Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.
Revere your God.
This week’s parashah is Kedoshim, the centre of the whole Torah. It is the centre in two senses: we are slap bang in the middle of our scroll. When the warden performs the hagbahh tomorrow, the Torah will look almost completely even on both sides.
It is also, I feel, the spiritual centre of our Scripture. This is the part of the Torah that tells us what the rest of it was for. All the stories and speeches that surround the rest of the text can be summarised in this portion.
Many of the verses from elsewhere in Torah are repeated. Some of it might seem superfluous. Kedoshim reads a little bit like the Torah’s greatest hits, reminding us of some its most popular laws and aphorisms.
But the collection is not random. The smattering of commandments I recited at the beginning all have something important in common. They are about what rights and obligations people have in relation to each other.
This year has brought home to many of us that we cannot take our health for granted. Our bodies are fragile and the time on earth we have is precious.
If you were to become blind, or deaf, or sick, or old, what could you expect from society? What are the minimum standards that others owe you? And, if you are blessed with youth and good health, what must you do to honour others?
Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. You might think: of course! Who would do such a thing? Who would want to trip up the disabled? But cities are structured and buildings managed in ways that are full of stumbling blocks. Every staircase to access public transport; every meeting held miles away from places people can reach; every building without a wheelchair ramp; every space without accessible toilets; every show without subtitles; and every badly laid-out street. These are all stumbling blocks.
Do not curse the deaf. And again, you would say: who would do such a thing? Surely nobody would be so cruel as to insult people who cannot hear them! But this happens all the time. Every headline that calls disabled people scroungers; every job that refuses to make adjustments; every effort to make welfare harder to access; every time the price of medication is jacked up; every time a comedian makes fun of a disability… aren’t all these insults to the deaf?
These are all ways that disabled people are kicked while they’re down.
Instead, the Torah tells us we need to lift each other up.
May we be the ones to remove every stumbling block and replace every curse with a blessing.
This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Kedoshim, on 23rd April 2021
It was midsummer in a basin in the Welsh valleys. I found myself completely naked with a friend in a lukewarm tub of rainwater. We were supposed to wait for it to properly heat up over the log fire, but I was in a hurry to go from teaching Torah there to preaching in north-west London. The sunshine compensated for us.
All around there were huge green trees, rolling hills, a babbling brook. Hippies not far away chanted in Hebrew while banging on drums.
“OK,” I said. “Now what do I do?”
“So I’m going to tell you my practice,” she said, “but you can come up with your own.”
Her practice, I later discovered, was the same one as you would find Orthodox Jews performing on Friday afternoons, as sanctioned by rabbis and law books. She had a way of making every tradition feel New Age.
She dunked fully underwater three times, twice emerging to recite a prayer.
Al hatvilah – thank you, God, for making me holy by commanding me in immersion.
Shehechiyanu- thank you, God, for keeping me alive to see this day.
On the third dip, she came up, smiled and said: “That’s all there is to it.”
I copied her every move. And that was it: my first mikveh.
I had previously associated this ritual with Orthodox women washing off the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic.
The only other people I knew of who did it were converts, undergoing a form of Jewish baptism to initiate them into the religion. I had thought, cynically, that these new Jews were washing off the goy.
But here was my teacher, Yael Tischler, far more radical than I was in terms of religious innovation and transgressive liturgy; a witchy feminist affiliated to the Kohenet movement in America – a bohemian collective for women-centred spirituality.
With her, the act of immersion didn’t feel problematic. It felt like my whole body was wrapped up in Jewish history. It felt connected to the earthy, fleshy customs of long-gone ancestors.
This was strange, because I know that none of my recent ancestors would have done such a thing. Liberal Jews were, by and large, decidedly opposed to many embodied rituals.
Like their reforming Christian counterparts, many of the early Progressive Jews felt that religion should be a matter of intellectual faith. It should be stripped down to its essential meanings, devoid of excessive piety or symbols.
In the great platforms decreed from Germany and the USA, Reform Jews repudiated circumcision, abandoned kashrut and denounced tallits. They ridiculed shockeling, the Eastern Ashkenazi prayer movements, as “bowing and scraping.” One British Liberal rabbi called kippot “the eccentric trappings of the Orient.”
As you can imagine, mikvaot did not get much of a look-in. For decades, ritual immersion was not a requisite part of conversion at the Reform beit din. Today, very few progressive Jews will attend the mikveh before their wedding. It is almost unheard of that a progressive Jew will have a regular toiveling practice as the Orthodox do.
This week’s parashah probably provides a good explanation as to why progressives are so uncomfortable with it. This week, we read Tazria-Metzora, a portion dedicated to defiling skin diseases, leprous houses, sexual infections and menstrual impurity.
To escape the uncleanness that falls upon people by contact with these things, ancient Israelites would ritually immerse in a mikveh. The Torah describes mayyim chayyim – running water – in which people would wash themselves. We know that in the period after the Great Exile, the mikveh was likely an enormous bath at the entrance to the Second Temple.
In the biblical world, the mikveh does seem troubling. It exists for a people obsessed by physical purity, who want to remove their blemishes before they enter sacred spaces. I would not feel comfortable advocating immersion to congregants on the grounds that their bodies are unclean and carry associations of sin.
But my teacher, Rabbi Debbie Young Somers, argues that our rabbis fundamentally transformed what mikveh meant. She did her rabbinic thesis on mikvaot and has taught about their virtues in numerous study sessions. When I asked her for sources for this sermon, she immediately sent me detailed source sheets and tweeted her glee that the subject matter was being discussed in our synagogue.
Impurity, Rabbi Debbie argues, is not the same as defilement for the rabbis. It is what happens when you come close to something holy. Touching religious texts, having sex, giving birth and changing to a more holy status, are acts that require immersion. Faeces, urine and vomit, which are more obviously disgusting, do not require any religious ritual. When we wash ourselves, we are not scrubbing away sinful dirt, but acknowledging sacred contagion.
In a post-Temple world, nobody can be clean or unclean. The mechanisms for such processes are gone and the need to do so – so that one might perform an animal sacrifice in the correct state – thankfully no longer exists.
The Talmud records that, nevertheless, Jewish women took the obligation of ritual immersion upon themselves. It was a choice that antique ancestresses made as part of their covenant with God. When they did, the rabbis largely trusted women to self-regulate and organise their own mikvaot. It might well be that they already had very little authority over this aspect of life.
Today, feminists are returning to these practices. Led mostly by religious women, efforts to reclaim the mikveh are popping up all over the world. Scholars and lay people are extolling the virtues of immersion for both men and women.
People take these ritual baths before life-changing events, like trying for a baby, getting married, starting a new job and completing a course of study. They also use the mikveh to process life’s trials, like miscarriage, recovery from illness, divorce and redundancy.
That was how I ended up, a few summers ago, doing sacred skinny dipping in the countryside. I am now convinced that it is a deeply moving spiritual practice, and I commend it to anyone who is interested.
The Sternberg Centre in North London has a functioning mikveh. There is also a programme underway called the Wellspring Project, which hopes to soon create a mikveh-oriented wellbeing centre. In Manchester, the new building for Jackson’s Row is planned to have a mikveh.
And the wonderful thing about mikveh is that you don’t have to travel far to do it. You can toivel in any naturally occurring water, like seas, lakes and rivers. Just turn up, jump in, and dip your head underwater.
And thank God for the commandments.
And thank God for your body.
And thank God you’re alive.
And thank God that we can take these ancient practices and make them our own.
I gave this sermon on Shabbat 17 April 2021 for Parashat Tazria-Metzora at Newcastle Reform Synagogue
I am not making any claims about how God made me or what plans God had in store. I have no idea whether my personality was predetermined. I do not have any opinion on whether I am gay because of nature or nurture. I stopped caring about that a long time ago.
But I still say that God is the reason I am gay. Because God is the reason that, if I were given the choice whether or not to keep being gay, I would stay exactly as I am. God is the reason I am proud to be open.
Growing up, there were many reasons I ought to have felt shame. In the 1990s, there was widespread public panic about gay men. I remember as a child opening up a ‘dictionary of new words.’ On one of the first pages was AIDS, whose entry redirected to ‘Gay-Related Disease.’ News stories proliferated about gay men grooming children, having sex in toilets and ruining families. The public image, only 20 years ago, was that gays were dirty, lived in sewers, and spread disease.
Synagogue was a place where I felt safe. In the small shul in my provincial town, I found serenity. And I heard religious leaders and cheder teachers speak about the innate dignity of all human beings; the Divine spark that permeated through everyone; the obligation to protect the stranger and the vulnerable.
The first time I ever heard an adult defend gay rights was in a community member’s living room. I must have been 11. Recently, a local parliamentary candidate had been outed after he was found having sex in a public toilet. Someone said something homophobic – I don’t remember the details.
A middle-aged Jewish woman leapt to the gay man’s defence. She spoke with absolute passion. She laughed when one of the homophobes said he had a gay friend. She was a grown-up telling off a bigot, and she rallied the rest of the room behind her.
As a young queer boy questioning who I was, I looked up to her and thought that was what Judaism looked like in practice. That was what it meant to defend the marginalised. I had permission – from her, and from the God in whom she believed – to be gay.
Gradually I came to realise that I was one of the people that the Jewish woman in the living room had been defending. I didn’t meet many other people like me until I got to university. When I did, I heard from many of them how religious hatred had hurt them and made them reluctant to be open about who they were.
I was grateful that I had known the true God. Progressive Jews worshipped the Source of love and justice, the universal God who did not judge, and who always stood beside the oppressed, and never sided with the oppressor. I thanked God for making me gay.
Later still, I looked around for role models. I wondered what gays could become. I knew a few celebrities existed, like Graham Norton, Elton John and George Michael. But my greatest comfort was knowing that there were gay rabbis. Rabbis like Lionel Blue.
As I looked for purpose in my twenties, I had an inspiring lesbian rabbi. I realised how much strength and joy a synagogue could give, especially to future LGBT kids. I decided I had to create that safe space for others. So God made me gay and, in turn, being gay made me seek out God.
That is the power of religion. Done right, it can affirm people when they are weakest. It can give hope to children that people like them deserve defending. It can be the champion of all who are suffering. It can be the cause of their liberation.
And that power can be profoundly abused. There are those who wield religious power to scare gays into submission. There are those who sit down with queer children and tell them that they need to seek forgiveness for their sinful thoughts. That they have been brainwashed by transgender ideology. That they are mentally disturbed. That they are possessed by demons.
Apparently it is called ‘conversion therapy.’ In this practice, authority figures tell LGBT people that they can stop them being trans or turn them straight. They convince them that if they suppress their personalities, conform to rigid gender roles and only love who they are told, they will be healed. And they do so in the name of God.
And this practice is legal. In Britain. Today.
It is even practised within the British Jewish community. Recently, LGBT people have come forward to share their traumatic stories of how they were manipulated into believing they could be ‘cured’ of non-conformity. They were convinced that if they failed, they would lose their family and community for having let down God.
If queer-affirming religion can make me the person I am today, imagine the damage it can do to teenagers struggling to work out who they are.
As the possibility was raised that this cruel practice could be stopped, a coalition of evangelical churches comprising thousands of members published an open letter saying that banning conversion therapy would effectively outlaw their religion.
At Easter, Labour leader, Keir Starmer, went to one of those very churches to give his festive address. In response to the consternation this provoked from LGBT people, Stephen Timms, a Labour MP, tweeted in support of the homophobic church.
The two most recent prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, had both visited this church too, causing outrage. The former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, recently accepted a donation of £75,000 from an evangelical church that lobbies in defence of conversion therapy.
When politicians spend their time and take money from homophobic religious institutions, they send out a clear message. They tell religious lesbian, gay, bi and trans people that they are, at best, indifferent to homophobia.
When public figures choose to attend these places of worship that claim they can cure gays, rather than any of the mainstream faith houses that embrace gays, they send a message about what they consider to be proper religion, and which God they think matters.
But it is possible to send a different message. We can say that conversion therapy is unacceptable. While banning the practice won’t stop it happening, it lets everyone know that it is not OK. Young people will still talk to their rabbis about how they’re feeling, but religious leaders should not be able to answer LGBT children by promising to take away their gayness or transness.
Instead, they can give them a better message. Young LGBT people can grow up to see that their lives are sacred and deserve to be protected. They can know that they are wonderful as they are and do not need to be changed.
God is the reason I am gay, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Every seder, we read about the four children. These characters in our Haggadah have come to us from the Palestinian Talmud, and are based on Torah verses. They’ve entered our liturgy as a joyous part of the seder ritual.
It’s a fun annual party game to speculate about which of the four you might be, and even to assign the attributes to other guests at the party.
For what it’s worth, I usually play the wicked child of the Haggadah. I quite like the idea of being the trouble-maker.
But is it really how we want to define people, and their relationship to Judaism? My teacher, Professor Jeremy Schonfield, has pointed out that all the four children are really quite negative stereotypes, and they all get punished for their questions.
The chacham – or wise child – might better be called the know-it-all. She sits at the seder and already knows all the answers. So she comes along and, puffing up her chest, asks: “what are the laws of Passover?” Oh, she thinks she already knows. She’s asked this question every year. She can smugly rattle off to you how well she prepared koshering the house and she has strong opinions on what everyone else should be eating. Yes, you’ve met her.
So how do you respond to her? Tell the wise child the most complicated laws about Pesach, even the one about how you don’t start the second part of the meal until you’ve found the afikomen. That’s at the very end of Mishnah Pesachim, and she probably won’t have got that far. That’s it, put her in her place. Make sure she knows that she doesn’t really know it all. Thank you, chacham, for your very wise remarks, the rest of us would like to get on with the meal.
Then you’ve got the rashaa – the wicked son – who asks “what does all this mean to you?” To you, not to him. He doesn’t care. He’s not interested. Why are you doing all this? Your wicked son will do whatever he likes, but from his aloof standpoint, he can take a shot at you with your primitive rituals. The accusing patriarch responds to this by telling him he should have been left in Egypt. Hope you can take scorn as good as you give it, rashaa.
Next comes along the child who is tam. The Reform Haggadah generously translates this as naïve, probably to avoid the ableist overtones of the more familiar translation that this child is simple. The word could just as easily mean ‘mute’ or ‘modest’, but we’re probably meant to imagine her as clueless. She asks: “what’s this?” Like a lost sheep bewildered by the most basic rituals of the most famous festival, she’s stuck, absently pointing at objects and asking what’s going on.
How do we help her? The seder leader responds by saying “God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand…” – and then doesn’t even bother finishing the sentence. There’s a long verse you could quote to the tam but you assume she’s already lost interest and, frankly, you’ve already lost patience. Why bother with someone who’s simple?
You turn straight to the child who doesn’t know how to ask. And you repeat exactly what you just said to the simple child. How much more patronising can you get? You’re not going to even bother trying to include him. You just tell him what he already knows because he just heard you say it to your daughter.
If anything, the Haggadah is a model in how not to engage people. It’s an exercise in what happens when you label children and assume the worst in them. You respond with terrible answers that leave your dinner guests feeling deflated.
In 1950, the great Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg wrote a response to the Four Children. It was the only poem she ever wrote about the Second World War, and it’s a stunning meditation on how the trauma of genocide shaped her contemporaries’ outlooks. In this poem, she completely reimagines who the four children are, picturing each of their postures as a trauma response.
She begins with the child who does not know how to ask, imagining a woman heartbroken by survivors’ guilt. She has witnessed the most horrific brutality and lived to talk about it. Only now she has no words. Stumped, she asserts:
I am not wicked, not smart, not even simple,
And for this reason, I asked no questions
Her survivor cajoles the reader: If you can, then open me up.
Goldberg then helps us understand why someone might become ‘wicked.’ She tells of a man who has been toughened up by circumstances and now cannot bear to empathise. His tears have dried up and his heart has hardened. So he vows to be cruel and cool and estranged. He tells God:
To you, I blunt my teeth.
What about the simple child? Goldberg tells us of someone who has known so much pain that just looking at stars reminds her of her anguish. She looks at the millions of stars and sees the millions dead. The stars remind her of her night terrors:
On all other nights against a dark arrogant sky,
Against a delirious moon and against the milky-way
Great gloomy ghosts of a day gone by
And, just once, she wants to get back her naivety. She wants to be able to stop seeing her pain when she looks up at night. So she implores:
On all other nights, anticipation, silence
On this night – only stars
Why shouldn’t she be permitted her simplicity?
The wise child, in Goldberg’s poem, is the one who says the least. He is the one who died. That is what wisdom meant to a survivor of the Shoah.
Reframed through Leah Goldberg’s eyes, we can understand the four children not by their worst intentions but by the trauma they carry and the way they deal with pain.
This seems to me a much better way of greeting dinner guests. It should be a starting assumption that everyone we meet is carrying baggage. Everyone is hurting. We have to be able to meet people at their most vulnerable and our most sympathetic.
As lockdown eases, I am aware that many people are only just processing what we have been through. I am not by any means comparing what we have experienced to the Holocaust, but we have certainly been through something unprecedented and destabilising. Our old certainties about our religion, our health, and our community have been disrupted. We have known death, heartache, family struggles and isolation.
Now we meet each other. We can choose what responses we adopt. We will meet people who seem wicked, or who seem naïve, or who seem like they know it all, or who seem like they have nothing to say. We may well want to blunt our teeth at them and put them in their place. We may want to be impatient or patronising.
But the better response, the more Jewish response, will be to meet them where they are, and hear them in their hurt. Whatever type of child they seem to be, the important thing to remember is that inside them is a child. Someone inside of them is vulnerable, scared, and looking for assurance. Someone inside of you is the same.
Let us not label each other and dismiss people, but greet each other with compassion and empathy.
This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Seventh Day Pesach, 3rd April 2021