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.


sermon · talmud

Can you purify this spider?



Spider season seems to have begun early this year.

It’s that time of the year when we start seeing spiders, climbing up walls, hanging out in sheds, and getting comically stuck in bathtubs. Of course, they live all year round, but in early autumn they are visible everywhere.

I love spiders. I think they’re quite cute. We don’t have any dangerous ones in this country, as far as I know, and they eat the ticks that we really don’t want in our houses.

But I get why other people are creeped out by them. They’ve got eight legs, which is far too many, and they scurry around like they’re up to no good. We’ve been fed media images of terrifying tarantulas and it’s understandable that people would associate them.

The Torah has a word for these beasties. Sheretz. It’s root is resh-vav-tzadi, to do with running around, so most translations render sheretz as ‘creepy-crawly,’ or ‘creeping thing.’ It applies, first and foremost, to mice and lizards, but extends to any scuttling insect or racing rodent. There are also the sheretz bamayim – the creepy-crawlies underwater, like jellyfish, octopus and lobster you might find scampering on ocean floors.

They were created by God on the fifth day. They are mentioned by name. For some reason, God decided that spiders were supposed to exist. God made room for them in the world and dedicated a verse of Torah to celebrating their creation. God made mosquitoes and shrews and chameleons and God saw that they were good. So, if you’re in the camp that loves spiders, you get a point.

God has also banned them. We are prohibited from eating them. They are described as disgusting and as abominations. On some level, we are supposed to revile them. So, if you’re in the camp of people who can’t stand spiders, you get a point too.

(I promise you, this is going somewhere.)

I’ve spent the last week thinking about the sheretz. From Monday to Thursday, this synagogue hosted the Queer Yeshiva. It was a momentous occasion. Never before in Progressive British history have so many people come together to study the Talmud in such an intense way. Everybody talked about how wonderful this synagogue is, and I want to thank you all for opening this space to a bunch of LGBT people to study Torah.

Over the week, we read a sugya of Talmud from Sanhedrin, a tractate that deals with capital crimes. It asks questions about who gets to condemn somebody for the death penalty, and on what grounds.

It contains a list of characteristics expected of Jewish high court judges: tall; wise; handsome; elderly; fluent in at least seventy languages; and, of course, familiar with sorcery.

So, who is eligible? Do we have any candidates for the Sanhedrin in this congregation? I won’t be putting my hat in the ring. It’s tricky to find someone, but I’m sure such people exist.

Then it adds another requirement. Anyone who wants to sit on a Sanhedrin has to find grounds for declaring clean the sheretz. You want to put somebody to death? You’ve got to be able to make lobsters kosher. You have to be able to purify a spider.

Who can make unclean things clean? Who can make what’s treif kosher? If anyone in this room can do it, you will be welcomed with open arms to the Jewish law courts of Babylonia.

But it seems unlikely that will fall within any of our skill sets. It sets an impossibly high standard.

Perhaps that’s the point. You have to be so good at thinking and reasoning that only the highest standards of scholars can join. You have to be of such excellent calibre that you know Torah inside out and can interpret it, even against itself.

Many have understood this edict that way. In fact, elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that there are as many as 150 ways to make shrimp kosher. There’s not just one secret method of purifying a sheretz – there are a whole bunch of them – and you should be able to work them out.

But the Talmud doesn’t give any convincing explanations as to how this is possible. Even where rabbis have a stab at it, they are soon shot down. Nice try, but no. That’s not how you make mice edible.

As a result, plenty of rabbis throughout the ages have tried to show that they can purify the sheretz. Great thinkers who knew the Torah inside out have tried to show that they are eligible for sitting on the Sanhedrin.

But here’s the thing. You can do all the reasoning you like. A spider will still be a spider. A lizard will still be a sheretz. And a sheretz will still be unclean. You can’t actually change what the Torah says.

So the rabbis have made sitting on the Sanhedrin impossible. It is so restricted that we will never find people capable of achieving it. De facto, the rabbis have abolished the death penalty.

This is a tremendous achievement. Subtly, and without saying so, they have done exactly what they say needs to be done: they have turned the Torah against itself. Except, instead of turning the Torah against itself so that they can kill people, they turn the Torah against itself so nobody can!

Suppose somebody were to come along and actually give convincing proof that spiders are really kosher. OK, then we would have a problem. My hunch is that the rabbis have already thought of this. Anybody who could do so would, by their nature, refuse to implement the death penalty.

A person who can see the kosher in a lobster can see the goodness in a convict.

A person who could cleanse the body of a mouse could cleanse the soul of a criminal.

You have to be able to see people, and creepy-crawlies, the way that God sees them: as good.

This is the rabbis’ genius way of telling us who is allowed to judge others. The only person we would permit the authority to judge others is the one who would judge them favourably.

The spiders are out and about in our houses. We might love them or hate them or greet them with indifference. But who gave any of us the right to kill them? God, for whatever reason, has determined that they have a place on this earth and it is not our job to decide they don’t.

The world is full of people we don’t like. Some of them do detestable things. And we might feel fear and hatred and anger towards them. And sometimes those feelings are justified.

But we don’t have the right to kill them.

We are not worthy to judge them.

Unless you can purify a spider, you have to live in this world with everyone else.

God has made enough room for them in this world and we have to make enough room in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · social justice · story

Welcome to the Queer Yeshiva

Hello and welcome to the Queer Yeshiva.

My name is Lev. I’m one of the teachers here, with Jo, Hava and Daniel.

A month ago, I was ordained as a rabbi. One of the things that most made me want to be a rabbi was bring gay. I wanted to be part of a religious life that made being queer feel as empowering and magical as it really is.

I love being queer. I love queer people. One of the things I love most about us is that no matter what life throws at us, we always rebuild.

I think about the lives of queer people. Everyone I know has had to struggle with who they are, face down violence, and out of adversity, rebuild themselves as someone stronger than anyone could have imagined.

When I was a kid, I was already too fabulous to be contained. All I wanted in life was to wear dresses and do Spice Girls dance routines. I knew I was different and I didn’t care.

But the rest of the world did. I grew up in a small town with few opportunities. For most of my teens, I was beaten up on a near daily basis. I was attacked at school, walking home, in the shops, and outside my front door. That was only the other kids. The adults were worse: at best they ignored it; at worst they encouraged it. At the school leavers’ assembly, the teachers gave me an award for “most likely to have a sex change.”

But I’m not bitter. I’m proud. I came out of all that knowing who I was and willing to fight for others. That’s why we have parades. That’s why we stand up celebrate our community, because we have withstood discrimination and violence and built out of it fantastic cultures. All that queer art, queer music, and queer innovation- that came out of queer struggle. We are who we are because of who we were.

And that’s not limited just to us here. That’s something queer people have to do in every generation. Think how many times we have been destroyed, and think how many times we have rebuilt.

Consider only the last century. At the beginning of the 1900s, our people were dealing with criminalisation, as many had been imprisoned. Against that backdrop, Magnus Hirschfield created the Institut for Sexualwissenschaft, pioneering the understanding of queer people.

His work was burned by the Nazis. Queers were turned into pariahs and murdered in te death camps. Even once the Second World War was over, many homosexuals were forced to stay in prison to complete their sentences.

In the aftermath, our ancestors picked themselves up again. They built the Gay Power movement. They formed the Lavender Menace. They created the ballroom scene in the nightclubs of New York.

Once again, they were decimated by the AIDS crisis. Government indifference and vengeful homophobia killed a generation of queers.

And still, we could not be destroyed. We came back stronger, demanding legislative changes and pushing for a transformed world. We recreated community to fight for our liberation.

In every generation, people have tried to destroy us. In every generation, they have failed. We will always rebuild. We will always imagine a greater future. We will always reappear.

We are indestructible.

In that sense, we are the heirs to the rabbinic tradition.

Judaism, as we know it, is the product of people who saw their world crash around them repeatedly and, every time, rebuilt it.

Our Judaism was born out of a time of fundamental crisis. At the start of the last millennium, the Jews were a nation. They had their country, the land of Israel. They had their capital, Jerusalem. They had their cultic centre, the Temple. They had their religious leadership, the priests. And they had their religious practices, sacrifices.

Then, they faced catastrophe. The Romans came and waged an aggressive war, killing off the leadership, and starving the people of Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple and abolished its customs.

Yesterday was the fast of Tish BAv. It was, for many religious Jews, a day of weeping and despair. We recalled the genocide, the disruption, the pain. We remembered the destruction of the Temple in the context of all the times that Jews have been destroyed.

But, in that act of ritualised remembering, we also remember that we have survived. Jews and Judaism have kept going, even two thousand years later.

Let us remember why.

Faced with annihilation, the Jews had three choices. One: they could dig their heels and pretend nothing happened. They could decide that they were going to carry on with the Temple and the priesthood, even though they were gone.

Two: they could abandon their old religion altogether. That was what normally happened to ancient peoples when they were conquered: they gave up their old traditions and gave in to colonisation.

Three, the third option: they could retell their story for the sake of their contemporary situation. They could look at everything they had been, and use their history to reimagine their future.

Our rabbis chose option three.

Put yourself in their position.

Imagine you were there, not just in the aftermath but right in the thick of it. Jerusalem is under seige. Your family are starving. Your people are fighting the Romans, but mostly they’re fighting each other. You can see your world on fire. You don’t even know if you will survive.

What would you do?

That’s how it was for Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai. He was alive then. That was what he saw.

He told his students to put him in a coffin, pretend he was dead, and smuggle him out of Jerusalem. Once out of the besieged city gates, he got out and demanded to speak to the Roman emperor, Vaspasian.

As it happened, Vaspasian was willing to compromise. He said: “OK, tell me you want.”

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai said: “Give me Yavne and students of Torah.”

What was Yavne? It was a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. It was filled with displaced people. Who were the students of Torah? Just a bunch of people who remembered what the old religion used to be like.

Why? Why would you ask for such a thing? If the commander of the imperial Roman army is willing to negotiate, why not find a way to get the troops to leave?

Because a people that knows who they are cannot be destroyed.

Sure, the colonisers might go, and the Jews might live, but Judaism could end. The only way for anyone to live on after facing near annihilation is to look at where they’ve been. They have to take a long look at their story and reimagine it for a new era.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai and his students learnt everything. They committed to memory their whole history so that they could recite it by heart.

Then, they revolutionised it. They said: we don’t need the land of Israel or Jerusalem any more. From now on, we’re going to be spread across the whole world. We’re going to make our religion portable so that it can be sustained in any nation.

They looked at their Temple and its sacrifices and said: we’re not going back to that. We’re going to reinvent our practices. We will replace them with prayer and study. As long as people keep our words alive, we won’t need for animals to die.

They looked at the priesthood and said: that’s done. From now on, we have no hierarchy.
From hereon out, we are equals. The measure of Jewishness won’t be who your father was but how imaginative you can be in reexamine your tradition.

They looked over their old systems of justice, and interrogated them. Who is included here, and who is left out? What is justice going to look like for us now? They were so radical that they tried to work out how they could turn the Torah against the Torah.

And that instantly transformed Judaism. Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples weren’t from the elites. They were blacksmiths and peasant farmers and outsiders. They saw, from that vantage point, how their people could creatively rebuild. And that is why we have our Judaism today.

And here’s the thing. Rabbi Yochanan had, maybe, ten students. There were fewer people in his beit midrash than there are in this room.

You only need a handful of visionaries to spark a revolution.

Be in no doubt, that is what could happen here this week.

We are, as always, facing catastrophe. Queer people are under attack once more. The planet is burning. Capitalism is in crisis. The old ways of doing Judaism are floundering.

Do you think that the future of Judaism is going to be secured by happy people in their comfortable homes? No way. They have nothing to lose from the current situation. They don’t have the imagination to see how things could be different.

The future of our people lies with those on its margins. Its the queers. It’s the weirdos. It’s the radicals. It’s you.

That’s why we’re here. We’re going to do what queers and Jews have always done. We’re going to rebuild while our world is on fire.

We’re going to learn everything we can, internalising the words of our ancestors so fully thar they will travel with us everywhere. We’re going to re-analyse them in light of our own circumstances, seeing how these traditions bear on our own lives and struggles. And, out of that, We’re going to completely retell our story.

This is where the future of Judaism starts again.

I love being queer. I love queer people. And I can’t wait to see what we achieve.

This talk was based on the Crash Talk by Rabbi Benay Lappe, used for Queer Yeshiva Summer Intensive 5782 in Essex

fast · sermon · theology

Tonight, we begin grieving.

Tonight, we begin grieving.

As the sun goes down, I will eat my last meal for 25 hours. I won’t bathe or shave or change. I’ll probably read a book, or some poetry, and contemplate what it means to be destroyed.

Tonight, the fast of Tisha bAv begins. It commemorates every disaster that has befallen the Jewish people. If we were to dwell on every time we had been injured, our year would be non-stop suffering. We would never have time to celebrate. 

So, we compound all our catastrophes onto a single day. Every exile. Every genocide. Every desecration of sacred texts and spaces. Every racist law and every violent uprising. As far as we are concerned, they all happened on this day: on Tisha BAv.

It is a day of immense profundity. The tunes are haunting. The texts are harrowing. It is the hardest fast of the year, taking place in the heat of summer, with long days and disturbing topics. 

For years, I marked this fast alone. Very few Progressive Jews wanted to participate. Many Reform and Liberal synagogues don’t mark it at all. I would turn up to Bevis Marks, the centre of Sephardi Jewish life in the city, where cantors from the Netherlands regaled us with their greatest piyyutim. But this occasion attracted so little interest from the people who shared my religious beliefs: the other Progressives. 

Why would they not want to mark it?

The first reason is emotional. It is difficult to sit in misery for a full day. It paints a tragic picture of our past, compounding every struggle we have faced into a single problem, overwrit by centuries of destruction. 

In fact, I think this objection is what really commends Tish bAv. Grieving what’s gone can teach us important lessons. It can put us in touch with our most challenging emotions, like guilt, misery and despair. 

True, if we went around all the time complaining about how difficult Jewish history had been, we would never move on, and we would be bound by a negative self-image. By placing all of Jewish suffering on a single day, we are able to confront atrocities, and engage with them, then move on.

Progressives have also objected to Tish bAv on theological grounds. As Reform Jews, we have no desire to return to the Temple or its sacrifices. We are the heirs to the rabbinic revolution, which rebuilt our entire religion after Jerusalem was destroyed. 

Because of the early rabbis, we became a Diaspora people; replaced animal slaughter with prayer; and substituted hereditary priests for a system in which all Jews could be equals. 

But those rabbis understood something profound. You have to engage with the past in order to progress from it. We cannot just pretend things never happened. 

Our rabbis pored over their ancient texts, repeated their oral traditions, and grappled with the world that had gone before. They may have moved beyond the time of the Temple, but they always referred back to it. They faced their tragedy, and rebuilt their religion.

Perhaps the biggest reason that Tish bAv is not given the respect it’s due is because it has been replaced. Since the Second World War, many Jews now instead mark Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Memorial Day.

This is understandable. The Holocaust was, of course, unprecedented in the scale of slaughter; the degree to which industrial machinery could be dedicated to human suffering; and the gleeful participation of so much of Europe in Jewish extermination. It is absolutely right to mark it and honour so many outrageous deaths.

But these events have their own theology. They teach that Jewish suffering was a thing of the past, now resolved. In the case of Holocaust Memorial Day, the problem has now been solved by the United Nations in international commitments to human rights. 

Yom HaShoah is part of the secular cycle of the Israeli calendar, a week before Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates Israel’s victory in 1948, and a fortnight before Yom Yerushalayim celebrates Israel’s Conquest of Jerusalem in 1968. Yom HaShoah suggests that the answer to Jewish suffering is the state of Israel’s military might.

These may well be the political views of some congregants, but they are not the religious views of rabbinic Judaism. Judaism shies away from simplistic answers to subjugation and refuses to allow genocides to be resolved by slogans. We actually have to engage with the horrors of the Shoah, and to understand that they cannot be explained away. We have to sit with our grief.

Tisha bAv poses an alternative response to our experiences of evil. It tells us to fast and grieve, but, unlike on any other fast, we are to carry on working. We can still do many of the things we would on a normal day. Our world is upended, but we must keep going. 

The idea of Tish bAv is that we can face destruction and, through faith and community, nevertheless survive. We can still hold onto our God and our values. Even while we are being destroyed, we are able to rebuild.

Consider how Reform Jews of the past responded to the Shoah in the 20th Century. While in the camps, Rabbi Leo Baeck preached Torah beside waste heaps. When he was liberated from Theresienstadt, he immediately published a work of optimistic theology, expressing his hope of Judaism’s continuity. Think of Rabbi Albert Friedlander, who, having escaped the Nazis, spent the post-war years establishing synagogues and saving scrolls so that our religion could be preserved. Their lives are a testament to Jewish hope in the face of despair.

That is the story told by Tisha bAv. That, yes, we have suffered, but we have also survived. We have refused to let Judaism be extinguished. Into every generation, we have passed on our values and our faith. We have always found ways to rebuild. Tish bAv teaches us that we may always suffer, but that we have also always carried on. 

So, tonight, we begin grieving. I hope you will join me at ELELS for our ECAMPS service to mark this important fast. We will read poetry, hear the chanting of the Megillah, and reflect on the tragedies of destroyed cities and vanquished people. And, through this sorrow, we will learn again the strength and creativity of our people. We will remember all those who have kept this Judaism alive.

Tonight, we begin grieving. Tomorrow night, we will begin rebuilding.

Shabbat shalom.

halachah · sermon

What makes food kosher today?

Not long ago, after a near-lifetime of vegetarianism, I decided to try treif. And not just any treif, but the real deal: pork.

I knew I wanted to give it a go but I was afraid of being seen by other Jews. So I went on holiday to Gran Canaria, sat down in a fancy restaurant, and ordered a full-blown roast pork.

As I was waiting, however, a couple from my old congregation walked into the same restaurant. They instantly recognised me and came up to say hello. Just as we greeted each other, my pork came out from the kitchen: a giant pig on a massive platter with a big red apple in its mouth.

Flummoxed, I exclaimed: “My goodness… so this is how they serve apples here!”

OK, so that last part didn’t happen, but I really did decide to try treif about a decade ago. I’ll be honest with you, some of it tastes pretty good, but they’re not worth giving up Judaism for.

I hadn’t eaten pork since childhood. Aged 6, I had precociously insisted to my parents that I wanted to be religious and go to synagogue. My mum had told me that if I was going to force her to go to synagogue, I’d have to give up sausages. I wanted to be Jewish and I wasn’t allowed to do it half-heartedly.

I think all of us know that food laws play some role in our Judaism. Some of you here keep kosher kitchens. Some of you guiltily sneak a steak when you think you won’t get caught. Some of you, like my brother, eat extra bacon ‘to make up for all the ancestors who missed out on it.’

Whatever your choices, being a Reform Jew means to get to make those decisions for yourself. Our movement believes in informed choice.

Making the choice is your responsibility. But making sure you are informed is mine. So it’s my responsibility to share with you that there are lively debates happening in the Reform rabbinate about what kosher should mean today.

I recently attended my first Assembly of Reform Rabbis, where learned colleagues were discussing kashrut for the first time since the 1970s. It says something interesting that the topic hasn’t been addressed in such a long time.

The reason we are discussing kashrut again today is that the government is contemplating whether to ban traditional ritual slaughter – shechita. For many centuries, Jewish butchers have used the same methods for killing animals. That is: they slit their throats, puncturing the trachea, oesophagus and arteries with one rapid incision.

Throughout our history, Jews have considered this to be the cleanest and most humane method of killing animals. It comes out of a desire to show respect for the animals and to minimise risk of diseases.

Today, however, there is a new movement to favour stun slaughter. In this method, animals are electrocuted before they are killed. For cattle, this means putting a charged bolt through their heads. For chickens, it means electrifying them as a group. Proponents argue that this is more humane, since it renders animals insensitive to pain in their final moments.

There are two other factors that have made stun slaughter so popular, neither of which should be ignored. One is that industrial meat production means that factories produce far more meat. They want to be able to slaughter as efficiently as possible to maximise profit from the animals. Industrial stun slaughter certainly helps here.

Another factor is antisemitism. Across Europe, the movements to ban traditional slaughter have largely been led by white supremacists. Their primary target is Muslims, whose customs around halal slaughter are very similar to our own methods of shechita. Jews are really collateral damage in cultural wars about trying to retain Europe’s status as a Christian continent.

These factors make addressing this issue exceptionally complex. Proponents of stun slaughter ask us to set aside questions about racism and capitalism, just to focus on the issue at hand. I find that very hard to do. Rabbinic law is never about making moral decisions in the abstract. We make our ethical choices as real people living in the real world.

I think it is highly doubtful we will ever be able to prove that taking an animal’s life is better served by electrocution than through throat slitting. It may well be true that these new methods of industrial killing cause less pain, but shechita requires butchers to actually look animals in the eye before taking their lives. I’m not convinced either is more humane.

But, even if one were, we cannot escape the horrific systems that underpin animal consumption. Right now, the insatiable demand for meat is one of the leading causes of global warming. This week, we saw record-breaking temperatures. We can expect such heat waves to take place more regularly and more ferociously as runaway climate change unfolds.

The meat industry is an enormous enterprise that involves destroying natural habitats, depleting the oceans, battery-farming animals, deplorable working conditions, and unspeakable cruelty.

In every generation, Reform Jews have to work out anew what the most ethical way of living is. Today, it is hard to make the case that this includes participating in such an unjust system.

Rather than engaging in debates about specific methods of killing, I feel the appropriate response should be to question whether we should keep eating meat at all.

Indeed, this synagogue has long been an exclusively vegetarian site. This is partly because of convenience: it means we can host anyone and we can avoid messy arguments about separating meat from milk. But it also comes from the moral courage of previous leaders in this community, like Rabbi Henry, who felt that was the best way to live our values.

Please do not think me preachy. Quite on the contrary, I want to be open about my own hypocrisy. I still do eat meat on occasion, especially fish and chicken. I eat eggs and cheese. But, deep down, I know that the ethical vegans have already won the argument.

I once expressed my sadness about this to a frum vegan friend. She advised me: don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. If you wish you could be vegan but can’t give up cheese, be vegan except for cheese! If you wish you could be vegetarian but like fish too much, be pesacatarian! We must all find ways to reduce our meat intake and limit our negative impacts on the planet.

The Reform rabbinate is still in open conversation about how we redefine kosher for our age. We did not settle the matter at the Assembly, and I don’t want to leave this sermon as if I have reached a definite conclusion. Instead, I want to bring you into the conversation. I want to hear how you think we should best live our values today.

Let us engage in open discussion. Let us talk with each other about our own practices and our own driving values. And let us fashion together a new future for what an ethical Jewish life looks like.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · sermon

Ordination address

The most commonly asked question I’ve had while training to be a rabbi is “why?”

And I always tell them the same thing.

I was sitting in synagogue one shabbat morning, when a great beam of light came in through the sanctuary window, the heavens opened, and a great booming voice said: “Lev! Apply to Leo Baeck College!”

Of course, that didn’t happen. And it doesn’t take people long to realise I’m joking.

Rabbis don’t get called on by God. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud were pretty suspicious of any purported voices from heaven.

Today, I will share with you the real reason I wanted to be a rabbi. During my twenties, I began to wonder what happened to gay men over 30. I knew so few.

At the same time, I saw some friends, in different ways, destroy themselves. They were all queer.

And I didn’t need to ask why. I understood how living in a homophobic and transphobic society could make them believe that the world didn’t want them.

I had grown up in that world too, often experiencing homophobic violence.

But I had one thing that differentiated me from some of my friends who didn’t think they belonged in this world.

I never had to doubt that I had a family, a community, and a God who loved me.

I grew up in a synagogue that accepted and embraced me as a gay and gender non-conforming child.

I knew, too, that were gay rabbis out there. At least two. Over decades, pioneers had fought for a Judaism that would benefit people they would never know. That would shamelessly embrace difference. That would speak out for social justice against conformity.

And I wondered if, perhaps, I could pass on something similar. That others might grow up with a God and a community and a religion that loved them. That, if they did, perhaps they wouldn’t destroy themselves.

So, in that sense, I feel like I was called.

Called upon by future queer kids, asking, will you make space for us?

Called upon by past generations of Jews, many lost to the centuries, saying, we brought this Judaism this far. We nurtured inclusive Judaism for you to inherit it. Will you keep it alive for us now?

Called upon by those that didn’t make it, asking, will there be communities that can love us, too?

And yes. Called upon by a loving God. The voice of justice. The moral force of the universe that will always stand with the oppressed.

The outstretched hand that brought us out from Egypt so that we might spread a prophetic message of equality and justice throughout the world.

That voice doesn’t come as a booming sound from the heavens. It is a still, small voice. It is a gentle murmur, calling us to do right, urging us to rectify iniquity, offering hope.

Such a voice can only be heard if there are people to amplify it. To those who have kept it reverberating throughout the ages – thank you.

It is calling us all.

May we merit to answer.

Amen.

judaism · sermon · torah

That land had neither milk nor honey


“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.

Shabbat shalom.