high holy days · sermon

Stop the privatisation of God


God is for everyone. God is supposed to unite everyone. Worship is supposed to be collective.

But, right now, God is under threat of privatisation.

In recent years, people have begun attempting to carve up God into small pieces and sell God off in individual packages.

Just 100 years ago, people knew that God was something they encountered with their fellow human beings, as they assembled in synagogues. These institutions were often the primary sources of solidarity, comfort, and welfare in any community. They bound people together.

Today, much of that community is collapsing in favour of individualism, where people are left alone to fend for themselves.

To combat this, some religions are starting to run on fee-for-service models, wherein people need not affiliate or contribute anything, but can buy access to religious experiences when it suits them.

This practice won’t save the synagogue. They are its enemy.

In these models, God is reduced to a commodity that individuals can purchase in their own homes. You need not go anywhere, but can browse online for your favourite version of God, packaged however you like it. The privatised God can be paid for whenever required, to perform whatever rites you like. The more money you have, the more of God you can get.

God was never meant to be divisible. The knowledge of the One God did not come from clever men in caves and deserts. Our prophets never claimed to have arrived at their conclusions alone.

Moses was a prince in Egypt, learned multiple languages, and could communicate expertly. But he was also the leader of a mass slave uprising in Egypt. His understanding of God’s unity came from a revelation to thousands at Mount Sinai. Together, they heard through clouds of fire: You are one people. There is one God.

Jeremiah was the eldest son of King Josiah’s High Priest, and aided by a scribe. Yet, when Jeremiah preached God’s unity, he did not do so as a lone prophet, but as a spokesperson for a large-scale anti-imperial movement. Huge groups of people were organising to resist invasion by Babylon, under the name of the one God. This collective had built over centuries, amassing momentum, as they agitated for refusal to accept foreign powers or their false gods.

Monotheism was born out of great social movements, in public, among peers.

It began with stories people told each other to build bridges. To keep peace and make relationships beyond their own homes, people developed common narratives.

“Did you know that we share a common ancestor, Abraham? Let me tell you a story of Abraham…” “Have you heard that we come from the same mother, Leah? In my tribe, this is what we know about Leah…” These stories were passed as oral traditions for many centuries, binding people together so that they could trust each other and work together.

As societies developed, so did their stories. Peoples formed into nations, and nations had their gods. The Hittites had Alalus; the Canaanites, Baal; the Egyptians had Ra; and the Sumerians, Anu. These gods looked after specific people within their borders, and supported them in their national wars, triumphs and tragedies.

Initially, the Israelites only had a national god, too, whom we now know as Hashem, or Adonai. It took time for them to develop the understanding that the god they worshipped in Israel was the God for the entire world. And that learning happened on the commons.

In the ancient world, all public activity happened on the commons. The commons brought in strangers from faraway places, and was the meeting-point for every tribe to engage with each other. It was a hub of activity, bursting with children playing, teachers educating the masses, exchange of goods and vegetables and, above all else, ideas.

There, in the open fields and marketplace, where people brought their stories, they swore oaths by their gods, and wrote promissory notes witnessed by every national god, so that their contracts would be binding in every country.

They said to each other: “I swear by Anlil… by Asherah… by Set…” They told the stories of their gods, who had created the world; flooded it; destroyed it; redeemed it.

“Perhaps,” they said, “the god that oversees Babylon is the same as the one who rules Egypt. Perhaps we simply have many names for one entity. Perhaps there is a force greater than national borders, whose justice is as expansive as the heavens, whose providence extends not just to the borders of one nation but to the entire world.”

“Just as we are one here on the commons, we might also be one at a deeper level, united by a common humanity, birthed by the same Creator. We might share a common destiny, to bring about unity on this earthly plane and to make known that God is one.”

Monotheism was a force of thousands of people seeking to reach across boundaries and divisions. A movement to imagine a future in which all people were diverse and equal. The original professors of the truth of one God sought unity of all humanity and nature , held together by something incomprehensibly greater than any of them.

Today, we still know the one God by many names. Hashem, Adonai, Shechinah. Allah, Buddha, Jesus, Jah. The names come from many languages but speak of a single truth. One God. One world. One people. One justice.

Of course, that unity is threatening to some. There are those who have a vested interest in maintaining tight borders, ethnic supremacy, and division. They have stoked up wars between the different names for the one God, seeking to divide that single truth again along national lines. Buddha was pitted against Allah; Jesus against Hashem. In Europe, they waged wars in the name of different understandings of one God and one book. Catholics and Protestants took doctrinal divisions and used them to carve up an entire continent and suppress all dissent.

For three centuries, European states fought each other over which version of God was the correct one. On either side of the divide, Jews were murdered, tortured and exiled, because if other Christians could be wrong, the Jews were really wrong. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered because powerful people had stripped monotheism of its context and abused it to create new divisions.

At the end of the wars, European leaders ushered in a new age, that they called modernity. They vowed that they would never again fight wars on such grounds. They decoupled citizenship from faith.

Religion was now not national, but completely private. You could have a religion, but only in the privacy of your own home. The Jew would be a Jew at home and an Englishman in the street. If you want to keep a kosher kitchen, that’s your business, but you’d better not bring your values out into our political space.

In some countries, every detail of religious life was taken under the state’s authority. The religious could no longer do anything that would interfere with the supremacy of the nation state.

But monotheism was never meant to serve private individuals. It was developed to bring people together, regardless of nation or creed. The problem of wedding religion to nations was not that it made religion too public, but that it made religion not public enough. The one true God was supposed to transcend all borders and remind people that no matter their language or appearance, they originated from the same Creator.

In recent times, the privatisation of God has gone even further.

The mass collective meetings of religious people have declined in favour of each individual having their own “spirituality.” No more can people develop their sense of unity in public, but they must have their own little snippet of truth that they hold tightly and do not share. The one God has been carved up into tiny little pieces so small that they can only be held in each individual’s heart. The one great God is now reduced to seven billion small ones.

All of this only further divides people. It breaks people apart, entirely contrary to what monotheism was supposed to do.

Monotheism began as a movement of ordinary people coming together on the commons.

The task of this generation is to bring God back to the commons. Religion must again become a force that breaks down all divisions and brings people together.

To stop this tide of individualism, there is really only one thing you need to do: join and build the synagogue.

It doesn’t even have to be this one – although, obviously, we would love to have you. The important thing is to join.

The synagogue still stands as a bulwark against this atomisation of society. It requires of people what we really need to keep the one God alive: commitment to each other in public. When people pay their subscriptions into a synagogue, they are not buying a service for themselves, but sustaining a community for everyone else.

In this synagogue, we are seeking to build community beyond our own walls, currently fundraising for local youth, the nearby refugee group, and our sister community of Jews that have fled Ukraine.

We must build communities in these small places where we live, while looking beyond them, with a knowledge that our God is so much bigger than any one community.

The message of monotheism is that all of truth is for all the people. Not some bits of truth for some. One love, one justice, one truth, uniting one people on one planet.

Our liturgy teaches that, once humanity has shaken off the fetters of prejudice and the worship of material things, equality and justice will reign over every land.

We must work towards the day when all peoples declare in every tongue that they have a common Creator, and that the destiny of one person is bound up in the fate of all humanity.

On that day, God will be one and known as One.

Shanah tovah.

high holy days · sermon

Why the world was made

There are some places in this world that fill me up with an awe of creation more than anywhere else can. Places so beautiful they make me wonder why they exist.

The Scottish Highlands are such a place. Those mountain landscapes are cragged rocks and stark hills stitched together by seas and tarns and smaller rock pools. They are peat bogs and waterfalls growing shrubs and trees, so full of life it feels as though they are themselves breathing. 

This year, I went to visit them. With my partner, we walked through the hills, saw old churches, visited a beloved rabbinic mentor, and witnessed the birds and wildlife. 

In between completing my dissertation and getting ordained as a rabbi, I decided to make a pilgrimage to mark the transition. It truly felt like a religious moment; a chance to draw closer to something sacred.

As we walked, we met with a land that was part of our country but felt decidedly foreign, and we met myths that, while part of our heritage, seemed alien. 

For the Gaelic-speaking peoples of Scotland and Ireland, these landscapes have their own origin story.

Those mountains are no accident. They were built intentionally, but a type of deity called Cailleach. Known also as Beira, or the Queen of Winter, she is an aged crone; one-eyed and completely white. 

She battles spring each year to reign her icy dominion over this hemisphere. She is a deer-herder, a lumberjack, and a warrior. She carries in her hand a great hammer as she strides across the Celtic Isles. She is the mother-goddess.

It was Cailleach who built the Highlands. She pulled rocks out of the sea and carved out stepping stones for her giant strides. She pushed through the space, breaking up new mountain faces with her hammer. She walked as winter through the new landscape she had made, and allowed waters to flow and overflow in every crevice.

I was enamoured by this story. Yes, that is what it looks like. It looks like an enormous witch has made it. It feels bursting with purpose.

My boyfriend prefers another version. He is a scientist, a doctor. We see the same world but through different lenses.

Millions of years ago, he read, the earth endured an ice age. Frozen water cut through the earth and wore down the ancient mineral rocks at a glacial pace. When the waters finally thawed, they left behind these precipices and pastures on the Scottish coastlines.

But isn’t that just the same story, told in a different way? Cailleach is simply an anthropomorphic ice current. The processes attributed to gods and fairies – that breaking and carving and flooding – are repackaged in scientific language. The scientists can give us approximate dates and name when the layers of sediment formed, but they are effectively telling the same story.

What difference does it make whether these wells were made by frozen currents or by the Wild Woman of Winter?

It is not fair to say that one is rational and the other is mythical. Both accounts are testament to humanity’s ability to understand its surroundings. The story of Cailleach is no less important a contribution, and we cannot just dismiss it. 

Equally, we cannot treat the national myth in the same way as we would our best scientific discoveries. They are not equally weighted as theories about how the earth was formed. Centuries of technological advancement and detailed research have given us this account of the Highland’s foundations.

The difference between these stories is not whether they tell us something true, but what kind of truth they point us to. The scientific explanation tells us the history of the world in context of great geological events. It teaches us how to identify, exploit or protect the natural surroundings we have inherited.

The story of Cailleach, by contrast, tells us about the unquantifiable truths of the Highlands: the awe they inspire; the magic they seem to hold. It teaches us about the shared national destiny of the Scottish, Irish, and Manx people who tell her story. 

These are not competing, but complementary, stories of creation. One tells us the truth of how a place was made, the other tells us why.

At this time of year, we turn to our own national myth and origin story. Our new year recalls the creation of the world. It is a day for us to delight in the fact that we are alive.

The biblical account of creation does not only explain the origins of one geological formation, but seeks to tell the genesis of the entire world.

5,783 years ago, the world was made in six days, from explosive dividing light, through land and seas and atmosphere, through to sea creatures, winged beasts, mammals, and human beings.

It is no good to compare this religious tradition with the theories of the Big Bang or evolution through natural selection. They are telling the story of the same thing, but from totally different perspectives. 

Science attempts to understand how the world was made; our myths ask us why.

The first chapter of Genesis suggests some reasons. The world was created with great purpose. Each day, with everything that God created, God saw that it was good.

When God created humanity, God gave us responsibility for the earth and what is in it. God gave us companions and promised us regular rest. God created the world for goodness, with humanity at heart.

The scientist and the theologian alike look at the world with a sense of wonder. We both feel awe as we track their stars in their orbit. We both marvel at the fact that a planet has produced the perfect conditions for life to form and grow entire ecosystems to sustain myriads of plants and creatures.

On this we agree.

The difference is that, for the believer, we do not just gaze in awe. Awe gazes back at us. 

You are not just amazed at the world, but the world is amazed by you. 

Not just the parts of you that you share in common with all other living beings, but those things that are unique to you. 

Not just the fact that you have functioning organs and limbs, but you. That transcendental, magical part of you. We might call it personality or soul or neshama.

It is not something mechanical or quantifiable. There is something about you that is wonderful and irreplaceable.

That is you

When we are confronted with the wonder and beauty of the world in which we live, we are tempted to ask what it is all here for. The answer of Judaism is that it is here for you.

To the religious imagination, your life is not an accident. It is a blessing. You were created for the sake of the world and the world was created for the sake of you. 

According to our Torah, at first creation, God wandered round to take in the Garden of Eden in the cool of day. And, there, God called out to the first human being: “Where are you?” God was looking for the human.

The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, understood that this question is addressed to every human being in every age. We, too, are forever hiding, behind the stories we tell ourselves that our lives are meaningless and our actions matter little. We find ways to try and escape truth, even to hide from ourselves. 

And God, that great Source of amazement, nevertheless seeks us out, asking “where are you?”

So, Buber says, you have to answer that question. You have to seek deep inside your soul and answer who you really are. You have to try and give an account of what you are doing on this earth. You have to make yourself present, ready to face Truth, and, crucially, to change.

Where are you?

You are on this beautiful earth, crafted by a magnificent Creator. You are here and alive. You are a miracle.

God is amazed at how wonderful you are.

And now you have to show that God’s faith is rightly placed.

Shanah tovah.

Cailleach, Queen of Winter
sermon · social justice

A peasant farmer was my father

A peasant farmer was my father

When my mind wanders, I like to think about where I would go if I could travel in time. Have you ever considered this? When you would want to visit?

Personally, my first thought is Paris in the 1890s. In my higher moments, I project myself into medieval Andalus, the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Spain. 

And, of course, I’d love to go back to biblical times. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to see the First Temple in all its glory? What would it be like to inhabit that world of prophets and visionaries?

But this time travel thought experiment always comes with a corollary. I’d have to be a rich man. No matter what spot of history I got dropped in, the only way to enjoy it would be to be part of the elite.

If I were sent back to biblical times without that condition, I’d probably be a peasant farmer. We like to imagine our ancestors as great kings and high priests. In reality, they were less than a small fraction of the ancient Israelite population.

95% of people in the biblical period worked the land. Dropped back to the time of David and Solomon, we probably wouldn’t be in their courts, but in the fields. 

I take a perverse pride in this knowledge.

Think how hard they must have worked to bring that ancient society into being!

As a peasant farmer in the ancient world, you would have about 3 acres, growing different crops, including grains, fruit trees, and olives. You would, almost certainly, have a chicken run and a small herd of goats. 

If you were really fancy, you might also have a cow.

Your home would be a collection of huts and tents, stretching out to include your extended family. Each would be a bustling, cramped place, with pots and pans and a fire stove. Your animals would potter in and out of your sleeping quarters. 

I am not trying to paint a romantic vision of any of this. Your life would be hard. You would pull a plough with your own hands and sow seeds with your back hunched over. You would cultivate and cut and glean your trees in the searing heat. 

You would spin your own wool, stitch your own clothes, bake your own bread, build your own dwellings, subsist on whatever you needed to survive.

Yes, all that is true for women, too, with an additional burden. You would give birth to ten children and breast feed all of them. You would count yourself incredibly lucky if all of them lived past the age of 5. If they did, they would likely be married off in their teens. 

No, there is nothing romantic about the lives of our real ancestors. 

But we should be proud of them. 

Peasants, labourers and serfs might not be the subject of great poetry and sagas, but without their efforts, nothing exists. There could be no food, no shelter, no community, and no culture, without their graft. That gruelling work made civilisation possible.

This week’s parashah tells us something of how they built ancient Israelite society.

If they had just stuck to their own homesteads, they would have had to survive on the paltry gains of subsistence farming. In a bad year – if rains failed to fall or crops failed to grow – they would simply perish.

So, our family, the farmers of the ancient world, signed up to participate in the agrarian state. 

The agrarian state was responsible for distributing food and creating common irrigation and transport systems. In ancient Israel, the centre of that state was the Jerusalem Temple. 

Our parashah explains the criteria for participating in its systems. You must not glean your fields right to their edges, so that you leave enough for travellers and strangers. You must donate a tenth of your grain and livestock to support those in the community who are most vulnerable, like widows and orphans. 

In some ways, this is the foundation of the earliest welfare state. 

But the poor are not the only beneficiaries of this redistribution. 

In fact, they were not even its primary targets. 

Our parashah begins with a ritual that Israelites must undertake each year. At each harvest of the year, you must collect your first and best fruits. You must bring these, the choicest of all the crops you worked so hard to create, and give them to the priests.

You must lift them above your head and say: “A wandering Aramean was my father. He was enslaved in Egypt, but God brought him out into this land of milk and honey. Now, I bring before you, the first fruits of the soil that God has given me.”

The priest will sacrifice it, perform closed rituals, and eat it in front of you.

That priest did not work to produce those fruits. He did not share in the exhausting work of raising children in a hovel, or run ploughs over the land. In fact, he wasn’t responsible for any land.

The priest’s sole job was to be the leader of the ancient cult. He was in charge. He profited from your work. 

That great Temple in Jerusalem, with all its priests and writings and rituals, only existed because the poor majority paid in and made it happen. That entire society functioned on the basis of our ancestors’ labour. How could they have done it without the work of the people who harvested the grain, built the bricks, and cared for the sick? 

I don’t resent the ancient priests. 

That work made possible great cultural developments. At that time, we couldn’t have had literary culture, organised society, music or scientific discovery without a class who had the leisure time to devote to such pursuits.

We then wouldn’t have benefited from the innovations in agriculture, technology, transport and trade that makes our lives today less horrible than they were in ancient times.

But, while resentment for ancient figures might not be productive, we should feel entitled to be critical.

After all, their world is our world. For all the social progress we have made, the divisions that defined civilisations millenia ago are only greater than they were then.

Far fewer people profit far more from the work of the majority than ever did in the biblical period. 

Almost all of us, I know, are worried about how energy price gouging, interest rate rises, and higher costs of living will affect us. Some are already feeling the effects of an economy where wages won’t rise but prices keep going up. 

Meanwhile, the energy companies and their shareholders are making record profits. These last few years, which have been so frightening for most people, have been a period of great abundance for the world’s richest. 

This is not accidental. The rich are not rich in spite of the poor. They are rich because of the poor.

Perhaps those inequalities were essential to create our current world. But how much greater would society be if we decided to eradicate them? Just imagine what we could accomplish if nobody had to worry about heating their home or feeding their family.

We could unleash the great talents of everyone, whether priest or pauper; shareholder or sharecropper; king or taxi driver. We could enjoy this world, with all its bounties, without the constant friction of struggle.

On reflection, if I could travel in time, I don’t think the past would be the place for me. I would prefer, instead, to make my way to the future.

I want to go to the time when technology is harnessed to benefit everyone in the world, regardless of who they are and where they live. An era in which it is not just a small minority that creams off the profits of the many, but when everything is redistributed between everyone. One in which the gains of civilisation are shared with all humanity. 

We can’t change the past. We can’t go back and rescue our ancestors from the harsh realities of peasantry. But we can build a different future for the next generation. We can make it so that the future is not defined by the same problems of the past.

Let us travel to that point in time together. 

Shabbat shalom.

Ki Tavo 5782, South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

spirituality · story

God is sharing her location on WhatsApp

The king is in the field.

Last weekend, a new moon hung in the sky, marking the new month of Elul. This season, is a time dedicated to reflection on who we are and who we can become. It is a time when we turn back to God and aim at healing our relationships.

At this time, you may hear Chabadniks greet each other, saying “the king is on the field.” It comes from a story taught by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who was the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitcher dynasty in the 18th Century. He used to explain the month of Elul using the parable of a king coming out in a field.

According to the analogy, the king’s usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of secretaries and ministers. He must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. His presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.

However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace.

The king described by the Alter Rebbe in this metaphor is God. In his analogy, God is the ruler of all, but is hard to access except by an elite few. During Elul, the heavenly king comes out from his palace and makes himself accessible to all. In this month leading up to the High Holy Days, everyone has the chance to approach God, seeking favour and forgiveness.

It’s a beautiful analogy. But metaphors also have their problems, and we need to check them to see if they really work for us.

First of all, is God really a man? Well, of course not. God is too great and infinite to be held by anything as small as a body or a gender. Some Jews have therefore chosen only to use gender-neutral language to describe God, deploying words like “Holy One” and “Source of Life.” Alternatively, some Jews have chosen to reclaim divine feminine language, emphasising God’s femininity.

As Reform Jews, our belief in gender equality is essential to us, and that is bound to come through in how we think about God. To be honest, I’m happy addressing God by any pronouns because none of them capture what God really is. You can really insert whatever gender you like.

The much bigger question is what kind of personality this anthropomorphic God has. In the Lubavitcher parable, God is a king. There is plenty of precedent in Jewish tradition for such a reading: God is “adon olam,” the Lord of the universe; God’s throne is eternal and His sceptre stands upright; God is described as the king over all kings, and we are called upon to build God’s kingdom on earth.

I really don’t like this imagery at all. True, it tells us something about how powerful God is, but the image of a benevolent ruler isn’t very helpful to self-improvement. If a king tells you to change your ways, you’ll do it out of fear of violence or retribution. A king, to me, conjures up images of unearned power, and I want to deliberately rebel against it.

I prefer the idea of God as a loved one. When I approach Elul, I want to improve so that I can be the best possible version of myself. The people that make me aspire to that are my partner, best friends, and close family members. They remind me that I’m loved, and inspire me to do better by others.

This idea is also very present in Jewish interpretations of Elul. Some rabbis have noticed thar the letters of Elul could be an acronym for the beautiful love poetry of the Song of Solomon: ani ledodi vedodi li; “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” In this allegory, God and Israel are lovers working together. I much prefer this idea of equality and mutual partnership.

This idea of equality really doesn’t fit with how Chassids imagine God or social relationships. As they explain in the Alter Rebbe’s fable, God is only accessible to elite people most of the time. That is a core ideological belief for many Chassids. They see their rebbes not only as teachers but as holy men, who have a special connection to God. They advocate dveikus: cleaving to special people so that we, through them, can get closer to God.

They don’t hold this belief because they are somehow traditional and we are not. At the time when Chassidism was birthed, roughly contemporary with Reform Judaism, many of its greatest opponents within Orthodoxy criticised them for creating hierarchies and dynasties within Judaism. God, they said, had no intermediaries, and Judaism did not have hereditary hierarchies.

The story of the king in the field is quite beautiful, but when subjected to scrutiny, it looks much less appealing. It speaks to a worldview in which everything is divided up on a power ladder. Men above women; special Jews above ordinary people; and God as a king on top of it all.

That doesn’t mean we should completely abandon this teaching about Elul. The idea of coming back to God is helpful, and I adore the image of meeting God in the open country.

I want us to imagine an alternative. I want us to imagine what this theology would look like if all of humanity were equals. What would we say if our relationship to God was not a vertical one of subject to king but a horizontal one between lovers?

So, I submit to you, an alternative telling of the analogy of the king in the field, updated for modern times and modern beliefs.

God has turned on location sharing.

You receive a WhatsApp message. She is letting you know she’s on her way.

You haven’t seen her all year, so your heart immediately flutters with excitement. You can’t wait to see her again.

You love her. When she’s around, you feel like the best version of yourself. You laugh more. You give more of yourself. You feel more compassionate and honest. You want to bottle up the love you feel when you’re with her so that you can share it with others the rest of the year.

The little location sharing pin says she is inching closer towards you.

Only inching. She appears to be walking through fields. You calculate how long it might take him to reach you. Weeks, perhaps.

Still, seeing her is worth the wait. You wonder if you could meet her sooner.

You text back: “Can I meet you somewhere along the way?”

She answers instantly: “Yes.”

Your heart beats a little faster as you get dressed, tie your walking boots and head out. She walks faster than you. You will be reunited soon.

It is Elul. God is coming closer to you, and you are getting closer to God. As we trudge through the muddy fields of this month, let us relish the chance to draw nearer to our loving God.

Shabbat shalom.