“There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese!”
In one of my favourite childhood movies, a gang of mice pranced about the film screen singing these words. There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese.
In An American Tail, the protagonist is a seven-year-old Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. In his home country, the mice are terrorised by cats. They struggle to eat and sustain their traditions. His whole family dreams of making the journey across the Atlantic to a new country where they won’t face these problems any more.
In America, they imagine, the cats, which represent persecution or kossacks or fascists or pogroms, won’t exist any more. After years of not eating, America will provide them with every food they have imagined. Over the ocean, even the streets will be paved with cheese.
As the plot unfolds, the mice arrive in New York. Fievel discovers that America’s streets are no more cheesy than the old country’s, and that cats are just as prevalent. In their new land, they will also be hungry, and persecuted, and tired, just as they were in the old. Their dreams could not be realised by moving from one country to another.
In this week’s parashah, Moses sends out scouts to survey the land of Israel. He asks twelve envoys to go into the country they expect to possess and report back on its contents.
I imagine this must have been a moment of great trepidation. We today know what other countries look like. We are able to travel abroad; we meet migrants from foreign places; we have access to people anywhere in the world through media in the palms of our hands.
Not long ago, such journeys were rare. People did not know how expansive the globe was or how similar and different people around the world would be to them. Perhaps travelling merchants brought fantastical tales from places they had never been. Some maps were marked with warnings of sea monsters and dragons. For the Israelites making the journey to Canaan, it would have been their first time leaving their valley in Egypt. Anything could await them on the other side.
When they came back, ten gave their report. The land has fertile soil, with large grapes growing on vines. But the people who live there are numerous and giant. We looked like grasshoppers to them. The cities are walled, fortified, and guarded. We have no chance of taking that land, and, even if we could, it will swallow up everyone who inhabits it.
Caleb and Joshua disagreed. They offered a minority report. We can do it. We can take this land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. As long as you obey God and Moses, you can capture that place and live the life you have fantasised about.
According to our story, the other ten scouts were struck down with plagues and punished for their transgression. How dare they give such a negative report?
Only Joshua and Caleb go on to enter the Promised Land. Rabbinic commentaries make much of how courageous and optimistic those men were. They had faith. They believed in God’s strength and their own.
But here’s the thing. Joshua and Caleb were lying. That land was not flowing with milk and honey. They really were outnumbered. They really were about to take on fortified cities. It really was unlikely that an exhausted band of runaway slaves were going to be able to conquer an entirely new country.
All Joshua and Caleb were offering were politicians’ promises. They were giving false hope to keep people in line and stop them rebelling against Moses.
They say, at this moment, God decided that this generation would not enter the Promised Land. They were too rebellious and stubborn. Only Joshua and Caleb, who actually believed in God, would be permitted admission. This was their punishment: they will not know what the Land of Israel looks like, and they will wander further.
But, if they had entered the land, the whole Israelite people would have seen that the first ten scouts were right. They would have realised that Joshua and Caleb had fleeced them. They would have seen that Moses promised them a land that did not exist.
Preachers often lament how sad it was that Moses never saw the Promised Land. But how much sadder would it have been if Moses had reached it? Imagine if Moses had travelled all those miles, given up everything, fought with everyone, and struggled endlessly, only to see that the much-vaunted land of his ancestors was just another desert.
The lands of Israel are no more fertile than the plains on the east side of the Jordan. They are filled with inhospitable desert. While the Israelites have had to fight with Amalekites and Moabites to reach their destination, in the new country they will battle Canaanites, Philistines and other tribes. For all the promises of peace, the war is not over.
Moses had brought the Israelites away from Egypt promising freedom. In the new country, there will still be slaves. There will still be priests and kings to subjugate them. There will still be debts to pay and unaffordable rents and famines and strife. They will still see death, sickness, and injustice.
How tragic would it have been for Moses to reach that land flowing with milk and honey, where he would find that it had neither. The Promised Land was not as promised.
There were still cats in America. The streets were not paved with cheese.
At the conclusion of An American Tail, the mice eventually band together to defeat the cats. Using their cunning, technology, and finding surprising friends, they build a contraption to scare away their evil persecutors. They learn that there will be cats, but that they have to work in solidarity if they want to defeat them. They discover that streets are not paved with cheese, but that, if they find some, they can share it, and in those moments they will feel sated and free.
None of the spies could really give a report on the land, because it wasn’t a place they were going. It was somewhere they imagined they might build by common endeavour.
They could have said: “That land does not flow with milk and honey. But it could. We could make it feel like it was.”
Maybe we don’t learn those things from speeches and scouts’ reports. We only learn how to work together by doing it. We only discover what we are capable of if we try.
Only by working together can we make a world that flows with milk and honey.
Together, we can free the world of cats and pave the streets with cheese.
In the Louvre, there is a towering stele, engraved with glyphs in an ancient language. Cast into the stone are the words purported to come from King Mesha of Moab. It tells of how the kingdom of Israel waged war against the Moabites and subjugated them.
He tells how King Omri decided to destroy the house of Moab forever. How he occupied land and oppressed the people. How the Israelites demanded tribute from the Moabites and forced them to send hundreds of men as captive slaves.
And our sources? Our sources agree. The Bible tells the same story. In the book of Kings, Mesha, king of Moab, is described as a sheep breeder who had to hand over 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. He is treated as a despised servant, mocked for his weakness at being conquered. Our Bible groats that the Moabites were utterly destroyed.
But. But Ruth was a Moabite.
Ruth came from the plains of Moab where there was famine and joined herself to Naomi’s household. She joined with them and was a model of love and kindness. She was strong and noble. Ruth is still the model of decency. And she was a Moabite.
These weeks, we turn to the book of Numbers. Almost the entirety of this chapter is a polemic against the Moabites. It tells of never ending war. It talks about how the Moabites feared the Israelites strength and number; how the Israelites went and crushed them. It triumphantly promises that a scepter shall rise out of Israel and smash the forehead of Moab. Death to Moab. Death to the Moabites.
But… Ruth was a Moabite. Ruth was a Moabite. Could she be included in these celebrations of ethnic cleansing? How could anyone do that to Ruth?
In the Psalms, God jokes that Moab is a washpot. The basin in which God’s feet are cleaned. Ezra laments in disgust that Israelites would ever marry Moabites. Numbers calls the Israelites who married Moabites harlots. Deuteronomy treats this intermarriage as a sin.
But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And their story is the one we turn to when we want to understand true love. Their union is how we imagine all marriages should be. For them, marriage wasn’t a problem. It was a joy. Who could forbid such a thing?
When King David took power in Israel, he set out to conquer and destroy the Moabites. He trapped them in the valley and allowed nobody to leave. He split the Moabite camp in two with a line. On one side, he massacred them. He killed them without exception. On the other side, he enslaved them, and kept them as degraded servants.
But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And they has children. And grand-children and great-grandchildren. And one of those descendants was David. Yes, King David, too, was a Moabite by ancestry. He was a product of one of those forbidden unions.
In so many places, the Bible speaks of destroying and degrading the Moabites. Only a few verses in one solitary book speak of Ruth as a Moabite, and position her as a source of love and the originator of the Israelite nation.
The Bible is not so much a book, but a library in discussion with itself. It is a compendium of different contradicting voices.
Somewhere, at some time, some voice thought it was important to say that Ruth was a Moabite. And she was a model of love and kindness. And she took better care of her family than anyone could. And she was the pinnacle of loyalty and devotion. And she was the grandmother of King David. And she was a Moabite.
You might wonder why anyone would bother. The entire Bible is a torrent of hatred against Moabites. Every word is oppositional. All the history speaks of war and conquest. Why would one lone author put their head above the parapet to suggest something otherwise? Why would it be worthwhile to say that Ruth was a Moabite?
But think about it. There are countless verses of contempt for Moabites, and only one that suggests they are worthy of love. And which one do we remember? Does anyone today feel any animosity towards the ancient tribe east of the Jordan? Does anyone still take pride in Israel’s long-gone military victories against its neighbours?
No. But people remember that Ruth was a Moabite.
Empires rise and empires fall. Nations come in and out of being. The names of kings and warriors are lost to the ages. But one loving word can last a thousand lifetimes.
The voices of hatred and jingoism are fleeting. They cannot be sustained. But the voice of love – the voice of humanity – that speaks out across centuries and spans generations. It lasts long after the malaise has subsided.
Ancient Israel was a great kingdom. It was able to conquer lands and bring neighbouring nations to their knees. It could compel people to erect stone monuments to their own misery. And the thought of it makes us, at best, uncomfortable.
But, now, all we take pride in is love. The love our people have had for their God. The love our leaders have had for their Torah. The love they have had for each other. They love they have had for strangers.
Gentle words. Small memorandums of compassion. Fleeting acts of kindness.
A verse. Ruth was a Moabite. Remember that, Ruth was one of them.
Shabbat shalom. Chag sameach.
A young Talmud scholar moves from Lithuania to London. Years later he returns home to visit his family.
His mother asks: “Yossele but where is your beard?”
“Oh, mama, in London, nobody wears a beard.”
“But do you at least keep Shabbat?”
“No, mama, in London people work all the time. We have to make money.”
“Oy vey. But do you still keep kosher?”
“Mum, I’m sorry, kosher food is expensive and hard to find.”
“Yossele…” she says. “Are you still circumcised?”
Thus joke points to a perennial Jewish anxiety: will people stay Jews? Will Judaism continue?
In every generation, a study is published, fearfully proclaiming that Jewishness is declining, which will be swiftly followed by rabbinic pronouncements about how to save it, philanthropists putting money into projects that engage young Jews, and various pundits proclaiming that this proves exactly what they had always said.
Why, when this problem has been repeatedly highlighted, has Judaism nevertheless continued, and Jewishness never seen the burial it was foretold?
For starters, it turns out that many of the things that people assured us would mark the end of Judaism were not that threatening after all. At the start of the Enlightenment, Orthodox leaders agonised that, if Jews went to universities, they would be needlessly subjected to heretical ideas and turn their backs on religion. In the end, Judaism and academic study proved more than compatible.
The fear about Jews losing their beards turned out not to be so troubling either. After all, half the Jewish people had never been able to grow them! In the 90s, the great moral panic centred on mixed marriages, which, experience has shown, only grew the Jewish population, rather than diminishing it.
So, why all the worry? In fact, these concerns undoubtedly go back to the beginnings of Jewishness. In the book of Ruth, we read a story of a young woman faced with the choice of whether to remain with the Jewish people. Either she could stay with her mother-in-law and run the risk of never marrying; or she could return to her original village and begin her life again.
Being Jewish was the harder option. Being Jewish was riskier and unknown. Ruth’s sister, Orpah, chose to leave the Jews and rebuild. Ruth chose Judaism.
She must have seen something in it that made her want to stay. Perhaps it was the God, or Naomi, or the people, or the way they lived. Judging by what she said, it was a combination of all of these. She chose the harder option, because it was the more beautiful one.
That has always been the way with Judaism. High risk. High reward. Hard to maintain. Worth maintaining.
That is why we feel anxiety about Jewish continuity. We know that it is not the easy option. It takes work. So we look around for people who will do it.
Our rabbis understood this feeling well. They told a story of the revelation at Sinai: that, on the day when God gave the Israelites the commandments, God raised Mount Sinai over their heads and told them to accept them. If they took them on, they would live. If not, the mountain would come crashing down on their heads and make the desert their grave.
“Choose life” wasn’t advice. It was a threat. Of course, they accepted.
But, said the rabbis, there were other times when they took on the commandments too. When there were no threats from God but plenty from the ruling powers. They point to the story of Esther, when the Jews lived under Persian imperial rule and could have been slaughtered for practising their religion. God did not appear to make promises or offer consolation. But they chose Judaism anyway.
This is a narrative of how Judaism has been continued. On an individual level, this is what happens to many of us. As children, we go to synagogue because our parents tell us to. We live their ways and eat their food because we have no other choice. Now, as adults, we turn up because we want to. There is no compulsion to attend. We do it because we have found in it something beautiful and worthwhile.
This is true, too, of our history as a community. There was a time when we had no choice but to be Jewish. Think of the periods when Jewishness was stamped on our passports and our job application papers; when being Jewish determined what jobs we could do and where we could live. We kept up Judaism because we had no other choice.
But now we have reached a time when it is a choice. Nobody is making us be Jewish. We sustain it because we want to. You who have turned up this morning could have gone anywhere. You could have done anything. But you chose to come here. Like Ruth and Esther, you decided that something in Judaism was beautiful and worthwhile.
You decided that this religion and these festivals have meaning. That is why I’m not really worried about Jewish continuity. I know that you are keeping it alive. I know that, in every generation, as long as there are a good few people who think Judaism is worthwhile, it will be.
On Shavuot, we renew our covenant with God. We take on the Torah once more. We decide to keep the flame of Jewish truth burning.
And, because of that, Judaism lives on.
Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight, as we open the haggadah, we will tell the children they are free to ask. We will lay out plates of display foods, including an egg, a bone, and a mushy mixture of fruit and nuts, so that people will ask questions about our exodus from Egypt.
In “mah nishtana,” the lovely song chanted by the youngest at the table, we hear four questions about why tonight is different from every other. Why do we lean to the left when we drink? Why do we dip things in salt water? Why do we eat that tear-jerking horseradish, maror? And why have we had to substitute delicious bread for mediocre matzah?
So highly valued is questioning at this season that Judaism has been described as a religion of questions. Ask us a question and we’ll answer with another question. A decade ago at this season, the American businessman Edgar Bronfman declared “to be Jewish is to ask questions.” This festival, with all its questioning, he said, proves that Judaism permits plenty of doubt and openness to many answers.
I have a problem with this approach. The trouble is… these questions have answers! They’re not open-ended speculations to which we’ll dedicate the rest of our lives pondering.
We lean to the left when we drink our wine to show that we are free. We dip parsley in salt water to remind us of the taste of tears that came from enslavement. We eat the bitter herbs in commemoration of the bitterness of slavery. We eat matzah to recall that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry, because we can waste no time in pursuing freedom.
These are the answers. They tell us what the festival is all about and what Judaism really means. It’s about how freedom tastes good and oppression is painful. It’s about the moral message of a God who saw the difference and decided to redeem the Israelites. These questions have a purpose, to provoke us into contemplating justice.
This idea that Judaism is all about questioning and doubt has taken such a hold that people have hung entire theologies on it. There is a story in the Talmud that the two great founding houses of rabbinic Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, were in a conflict for three years. Eventually, a divine voice announced from the sky: “these and these are the words of the living God.”
It is a beautiful story, but it has been repeatedly cited by Jewish educators to justify a relativism that firmly believes nothing. Everything is true. All views are valid.
These teachers always conveniently omit the subsequent words from that divine voice: that the halachah is in accordance with Beit Hillel. They both may have valid viewpoints, but only one can be implemented. The Talmud asks why it was that Hillel’s house won. It answers that they were עלובין – a word often translated to mean ‘modest’ but which really means ‘wretched’ or ‘poor.’
The House of Hillel really were comprised of the poor. Their judgements consistently advocated for the slaves against the masters and the peasants against the patrician class. They strove to make Judaism more accessible to the downtrodden and more just for the oppressed. In other words, God may be able to speak through many voices, but ultimately the one that champions moral truth is still the correct one.
I do understand why people might want to advocate for doubt and questioning. It is an antidote to dogmatism. It stops people becoming fundamentalists, Imagining that they alone can speak for God.
But there are real problems with leaving everything open to debate. Surely it is not just an open question whether or not to hurt people. The words of oil barons and indigenous climate activists are surely not equally ‘the words of the living God.’ We can’t give equal weight to every view or only question without seeking answers.
My very favourite philosopher was a British-Jewish woman called Gillian Rose. She wrote with such beauty about things that really matter. She saw the problems of only questioning and allowing every viewpoint quite clearly. She also agreed that we couldn’t just assert answers. If either everyone is correct or only one answer is correct, there is no room for discussion.
So, Gillian Rose says, you have to pick a side. You have to decide what you think is right. You have to look at what your conscience tells you and aim for meaningful justice. You might be wrong, so you have to keep your mind open to nuance and debate. But you also have to know right from wrong.
Pesach is indeed a time for asking questions. But it is, above all, a night for seeking answers.
Pesach invites us to ask about freedom so that we will fight for it. Pesach invites us to ask about oppression so that we will vanquish it.
We must ask these questions because Pharaoh was not just a man who lived a long time ago and the exodus was not a one-time event. These are words of a living God because they speak to struggles that are still very live.
Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight is a night for seeking answers.
The great question of Pesach is: what are you doing to bring about justice today?
And now you must give your answer.
This is the season of our freedom.
To show that we are free, we will lean to the left and drink wine like Roman elites once did on their chaise longues.
We will perform rituals and eat strange foods and, when our children ask us why, we will answer: “we were slaves in the land of Egypt. We were exploited and degraded there. But with mighty deeds and an outstretched arm, the Almighty redeemed us and delivered us. Now we can be free.”
The idea of freedom means far more this year. For the first time since the pandemic began, we are able to gather for Pesach again. We will actually be able to leave our answers and reconnect with people. We will be able to eat and drink together. We will feel free.
But what does freedom mean? What does it really mean to be free in the context of our Pesach celebrations?
Freedom, for the ancient Israelites, was all about who your master was. Society was divided into people who had masters and people who had land. The people who had masters had debts and had to work them off. They could not leave and, even if they did, they had nowhere to go.
One of the ways out of this was that a family member would come and redeem you. They would pay off your debts and take you out of the place where you were labouring. Then you would be free: you would no longer belong to your master but to your clan. You would work not for the profits of a landowner but for the common good of your people.
This was what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. They were taken as servants; forced to work for their master, Pharaoh. They did gruelling labour, building militarily garrisons for their oppressors. But who could redeem them? Their entire family was enslaved. Nobody from their clan could come and grant them freedom.
But, all this time, they had a family member they had never met. A parent who loved them unconditionally and grieved their absence. One who desperately wanted them back. That was God.
With mighty deeds and an outstretched arm, God came into Egypt and redeemed them. God declared to the Israelites’ masters: you do not own these people. They are My people. They serve me and they will never serve any human being.
That is what freedom means. We have no masters but God. Our only debts are what we owe society. Our only labour is in service of our Creator. Our only bondage is to Torah.
That is what freedom means. Freedom means responsibility.
This Pesach festival celebrates our redemption. It calls on us to use that responsibility wisely, in service of our God.
Chag Pesach kasher vesameach.
Imagine if I stood up here on a shabbat and I told you I could fix you.
Imagine if I said there was something fundamentally wrong with you. That some property intrinsic to you, about your soul, was fundamentally wrong. Sinful.
Imagine if, when we read out the names of people in need of healing, your name was on there. You hadn’t asked to be placed there and you felt fine. But somebody in the community had decided that who you were, as a person, was contrary to their religious beliefs, and that made you sick.
Imagine if your child or grandchild came to see me at the synagogue and ask for rabbinic advice about their personality. Instead of offering them love and support to be happy with who they were, I told them that they needed to repent. I told them that God thought they should feel guilty. I told them they should pray and fast until the wickedness in them was gone.
Imagine it. Imagine any preacher in any religious building doing such a thing.
You don’t have to imagine. It happens today, here in Britain.
It is called conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy is when queer people are told, often by a religious leader, that prayer, exorcism or counselling can change their gender or sexuality. It is when somebody tells a gay person that they can be made straight, or a trans person they can be made cis.
It happens in the British Jewish community. One survivor of this practice, Joe Hyman, spoke out about how a religious Jewish group tried to counsel him out of homosexuality. At first, it involved telephone appointments where he was told he could be healed. He sat round in a room and was forced to examine every homosexual thought he experienced through a lens of judgement and shame.
Another British-Jewish woman, Maya, went through conversion therapy classes that told her that her parents hadn’t nurtured her enough and that she must have been abused as a child.
There are Jewish retreats in New York and Israel, where participants are made to do psychologically damaging activities including stripping naked and berating themselves while staring at a mirror.
You might well wonder why such an abhorrent practice has not yet been banned. For that, you would have to ask Boris Johnson.
This week, his government leaked reports that they have abandoned plans to stop conversion therapy. They have bowed to pressure from conservatives and fundamentalists.
When the various LGBT charities expressed their outrage, and the public followed suit, the government back-pedalled, but only slightly. They said they would ban conversion therapy for sexuality, but not for gender identity. They have decided that lesbian, gay, and bi people should not be subjected to this psychological torture, but that they will keep it up for trans people.
Not content to only permit the practice, the government has decided to get in on bullying trans people. Boris Johnson used a recent speech to mock trans people. A public discourse has emerged that pathologises and humiliates people who do not conform to gendered expectations.
Trans women, in particular, are the subject of a horrible narrative of hate. I don’t think it would be helpful or responsible to repeat the things I’ve heard, even from respectable platforms like the BBC. You have probably heard it too, and speaking it from the pulpit would only lend this hate speech legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.
The pathologisation of sex and bodies is as old as the Bible. In ancient Israel, when a person’s genitals seemed emitted an unusual discharge, or found they could not ejaculate, a priest would declare them a zav. This meant they were ritually impure, prohibited from entering holy places and forbidden from engaging in acts of worship.
This was not just recognising the existence of genital problems or sexual diseases. It was making them into signs of defilement. It was saying that the people who had them were in some way sinful. It turned the body into something shameful.
By the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis were conscious of how problematic this system of stigmatising people was. They announced mitigating circumstances for when somebody might not be considered a zav: if they had jumped; lifted something heavy; been unwell; seen something arousing; thought about something sexual; had eaten or drunk something unusual. If they had done any of these things, even if they had symptoms of a zav, they were not considered a zav. They were exempt from being treated as sick.
To this already expansive list, Rabbi Akiva added two more categories: if somebody had eaten or drunk anything at all, they were not a zav. His students were astonished. They said: “if that’s the case, there will be no more zavim anywhere any more!” Rabbi Akiva responded: “it is not your job to make sure people are considered impure.”
Rabbi Akiva understood something profound. Nobody should be considered sick. Nobody should be stigmatised for who they are. So, to combat the stigma, he found a way to make sure everyone was exempted.
That is what is needed today to combat this senseless hatred against trans people. That is why we so desperately need to ban conversion therapy and stop treating people as if there is something wrong with them.
All we are asking is that people can access non-judgemental support to talk about their gender. We are asking that people can be free to explore it, open to the possibility that their gender might not be the one they have always been told it was. We are asking for people to have the freedom to go on a journey with their gender, open to the possibility that this might mean changing their name, or their pronouns, or the way they dress, or the way their body looks.
I understand that perhaps that might sound frightening to some. But what truly terrifies me is that people can’t. Young people exploring their gender currently cannot feel safe turning to authority figures to talk about their gender when there is so much vitriol emanating from the country’s highest offices of power. And they are even less safe when leaders continue to have the power to tell trans kids that they are sick and can be cured.
From this pulpit, there is only one message you will get. You are not sick. You are loved. You are supported by this community. You are safe to be whoever you want to be.
In this synagogue, we believe in a loving God. In this religious movement, we affirm that you have a unique journey to find your own way with your Creator. And we will never try to change you.
With massive thanks to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner for helping me think through how to talk about this when the issue makes me so emotional
We are all members of tribes. Human beings are tribal creatures. We organise into packs and stick together. We identify into groups.
You are probably a member of more than one tribe. You are a member of this synagogue, which binds together hundreds of families into a community. You might also have your workplace, neighbourhood group, union, political party, youth movement, charity association.
Tribes are a core part of life. And it is this week, as we receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, that the Israelites become a tribe. When we left Egypt, we were slaves. We were a mixed multitude escaping persecution. Now, as we stand in the wilderness, we form into something stronger. But what kind of tribe do we become?
In 2008, a group of researchers got together to study different tribal cultures. David Logan and his team looked at hundreds of workplaces and social groupings to see how they operated. While all these groups formed tribes, they found that there could be very divergent kinds.
These researchers divided up the tribes into five kinds, based on their cultures. At the lowest level, Level One, were those tribes that functioned worst and, at the highest level, Level Five, were those that functioned best.
Interestingly, as we look at the stages, it seems like exactly the progression the Israelites go through as they form as a tribe. They begin low on these researchers’ scale and, as the story continues, they advance to higher levels of performance.
At Level One, tribes take the attitude that life is awful. They systematically sever relationships with other tribes and pool with people who think like they do. They are entire groups of angry misanthropes. These are the kinds of people who say “everyone is horrible, so we’ll be horrible, too. People will attack and rob us, so we’re going to get them first.” People who think life sucks will be toxic towards themselves, their own group members, and anyone they consider an outsider.
This is the Israelites at the start of the Exodus narrative. They are crying out for help under tyrannical persecution. They are a mixed multitude of all the lowest classes of Egypt, and have no concept of anything but toil. They don’t even trust Moses when he tries to start setting them free.
At Level Two, tribes say “my life is awful, but there is better stuff out there.” The world might be a good place, but I don’t have access to the goodness in it. These are the kinds of people who will bemoan how persecuted they are. They will complain that other groups have better jobs, or get taken more seriously, or produce better culture, or have more influence. These tribes don’t believe in themselves enough to make positive changes for their own tribe, let alone others.
This is the next stage for the Israelites. They decide that there is a better world out there. Their lives are horrible but, if they left Egypt, they might get a taste of something better. They get up and go, seeking to find a new life as they leave through the Sea of Reeds.
In a Level Three tribe, the mantra is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Here, people are competing for prestige, wealth, and honour. These are groups where everyone wants to compare notes about how much better their kids are doing in school, or how much better their careers are going. The tribe can do good things, but only because it creates cultures where individuals flourish.
That’s the level we reach at the start of this week. Betzalel emerges as a fantastic architect and interior designer, showing off his skills at the Tabernacle. Aaron and his family come forward to be priests. They show how well they can perform religious rituals. But, because they have no defining values, they end up worshipping a golden calf and recreating the same systems they knew in Egypt.
Stage Four is where really impressive tribes begin to emerge. These are groups where people are united by something greater than their individual competences. They turn from small groups into something large and meaningful. They are actually conscious of being a tribe, and united by values. They extend their reach by connecting with other tribes and finding points of value alignment.
Only now, as Moses presents the Ten Commandments, can the Israelites reach Stage Four. They are a conscious tribe, united by shared values. We, these freed slaves, have one God. We reject idols. We honour our families. We hold time sacred. We refuse to engage in murder, theft and lies. We are one people joined by a shared vision of what a just society could be. Anyone who shares that dream can join us.
But that is not the end of the journey. The highest level is rare, and most groups never get there.
The fifth level is when a tribe is united by values that affirm life, each other, and the future. We only see glimpses of this kind of tribal behaviour in Tanach – on those incredible occasions when the prophets extend their message full of joy about who humanity is and hope of what it could be.
The researchers who ranked the groups only offered one example of a tribe that reached such a high level. That was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
This was convened in 1996. With Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of formal apartheid, nobody knew which direction the country would go in. Some anticipated civil war, or resurgent racist nationalism.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought together thousands of tribes from all across South Africa. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would aim to restorative justice between all people. Victims and perpetrators faced each other, to speak honestly about what had happened during apartheid, and how they could make amends.
He united people on a programme that they could be better than they had been. He coalesced people around a vision that they could be honest with each other and foster a future based on cooperation.
Consider what courage and moral fortitude that must have taken. For decades, black, Indian, and Coloured South Africans had been subjected to segregation, poverty and violence. The anti-apartheid activists had faced imprisonment, state abuse, and separation from their families.
After all that, Tutu took these tribes to a level we almost never see. He created a culture where people believed in themselves, in each other, and joined by a vision of joy and hope.
When Desmond Tutu died just over a month ago, it reminded people of what a giant he had been for religious people worldwide. His theology was one that still intimidates many. He preached true universalism, arguing that God was not a Christian, but belonged to every religion. He advocated sincere justice, never shrinking from social issues. And he believed, despite all he saw, that people were capable of fantastic things.
That was what made his assembly of tribes exceptional. Only those who see the best in people and hold the greatest of values can take people beyond what they know. If we are to defeat the racism, segregation and division that plague us today, we need to muster similar attitudes.
So, which tribe will we Jews be today? Will we sit at the bottom rung, only believing the worst about the world? Will we be like those who complain that we don’t count but others do? Will we create a culture where individuals can flourish but don’t cohere as a whole group? Will we unite around clear values and come together consciously with pride? And can we achieve that rarest of things: a level where we affirm what is wonderful in ourselves and the world, and foster unity around a joyous vision of the future?
The faith that inspired us at Sinai tells us today: we can achieve remarkable things. If we believe in ourselves, we will.
There was once a magician, a wicked magician, who constructed a mirror whose purpose was that everything good and beautiful, when reflected in it, shrank up almost to nothing, whilst those things that were ugly and useless were magnified, and made to appear ten times worse than before. The loveliest landscapes reflected in this mirror looked like boiled spinach; and the handsomest persons appeared odious, so distorted that their friends could never have recognised them.
This is the opening of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen. I begin with this story because there was a time when this was how the world looked to me. I once saw the world as full of threats, violence and despair.
I received a diagnosis of anxiety and was placed on medication. I began talking therapy, which I have now done on and off for many years. I changed my diet and began regular exercise. For what felt like the first time, beautiful landscapes looked like beautiful landscapes, instead of boiled spinach. Friends looked like friends instead of enemies. The world looked… normal. I felt like I could finally think.
Today is Mental Health Shabbat. Across the Jewish community, we are encouraged to spend this day reflecting on our own mental health and that of those around us.
Sometimes, today, preachers will come up with prescriptions, about how everyone can just sort themselves out. Like how everyone needs to talk more, or we could all do with being kinder, or perhaps we just need more walks in the woods. I find these sermons quite patronising, oblivious to people’s individual circumstances, and insensitive to the realities of psychosis and personality disorders. Not everything can be so easily solved.
One of the problems with advocating for everyone to be more well-adjusted is, well, adjusted to what? Do we not live in a world that really does pose depressing realities? Do we not see around us a society gripped by isolation and defeat?
If we want to seriously think about mental health, we need to ask much more probing questions. I want us to think about what sanity and madness really means. I want us to ask real questions about how anyone can be sane in a society gone so wrong.
That, I think, is part of the question our Prophets were trying to answer. Since the dawn of biblical criticism, scholars have asked whether our prophets were crazy. These great men and women of ancient times saw visions nobody else could see; wept in the street when everyone else went about their daily lives; shouted angrily at a deity that nobody else believed would listen. If they were alive today, they would surely be committed, imprisoned, or put on some very strong drugs.
The greatest of these crazy prophets was Jeremiah, whose haftarah we read today. He is so associated with depression that, as a noun, the word ‘jeremiad’ means “ a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress.” His very name conjures images of sadness and despair; of a tortured soul who saw unfolding doom and was ignored in his predictions.
He was, in his time, treated like a madman. For the crime of speaking his prophecies, Jeremiah was placed in stocks and ridiculed. When his visions came true and Babylon besieged Jerusalem, he was imprisoned by the Judean King in the courthouse. Rulers even tried to kill him. Mocked, assaulted, tortured and imprisoned, Jeremiah was treated as a crazy menace throughout his life, and ended it weeping over the destruction of his city.
We should not be surprised that others saw him as mad. From the moment he received his first prophecy, Jeremiah was assaulted by visions of mundane objects revealing hidden messages to him. In the branch of an almond tree, Jeremiah saw the fulfilment of God’s promises. In a steaming kettle, he envisioned warmongering enemies descending from the north. Modern psychologists might interpret these as paranoid hallucinations, and perhaps it is only the holiness of the ancient text that stops us from agreeing with them.
To meet in public, Jeremiah would have been a frightening sight. He stood at the gates of the city. He ranted at the perceived sinners of the city, telling them that their carcasses would be eaten by birds; that their graves would be dug up and desecrated; and their wives handed over to their enemies. If you heard such things from someone standing outside a train station, you, too, would likely conclude that the speaker was mad.
But, perhaps, Jeremiah saw his society more clearly than the sane people who surrounded him. Jeremiah saw widows and orphans attacked; the wealthy hoarding all the resources; the privileged living in luxury while refusing to support those in need.
If Jeremiah had looked upon such a society and accepted it, or tried only to tinker with it and reason with it, who would he be? We might well accuse him of being callously indifferent.
Yet that is how most of us get by. The way most of us function in this sick society, surrounded by exploitation and greed, is to ignore it. If we truly reflected on all the injustice in the world and saw how complicit we were in its continuity, we would all join Jeremiah in going mad.
So, where does this leave us? I know I’m not going to give up my medication or all the tools I have found to live a better life. I actually want to participate in society, and love that I am no longer gripped by anxiety.
But I also don’t want to impose a world where everyone sees the same reality. People with mental health issues are often detained and restrained, rather than understood.
The message of Mental Health Shabbat cannot only be talking more, but also listening more, especially to people who have been labelled as insane.
I want us to hear people in their depression, in their anxiety, and in their psychosis. I want us to truly listen to what everyone has to say, even if it doesn’t conform to the worldview we know.
That doesn’t mean agreeing with everything others say, or never challenging it. It just means taking it seriously. Just as when we approach sacred texts, we can oppose them while recognising their holiness, so we can do with people.
So, on this Mental Health Shabbat, I urge you: if you can listen to the Prophets, you can listen to your neighbours in their distress too.
When did Moses stop being an Egyptian?
When Moses was born, he was decidedly Hebrew. This fact was dangerous. The Hebrews were living under oppressive rule, enslaved and oppressed by hard labour. Fearing the Hebrews’ strength in numbers, the Pharaoh had decreed that all first-born Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the Nile. Staying Hebrew would have meant certain death for Moses.
So, he was raised Egyptian. His mother put him in a basket and sent him down the river, where he was picked up by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the central palace. He was given an Egyptian name and raised as if he was a member of the Egyptian aristocracy.
But, at some point, Moses ceased being an Egyptian. One day, he saw a slavemaster beating a Hebrew. Seeing the Hebrew as his brother, and the Egyptian as his enemy, Moses struck back and beat the slaver. He killed the Egyptian. Moses fled into exile in the Midianite desert. He knew he was no longer Egyptian.
There are varying accounts of how Moses ceased being Egyptian. In the classic Dreamworks film, Prince of Egypt, Miriam and Aaron bump into him in the street, reveal to Moses his history, and persuade him to join the slaves’ revolt. The film is so ubiquitous that many imagine this is the Torah’s version of events.
This version makes for fantastic cinema, but doesn’t quite fit with the narrative presented in Exodus. In our story, Moses’s mother, Yocheved, and his sister, Miriam, put themselves forward to care for Moses in the Pharaoh’s palace. Surely his own family, having stayed with him since birth, who look more like him than Pharaoh’s daughter, would have raised him to know his history, even if only secretly.
As Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet astutely notes, the text suggests that Moses held onto both identities. In the same verse where Moses rises up against the slavemaster, he calls both the Egyptians and the Israelites his “brothers.” He goes out to join his brothers the Egyptians in surveying the building works, then beats the slaver in solidarity with his brothers the Hebrews.
Moses could have quite easily continued living as an Egyptian while knowing he was a Hebrew. Many people throughout history have held multiple nationalities without contradiction. The useful question is not when Moses became Hebrew, but when he stopped being an Egyptian.
Perhaps, as some of our commentators have suggested, the key lies a few verses before. There, it says that Moses grew up. Rabbis of the past have wondered what this growing up could mean. Surely it can’t refer to weaning or early childhood, because he has the strength to hit back against a fully grown adult wielding a whip. It must refer to a deeper maturity: Moses reaches the age where he can question the lies of Egyptian society. He reaches the emotional maturity to put his heart with the oppressed and rebel against injustice.
Moses was always a Hebrew, but he stopped being an Egyptian once he refused to identify with their system. As soon as Moses was willing to rebel against Egypt, he not only lost his identification with his enemy, but he lost the protection of being part of the elite family. He had to flee into exile. The only circumstance in which he could return was to lead the mass exodus of his people, the Hebrews.
It may seem surprising that Egypt and brutal slavery were so entwined that Moses could not remain Egyptian while opposing the evils of its system. How can it be that this country was so repressive that the slightest opposition made him stateless? How can it be that even a member of the elite, raised in the palace of the most powerful man in the land, could be rendered an exile just by standing up against the cruelest possible thing one human can do to another?
Of course, today we live in more enlightened times. We now live in a society where citizenship is awarded as a birthright, not as a reward for good behaviour. We have systems of international law that guard against making people stateless. Our government in Britain would never behave as Pharaoh’s did.
Or would they? Two weeks ago, the government passed a law through the House of Commons called ‘The Nationalities and Borders Bill.’ According to this new law, anyone who is entitled to claim another nationality can be stripped of British citizenship without warning.
This builds on the hostile environment initiated by Theresa May, which makes it harder for immigrants to reach Britain and easier to deport them. Similar policies have already been used to send away Carribeans who have lived in Britain their whole lives and to make refugees in this country stateless.
This new law expands these powers. And it affects us.
How many members of the Jewish community have held onto second passports in case antisemitism becomes destructive again? How many Jews do you know who are also dual nationals with Israel, South Africa, Canada, or a European country from which they were once exiled?
My dad and brother claimed German citizenship as part of post-Holocaust reparations. Now, this very fact makes them vulnerable to have their British citizenship revoked at a moment’s notice, without them even being informed.
Indeed, every one of us could be subjected to similar treatment. A study for the New Statesman indicates that 6 million Britons – a tenth of us – could now be deported by Priti Patel.
This law may not have been intended for us, but it could easily be applied against us. There is plenty of historical precedent. When governments want to issue repressive measures, they begin by attacking foreigners. Anne Frank was a German until the Nazis decided she was a Jew. Moses was Egyptian until the slavers decided he was a Hebrew.
Our community should be deeply concerned by these draconian measures. Whether out of solidarity with those who have already been deported from this country, or for fear that we, too, could fall victim to these new powers, we must be willing to speak up against it.
But there is reason to be hopeful. Earlier this year, when a Home Office van came to remove two asylum seekers from their home in Glasgow, their neighbours fought back. Two hundred local people surrounded the van and refused to move until their friends were freed. The immigration authorities were forced to capitulate and let the refugees free.
Our parashah teaches that the Hebrews could not be contained by the Pharaoh’s repressive measures. “The more they oppressed them, the more they rebelled.” Like our ancestors, we must be willing to do the same.
The more this government treats foreigners as enemies, we must be willing to accept them as friends. The more this government declares that people do not belong here, we must be willing to assert that they do. The more they say that people are illegal, we must be willing to loudly assert: nobody is.
No one is illegal. Everyone who is here belongs here. You cannot deport our neighbours and friends. You cannot take away our passports.
South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue; Parashat Shmot; Saturday 25th December 2021
I am so excited to share this.
For years, I have harboured a dream of setting up a queer yeshiva. Now, we are launching a crowdfunder to get it started.
The Talmud is the most beautiful work of Jewish thought. It was what inspired me to train as a rabbi and got me through some of my most challenging times. It has so much to offer queers. Can you help fund it?
Since launching less than a week ago, we have raised over £4,000. We need your help to bring us up to our total goal of £5,000. Whatever you can give will be immensely welcome.
I hope you will join me in supporting this cause and sharing it with anyone you know who might be interested.
We want to bring queer, radical Talmud learning to the UK. We are asking for your help to fund us.
The Talmud is a beautiful and subversive text at the heart of traditional Judaism.
Created by radicals who wanted to reinvent their religion, it teaches people how to think outside of binaries and assumptions.
But for years, this sacred knowledge has been kept locked up by elite straight men. We want to break it open.
Our goal is to learn Talmud in a way that centres marginalised people.
We are upending hierarchy and empowering queers with the tools and knowledge to bring these texts to life. We are here, we are queer, and we are ready for shiur.
In the summer of 2022, we hope to launch a ‘Queer Yeshiva’: Four days of intensive rigorous learning.
Based in East London, this will be an empowering experience of accessing traditional Jewish wisdom.
We need to be in a fully accessible venue, meeting the learning needs of everyone. We need this space to be open to single parents, unemployed people, and Jews who have never studied before.
This is a big undertaking, and it costs money. That is why we are asking for your help.
Within a year, we hope to be fully self-funding and sustainable, but first we need a cash injection to get this project off the ground.
Can you help?
Who we are
For seven years, Babel’s Blessing has been London’s leading grassroots language school. We teach Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and Sylheti so that Londoners can communicate with each other. We run a bnei mitzvah programme so that Jews can connect with their traditions on their own terms. We provide ESOL classes for migrants to the UK, including working as the only teachers of English as a foreign language in arrival centres.
Svara is a traditionally radical yeshiva in the United States. It teaches queer-centred Talmud pedagogy with methods designed to help oppressed people feel empowered within their tradition. Our educators have learnt from them and in their methods.
Please donate and share now. We can’t do this without you.