay up all night, studying and praying. It is a time when everybody tries their hand at baking cheesecakes. It is a celebration of our receiving the Torah at Sinai. But, most of all, it is a time when we read that most beautiful megillah, the story of Ruth.

Ruth stands out in the biblical canon for its poetry, its gorgeous narrative structure, and its deep theological exploration of difference. It stands out, too, because it is one of very few stories that speaks of women as religious leaders. In today’s megillah, Naomi’s two sons die, leaving behind her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. Naomi begs her daughters-in-law to leave her. Orpah weeps as she leaves Naomi behind, but Ruth insists on staying.

Ruth utters these powerful lines: “Please do not ask me to leave you. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.”[1] Thus begins a unique story, where women are the only active agents, and where their relationship to each other and to Judaism is the centrepiece.

True, men appear occasionally. Boaz appears as an Israelite man, and Naomi encourages Ruth into a relationship with him. But, according to the rabbis’ commentaries, Boaz died on his wedding day. He existed in this story to fulfil a function, of providing Ruth with a child. He appears only briefly, after which Naomi and Ruth go on to raise their child together.[2] David, king of Israel, is listed as a descendant of Naomi, not of Boaz.[3]

The rabbis took this story a step further. From these lines, they interpret that Naomi was instructing Ruth in halachah. She was informing her of the mitzvot, telling her of all the difficulties that could be involved in becoming Jewish. Naomi tells Ruth that Jews spend their time in study houses, not circuses, and Ruth answers “Wherever you go, I will go.” Naomi tells Ruth that Jews affix mezuzot to their homes and Ruth answers: “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.” Naomi tells Ruth that Jews rise and fall together, so Ruth answers: “Your people will be my people.” Naomi tells Ruth that God is One. Ruth answers: “Your God will be my God.”[4]

Ruth hears all this, and she insists on staying. In the rabbis’ interpretations, then, we have a woman knowledgeable in Torah and teaching it to another. We have a woman who insists, despite all the obstacles presented to her, that she wants to have a relationship with Torah.

That, indeed, is the message of Shavuot. The story of Sinai teaches us that divine revelation was a collective experience of the whole Jewish people. It was not only men or the educated who received Torah, but everyone. The story of Ruth teaches us that divine revelation is a deeply personal and ongoing experience. The study of Torah is the birthright of all Jews, and this story is well-exemplified by the case of Ruth, a foreign woman who joins the Jewish people.

Last week, the UK gained its first Orthodox woman rabbi. Dina Brawer flew out to New York to receive semicha, and pledged her hope to be a role model for women. She joins a long line of women religious leaders, including Ruth and Naomi, but we in the progressive Jewish communities should be exceptionally proud of our role in paving the way for this success. It was the forerunner to Leo Baeck College, the Hochschule in Germany, that ordained Europe’s first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, in 1935. Jackie Tabick, the head of the Reform Beit Din, became the country’s first woman rabbi, in 1975. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is one of the only women to head up a major religious movement, not just in the UK, but worldwide. We have pioneered gender equality, and will continue to do so.

There is a reason I say all this. I have come here to represent Leo Baeck College.  Leo Baeck College is the heartland of the best of Judaism in Europe. It trains rabbis from the UK, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Poland and Italy. It is, of course, the institution that ordained every rabbi in this synagogue. Without the College, our Judaism could cease to exist. Our Judaism – that insists on the importance of women in leadership. Our Judaism – that maintains our ancient heritage of leyning in a style totally unique to these islands. Our Judaism – that creates space for all those who want to study Torah. We need the College in order to give this, living Judaism, a future.

I therefore urge everyone here to support the College in whatever way they can.

And I wish you all – a chag sameach.

ruth and naomi

I gave this sermon at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue on Shavuot morning to promote Leo Baeck College.

[1] Ruth 1:16-18

[2] Midrash Zutta

[3] Ruth 4:17

[4] Ruth Rabba 2


Psalm 84

For the leader, on the gittith, a psalm for the children of Korach

How wonderful are your dwelling-places, G?d of Heavens!

My soul yearns and even suffers for the courtyards of G?d. My heart and my flesh shout for joy to the god of life.

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she can lie down her brood at your altars, G?d of Heavens, my Sovereign, my god.

Happy are those who dwell in Your house, so are those who praise You. Selah.

Happy is the one whose strength is in You, whose heart is on the highways

They pass over the Valley of Baca, seeing springs as the early rain fills the rock-pools.

They go from strength to strength; the god of gods appear to them in Zion

G?d, the god of Heavens, hear my prayer. Give ear, god of Jacob. Selah.

Look at our shield, G?d, and see the face of your anointed.

For it is better to have a day in your courtyard than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of G?d than live in the tents of the wicked

For G?d is sun and shield, G?d gives grace and glory. G?d does not withhold goodness from those who walk with integrity.

G?d of Heavens, happy is the one who trusts in You!


I retranslated Psalm 84 for use on the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat. This text drew out an interesting tension between universalism and particularism/ Diasporism and nationalism. Some students felt this text anticipated Diaspora ideas of Judaism – the theological language shifts G!d’s dwelling-place from inside the Temple building to the natural world. Mountains become divine courtyards and birds’ nests become altars. Yet, other students pointed out that the Baca Valley is a very specific place in modern Lebanon, and that these psalms were written to celebrate a specific land. This prompted the students to write their own psalms about the lands in which they lived.


Psalm 65

For the leader, a psalm of David, sing:

The psalms for God in Zion are for You, and for You are vows sent

Hear this prayer; your servant and all flesh come

When wrongdoing overwhelms me, you forgive our mistakes

Happy is the one you choose, the one you draw near to the courtyard where you dwell, satisfy us with goodness in your house, in your Holy Temple

Answer us with the wonders of justice, our liberating God; all the ends of the earth and the distant seas have faith

The mountains are fixed by G?d’s power, strengthened by might

Calming raging seas, raging waves, and raging peoples

The people who live on the margins are awed by your signs; because of You, dawn and dusk shout out for joy.

You look after the land and water it; the river of G?d, full of water, makes it grow abundantly; you provide the grain that you have grown

You quench the riverbanks, lay down furrows; You soften it with showers and bless it with springing plants

You enclose the year with your goodness, and your tracks drip with abundance

They drop on the plains of the wilderness, and little hills rejoice all over

The meadows are clothed with sheep, and the valleys are covered in grain. They cry out for joy. Even they sing.



I retranslated Psalm 65 for the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat. This psalm, in particular, generated fertile discussion about labour relations in First Temple Judaism. Many students felt that this psalm reflected emerging class dynamics between agrarian workers, nomadic shepherds and Temple elites. As a result, one proposed that the word ‘margins’ might better be translated as ‘the edges of farmland’, or ‘the edges of civilisation’. Although less poetic, it feels truer to the meaning in this Marxist interpretation of the text.

psalms · Uncategorized

Psalm 8

For the leader, on the gittith, a psalm of David

G?d, our ruler, how magnificent is your name in all the earth, you have covered the sky with your splendour

From the mouths of infants and babies, you have established strength for the sake of enemies, to end animosity and revenge.

When I look upon the sky, the works of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place,

What is humanity that you remember us, we children of Adam that you think of us,

That you made us a fraction of gods, adorned us with glory and majesty?

You have made us rule over the works of your hands and laid the world at our feet:

Sheep and oxen, all of them, and even wild beasts

Birds in the sky and fish in the water, everything across the seas

G?d, our ruler, how magnificent is your name in all the earth!

sheep grazing

I retranslated Psalm 8 for use on the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat.


Finding ourselves in the Psalms

When we were captives in Babylon, we sat down by its river and cried. We hung up our instruments. Our oppressors asked us to sing. And we refused. How could we sing a song the Aleph’s song in a strange land?[1]

We had forgotten too much. We had forgotten that all our psalms were written in strange lands about the same land. The oldest psalms are etched in hieroglyphs in Egypt.[2] There are records of our psalms dating back thousands of years to Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Canaan and Sudan.

When we came into Canaan as refugees, we wrote new songs. In the wilderness of Judah, we found our voices.[3] Even in Babylon, we wrote new songs.[4]

King David compiled them. Although he had long died and was separated from some psalms by thousands of years, he drew them together. David resided in five different realities. He wrote his first psalm in the womb. He came into the world and gazed up at the infinite majesty of the stars and he wrote a new psalm. David sang whenever he saw the wonder of creation. He used to sing when he suckled on his mother’s breasts. David saw a future without evil and he found the words to say “hallelujah.” And in his tomb, David kept writing.[5]

So much has happened since those days. There are things we have lost. We have lost the pronunciation of that breathy 4-letter word they used to describe G?d.[6] Nobody knows what the instruments were that David played. The gittith – what is it? We don’t know.[7] Some words don’t make sense to us any more. Selah. Was it a drum beat? Was it a musical interlude? Was it an interjection? Was it a word we can no longer translate?[8] Perhaps we can no longer translate any of those words. Nobody can hear biblical Hebrew like it’s a mother tongue any more. And though we can sing every bit of the Torah and haftarah, the tunes to psalms are lost to us. Nobody knows what those symbols dancing round letters in tehillim mean any more.

But, oh, the things we have kept! Three thousand years have passed and we still have our texts. Everything that inspired David can inspire us too. We still have dark skies and rolling fields. We still have the miracle of life. We still have faith in justice. We have our voices and we can sing. We have our G?d. We can write.

We will write our own psalms. We will bring our own words and keep up that old tradition of using poetry to describe our relationship with creation, with Diaspora, and with G?d – whoever that is. We will sing about longing and belonging.

When we were in Babylon, we rejoiced by its rivers and laughed. We built new instruments. We were asked to sing a song of the land from where we’d came. We sang those songs and we made new ones too. We birthed a whole new culture all over again. Yes, we can sing a song in a strange land.

Tuscany misty panorama at sunset, rolling hills, fields, meadow.

I delivered this address at the opening of a retreat called ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’, organised by the Movement for Reform Judaism to educate young adults. Over the weekend, I used the Psalms as a tool for teaching about God, Diaspora and nature. In hindsight, I think I may have drawn too much focus to loss and not enough to all the new things that are gained by Jews in Diaspora.

[1] Psalm 137

[2] https://projectaugustine.com/biblical-studies/ancient-near-east-studies/parallelism-between-the-hymn-to-aten-and-psalm-104/

[3] Psalm 63

[4] Psalm 44, Psalm 74, Psalm 79, Psalm 80, Psalm 85, Psalm 89, Psalm 102, Psalm 106, Psalm 123, Psalm 137

[5] BT Berakhot 10a

[6] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-tetragrammaton/

[7] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6693-gittith

[8] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13398-selah

judaism · sermon

What makes people change?

What is it that makes people change? People do change, after all. Change is a foundational principle of our religion. We call it teshuvah: turning, repenting. Although we Jews hold fast to few dogmas, we know that people can make mistakes and correct them. We know that people can be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. Without this belief, our religion would be meaningless and our lives devoid of hope.

So what is it that makes people change? In this week’s parashah, Emor, God gives the Israelites a framework for repentance. They will have rest-days and festivals. They will come together on Yom Kippur and present an offering of food in the Temple. But repentance can’t be limited to only one day a year. Week after week, the Israelites must bring offerings of bread and oil to burn on the altar.

Today, it is hard to imagine how these rituals might have brought about meaningful change. We are too far removed from a Temple-centred agrarian society to imagine the spiritual significance of priests sacrificing grain on an altar. But, to those who practised it, this must have been a meaningful experience. They set aside time for worship and brought their only source of income – the harvest and livestock on which they depended for a living – then watched their offerings publicly go up in flames. Perhaps this itself was enough to make people reconsider their lives and commit to acting differently.

In the parallel haftarah, Nehemiah, the Jews throw dust on their heads, separate themselves off and wear sackcloth. They fast and cry. This was how they repented after the return from the Great Exile, when the First Temple had been destroyed. It is a spiritual world that seems so strange and yet so familiar, and we feel a sense of how that ancient cult of Temple priests evolved into the religion we practise today.

Today, we offer up prayers; we take time to reflect in silence or recite ancient meditations. To the Temple cultists, our approaches to changing ourselves might look as bizarre as their rituals appear to us. That’s because they can’t see what’s going on behind our penitentiary words: that, with them, we are examining ourselves and finding ways to be better people. These songs and silences prompt us to repair relations with people we’ve wronged, and adjust our views and actions. At least, we hope they do.

We believe that people change, but it’s hard to put that faith into practice. I have watched with some concern as news has unfolded around political scandals over the last week, both of Amber Rudd stepping down as Home Secretary for her racist policies and the beginnings of expulsions of Labour Party members accused of antisemitism. There can be absolutely no doubt that there is no place for antisemitism, anti-Black discrimination or xenophobic feeling in our public sphere. Everybody who has drawn attention to it has done the right thing. Their campaigns have been wholly legitimate.

But what comes out of them leaving their ministerial posts or their political parties? Have their views changed? Have the political forces that engendered racism been challenged? Or have we got rid of certain people from the public eye so that we can pretend that issues of bigotry are confined to individuals, rather than something we all, collectively, need to address? It seems like we have ruled out the possibility that people can change. By removing them, it seems we assume that Amber Rudd and Labour Party antisemites cannot change. And it seems we assume that we, ourselves, do not need to change. The Jewish principle of teshuvah is made obsolete.

This leaves me wondering: is there an alternative? Is there a way to encourage people to change their bigoted views that can have a lasting impact? This week, I watched a documentary, called ‘Keep Quiet’, about the Hungarian neo-Nazi Csanad Szegedi. He was a leader of the feared far-right party Jobbik, heading up their racist street army. He was celebrated by white supremacists across the world when he won a seat in the European Parliament to promote Holocaust denial, racist conspiracy theories, and anti-immigration policies.

And then something shocking happened. His grandmother informed him that she was Jewish. She had survived Auschwitz. Her daughter, his mother, was also Jewish. In Orthodox religious law, he, too, was Jewish. These revelations forced him to embark on a journey of self-discovery that dramatically changed him.

Only a few days after his Jewish status leaked to the press, Szegedi called up his local rabbi, Boruch Oberlander, a Chabad Lubavitcher, originally from New York, whose parents were Shoah survivors. Although Szegedi was very much the star of the documentary, it was his rabbi, Oberlander, who really stood out to me. Nobody else was willing to engage with Szegedi. Oberlander’s own congregants and funders actively discouraged him from meeting with the neo-Nazi. But Oberlander believed, against all evidence, and against what everyone else was saying, that Szegedi could change. He told the filmmakers that he saw Szegedi as a Jew and believed that every Jew deserved a chance at repentance.

Rabbi Oberlander opened up that space for Szegedi to become someone new. He met with him weekly, then bi-weekly. Over a period of years, he introduced him to the principles of Judaism, educated him about life under the Nazis, and showed him the compassion we would expect of a Jew. Szegedi resigned his membership of Jobbik. He bought up all the copies of his own fascist book he could find, and burnt them. He got circumcised. He began davening daily. And he publicly renounced his racist views. At each stage, Rabbi Oberlander encouraged him, saying: “You’re not done yet. You still have more repenting to do. You still can go further.” And Szegedi believed in that encouragement.

This is a totally different model of engaging bigotry to the one we have seen in British politics. It is one of patience and compassion. It builds from the assumption that people with unpalatable views are on a journey, and that they can be transformed with enough kindness, encouragement and care. It is a model that appeals to me on a deeply spiritual level.

As Jews, we have, by necessity, become hardened to antisemitism, but we should not become so hard that we forget our core values: that all people are created with a spark of the Divine; that the world is perfectible; and that we are tasked as a people to show what a world rooted in ethics might look like. Although it may seem politically unrealistic, it is religiously necessary that we engage people in uncomfortable conversations. The appeal of racism is that it offers easy answers. Our response, therefore, must be a willingness to pose hard questions, and listen sensitively to the answers.

Just as the Temple priests of old knew that repentance was not something that could be done as a one off by one person, but needed to be done constantly by everyone, Britain as a nation must also be willing to engage in teshuvah. We as a nation must face up to our country’s horrible past. Antisemitism owes its origins to the Crusades, where Jews were treated as a fifth column, and physically attacked as stand-in representatives of Palestine that the knights sought out to conquer for Christianity. Tropes of Jew hatred are part of Britain’s class system, where Jews were used by monarchs as pawns for collecting taxes, and for directing the hatred of the masses when rebellion was in the air.

Similarly, anti-Black racism comes out of Britain’s colonial history. Black people were taken from Africa to the Caribbean as slaves and forced to work on plantations. Britain called over its subjects from the colonies to help rebuild it after the war, often taking on menial jobs and living in squalid conditions. That is why the Windrush generation are here, and that is why they are being oppressed as they are.

If we really want to rid our world of the scourge of racism, Szegedi’s story will not be enough. All of us need to examine the racism in our own hearts and throughout our society. We need to create a culture where everyone is willing to learn, develop, and be better people than they have been. We also all need to learn from Rabbi Oberlander’s example: to be more willing to engage with people who have objectionable views, and patiently believe in their capacity to change. If we can meet the world with compassion and self-reflection, we may be able to restore hope.

Shabbat shalom.


I gave this sermon on Friday 4th May at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. The day before, the country had gone to the polls in local elections, where racism and antisemitism were live issues.