It was the evening of Purim in the shtetl. The rebbe and his disciples were sat in the cold wooden yeshiva. They were reading the Megillah. They had almost reached its climax, when the rebbe slammed his hands down on the table, bolted upright on two feet, grabbed his coat and headed for the door.
His disciples were dismayed. “Where are you going?” they asked.
“To blot out the name of Amalek!” he replied.
The students were anxious. They shuffled in their seats. They knew who Amalek was. They knew what the injunction to blot out Amalek’s name meant.
When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, the Amalekites attacked them from behind, targeting the weakest members; the old, the ill and the tired. The book of Deuteronomy adjured them: “blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Never forget.” This call in the Torah spoke to far more than historic memory. It was a call to violent revenge. Surely this couldn’t be what the rebbe meant?
One of the rebbe’s students stood up. “Rebbe, you can’t be serious?”
“Of course I’m serious,” said the rebbe. “It’s Purim.”
Purim? Purim, of course. It was the time to read the story of Esther. Haman, the wicked adversary of the Jews in the story of Esther, was an Amalekite. Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek. Haman had plotted to kill the Jews in their entirety. As they read the Megillah, at every mention of his name in the scroll, the disciples had been booing to drown out the word. By the end of the story, Haman’s fortunes have been completely overturned. The king decrees that, instead of Haman being able to kill all the Jews, the Jews can kill all of Haman’s supporters and descendants. They go on a fortnight-long massacre, killing 75,000 people.
This has always been interpreted as part of the act of blotting out the name of Amalek. Surely this couldn’t be what the rebbe meant? Surely he didn’t think that violence and genocidal rampaging had any place in Judaism? It was a bawdy story, not an instruction manual. What could the rebbe be thinking? The students followed him out into the streets, rushing after him as he pattered away down the cobbled path.
One of his students caught up with the rebbe, panting, saying: “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Our Talmud teaches us that we no longer know who the nations are. Empires and diasporas have scattered us. Nobody knows their lineage. We cannot possibly know who the Amalekites are any more.”
The rebbe was undeterred. “You do not need to know somebody’s ancestry to know who Amalek is,” he said, as he carried on walking. “We know our enemy.”
Another student shot up and interjected. “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Our commentators argue that the duty to blot out Amalek is upon God. The Torah says that Amalek should be blotted out from under Heaven. That is, it is Heaven that will destroy Amalek, not us.”
“Nonsense,” said the rebbe. “Judaism calls us to action. We cannot wait for God to solve our problems. We must go and address them now.”
He marched on, now with the whole village trailing behind him. Everybody was agitated, determined to keep him from doing something foolish.
Another student challenged the rabbi. “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Nahmanides teaches that we cannot attack Amalek out of a sense of revenge, but only out of a sense of the honour of God. If you seek destruction now, you will be violating this mitzvah, not honouring it…”
It was too late. The rebbe had already arrived at the nearest village. He headed straight down for a Cossack inn, and burst open the doors. The folk band stopped playing. The publicans looked up in stunned silence. The Jews huddled outside, expectantly looking in. The rebbe stretched out his hand.
Silence. A moment that felt like an eternity. Then, suddenly, a Cossack got up and took the rebbe’s hand. To everybody’s surprise, they began to dance. The band started playing again. Some of the students tentatively made their way into the inn. They, too, began dancing with Cossacks. Before long, all the Jews and all the Cossacks were dancing. This Purim party spilled out into the street. They danced all through the night until they could feel the veins in their feet pumping. They laughed until their bellies ached. They ate and drank and comingled until nobody could tell who was Jew and who was Cossack.
As the sun came up, the rebbe and his students fell about in a heap outside the pub, laughing. “That”, said the rebbe, “is how you blot out the name of Amalek. You see, Amalek is not a person. Amalek is the part of us that wants to trample the weak, just as Amalek did to Israel in the desert. Amalek is the part of us that wants to crush difference and secure power, just as Haman did to the Jews in Shushan. Amalek is any part, in any of us, that chooses hatred. The reason our sages told us not to turn to violence to blot out Amalek is because Amalek cannot be destroyed by violence; only by love. That is our weapon against hatred.”
This is a lesson we have to learn again and again, in every generation. When this week began, we woke up to the news of Muslims being killed at their places of worship in New Zealand. This week has seen yet more attacks on mosques. In Birmingham, a vandal took a hammer to the windows of several masjids across the city. The rise of the far right has spread to the Netherlands, where fascists have made significant gains and unseated the government.
We live in times when the violent attack the vulnerable; when hatred seeks out to take over; when diversity is under threat.
It is understandable that we should feel fear. It is righteous that we should feel anger. But we must also greet these times with an open and outstretched hand, willing to accept that a better world is possible, hopeful that people can change, faithful that we can drown out the impetus to hatred. We must be ready to dance. That is how we blot out the name of Amalek.
I gave this sermon at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue on Shabbat 23rd March. Although the parasha was Tzav and the themes of this sermon are more congruent with the readings for the previous week, Parashat Zachor, I felt it was important to draw the connections between the just-completed festival of Purim and the week’s news events. I heard a very abridged version of this story as a Hassidic folktale, but I could not remember where I heard it or find a source. If anybody knows its origin, please provide it so I can give due credit.
“Take a break,” Moses said to the Israelites. “I’ve spoken to God, and we’re both very keen on this: you need to take Saturdays off.”
“Yes, we know, we’ve heard this before,” said the Israelites. “You told us when we were around that mountain. You told us when we were building the mishkan. You said these exact same words only a few weeks ago in another parashah. You don’t need to keep going on about it.”
“I do, though,” said Moses. “It’s really important. I’m telling you now so you get it. 24 hours of rest. 25 if you want to be extra about it. But definitely no less. You need to take a break.”
The Israelites sighed. “We get it. Tell us something new.”
“OK,” said Moses. “Take a break. Or I’ll kill you. I’m serious now. Not resting on Shabbat is punishable by death. If I catch any of you picking up sticks or lighting fires on Saturdays, that’s it. Dead.”
“But why? Why does this matter so much to you?”
“Because,” said Moses. “For generations, we were slaves. Our whole lives we worked. When our masters had their days off, we still worked, serving them. We broke our backs. We lost touch with what mattered. We forgot how to think. We forgot how to enjoy life. We have a chance here that we’ve never had before. We can build an entirely new society, where the measure of life isn’t how well we work, but how well we rest. If we instill this day of rest with holiness and make it the cornerstone of our society, we can build a community that resists the tyranny of work and the oppression of masters.”
And that was that. Shabbat became enshrined as the hallmark of Jewishness. No more would people exploit each other on their holy days. No more would we be defined by our productivity. Instead, the marker of Jewish observance was how holy we could make this day by refraining from work.
Generations later, our rabbis were faced with a new question. If work was forbidden, what actually was work? Perhaps in the peasant and smallholder society of ancient Israel, it was obvious. But in the new reality of urban living across a wide Diaspora, it was no longer so clear. They needed to know how to make the day holy.
So they looked to this week’s parashah. Here, in this section of Torah, the commandment to honour the Sabbath bookends descriptions of how to build God’s dwelling place. They looked at all the work that must have been involved in creating this momentous desert structure. Lighting fires. Tanning leather. Dying cloth. Joining wood. Polishing stones. Spinning wool. Carrying. Pushing. Lifting. Choosing. Separating. Drawing. Planning.
If this was the work that was required to build God’s dwelling place in ancient times, they reasoned, then abstention would be the way to build God’s dwelling place today. Just as the performance of work was a holy act in the Torah, not doing the same things could be a holy act in our world. Through their interpretation of this text, our rabbis gave new life to the holiness of Shabbat and the value in not working.
This idea has so much relevance to us today. In recent months, an article has been circulating entitled ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.’ It argues that the generation of people now in our twenties and thirties live in a permanent state of overwork and exhaustion. It gives good material reasons why this should be the case. We were born into post-Soviet Thatcherite Britain. The dominant idea was that anyone could work hard enough to become rich, and we were educated in a system that reinforced this. By the time we entered the job market, the country was in recession, wages permanently stagnated, housing became completely unaffordable and job security became a rare luxury. As a result, we are primed with a need to work hard, but the rewards for this seem completely unattainable.
I think the reason this article was so widely shared was because it spoke to many of my peers’ lived experiences. I doubt, however, that the issue is generational. I look at the teenagers I am tutoring for bar mitzvah, and I am overwhelmed by how much pressure is on them. They seem to be constantly examined, overburdened with extra-curricular activities, and pushed to constantly improve their CVs, even from the youngest age.
At the same time, I see friends in their fifties and sixties who are permanently exhausted. I recently asked an older friend how he was doing. He answered that he wasn’t sure if he was tired from sickness or just living out the regular fatigue that comes from working. We are, as an entire society, exhausted and struggling to keep our heads above water.
This systemic problem may feel insurmountable. The people sitting in this room cannot, on our own, redesign society, push wages up, make housing affordable, or transform the labour market. (Much as I my try to push the line that we can.) Yet there is one thing we can do. We can do what our ancestors did when they left slavery and decided to institute their own rules. We can do what our rabbis did when they were confronted with urban living and needed to re-imagine work. That is: we can shift our focus.
Against a culture that sees work as the end of human existence, we can prioritise rest. In a world that demands us to be constantly online, we can switch off. In a society that tells us we are isolated competitors, we can build meaningful community. We can insist that we do not live to work, but we work to live. Our lives do not have meaning because of how productive we are, but because of how much compassion we can put into this world.
Against the crushing pressure of modern capitalism, Judaism continues to issue forth a two-word rallying cry of protest: Shabbat shalom!
Last night, I gave a defence of Judaism for the disengaged. I argued that religion gives us a sense of community, purpose and meaning. I talked about how Judaism is an antidote to many of the greatest problems we face in the 21st Century.
This morning, I want to talk about why progressive Judaism, specifically, ought to be our way forward. Progressive Judaism has, in recent years, come under attack. Last year, Jonathan Neumann released a book entitled ‘To Heal the World?’. Its subtitle – ‘How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel’ – probably tells you everything you need to know about this book.
In it, he argues that progressive Jews have distorted Judaism and created their own denomination, completely divorced from tradition. He pours scorn on one idea in particular, that of ‘tikkun olam’. The basic premise of this idea comes from Jewish mysticism. It argues that the world in which we live is broken, and that through the pursuit of social justice, we can begin to heal it.
For Neumann, this idea is an innovation. It is the ideology of the American New Left combined with some Jewish theology. In a way, he is certainly right. The idea of ‘tikkun olam’ was a new development. It was a rallying cry to bring together many of the issues on which the Jewish community in America was campaigning, particularly black civil rights, women’s liberation and international peace.
While he may be right about the nomenclature, he is completely wrong about the idea. This idea, that Judaism’s core is one of social justice, has been integral to progressive Judaism since its inception. Our founders, like Rabbi Abraham Geiger in 19th Century Germany, argued that the soul of Judaism was not in its laws but in its prophetic texts. The Reformers sought to reposition Judaism from its narrow focus on ritual to the universalist message of justice.
The prophets spoke in a language of justice that would be recognisable even today. In this week’s haftarah, we read of Elijah, arguably the greatest prophet post-Moses. His life was full of miracles: he could split rivers, heal the sick and bring on rainfall. At the end of his life, he was carried away to Heaven in a chariot of fire. All the wonder in Elijah’s life should not gloss over Elijah’s message.
He challenged kings, demanded an end to idol-worship and called on the Israelites to remember their covenant. For Jews the world over, he is the harbinger of messianic redemption. He is the first among our prophets to promise that a messianic age is coming. Subsequent prophets, such as Malachi, prophecy that, when Elijah returns, God “shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents.”
For progressive Jews, this promise of liberation is built into our very understanding of what it means to live a Jewish life. We cannot just wait, passively, for a better age to come up to us, but must participate in building it. We do that through our pursuit of justice, by following our consciences, and by seeking to make the world a more loving place.
While the branding of this idea as ‘tikkun olam’ may be new in Judaism, its message can be found throughout the Tanakh, rabbinic literature, and our liturgy. It is at the core of what Judaism calls on us to do.
This authentic Jewish idea is what Neumann finds terrifying. He argues that this is a deviation from traditional Judaism. Of course, he never defines what precisely that is. In all likelihood, that is because he doesn’t know. In a review of the book in Tablet magazine, Shaul Magid argues that Neumann’s argument falls flat because he doesn’t have the requisite knowledge of Judaism to make his case. Neumann is, after all, not a Torah scholar, nor a Jewish historian. He is an opinion columnist. Magid shows very successfully how Neumann simply doesn’t understand how Judaism, whether Orthodox or progressive, actually works. There can be no more damning critique of a book than that it would have been better if it had been written by somebody who knew what they were talking about.
For Neumann, progressive Judaism must be contrasted with ‘traditional’ Judaism. He seems to have in mind an idea of bearded men in segregated synagogues keeping kosher, observing shabbat and keeping to a very strict set of rules. The first issue with this is that he seems not to understand that Orthodox Judaism is, itself, a modern innovation. It is a response to the modern world, that takes a conservative approach to life and a dogmatic approach to commandments.
It is deeply depressing that, even within our own ranks, many of our members imagine that the black hats have, in some sense, a more authentic version of Judaism than we do. When we look at other religions, we are fully aware that the most compassionate, charitable and honest version is the most authentic. We do not imagine that Christianity is at its most authentic in its belligerent form, nor that Islam is most authentic in its fundamentalist form. We know that they are both closest to God when they are humble, sincere and loving. Why are we so shy about expecting the same standards of our own religion? We are not at our most Jewish when we have the strictest food laws, but when we are sharing that food with others.
Most importantly, Neumann’s idea of traditional Judaism is so narrow and limiting. He never seeks to answer the question: what, then, is the point of Judaism? If our purpose on earth is not to heal the world, what is it? Should we just be slavishly obedient to some rules because we have a mythologised idea of how our ancestors were? Does Judaism have nothing to say to the modern world? If that is all we are, how can we be expected to survive? What would even make us worth preserving?
The truth is that, for we progressives, halachic observance and social justice are not competitors. They complement each other. Our food laws help us because they force us to think ethically about our consumption. Shabbat is a joy because it teaches us about the value of rest and the holiness of God. All our rules and rituals have value because they turn us into disciplined, conscientious people, who will seek out justice when it is necessary. Progressive Judaism sees very clearly that the point of Judaism is not the rules in themselves but the pursuit of a better world through them.
And, yes, all of this points us in a particular direction. You might call it the messianic age, as our prophets did. You might call it progressive Judaism, as our German founders did. You might call it tikkun olam, as the Americans in the ’70s did. Whatever name you give it, the message is clear. We have a short time on earth and we are here with a mission. As Jews, we have been tasked with a sacred purpose of perfecting the world, demanding justice and pursuing peace.
That is the point of Judaism. Let us work to heal the world together.
It might seem a strange question to ask. Do we even need to justify ourselves? In the shadow of antisemitism, and still reeling from the atrocities of the Holocaust, the fact that we exist at all is cause for celebration. It might seem egregious to even ask for explanation. We exist, and live our lives. Isn’t that enough?
But, I feel, it is exactly against this background that we have to ask this question. Many of the people we would expect to see here on Shabbat have become disillusioned with the religion. They might feel Jewish in their heart, and maintain a sense of Jewish culture, and even speak out with a moral voice in the name of their Jewishness. But our synagogues, our rituals, our traditional practices and our religious beliefs seem to have no meaning to them. To them, we have to answer the question: what is the point of Judaism?
At the same time, we progressive Jews are beset by a confrontation from the Orthodox. For them, Judaism’s point lies in its adherence to mitzvot: a total commitment to law codes laid down in the Middle Ages. Certainly, most would acknowledge that Judaism has an ethical and spiritual character, but the observance of law codes comes foremost.
To those who are Orthodox and to those who are disengaged, we have to be able to explain who we are and why Judaism holds such relevance to us. Tonight, I want to begin by addressing the first group. I want to spell out why, I think, Judaism should matter to somebody, even who does not believe in God, or who sees our practices as irrelevant to their world. Tomorrow morning, I will address the second question, and explain why I feel the progressive approach to Jewish religion is the best one for the 21st Century.
So what relevance does Judaism have to the people who feel it has no bearing on their lives? Let’s start with what people’s lives today are really like. Despite great advancements in time-saving technology, we seem to work harder than ever. Despite greater communication tools than we’ve ever known, people feel more lonely and disconnected. Although we are told that our economy is one of the greatest in the world, work is more precarious; housing more unstable; basic needs harder to meet.
Against this backdrop, religion might feel like an unnecessary burden, or a relic from a time when life was simpler. For many disconnected Jews, adding synagogue life to their commitments might well feel like another responsibility when all they’re looking to do is decompress.
Yet Judaism is precisely the antidote to this world. Whereas the secular world insists on work as the greatest virtue, Judaism elevates the highest form of life to rest – our Shabbat. Whereas the secular world seems to promote a life where everything can be reasoned and categorised, Judaism asks us to suspend all that in wonder at the fact that we exist. Whereas the secular world leaves people feeling lonely and disconnected, Judaism is, at its core, an effort to create a community.
That is exactly what happens in this week’s parashah. Having last week built the physical structures of their religion – the tabernacle in the desert – this week the Israelites create the community for which the space was intended. People volunteer. They pay subscription fees. They turn the tabernacle into more than a house for God, but into a home. This is the beginning of a lived community. We may see this is the start of an organised Jewish religion.
The idea of organised religion can make people bristle. People associate it with hierarchy, abuse and financial profiteering. If I thought that was essential to the idea, I would oppose it as vigorously and militantly as the most obsessed New Atheist. But what does it mean to be organised? Organised religion means religion that is made up of people working together. It must be contrasted with the isolated, individualised ‘spirituality’ that treats people as atoms with no connection to each other. Organised religion insists that people need each other. We are interdependent, strengthened by our relationships, and part of a community that goes way beyond our own homes.
It is true that, when people get organised, they can do terrible things. I do not need to list for you the crimes that have been committed in the name of religion. But it is also true that religion spurs people to do the most wonderful things for each other. I have never seen such good pastoral care of the elderly as I have here at Newcastle Reform Synagogue. I have never seen a place give children such a sense of pride and dignity as our synagogues do. In our synagogues, we bring together people from different classes, communities, backgrounds and ages to build truly integrated communities. Without the synagogue, how would that be possible?
You might object that this is just an argument in favour of community, not of religion itself. You might say, yes, but I can get community like that anywhere. To that, I have to ask: where? Where else is providing community of this kind? Where else has sustainably managed to bring people together like this for centuries and millennia?
The great Marxist-Jewish thinker of the last century, Gerry Cohen, reflected on this question when he wrote about his upbringing in the communist kibbutzim of Montreal. He acknowledges that the secular socialist Jewish community that had sustained him only managed to continue because the religious world on which they depended trundled on too.
This is the point of Judaism. No other community can sustain people in the way that religion can. That is not just because it is ancient and adaptable. It is because religion asks of us to put our faith in something greater than ourselves. We cannot live just by our self-interest. That is a lie of the 21st Century. The truth is that we need to believe that we are working towards something greater than this material world. For a community to truly function, we need God. We need hope in a world to come.
Tomorrow, I will talk about why progressive Judaism has the best answer to what the world we are building should look like.
I had intended to deliver this sermon on Friday 22nd February at Newcastle Reform Synagogue. In the end, however, I facilitated a discussion that yielded similar questions and conclusions.
When Keir Hardie set up the Labour Party, he broke with many of the radicals who had preceded him by trying to organise his efforts where working class people really were: in the trade unions and the low church. He reached out to people in both their chapels – the ones where they organised their workplaces, and the ones where they organised their communities.
Since that time, both the trade unions and religious organisations have greatly declined in British public life, and in both cases we’re worse for it. Those traditional ways for people to meet, share culture, build up solidarity and envision a better future have been completely eroded. We’ve been left open to the worst austerity, neoliberal privatisation and attacks on the rights of marginalised people that we’ve ever known. Our lack of organisation and community has meant we’ve been constantly on the back foot, struggling against forces much stronger than us.
On the left, everyone acknowledges the decline in trade unionism for what it has been: a massive setback for working-class organising, an onslaught that has left us weaker, more divided and more isolated. But, to listen to some on the left talk, you’d think that the decline of religion was somehow a victory for our side. Millions of Britons no longer know their neighbours, no longer have any idea about the births, deaths, illnesses, tragedies and joys that are going on in their communities. Young people grow up without any access to traditional songs, stories and culture that was central to previous generations and instead only get the official versions of history. They learn that Churchill and Thatcher were heroes, but they never hear about the religious movements that shaped the country they live in, like the Chartists, Levellers and Quakers. People have completely lost connection to their community, and we’re supposed to somehow celebrate that as an accomplishment.
Absolutely not. Religion isn’t the dark force that it’s been painted, but has been one of the greatest forces for progress and radical change. Keir Hardie recognised that. Socialists of previous generations were able to see the positive role religion could play because they were able to draw a necessary distinction. I say that Kier Hardie organised in the low church, because that’s where he was. He didn’t go out to the priests and the bishops and the high-ranking officials who’d latched on to state power. He was interested in the lay preachers. And that’s because there is a crucial difference between religion as it is imposed from above and religion created from below.
Like with all forms of culture, religion can go one of two ways: it can be a bourgeois, reactionary force that bolsters the forces of power, or it can be an emancipatory, proletarian force that empowers people to challenge systemic violence. I am not here to defend Iranian morality police, Bush’s crusader Christianity, the violent Islamophobia of India’s BJP, still less Kahanists in Israel. I do not want to defend religion’s connection to that kind of politics in any way.
But we need to be clear: the problem with connecting those politics to religion isn’t with religion itself, but with the politics we connect them to. I don’t want religion to play a role in the state – I want to abolish it. I don’t want religion to play a role in war – I want to abolish war. I don’t want religion to play a role in capital, the police, imperialism or the structures that uphold patriarchy, because in every case I want to abolish them.
The politics I’m interested in is politics from below – the struggles of working-class people, women, LGBT people, colonised, enslaved and massacred people to realise their own destinies and take control over the world. I think religion can play a very positive role there. It has done throughout the ages, and religion can continue to be a source of strength for all oppressed people.
When I talk about this religion for oppressed people, this isn’t an innovation. I’m not taking the message of religion and twisting it to meet my own ends. Quite to the contrary: combating oppression has been built into the meaning of religion since its inception. The earliest written religious texts, the Hindu Vadics, bring together a worldview that opposes all forms of systemic violence, from state warfare to animal consumption. The Torah is the story of rebel slaves turned refugees trying to build a just society. The prophet Amos denounced the ruling class of ancient Judea for stealing the spoils of the poor and hoarding them. The prophet Isaiah tells the rich that their prayers are worthless because they exploit people while they deliver them. Jesus comes to take direct action against money-lenders and the hypocrites that collaborate with a colonising army. The Talmud is a lengthy exegesis in how to bring anti-oppressive practices into every part of a person’s life. The Prophet Muhammad comes to affirm the unity and dignity of all of humanity, and to insist that people are treated as if they all contain the spark of the divine. Sikhism tries to break down all the barriers that differentiate religions, genders and ethnicities into one universalising faith. Religion, at its core, is anti-oppression. Don’t the politicians know that the God they claim to believe in despises them and their prayers?
Holy texts are brimming full of admonishments against the ruling class. Reactionaries leap on passing references to sexuality and gender difference, separate them from all context, and use them as a pretext to persecute people. They take what is a radical idea, focused on bringing about the kind of change socialists want to see, and they manipulate it to suit their own ends.
But everyone needs to see that the religious tradition of speaking truth to power is much better represented by our heroes than by our enemies. It’s represented by all the religious activists who worked to end slavery, the ones who fought for democracy and debt relief, the anti-colonial fighters and the indigenous revolutionaries. They represent that prophetic tradition.
Two key people from the Black civil rights movement come to mind here: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Malcolm X – a Muslim minister in the slums of Chicago and New York, Martin Luther King Jr, a Christian reverend in America’s deep south. Both of them built their organising around their religious institutions and the deep network of Black faith communities across the USA. They based their activism around their religious buildings, religious texts, and religious traditions. Are you going to tell me that they didn’t play a positive role in politics?
It’s not like they could have done what they did without their religions either. Certainly they couldn’t have turned to the unions. At that time, the white-run unions were mostly fighting against black inclusion in workplaces and were trying to uphold segregation in places. They could be racist, reactionary lobbies, and their record of beating up protesters against the Viet Nam war and siding with anti-miscegenation politicians shouldn’t be quickly forgotten. That’s the context in which they were organising, and it was the religions that gave them the strength as a group to fight for their rights.
More than that, the turning point in the struggle for civil rights was when the white religious leaders from across the country came down to join the Black protesters in Selma, Alabama and showed that the weight of public opinion and that the moral voice of the country was firmly on the side of those protesters. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was on the frontlines, alongside the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said “when I marched, I felt that my feet were praying.”
When religion is in the hands of the working-class, and when it is used as a fountain for oppressed people to draw strength from, it is a powerful and challenging force. But if you pour scorn on religion, and you say that it’s irredeemable, you hand over religion to the bigots. If you say you don’t want anything to do with it, then you’re leaving that source of power to be controlled by reactionaries. No wonder people wind up believing that God is a homophobic, misogynistic, capitalist demon if you completely disavow religion and leave it in the hands of the right.
Socialists who have engaged with religions have seen incredible success. When the Latin revolutionaries, the Sandinistas, started out with atheistic, anti-religious Marxist arguments, they remained an isolated minority who had no relationship at all to the people. The ultimate success of the Nicaraguan revolution only came about because of the rise in liberation theology and the willingness of socialists to engage with the church.
Vatican II of 1959 wanted to see the church more closely aligned with the poor and, as part of implementing this, Catholic activists set up “Christian base communities” rooted in poor favelas. These were the first platform from which poor communities could start organising against the capitalist authoritarian Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and it was not an accident. Church theologians of Latin America wrote explicitly about their need to bring their religious beliefs to a political mission. Liberation theology saw that the things most despised by Christianity: individualism, competition, materialism and greed were, in fact, integral to capitalism.
High-ranking bishops and the papacy were, of course, hostile to the work of these low-level bishops and sided with the regime. The upper echelons of the church had to come into direct conflict with their own members initially, but by 1977, the grassroots Catholic activists had been so successful in transforming the church that when Somoza’s newspaper Novedades asked the church to clarify its position, even the high-ranking officials were forced to side with the bishops against what they called institutionalised violence and inequality.
These are not just interesting facts from history – they have a strong bearing on the present day. In my own organising in the Jewish community, I’ve seen how religions can play such a powerful role in activism. Synagogues have preserved the memory of what it meant to be refugees, how Jews came to this country hidden in the bowels of boats and rushed out on the last trains from Germany. This memory has been preserved so well in our religious institutions that, when the migrant crisis came to public attention, the Jewish community was at the forefront of offering help and refuge. Every synagogue in the country had collection points for aid to refugees. Key shuls in every area now have drop-in centres that provide free help and legal aid to asylum seekers. Young congregants drove out to deliver these aid packages and came back embolded and enlightened. I attended a service at an Orthodox synagogue where one such member came back, agitating in her community to lobby for rights and safe passage for refugees. South London Synagogue has organised for over 200 child refugees to be brought over from Calais and housed here. The Jewish community is not alone here. Religious institutions have played a powerful role in demanding an end to poverty, quality council housing and opposing racism. This is the reality of what religions in Britain today do.
I’ll say it again because it needs stressing: I’m not here to defend the religion of the ruling class – whatever form it takes. I’m here for radical religion that stays true to the message of fighting for justice. There is no doubt that awful things can be carried out in the name of religion, but just a cursory glance at history tells us that people are perfectly capable of carrying out the same atrocious acts without religion.
Religion has been associated with violence when it’s been connected to state power and reactionary movements. There’s no doubt about that, but to suggest that it has some kind of connection to religious belief itself is completely ahistorical. Haven’t Stalinist gulags, Maoist terror and the genocides of Cambodia and Nazi Germany shown us that people are perfectly capable of committing the utmost evil without religion? The modern states of France and Turkey are perfect examples of how secularist ideology can be just as violent, colonialist and corrupt as any state that calls itself religious. The problem is capital. The problem is the state. The problem is the military. The problem is certainly not God.
The task of religions is to keep alive that moral, prophetic voice that insists on radical equality and seeks to transform the world. It would be a disaster to throw out all that religion has done to transform the political sphere for the better, solely because fundamentalists and puritans have hijacked it. Religion belongs to all those who practice it – and the faith of left-wing revolutionaries is far more sincere than that which connects itself to state power, capitalism and authoritarianism.
The central message of religion – of all religion – is a radical one that every socialist can support. It is that there is a force much greater than anything we can conceive; that though we are small in the grand scheme of the universe, our lives have meaning. Every one of us is indowed with a spark of the divine. The existence of God makes us all equal – in a profound and spiritual way. Religion challenges us to see that all of humanity is one, everyone deserving of dignity, and to bring that claim to life in the world. It is a call to action – to overthrow the Pharoahs of the world as Moses did; to cast out the demons of legions as Jesus did; to demand rights for widows, orphans and disabled people as Mohammed did; to resist sectarian violence as Guru Nanak did.
Faith can give us the courage to fight for a better world. Thank you.
I gave this as a speech at Ideas for Freedom, the annual conference of Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a Marxist-atheist sect, back in July 2016. There were two other panelists, arguing that religion could not play a positive role in politics. My speech was not well received.
I doubt I could get away with making the same speech today. My teachers would definitely chastise me for over-simplifying matters, making sweeping generalisations, going off on random tangents, and flattening out history. I stand by, however, the central idea, that religion has a radical core, rooted in resistance. I doubt any of my teachers would question that this was a legitimate and necessary expression of religion.
I was moved to upload it by my brother, with whom I spent a long time discussing this topic over the winter holidays. He asked that I write up some of my ideas, and I remembered that I already had. I will speak on a similar theme, albeit to a very different audience, when I preach this coming Shabbat in Newcastle.
One of the greatest things I inherited from my grandfather was a tattered red paper folder, containing jokes. I’ll give you a pertinent example: “On the first day of school, a new student hands his teacher a note from his mother. It reads: ‘the opinions expressed by this child are not necessarily those of his parents.’”
My granddad, John Rayner, was the rabbi here for decades. I am now a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, where he once lectured on liturgy and codes. Today is Leo Baeck College shabbat: a chance for congregants to see what the future progressive rabbinate might look like. I’ve been invited to speak here because today the LJS will install a new stained glass window in the room named in my granddad’s honour. Rabbi Alex realised that the coincidence of these two events was too fortuitous to pass up. I am here, then, to speak about both Liberal Judaism’s past and its future.
I am often nervous to speak about my grandfather. Whenever I go to preach or lead services at any Liberal synagogue, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much they loved him. I blush and tell them: “he was a wonderful man.”
I think what worries me most when I talk about my grandfather is that I’ll only disappoint people’s expectations. I don’t have his knowledge of Jewish thought. I can’t even repeat his views on it, because I haven’t read enough of his books. I suspect that most of the people who greet me so enthusiastically know what he thought much better than I did. That’s because I never really knew him as a scholar, or a liturgist, or a homiletician. I only knew him as a lovely man.
So, on this day, in his honour, I’ll share with you something of the lovely man I knew. The John Rayner I knew used to skip along by the brook in a park in Finchley with his two West Highland terriers, Sasson and Simcha. He used to love word games and, when driving along, he used to point out to us the registration plates of the car in front to see who could come up with the best word from the letters on the plate before the car drove off. He used to sing. Really, really badly. He broke into song, because he couldn’t find the key. When we went round for dinner at his house, he always had a stash of jokes that he’d memorised to tell. The rest of us would make sure that we also had new jokes.
That’s why the greatest inheritance I’ve received from him is this red folder containing his collections of jokes. He was so organised that he kept them and catalogued them. Some are hilarious. “Saul Epstein was taking an oral exam, applying for his citizenship papers. He was asked to spell cultivate, and spelled it correctly. He was then asked to use the word in a sentence, and responded ‘Last vinter on a very cold day I was vaiting for a bus, but it was too cultivate, so I took the subvay home.’”
Some are only good in the context of sermons, like this advert he found in a shul newsletter: “Don’t let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help.”
Some just seem wholly inappropriate for sermons: “Where do you find a dog with no legs? Right where you left him.”
Some are completely outdated. Jokes about the pitfalls of this newfangled creation called the internet. Jokes about politicians in the Clinton administration. There are some that seem doubtful whether they were ever funny, some that were probably funny at the time but have since become offensive, and some that I just don’t understand.
This little red folder is a treasured inheritance because it reminds me of my grandfather the man. It isn’t valuable or useful. Nobody else would get much out of it. It’s just a collection of old jokes. But when I look through it, I hear again his sense of humour. I see his yeckerish impulse to organise everything, even joke collections. I remember what his laughter sounded like.
This little red folder stands in for something of what matters most about Judaism. Much of it can be read about in books or understood from watching documentaries on TV. But the essence of Judaism, that part of it that makes it really Jewish, is completely intangible. It is the relationships we have with each other. The feeling of lighting shabbat candles with friends. The shared references. The warmth of sitting in a synagogue together and feeling the gentle strength of community.
That is what I inherited from my grandfather. It is what I hope to pass on. Part of the reason why I decided to pursue this path was because that Jewish world meant so much to me. The experiences that those who gave their time to make Judaism live created for me an oasis in a challenging world. I want to pass on those experiences and create that sanctuary for others.
That little red folder is a microcosm of Jewish inheritance. Just as I filter through these old jokes and find ones I want to pass on and discard, so we modern Jews do with our heritage. In every generation, we look anew at the traditions, rituals and beliefs of the past to see what is relevant in our time. Some of what worked in the past might not work today. Some of what did not work in the past might well work today. Going through that process of filtering through what we have received is what keeps Judaism alive, dynamic and engaging.
Right now, Liberal Judaism is going through just such a process. We are reviewing our old liturgies and customs in the hope of developing new ones. As we go through these changes together, we must of course bring our heads and a sense of intellectual integrity. But we must also bring our hearts. We need to be able to look at the changes our movement needs and ask: how can we make this warmer? How can we make it more heartfelt? How can we be more loving to each other as we disagree and work out new ways of being Liberal Jews?
That is the greatest inheritance I received from my grandfather: a little red folder, reminding me that a good sense of humour, and a desire to share it, matters more than anything else.
Around this time last year, I overheard a conversation.
Two women met each other early in the morning on a frosty hill overlooking the city. One had arrived slightly earlier than the other, draped in a long, white scarf. She was old but full of life in a way that made her impossible to place. The other joined her not long after. Her blue velvet dress and jewellery would have looked gaudy on somebody else, but somehow on her they were elegant. They sat down on a bench, facing downhill.
At first, they sat in silence, watching the sun rise higher in the sky. Then the lady in blue velvet turned to her friend and said: “You know, I believe in slavery.”
Her friend let out an exhausted sigh. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her roll her eyes. “Yes,” she said, “you’ve told me before.”
“Not cruel slavery,” she insisted. “I’d put limits on it. Seven years. Seven years is enough and then the slave goes free. And the masters have to take care of them properly.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”
“I know you do, but I’m old. I’m set in my ways and I can’t change.”
“I’m not asking you to change. I just wish you’d realise that times have moved on. You can’t say things like that anymore.”
“Why not? If I thought it once, why should I be forced to change my mind?”
“Because you’re respected. People care what you have to say. They want you to say loving, hopeful things. If you tell everyone you believe in slavery, people will think that it’s OK.”
“But most of the time I do say nice things. And I’m coming from a good place. I want slaves to be treated well. I want them to have good lives.”
“But you still believe in slavery.”
“Yes, I still believe in slavery.”
“You know,” her friend nudged her, “I want to reinterpret what you’re saying. I want to think you’re speaking in a spiritual sense. I want to hear what you’re saying as that we should all be slaves to God. After all, God is our creator and provides for all our needs, and in turn we do God’s work on earth.”
The old lady laughed. “I like that, I like that a lot,” she chuckled… “But, you know, that’s not what I said.”
“No, it’s not what you said.”
“And you can interpret me any way you like, and I’ll accept what you’ve got to say, but nothing I say can depart from its original meaning.”
“Even now?” Her friend was exasperated. “Centuries after the abolition of slavery? Centuries after my ancestors fled Egypt? Even now, knowing everything you do about human history and human dignity, you can’t change just a bit?”
“Sure, I change, in my own way. But the core of me is still there. Like it or not, you’re stuck with me.”
They sat in silence a while longer. I could feel them both seething. A flock of birds murmured in the winter sky. I felt almost rude for eavesdropping, but couldn’t pull myself away.
This time, it was the woman in velvet’s turn to get frustrated: “You knew I would say this. You knew that if you came here, on this morning, at this time, you would hear me say these words. I believe in slavery. I say them at exactly this time every year. If you don’t want to hear me say it, then why do you even come?”
“Because I love you, Torah!” She threw her arms up in the air.
“I love you too, Kehillah,” Torah whispered back.
At once, I realised that I was not listening to any ordinary conversation between two people but the endless dialogue between the Jews and Torah. Torah, on the one hand, was fixed. She had been inscribed centuries ago and would continue to speak the words she always had. The Jews, on the other hand, had grown with history. Their thoughts had developed as God had revealed to them new insights about how to treat people.
They were locked in dialogue. One would always change and the other would always stay the same. But neither could leave each other. Sure, the Jews could get up and leave Torah at any time. Torah could even abandon the Jews. But if either of them walked away from the relationship, Torah would cease to be Torah and the Jews would cease to be Jews. Through their discussions, they drew out all of God’s contradictions: the contradiction between the past and present, between love and justice, between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.
I felt myself transfixed by their conversation. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to insist that, of course, slavery was wrong. I wanted to quote everything else back at Torah that she’d ever said to show how that one section in this week’s parashah was completely at odds with the rest of her message. But I realised that, even if I did, Torah would still say the same thing, and I would still have to wrestle with it. We, the Jewish people, would still have to wrestle with it.
Kehillah got ready to leave. Torah gently held her wrist. “You will come back and visit me, won’t you?” she asked. “I know I’m old and sometimes I say offensive things, but I still want to talk with you. You don’t have to do everything I say. Just sit with me and listen. I’m lonely without you.”
Kehillah sat back down. “Of course I will, Torah, I’ll be here every week. I love you and I need you. I’m lonely without you too. If I don’t come here and have these conversations with you, I’ll forget what my purpose is. I’ll forget that I have work on this earth to do. You ground me.”