I have had my first ever academic article published. It appears in the Spring 2020 edition of European Judaism. In it, I compare the experiences of Rabban Gamliel in the bath houses of 2nd Century Akko with those of Rabbi Lionel Blue in 20th Century Amsterdam. I argue that these bath houses form important points of cultural connection, with sexual and spiritual implications.
In the time of the First Temple, in the world of the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Israelites brought sacrifices to the cultic centre in Jerusalem. One of these was the korban o’la – an offering of burnt animal fat. Every part of the sacrificed animal was burnt on the altar, except for its skin. The Hebrew word o’la, meaning rising up, referred to the pungent smoke released twice daily when the sacrifice was made.
Many centuries after the destruction of the First Temple, in the time of the Second, a group of pious believers came to translate the text into Greek. This early translation of the Bible became known as the Septuagint. Greek had no direct translation for the term o’la, so the editors chose a word meaning ‘completely burnt’ – holo kauston. Holocaust.
That is the word that has come to represent the ritual slaughter of 17 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish, in the middle of the 20th century. Like the animals of many millennia before, the people in the concentration camps were burnt throughout the day so that nothing remained of them.
It is perhaps for this reason that many of the victims were reluctant to use the term Holocaust. Jews called it by the Hebrew word shoah, meaning ‘disaster’ or churban – ‘destruction’. Roma people called it Porajmos – ‘the devouring’. For historians it was simply called by its Latin name ‘genocide’ – the killing of a people.
Something sinister lurks behind the very word ‘Holocaust’. The Jews, forever seen as relics of the Christian Old Testament, were murdered in the manner described by their book as a tool for expiating sin.
The word calls us to ask: to whom were these Jews sacrificed? On whose behalf? For what sin were they intended to atone? And was the God that received these offerings satisfied?
In the time of the First Temple, minor transgressions were deemed to pollute the land. The o’la served as a way to ritually cleanse ancient Israel of its impurities. Priests appealed to the national god for mercy and knew their petitions had been answered by the arrival of regular rainfall.
In the world of the Third Reich, ethnic impurities and social deviations polluted Europe. Germany and its empire was in breach of its duty to be thoroughly white, Christian, patriarchal and heterosexual. Isolating the minorities was not enough to recompense for their transgressions. The minorities had to be destroyed in their entirety. Devout Nazis played their part to remove and destroy every blemish in their land.
Of course, such blemishes can never be fully removed. The sin of non-whiteness is too volatile and its terms too expansive. The god of nationalism is thoroughly empty, so no amount of flesh will ever fill him. He is insatiable. Modern fascists remind us that the nationalist god is still hungry for blood.
The God of the ancient Temple, by contrast, no longer requires burnt meat. That Temple was destroyed and its people forced into exile. God fled with the refugees and, with them, became transnational. Prayers replaced sacrifices. The God of Israel became the God of the Jews, who wanted good deeds, social justice and piety. It mutated into the God of Love and could be found on every continent.
The god of nationalism, paradoxically, is now no less international. He permeated borders through colonialism and found a home on every soil. In every country, he can be seen represented by each flag. His priests can be found adorned in military uniforms of every stripe. His followers proclaim his word from pulpits the old preachers could never have imagined, reaching millions.
And he still requires blood. His altars are the lynch ropes for Muslims in India. His followers ritually parade through Charlottesville, Belfast, Rangoon, London and Sao Paulo. And, yes, the god of nationalism is worshipped in Israel too. The very land that birthed the universal God now hosts nationalism in its gates. In every place, his offerings are returned in coffins. And, no matter how many die, it will never be enough.
As the god to whom fascists make their sacrifices ascends, the universal God of the Jews withers. In Auschwitz, our God stood trial. The pious Jews who prayed in the camps convened a court and charged God with breach of covenant. God had abandoned them. Or forgotten them. Our rabbis had no choice but to pronounce: God is guilty. And when they knew that divine help was not coming, they did the only thing they could. They prayed.
After the camps were liberated, the remnant survivors had to face a new reality. They wondered whether their God was dead. A bitter irony. For centuries, the Jews had been accused of deicide against Jesus. Now they witnessed their own God burned in the flames of fascism’s altars. Only later did the quiet Christian witnesses realise that their God had been the same one, and was dying too. Their doctrine of goodwill and universal love was no less weakened. And only then did they realise they had killed the wrong God.
Is it too late? Can the old religion of truth and humanity be revived? Certainly, its followers are rebuilding. Synagogues are emerging anew in places where sceptics imagined that God was buried: in Córdoba, Warsaw and York. True believers congregate in mosques, chapels, gurdwaras and living rooms. Those who hold the greatest hope are unafraid to protest in God’s name against violence. They refuse to sacrifice to the new gods. They are the source of my faith.
As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we must remember not only the millions of human sacrifices, but the deity for whom they were killed. We must rededicate ourselves to destroying its idols and exposing them for the false gods that they are. In memory of the murdered, we must destroy fascism today.
Yet just because we oppose one god does not mean we must give up the One God. The Force of hope, solidarity and justice cannot be abandoned, even if we feel as if it has abandoned us. So, in memory of all those who were martyred professing a faith in that religion, I ask you to do something normally unthinkable in a radical publication like Novara Media – and pray.
I wrote this article for Novara Media for Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday 27 January 2020.
If a woman steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving family, has she really done anything wrong?
This moral question is familiar. We have heard it before. We hear the question and all of us intuitively answer “no.” Nobody would hold her guilty.
And I don’t dispute that gut reaction. When it comes to matters of morality, the answer our conscience automatically gives is usually the right one. But what does this answer tell us? What does it mean about ethics?
The question is, in fact, first asked and answered in the Book of Proverbs: “Nobody hates a thief who steals to satisfy hunger.” (6:30) It is the Bible itself, where we also read “thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) that tells us that, of course, we would not hold it against a starving person to steal.
Perhaps, we might conclude, there are limits to the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we should see the sixth dictum not to steal as a guideline rather than a rule. We might even conclude that there is no absolute morality, because there will always be exceptions and extenuating circumstances to mitigate against our moral judgements.
For me, that answer doesn’t feel right. It is not that no sin has been committed, but that a far greater one is hiding in the fact that the very question has been asked. What we should really ask is: how is it possible that this woman’s family is starving? Who has permitted poverty to even exist? That is the moral question facing us.
In these days of awe and religious introspection, most of us focus on our own conduct throughout the year. We wonder how much we have exhibited kindness and generosity since we last stood in synagogue and pledged to do better. But the sound of the shofar calls us to a far greater reckoning than just the state of our own souls. The High Holy Days call on us not only to take responsibility for our own actions, but for the state of our society.
The prophet Isaiah, whose haftarah we read on Yom Kippur, called us to exactly this accountability. He pours scorn on the Israelites’ prayers: “Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness.” (58:4) He tells them in no uncertain terms what is required of them: “Loose the fetters of wickedness. Break the yoke. Give bread to the hungry and homes to the poor.” (58:6-7)
The early Jewish reformers treated this text as the springboard for their theology. Scripture, they argued, was not primarily interested in the minutiae of ritual observances like kashrut and keeping shabbat. God’s direction to the Jews was to perfect the world through the pursuit of social justice.
That demand remains just as relevant today. Our prayers may be beautiful. Our services may be meaningful. We might read the Torah with feeling and precision. But all of that is utterly worthless if it doesn’t direct us towards an ethical life.
But Isaiah is also doing something far more radical. He is transforming morality from an individualistic concern with one person’s behaviour into a collective expectation of equity. Isaiah’s insistence on food for the hungry and houses for the homeless only makes sense if it is directed at society as a whole. Nobody in the peasant smallholder society of ancient Israel would have the power to do that on their own. Isaiah’s is a fundamentally political prophecy.
The moral task of the Jew, then, is not the relatively easy requirement that the comfortable should not steal, but an urgent calling to dismantle poverty entirely.
Never before in my lifetime has that felt so important in Britain. Today, there are well over 2,000 food banks in our country. Academics warn that they are becoming so institutionalised that we may well soon accept these symbols of poverty as normal. They were created to fill the gap left by savage cuts to the welfare to which people were once entitled. Some experts warn that they may soon replace benefits altogether.
When critics call our state today Dickensian, they are not exaggerating. The diseases of poverty-stricken Victorian England are back on the rise. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever and malnutrition are making a very unwelcome comeback. None of us can deny having noticed more rough sleeping, cramped housing or slum-like living conditions.
We cannot blame this increase in poverty on personal failings when there are such clear structural causes. Joblessness and housing shortages; austerity and recession; political policies. These are the causes of inequality in Britain, the world’s fifth richest nation. Individual action alone will never come close to remedying these ills.
Poverty in Britain today is both a political choice and a moral disgrace. As we pray in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we must pay attention not only to our own conduct but to our whole country’s. We must be prepared to live up to the true ethical calling advanced by our tradition. The responsibility rests on us to make sure that poverty is completely eliminated forever.
Nobody should ever have to steal to feed a starving family. Nobody should ever have a starving family.
I wrote this sermon for Liberal Judaism’s Days of Awe series
Tikkunistas. That’s the word that some Orthodox Jews have derisively given us. The first part “tikkun” is a reference to “tikkun olam”, the centrepiece of Progressive Jewish theology since the 1970s. In English, it means “repair of the world”, pointing to a belief that our world is broken and that we, as Jews, are tasked with fixing it.
The suffix “istas” is, I assume, a nod to Latin American protest movements, like the Sandinistas, Nicaragua’s anti-colonial rebels, made famous in Britain by punk band The Clash.
It is meant to be an insult. Personally, I think it’s a great compliment and an elegant summary of what I believe. You see, I was raised with two religions: Judaism… and Marxism. Both my parents were socialist trade unionists. Most of my earliest memories are of protests, pickets and petitions.
Now, a proper communist family would be avowedly atheist, but somehow, even as a five-year-old, I was adamant I wanted a religion. Grudgingly, my parents took me along to Reading Liberal Jewish Synagogue, praying to Lenin that I’d soon grow out of it.
Unfortunately for them, I fell in love with Liberal Judaism. I loved the songs. I loved the prayers. I loved the discussions. And the food. Oh, the food.
So I became bar mitzvah and kabbalat Torah. I got stuck in. In all honesty, socialism and Progressive Judaism seemed very similar to me as a child. Both were about social justice. Both were based in grassroots communities. Both were building towards something wonderful.
This continues to be my Judaism: the Judaism of social justice. A Judaism of food, community and song. A few years ago, I came to the realisation that if I didn’t invest in preserving this Judaism, it ran the risk of disappearing. So I applied to Leo Baeck College and, to my surprise, they accepted me onto the rabbinic training programme.
For the last two years, I looked after Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. It was a privilege to be with people as they explored their Judaism. Having spent my twenties working mostly in the charity sector as a campaigner, doing rabbinic work has felt like nothing short of finding a calling.
When I came to the inaugural service of Three Counties Liberal Judaism in July, I felt instantly at home. The community is clearly so warm, so engaged and so full of optimism for its own future. I share wholeheartedly in that optimism.
Becoming disabled made me question everything I thought I knew about Judaism. Then it brought me back to the religion in a way I’d never thought possible.
When I was 19, I woke up one morning and found that I couldn’t get out of bed. My hips were stiff, my back was sore, and my arms just weren’t strong enough to sit me upright. Something was wrong. I called out to my housemate, who helped lift me out of bed. That was the first time I needed help standing up. There would be many more.
It had been building for a while. I’d sat in university lectures and on buses feeling tremendous pain around my neck, shoulders, and lower back. I stared blankly at the doctor when she told me I had ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the spine. In a normal spine, the bones in the back are buffered by cartilage. In my spine, the bones were fusing together.
Back then, aIl I knew about the disease was that there was no cure. I didn’t know how much my back would come to hurt, or much I’d struggle with fatigue, or how little I might be able to move.
All I could do was focus on making changes to get better. I took up exercise, having studiously avoided it since school. I cut back on smoking and drinking. I changed my lifestyle and resolved to look after my body better. But the biggest change of all wasn’t in my body; it was the unexpected transformation of my religious beliefs. Getting sick made me doubt the Judaism that had been such an integral part of my life.
I grew up in a Liberal Jewish community, the U.K. sister of the American Reform movement. My Marxist parents had initially resisted raising me religious, but even as a child I’d been so drawn to Judaism that I insisted on dragging them to synagogue. Our community, based in a large commercial town surrounded by countryside just outside London, would meet weekly in a small shared chapel. We’d head out to a local farm for the pilgrim festivals. We’d plant trees at Tu B’Shevat and harvest fruit at Shavuot. We even camped out in the chilly English autumn for Sukkot. I adored getting to go out to the countryside. I loved cheder and getting to spend my weekends with other Jewish children. But more than anything else, I loved prayer.
There was something in Jewish prayer that filled me with joy. From the collective singing of “Mah Tovu” at the start of the service to the barn-storming shouting of “Adon Olam” at its end, I felt like I was part of an amazing community. Our liturgy, especially, filled me with hope. It spoke with such certainty about the sureness of progress. People whose lives were difficult now would get better. Society, though broken, would be perfected. The whole world was on one unfettered journey toward a messianic age of truth and righteousness.
I can still recite by rote the words from the siddur: “You support the fallen and heal the sick; you free the captive and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.” This, I believed, was a G-d who actively intervened in everybody’s lives to make them better. I learned to say in English: “We hope soon to behold the glory of your might when false gods will vanish from our hearts and idolatry cease forever.” This, I thought, was an unabashedly optimistic religion.
I found that optimism everywhere. At home, my parents were convinced that the workers’ revolution was just around the corner and a new age of peace and equality would soon come to replace our capitalist system. At school, I learned that I could achieve anything if I worked hard enough. All of us could become astronauts or prime ministers, if only we put our minds to it. No matter who was right—the religious, the Communists, or the aspirational—the future was going to be great.
As I child, I held tightly to that view of the world.
There was never exactly a moment I stopped believing. I drifted away. I went to synagogue for the major holidays. Then I went back to living my life. But as that life became more complicated, so did my relationship to Judaism.
Dealing with chronic pain meant I had to question everything I thought I knew about the world. People’s lives were supposed to be stories of progress. We’d start out from a difficult place, we’d struggle, but as we went on, things would get better. G-d would support us. How could I believe that now, knowing that my health would gradually deteriorate?
Every year, autumn brought cold rain and my condition would flare up anew. Each time, it got worse. I found myself in more pain, struggling to cope with daily tasks. I could no longer sit cross-legged, and it hurt to sneeze. Each time my disease got worse, my religious questions came back to the fore. I needed to understand how I could get so sick and have my life derailed so badly.
I went to work in Turkey, fearing that if I didn’t get out and see the world before my spine fused any more, I might lose the chance. I persisted with my questions about faith. But I resolved to start going to synagogue regularly again—to look for the answers I couldn’t find in my daily life. I sat each week in an old Sephardi synagogue on the Bosphorous, where old men struggled to make a minyan, wondering if there was anything G-d could do. I started bargaining, praying to have my disease taken away. I quit smoking. I quit drinking. I took my painkillers. I did yoga every day.
I ached in my muscles, and I ached in my soul, heartbroken by every answer I could think of. Had I done something wrong to be exempted from the linear, progressing life everyone else was meant to get? Was G-d not interested in people’s lives enough to intervene and relieve suffering? Was G-d not even there at all? The thought crushed me, but I didn’t want to let go of the optimistic theology that had filled me with such wonder as a child.
At 25, I lost the ability to walk properly. I could only push my limbs outward in robotic movements. I didn’t have enough time to cross roads in the time it took for the lights to turn from red to green and back again. I couldn’t sleep because with the slightest turn I woke myself up with the sound of my own screams. Every muscle in my body was tensed up. I lost more than 25 pounds.
Dealing with pain, it was hard to think at all, let alone to think positively. I absorbed all the books on Jewish thought I could find, searching for answers. If I wanted to hold on to the view of G-d I’d had as a child, I needed to come up with alternative solutions. Perhaps I was being tested—eventually I’d do enough mitzvot and I’d be relieved of the pain. Perhaps I was being punished. Maybe this was G-d’s plan after all.
Last year, I came back to the U.K. Doctors put me on regular doses of ibuprofen, then naproxen, then coxibs, none of which did anything. Unable to focus because of pain, I lost my job. I felt like I was no longer useful. But just as I was giving up hope, I followed a friend along to a weekend of non-denominational Jewish study in London.
This was Jewish study like I’d never encountered it before. We pored over Aramaic texts, guided by incredible scholars, to consider life’s big questions. We sat in small groups studying passages from Torah, Talmud, and modern Jewish theology. We were led by rabbis and academics, but mostly we were led by our own desire to see the world differently. One of the major themes we discussed was why people suffer.
There were people looking for answers in just the way I was. An emergency nurse who’d seen too many children come in mangled from car accidents. A community worker who felt like she was losing her faith. A student, grieving for his recently lost parent. All of us encountered Jewish texts afresh.
We read Ecclesiastes, that beautiful poem, bordering on atheistic, which says: “The righteous get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked get what the righteous deserve. This is all meaningless.” We read Job, afflicted with diseases and losing everything, crying out to heaven: “Withdraw your hand far from me, and stop frightening me with your terrors,” to which G-d replies: “Will the one who contends with the almighty correct me?” We read, too, from the Talmud, where Rav Johanan goes to see Rav Hiya bar Abba, lying in bed and unable to move. Rav Johanan asks him, “Are your sufferings dear to you?” and Rav Hiya replies, “Neither them nor their reward.” Only then is he able to stand up.
I realized that all the problems I’d had—both physical pain and existential doubt—weren’t just mine. They’d all been experienced before. Rabbis, prophets, and Hebrew poets had all struggled with the same sicknesses and questions I had. They couldn’t answer by promising some great progression of life. Nobody would tell King Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, that everything would be fine. Nobody would tell Job that his suffering had meaning. The Babylonian rabbis wouldn’t let their friends make martyrs of themselves for hurting, either. Instead, they just expressed their worries and let the questions stand. Suddenly, I felt much less alone.
People throughout history managed to go on being Jewish in the face of far worse suffering than mine. They’d stuck together, prayed together, and asked life’s most difficult questions together. They hadn’t answered with hope. They’d answered by being there for each other. And now, through their words, they were here for me, too. Through their words, Jews from generations past reached out through time, took my hand and said: “I’m hurting, too.” Through prayer, I try to answer them: “I’m with you.”
Over the last year, I’ve taken to prayer with new vigor and meaning. Jewish prayer doesn’t have to be about senseless faith in a better future. It can be a way of feeling radical empathy and solidarity with everyone else who is struggling. It can give me the strength to get through a day. It can give me a sense of gratitude when I don’t feel any. It can help me feel despair when I just need space to grieve.
I’m not waiting for a better future anymore. I’m praying for today. Whether we’re in synagogue together or I’m mumbling away in Hebrew at home, I’m part of an international community of people who are giving one another strength.
I think about everybody else hurting, grieving, questioning and learning. There are millions of us. People having their welfare cut and people who never had it. People struggling to pay bills and people struggling to get up in the morning. Through prayer, I can offer up some empathy and solidarity. I can feel like I’m having it returned.
Right now, I’m in a much better place, both physically and mentally. I know that wouldn’t have been possible without prayer. A sense of faith, of community, of support, can make more difference than people realise. It’s not that an invisible hand has reached down from the sky to take away my afflictions. G-d doesn’t work like that and never has. The miracle of prayer isn’t that it takes sickness away—it’s that it makes it bearable.
This article was originally published in Tablet Magazine in November 2016.