Bring on the broigus

It’s never a boring time to be a Jew.

The life of a Jew is one that is constantly wrapped up in ideas, actions and movements. Centuries of precarious existence, an intimate relationship with texts and an intense struggle with God have implanted in us a restless culture that thirsts after new ideas.

It’s never a boring time to be a Jew, and this year has been no exception.

This week’s readings give an insight into just how important ideas are in our community. We read the stories of three remarkable women and three remarkable births of three remarkable sons. In our Torah portion, Hagar, an Egyptian princess transformed into Abraham’s nomadic handmaid, gives birth to Ishmael, in the stead of her mistress, Sarah. Then Sarah conceives Isaac at the age of 90. In our haftarah, Hannah, an infertile woman, prays so fervently that she gives birth to Samuel. Three unusual births.

These three boys then all suffer a similar fate: they all come close to dying. Isaac, as we know, is taken up Mount Moriah to be sacrificed by his father and ends up bringing about an end to all child sacrifice. Ishmael becomes stranded in the desert with his mother and comes so close to dying of dehydration that his mother considers putting him out of his mystery when the two are saved by a miracle well. Samuel really does die but comes back as a ghost to give advice to the king.

All the figures in these texts are more than just interesting people living interesting lives: they are models of ideas. According to the 15th Century Spanish mystic, Isaac Arama, Sarah is the representative of Jewish Torah, and Hagar of universal philosophy.[1] In the traditions of both religions, Isaac was the founder of Judaism and Ishmael the progenitor of Islam. Hannah is a model of piety and a symbol of how we should all pray. Her son, Samuel, was the archetypal prophet, and the first to establish monarchy in Israel by crowning King David.

Three remarkable women. Three boys conceived in impossible circumstances. Six ideas. Three ideas that nearly died. Six ideas that have come to define our modern world. Throughout our stories these characters sometimes come into conflict. They sometimes try to kill and banish each other. They sometimes come together. So it has been throughout our long history, that complicated and contradictory ideas of philosophy, Torah, piety, power and faith have interacted to do fascinating things.

I spent this summer in Jerusalem, as in previous years, and this time, decided that while I was there, I would try to read up on Jewish ideology. I took copies with me of Rabbi David Goldberg’s book, ‘To the Promised Land: A History of Zionist Thought’, and ‘Revolutionary Yiddishland’, by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg. These were archetypes of the exciting thought in European Jewry before the Second World War: the first of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, and the latter of Jewish socialism. Both books reveal an era full of ideas, when Jews were passionate and tenacious enough to imagine every possible utopia. You get the feeling as you read them that anything is possible.

Indeed, it seems that pre-war Europe really was a time when ideas felt alive. Reading biographies of the time, you get the feeling that every street corner and café was abuzz with discussion about who the Jews were and what they could become. On the one hand, there were Bolsheviks, agitating for Jews to throw off their heritage, join the ranks of the working-class and commit themselves to overthrowing capitalism as citizens of the world. There were the Zionists, who maintained that Jews would never be safe or able to flourish until they had their own state. There were assimilationists, who wanted Jews to transform themselves and become loyal citizens of the countries where they lived. There were Bundists, who wanted to see Jewish cultural renewal in the Diaspora as part of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

Out of this great social upheaval came, too, spiritual revival. There were the Orthodox, who insisted that Jews should focus on keeping halachah and not think about moving anywhere until the Messiah came. There were the reformers, the founders of our movement, who felt that Jews should cleave to their God and to the spirit of the prophets, so that they could be a light unto the nations in the Diaspora. These truly were interesting times to be a Jew.

The Nazis extinguished much of that discussion. Not only did they kill the people in their gas chambers, but they also destroyed their ideas. In the aftermath of a genocide, it was hard to believe that the Jews could ever be a light unto the nations. It was hard to believe that Jews could integrate, still less thrive in the Diaspora. It was hard to believe in halachah. It was hard to believe in God. There were certainly great ideologues in the generations after the genocide, but they had to make up in passion what they lacked in number.

When I left this synagogue and went to university, I felt very profoundly the absence of the ideas with which I had been raised here. I left behind here the ideas of community, of ethical mission and of religious hope. I wondered if perhaps those ideas only really belonged in my childhood. Among my Jewish peers, it seemed that one idea remained as the last man standing in post-war Europe: secular nationalism.

The reasons for that are unsurprising: across the whole of British society, the importance of collective religion had slowly declined. So, too, had the trade unions, community centres and political parties that had animated the ideas of public life. Israel, on the other hand, existed, and offered people a sense of security. Publicly supporting it, right or wrong, offered people a sense of purpose. The religious meanings ascribed to statehood, Diaspora and internationalism faded into the background as Anglo-Jewry invested much of its efforts in public advocacy for Israel.

This threatened to become the only manifestation of Jewishness in Britain. So great was the convergence across the movements among Jews in Britain that people had begun to talk about post-denominational Judaism. The great debates of the preceding decades had been laid to rest. Progressive Jews had fought so hard for women’s and LGBT liberation that even the most bigoted conservatives were powerless to resist it. Indeed, this year Britain gained its first Orthodox woman rabbi and only last week the Office of the Chief Rabbi issued a briefing on welcoming LGBT people into synagogues.

As feminism progressed, a consensus emerged in the Jewish community around a progressive, secular, nationalist vision: Jews in Britain would be liberal, atheistic, and attached to the state of Israel. Just as Fukuyama saw the end of history with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, leaving only liberal capitalism, Anglo-Jewry’s ideological debates tailed off, leaving only secular Zionism.

But it’s never a boring time to be a Jew, and this year has proved it. Like Samuel, Isaac and Ishmael, ideas that seemed dead suddenly found new life this year. The whole community has been abuzz with conversation. At Pesach, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, attended, Jewdas’s seder. Jewdas, a group that has done amazing things to help me find my own place in the Jewish community, promotes ideas of internationalism, Diasporism and socialism. Corbyn’s attendance opened up anew the questions in our community about antisemitism, our role in the world, and the values we support.

Only a few months later, a group of young Jews, most of whom had grown up in Zionist youth movements, stood in Parliament Square and recited kaddish, the prayer for the dead, over the Palestinians who had been killed in Israel’s attack on Gaza. This simple act of public prayer re-opened old conversations about Jewish religious practice, the significance of halachah, and Anglo-Jewry’s relationship with Israel. They challenged everyone to question what the limits were of liberal Zionism. Ideas that some imagined were buried – of Liberalism, Bundism, Orthodoxy, integrationism and Diasporism – re-emerged from their graves.

In the shock at seeing a consensus broken, some of the initial discourse was less than edifying. Perhaps what caused people to lash out so much was that they hadn’t realised how fragile the apparent consensus was or how safe it had made them feel.  Although hardly part of the mainstream within Anglo-Jewry, I was surprised in myself at how frightened and threatened I felt by the sudden and very public disagreement.

But disagreement need not be a cause for fear. The vitality of diverse ideas is an indication of the strength of feeling within the community. It means that, once again, Jews are wondering how the world can be different. After decades spent recovering from the shock of genocide, we may now be ready to imagine alternative futures and retell the stories of our past.

This year has been one of tumult and change, and we can only expect that the next one will see more of the same. We cannot stop the breakdown of consensus: we can only jump into it and embrace it. Anglo-Jewry is resourceful and resilient enough to have energetic conversations and remain a united community. We shouldn’t shy away from those conversations but should embrace them with whole hearts and open minds.

Ideological disagreement is far better for all of us than staid consensus. Indeed, in the conclusion of Rabbi Goldberg’s book on Zionism, an idea to which he is very sympathetic, he warns that without alternative ideas against which to pit itself, Zionism could become reactionary, conservative and devoid of the ability to be creative. Debate helps us to be imaginative, innovative and dynamic. This coming year presents us with opportunities to be upfront about our values and have real conversations about what God, religion, ethics, Diaspora and homeland really mean to us.

I cannot say definitively what Liberal Judaism’s position will be, or even whether it should have one at all. What excites me about the new culture of debate is that it is open-ended, and none of us know where it will lead. Yet there is one role that progressive Jews have always played, which is needed now more than ever: we need to offer hope.

It’s never a boring time to be a Jew. May the next year be even more interesting.

Shanah tovah.

bund
A poster of the Jewish Labour Bund

[1] Louis Ginzberg, Jewish Folklore, 1955

Building a home

Building a home

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?”

Coming home from rabbinical school for Rosh Hashanah, I feel like I have my parents asking the same questions in reverse. “Lev you’re laying tefillin now? You’re keeping shabbat now? You’re training to be a rabbi now?! Lev, are you still patrilineal?”

I can confirm with great pride that I am still not Jewish according to the Orthodox beit din. I still have no desire to leave a religious movement that embraces me for one that doesn’t.

Still, anxieties are understandable. I have to admit that I am more than a little daunted coming home for the High Holy Days this year. It is quite one thing to lead services for strangers in far-flung places like Cornwall and Newcastle. But giving a sermon to the community that raised me, in front of my cheder teachers and old friends, adds a whole new level of pressure. It turns out it’s easier to talk to strangers about God than it is to engage with your family. Perhaps Chabad are onto something after all.

Reading Liberal Jewish Community is now celebrating its 40th year. Everybody who attended the birthday celebrations in July fed back what a great time they had, and members of the community who I met at Liberal Judaism’s biennial told me how inspired they were to keep this community going and make it even stronger.

Rosh Hashanah is a good time to take stock of that. We are at the start of autumn and ten days before Yom Kippur. In the time of our ancestors, this was when the harvest season finished, and the Torah cycle came to its end. The days became darker and insecurity about rainfall set in. Farmers and nomads wondered what the new year would bring, whether they would have enough food to feed their families, and what new challenges they might face. So they set this period as a time for reflection on how their lives had gone and where they would go in the coming year.

Rosh Hashanah is a time when we return to the same place as we have always been and look at it again with fresh eyes. This is, then, a poignant moment for all of us, to reflect on where we as a community have been and where we will go. I think then that the best I can offer in this Rosh Hashanah sermon is not so much Torah learning but reflections on the amazing impact this community has had, both on my life and on the life of Judaism in Britain.

This synagogue really has pioneered a future for Liberal Judaism. For such a small community, it is remarkable how many of the children who were in cheder at the same time as I was have gone on to be engaged Jews. Graham has worked for various Jewish charities; Abs has led Limmud; Katherine attends services when she can fit them into her busy schedule as a doctor. (The list goes on, so if anybody has some naches they want to share, do feel free.) This is not, by any means, a coincidence. This synagogue created such an amazing intergenerational community for us. At cheder, we learnt not just the facts about Judaism but how to really engage with it, have opinions on it, and integrate it into our lives.

All that fostered strong relationships between people of all ages. My brother loved being able to go round to Susanna’s house and speak German with her. Across the board, people fostered really meaningful bonds. Today, the buzzword in Jewish circles is “relational Judaism” – the idea that Judaism is not a transaction where congregants purchase a service off a rabbi, but that Judaism is something we build through our relationships with each other. I think we can say with some pride, we were doing that long before it was cool.

Perhaps what made Reading’s community so special was Meir’s farm. When I tell people that this existed, often people barely believe me. One day, we will need to write down the history of this community, or in fifty years the idea that there was a religious community in Berkshire living out a kibbutznik’s dream on a crop farm in Berkshire will be just a strange myth. The experiences of Meir’s farm were unbelievably special. Harvesting rhubarb on Shavuot, building a Sukkah out of real twigs and greenery, seeing how the biblical year lined up with an agricultural cycle. One of my strongest childhood memories is of when we buried the old siddurim, Service of the Heart, at Tu B’Shvat, and planted on top of them a Burning Bush.

This all made such an impression on me that, when I moved to London, I wondered where they went to plant trees on Tu B’Shvat. I thought that perhaps the councils gave them permission to do something in the public parks or that they might link up with one of the city farms. I was shocked to realise that this practice of earth-based Judaism was something special and unique to Reading. I felt like Londoners were really missing out on a proper Jewish experience. How can you live Judaism properly in a big city like London? Apparently, some other people agreed with me, because in the last few years a group of young pioneers have set up Sadeh, a Jewish farm in rural Kent. That farm has become a magnet for young Jews across Europe and restored an important sense of community around agrarian Judaism. We at Reading anticipated that and I am sure there is much wisdom that established members can share with those people if they so choose.

What sticks out for me most, however, was how much this community embraced diversity. I have amazing memories of dressing up as Dana International for Purim here, and performing her Eurovision-winning hit ‘Diva’ on the bimah. This world is not an easy place to grow up LGBT, but this community made it so much easier and created a genuinely warm and accepting environment. As an adult, I have seen many of my friends struggle with their sexuality and gender and wonder if they have a place in this world. I am so incredibly grateful that I never had to doubt that I had a God and a religion that loved me exactly as I was.

Reflecting on all this, and on the wonderful Jewish upbringing I had in this community, what I really want to say is thank you. You enriched my life and have done for so many Jews who come through these doors. Keep going, stick with it, because you never know what great things you are achieving with small gestures. This synagogue is not just my home community, it is a home for everyone who needs it.

As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and a great 20th Century mystic, said: “Through returning home, all things are reunited with God– returning home is, in essence, an effort to return to one’s original status, to the source of life and higher being in their fullness; without limitation and diminution, in their highest spiritual character, as illumined by the simple, radiant divine light.”[1]

I’m pretty sure he was talking about Berkshire.

At the grand age of 40, I say to this Jewish community: may you live to be 120! And then some.

Shanah tovah.

rljc trees

I gave this sermon in the synagogue that raised me, Reading Liberal Jewish Community. It was a very tender and nostalgic experience.

[1] Orot HaTeshuva, 4:2

Pinchas joins us on the Pride march

In the time of Moses, love across boundaries was common. Israelites fell in love with people no matter what boundaries were set down by their priests, and openly entered relationships with people of every background. Intermarriage with the Midianites – a tribe from the Arabian Peninsula – was quite common. This incensed the priests.

Pinchas, the son of a leading priest, saw an Israelite man going home with a Midianite woman. He took a sword and killed them both. One cut straight through the belly. According to the Torah, this stopped a plague that had killed 24 thousand people.[1] That is our week’s parasha: a zealot stabs people in the stomach because he doesn’t like their relationship.

The rabbis showered Pinchas in glory. He was, in their minds, the guardian of Jewish tradition.[2] The Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, an early Aramaic translation of our text, holds Pinchas in such high esteem that it says he was made immortal. He has God make him an angel of the covenant, living forever, so that he could announce Redemption at the end of days.[3]

This is how our tradition treats a violent zealot. In 2015, Yishai Schlissel, a Haredi man in Jerusalem, went out to the city’s Pride parade and stabbed the LGBT people who were celebrating there. One young woman, Shira Banki, died from the wounds. She was 16. Schlissel had done the same thing ten years earlier, and had just been released from prison.[4] In his defence, Schlissel claimed he was inspired by Pinchas. Like Pinchas, he was protesting sexual immorality. Like Pinchas, he was a zealot taking direct action. Like Pinchas, he stabbed them in the belly.[5] On the streets of Meah Shaarim, an Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, posters went up celebrating Schlissel’s violence by quoting this week’s parasha: ‘and the plague was lifted.’[6]

This text’s history is painful. The tradition is so horrible that it makes me wonder why we study these texts at all. What can we possibly gain from them? How can this story form part of our Torah of love and justice? There is a part of me that would prefer to pretend Pinchas never existed, and to hope that Yishai Schlissel will simply rot in a jail cell somewhere and never have his name mentioned again. But we cannot gloss over it and pretend that Jews who hold these violent views do not exist. We have to engage with it.

What can we say to it? If you sat face-to-face with Pinchas, what could you tell this biblical figure about morality? How can we speak back to this troubling text?

I want to propose an alternative reading of the story of Pinchas. The Targum only tells us that Pinchas lived forever, but not what happened to him afterwards. I want us to imagine together that Pinchas was kept alive, not as a reward, but so that he could learn the error of his ways. Pinchas, as an immortal angel, has had to follow the progress of the Jewish community and see the accomplishments of the queer liberation movement.

He stayed alive to see the unbridled love between Ruth and Naomi. Ruth, a Moabite woman, devoted herself utterly to her mother-in-law, followed her everywhere she went and accepted all the ways of the Jewish people.[7] She became the ancestor of King David.[8] As Pinchas followed them on their harsh wanderings through the desert, Pinchas wondered what he had been so afraid of. Were foreign women really such a threat to Jewish existence?

In the time of the rabbis, Pinchas sat on the banks of the Galilee and saw Rabbi Johanan fall in love with Resh Lakish. Johanan stunned Resh Lakish with his long flowing hair and androgynous good looks. Resh Lakish, a gladiator, turned away from violence just so he could spend his life studying halachah with Johanan.[9] They never touched each other, because the times would not allow it, but gazed at each other fondly as they pored over pages of the Torah together. They learned to control an uncontrollable love.[10] Pinchas watched them and wondered: “Could this be so bad?”

In the Middle Ages, Pinchas was transported to Spain. He sat in the courtyards of Arabic-speaking rabbis who drank wine and unabashedly serenaded each other with love songs. He saw the great Jewish poets of the generation ring out praises for same-sex love in the sun of Al-Andalus.[11] Pinchas sat at their feet and thought about what he had thought sexual impropriety was. Was this it? Were these loving sages, so dedicated their Judaism, the thing he had so much feared?

Pinchas saw the rise of the queer liberation movement. He saw modern gay, bi, lesbian and trans people gather together in Magnus Hirschfield’s flat in Berlin. He saw how, at the turn of the 20th Century, European Jews led the charge for freedom to live and love.[12] He witnessed them insist that this was the articulation of their Jewish values: that to live unabashed and unafraid was a far greater representation of the prophetic message of Judaism than the narrow nationalism others espoused. Pinchas asked himself: “Are they talking about me?” Pinchas saw the Nazis destroy everything Magnus created.[13]

I hope that Pinchas came to England too. I hope he saw Rabbi Lionel Blue (z”l) give hope and heart to all those who worried that they could never be gay and Jewish. I hope Pinchas saw Lionel proudly come out and preach the words of a loving G?d to an audience of millions.[14] I want to imagine that Pinchas sat in the beit midrash with Rabbi Sheila Shulman (z”l), and heard her expound radical lesbian Jewish theology.[15]

Pinchas was there on that Pride Parade in Jerusalem in 2015. Pinchas saw a 16-year-old girl murdered in his name. Pinchas saw the people who celebrated it. Pinchas buried his head in his hands and wondered: “Is this my Judaism? Is this my Judaism?”

No, Pinchas, this is not your Judaism. We have come a long way from the tribal zealotry of the past. Across the entire Jewish community, people are waking up to the joys of love. It will win.[16] There are others who are slow to accept us, but they will, with time. Like you, Pinchas, people are learning through the struggles of queer people that progress is nothing to fear.

So, Pinchas, come join us at Manchester Pride Parade this year. The season is just starting. There will be an entire marching bloc of Jews from all the best synagogues in this great city. Come and turn your zealotry to the cause of progressive Judaism – its inclusion of every Jew and its promise of a relationship with a loving God. March with us, and fulfil the role that God set out for you – that you should be an angel of the covenant and a harbinger of Redemption.

Shabbat shalom.

shira-banki
Her name was Shira Banki.

I gave this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on 7th July 2018 (Pinchas 5778) on the day when the Pride season kicked off in London. Manchester Pride march will be on August 25th. To join the Jewish bloc on the demonstration, get in touch with Jacksons Row Synagogue, who are coordinating it.

[1] Numbers 25:7-8

[2] BT Sanhedrin 82a-b

[3] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Numbers 25:12

[4] https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-pride-parade-stabber-to-undergo-psychiatric-evaluation-1.5383572

[5] https://www.jewishideas.org/article/zealotry-and-its-consequences-case-yishai-schlissel

[6] https://www.timesofisrael.com/praise-for-gay-pride-parade-attack-posted-in-jerusalem/

[7] https://www.jewdas.org/ruth-and-naomi/

[8] Ruth 4

[9] Bava Metzia 84a

[10] Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct, 1997

[11] Norman Roth, Deal Gently with that Young Man, 1982

[12] https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1868-the-einstein-of-sex-is-born-and-dies-1.5361786

[13] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/lgbtq-institute-in-germany-was-burned-down-by-nazis

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/19/rabbi-lionel-blue-gay-liberal-thought-for-day-star-dies-86

[15] http://www.rainbowjews.com/rabbi-sheila-shulman-a-true-pioneer/

[16] https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-london-rabbi-preaches-inclusivity-toward-gays-sets-off-uproar-1.5482362

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob

Balaam was nervous. He rode his donkey to the steppes of Moab. The donkey trotted slowly in the desert heat, weighed down by Balaam’s travelling bags. Balaam looked this way and that, up and down at the craggy mountains, and back to the land he’d left behind. He fiddled with the donkey’s harness, twitching at the leather straps.

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me,” King Balak had told him. “Come now, put a curse on them for me, for there are too many of them for me. Maybe, with your help, I can defeat them and drive them out of the land. I know that whoever you bless is blessed indeed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”[1]

It was true. Since childhood, Balaam had known he had a gift. Whatever he said came true. The right words just came out of his mouth and took meaning. As an adult, Balaam had become something of a blessing mercenary – offering prayers for kings across the world in exchange for payment.[2] Normally, he turned up, said the words, and left with enough money to feed his family for a few more weeks.

But this time was different. Before being asked to curse the Jews, Balaam had never heard of them.[3] Then, the second he’d been asked to curse them, their God appeared before him. God told him: “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.”[4] Initially, he’d refused, but King Balak had been insistent. Mercenaries cannot say no to kings. So he agreed.

Balaam sidled up to the edge of the valley where the Jews were camped. He looked out over all their tents, pitched in the desert. He saw the speckled silhouettes of people wandering about between the marquees. He opened his mouth to curse them. But the words to curse weren’t coming. Every time he tried to curse them, his tongue dried up and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He felt a heavy marble in his gullet, choking up all his words. Then, from somewhere outside of him and deep within, a voice came out of his own mouth:

“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”[5]

To this day, those are the first words Jews say on entering a synagogue. We Progressives sing them together when we begin our services. Orthodox Ashkenazim recite them as they approach a community’s door, or even idly walking past a shul.[6] Why is it that the words we say when we come to a synagogue are the words of a non-Jew, who knew nothing of the Jews, but was somehow overwhelmed by the Divine Spirit? What has made us decide to use this blessing in such a way?

I suspect part of the answer is that, when we go into a synagogue, all of us feel like non-Jews. Whether we attend shul weekly, or only turn up for Yom Kippur, something about the space can make anyone feel not quite Jewish enough. We can all feel like we are saying somebody else’s words, tentatively mouthing out sounds that don’t quite feel right.

I rarely meet Jews who feel completely comfortable in their own Jewishness. Everybody feels excluded in some way: not quite learned enough, not quite spiritual enough. A stranger recently told me he was just not quite brave enough. Being a people who don’t belong is hard enough without worrying who belongs to that people. Many people have come up with their own definitions for what makes a Jew Jewish, but my favourite is: a Jew is somebody who worries they are not quite Jewish enough.

This prayer goes some way to honouring that feeling. All of us, no matter how observant or learned, recite the words of a non-Jew who has been bowled over by the Jewish God. The prayer reassures us: you may feel like you don’t belong, but you are home.

I used to wonder if I would ever reach a point where I felt like I knew enough. As a teenager, I stumbled over Hebrew words as the people around me seemed to recite them so confidently. I thought that perhaps when my Hebrew was good enough I would feel secure in my Jewishness. Then, having learnt Hebrew, I realised how little of the Torah I knew. I thought that if I could only master the Scriptures, I wouldn’t worry if I belonged.

Last week, I finished my examinations for my first year at rabbinical school. Our teachers assessed us on sections of Talmud, Hebrew grammar, Aramaic language, leyning the Torah, philosophy and biblical criticism. As I came to the end of them, I realised how much I still did not know. The rabbinical course gives us the tools we need to be able to explore every part of Judaism, but it cannot fill us up with everything. Our religion’s traditions are too diverse; our interpretations too vast.

I have come to embrace that feeling. Judaism is a bit like star-gazing. You lie on your back and set your eyes above you. You realise there is no way you could ever count all the stars you see. After a few moments, your eyes adjust, and you realise that there is another layer of stars behind the ones you couldn’t count. Suddenly, you’re humbled as you realise you’re facing upwards to infinity, beyond an entire galaxy with no end in sight.

This is our Judaism: layers of complexity reaching out to infinity. All we can do is stare at it in awe, flummoxed by our God, and say: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”[7]

stars moab

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College‘s weekly parasha blog.

[1] Numbers 22:5

[2] Midrash Tanhuma Balak 4

[3] Rashi on Numbers 24:14

[4] Numbers 22:12

[5] Numbers 24:5

[6] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mah-tovu

[7] Numbers 24:5

We are asked to believe in something impossible

We are asked to believe in something impossible.

We are asked to suspend everything we know and accept that a God of fire and cloud descended on the place where the Israelites were camped.

In the day, God came down to earth like a pillar of cloud, encompassing the tents where people lived. At night, God rose up like a pillar of fire, showing people the way.[1]

The movements of these clouds or the fiery appearance would signal that the people were to either break up and move, or make camp, as the case might be.[2]

Ever since the Torah was first canonised, people have exercised a healthy scepticism about what these words might mean. We have rational doubts about whether pillars of fire and cloud could come out of nowhere.

Even in the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, one of the earliest translations of the Torah, this text is altered to say that what they say was “like a vision of fire.” Here, as elsewhere, the Targum tries to keep people from taking the words of the Torah overly literally. It is not, the Targum suggests, that a real pillar of fire descended from the sky, but that people had visions of something that looked like fire. This is more digestible.

Commenting on this problem, the medieval Spanish philosopher Maimonides tells us that such ideas “come from dreams and visions.” He argues that “the imaginative faculty achieves so great a perfection of action that it sees the thing as if it were outside.”[3] The Israelites only saw the fire and cloud in their minds, but their vision was so powerful that it was as if they could see it out in the real world.

Where Maimonides can’t explain such phenomena, he tells us that they are metaphors. When the Torah says that God wrote the Torah by hand, it doesn’t really mean that God has hands. When the Torah says that God walked about in the Garden of Eden, it doesn’t really mean that God has feet. It’s using language we understand to explain something we cannot.

The idea that this is all a metaphor is powerful. After all, if we want to understand God or Divine Revelation, we must accept that we’re thinking about something way beyond our comprehension. None of us are really enlightened enough to see God or to understand what God wants of us. These descriptions are just tentative imaginations to tell us about something too profound and complicated to be described.

In modern times, historical criticism has gone even further to rationalise what is written in this parashah. The pillars of cloud and fire weren’t visions. They weren’t even metaphors. For some historians, these were probably just burning wood pyres and incense sticks, guiding people through the desert.[4]

I can completely see why people would interpret the Torah this way. It fits better with our experience of the world and keeps us from straying into fundamentalism. We need to keep critical distance so we can remember that this was a book written by men, who were fallible. That is especially important in a community like ours, where we know that the sense of justice we get from our own consciences is far more important than the rules written in an ancient book.

But, in a way, I also find the efforts to rationalise stories like these quite disappointing. By dispelling myths as just visions or metaphors or the hocus-pocus of priestly magicians, we do these texts a disservice. The Torah is not a book of scientific or historical truth. It is a book of spiritual truth. It is trying to tell us something much deeper about the world than science or history ever can. We can’t judge the claims of the Torah, then, on the same terms as we would a physicist’s estimate of how old the universe is. It is talking about truth of a wholly different kind.

For a while, in my teens, I was something of an atheist. I was suspicious of all religious stories, felt the Tanakh to be riddled with contradictions, and faith in God to be a bit ridiculous. At that age, I didn’t realise that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally, that the contradictions were questions waiting to be explored, or the powerful role that God would come to play in my own life.

Reflecting on the views I once had, I know why I dismissed stories like these so readily. A God of cloud and fire who descends over wandering people in the desert is, of course, impossible. It’s just that now, I have much more room in my heart for impossible things.

Everything about the story is impossible. A God of cloud and fire who wrenches slaves out of Egypt, rains down plagues and parts the seas. Unfathomable.

A nomadic people stranded in the desert approach a mountain and hear out of it thunder and lightning, declare that it is their God, the Eternal One, and that they should have no other gods. Completely unrealistic.

A slave people, who had never known anything but the bitterness of toil and struggle, are told that they will all be priestly people, all have regular complete days of rest, all strive to live in equality and justice with one another. Unbelievable.

An immigrant people with no home, dispersed and lost, hear it promised that every foreigner will be treated with the same decency and equality as everyone else. They hear that nobody would ever hurt people for being different again. Inconceivable.

A people who had known nothing but hatred and turned their anger on each other heard that One True Creator of the Universe loved them wholeheartedly and would cherish them as a treasured people. They heard that it was their task on earth to live up to the highest standards of morality and lead the world as a living example of what an ethical life could be. Absolutely, completely impossible.

And yet. And yet somehow, for thousands of years, we have held on to this idea that we can be beacons of justice, exemplars of love and heralds of a better world. Somehow, despite everything our people has suffered, we still have a sense that a world where people treat each other with dignity is within our reach.

We are asked to believe in something impossible, but all that cloud and fire does not matter half as much as the mission that comes out of it. The mission of the Jews, our sacred task on earth to sculpt it in God’s image, may be impossible, but impossible things are worth believing in. As a people, we are called upon to make the impossible possible. And we will succeed.

Shabbat shalom.

 

fire cloud

I gave this sermon on Saturday 2nd June 2018 at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community for Parashat Bhaalotcha. Partly, I was trying to work out in my own head the answer to the question of whether a Jew in the 21st Century must believe in G?d; and, if so, what that meant. In the lunchtime discussion, I found many congregants had similar concerns. Many of us felt that we believed in G?d, but struggled to find the language to describe what that meant. I went away feeling that, in a sense, the questions were more important than the answers.

[1] Num 9:15

[2] Tur haAroch 9:15:1

[3] Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:36

[4] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pillar-of-cloud-and-pillar-of-fire

Shavuot 5778

Chag Shavuot sameach.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I wish you all – a chag sameach.

ruth and naomi

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

[1] Ruth 1:16-18

[2] Midrash Zutta

[3] Ruth 4:17

[4] Ruth Rabba 2

Psalm 84

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

valley-baca-springs0-300x198

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