article · high holy days · judaism · sermon · social justice · torah

Living up to our ethical calling

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.

dickens england

I wrote this sermon for Liberal Judaism’s Days of Awe series

high holy days · judaism · sermon · social justice · theology · torah

On this day, you were created

On this day, you were created.

Although your body was born into this world at a different place and time, today is the day that you were created. This is the day that the part of you that makes you more than a body was born.

On this day, your soul was created. Our Creator had already formed light and darkness, separated water from land, built mountains and rivers, and introduced every living thing from the fruit fly to the tiger onto our planet. Then, on the sixth day, God created you. Today is the anniversary of the day when God crowned the completion of the world by making humanity.

You are already familiar with the story of the first human beings. They were created out of red mud and holy fire. Perhaps you do not yet know that, on this day, God also created every soul that would ever live.[1]

Back then, at the very beginning of our history, God took all the souls of everyone who would ever live around the Garden of Eden. Your soul saw how perfect the world could be, and your Creator instructed you.[2]

“This is the moral truth that I have established for all time,” God said to these souls. “You shall not kill. You shall not hurt animals. You shall pursue justice. You shall create a haven of love and honour.” And you, the part of you that absorbs truths that can’t be understood only with limbs and eyes and senses, took in those teachings.

When you were born, you may have forgotten what the Garden looked like. You may not remember the sound of the voice of your Creator. But ever since birth, your soul has clung to your body, reminding you of right and wrong.

That is, of course, just a story. Few Liberal Jews would say that it was an authoritative account of history. But this aggadic midrash, which appears in many rabbinic traditions, points to something that, to me, feels intuitively true. Our moral claims are real. When we say that murder is wrong or that love is right, we are not simply offering opinions about our personal preferences. We are describing transcendental facts about the universe.

There was a time when few people questioned that morality was real. While Greek philosophers and biblical prophets may have understood the origins of morality differently, or disagreed about their ethical applications, everyone agreed on a fundamental truth. Morality was meaningful.

Centuries of thought have sought to undermine that claim. Sociologists have argued that, instead, morality is simply a set of rules that human beings have developed to function in civilisations. Psychologists have shown that our brains are just machines responding to positive and negative stimuli. Many of the advancements in the name of science have reduced us to amoral automatons.

In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is an affirmation of a fundamental religious truth. This world was given to us as an act of love by the Source of all righteousness. We were born imprinted with an innate sense of how we can bring this world closer to Heaven, or to turn it into a living Hell. This ancient ritual embodies our tradition that humanity was created in the image of God, endowed by our Creator with a profound sense of right and wrong. That belief may not be provable, or even rational. It speaks to something that goes beyond reason.

When we blow the shofar, it is not supposed to sound pretty or musical. It is supposed to sound like an anguished cry. It is the wailing of all creation, calling on the soul to attention. It is a reminder of the truths we learnt in the Garden of Eden, long before our bodies were born.

I believe, I have to believe, that all people do have consciences. Against all evidence to the contrary, I want to believe that people do know good from evil, and do strive to choose good. I know that we don’t always. Most of the time, when we err, it’s because we have been too hurried or caught up in our own struggles to see that a more righteous path is possible. Sometimes we can all make mistakes from callousness or indifference.

But there is a type of evil that people can only do if they wilfully ignore their own consciences. There are evil acts that are cruel and calculated. Such acts can only be performed out of sheer moral nihilism.

It is with that in mind that I read news coming in from the USA. Across the Mexican border, the American president has built holding centres, where migrants seeking a better life are incarcerated. So terrifying are these spaces that some have dubbed them ‘concentration camps’.

We have seen videos emerge of dehydrated women crying out from glass boxes, yelling to journalists: “ayudame! Ayudame!” Help me. Help me. We know that the children in these camps have been denied beds. They are kept awake all hours, never granted the respite of darkness to sleep. Trump’s attorney general has denied that these children need toothbrushes or soap. They do not have adequate food. They have no access to lawyers.

One month ago, Trump’s administration announced that all these practices were legal. They did not even try to claim that these camps were moral. They simply stated that the people living in these camps deserved their suffering, because they were illegal. They crossed the border. They broke the law. These are the consequences for people who are no longer perceived to be human.

How can we talk about these actions as anything other than immoral? If we reject the spiritual truth of moral realism, we leave these camps as a matter of opinion. Whether people should be held in these conditions becomes simply a matter of personal preference. Worse still, we can reduce it to clinical policy choices, with cost-benefit analyses of how worthwhile it is to give prisoners toothpaste.

It is not out of malice that I say I believe those running these camps know they are wrong. Quite to the contrary: it is an affirmation of their humanity. Any one of us can commit acts of evil. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there is another way.

A Jewish group called Never Again Action have taken up that role. They are carrying out direct action to disrupt the functioning of the camps.On Tish b’Av, thousands  of them marched for change. As Jews, they perform our people’s sacred task of being the moral voice to all humanity.

These Jewish activists rightly invoke the memory of Auschwitz with their slogan: “never again”. Our communal history teaches the dangers of holding people deemed “illegal” by dint of their existence in camps.

But these activists may also invoke the memory of Eden. As Jews, they may remember a time, on this day, when God brought their souls into the Garden, and taught them the difference between right and wrong. They can call on our centuries of tradition to remind world leaders of their moral obligations.

Many of their supporters have intoned that history will not judge Mr Trump kindly. But who is history, and why should we care what it thinks? Should the leaders of America only care that one day someone will write in a textbook that what they did was wrong?

I believe these appeals to “history” are really secularised versions of a truth that was once well-known: a moral force outside of time is judging us. God is judging us. God takes note of our deeds.

Even the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest military will have to answer. No matter how powerful anyone is, the moral arc of the universe stands higher. The immutable force that teaches us the difference between right and wrong still takes note. And that force, our God, loves us enough to allow us to change.

Despite everything, I believe we all still want to do good. Even for those whose actions are hurting people today, there is still the chance to turn back. Everyone has it in them to turn away from evil and return to the natural state their souls knew when they were first placed in the Garden at the beginning of time.

This new year, may we commit ourselves to remembering what we learnt in Eden. May the sound of the shofar awaken all of our souls.

Shanah tovah. Happy new year.

GardenOfEden

I delivered this sermon at Lincoln Synagogue for Rosh Hashannah on Monday 30th September 2019.

[1] Pesikta deRav Kahana, Piska 23

[2] BT Niddah 30b

high holy days · sermon · story · theology · torah

The Torah was given to all of us

The Reform liturgy for Yom Kippur takes on a tour through the progression of Judaism. The reading choices are different to in Orthodoxy. Whereas in Orthodox synagogues, you would hear the story of the High Priest’s atonement rituals with the two goats in the morning and the rules of illicit sexual relations in the afternoon, the editors of the Reform machzor felt these texts did not reflect their values and substituted them. In the morning, in our community, we read Nitzavim, Moses’s final address to the people. For the haftarah, we read Isaiah’s denunciations of exploitation. Then, in the mussaf service, we read the stories of the martyrdoms of our sages with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Through this history, we see the values of progressive Judaism elucidated at each stage: freedom, personal responsibility, decentralisation and anti-authoritianism. For my Yom Kippur sermon this year, I retold those stories to show how those values emerged.

“You are all standing here today,” said Moses.

He looked out over the vast plains of Moab. He gazed at his assembled audience, stretching far back into steamed blurry visions in the distant desert. He saw their weariness and felt his own. At 120, his physical strength had not weakened. His eyes still saw clearly and his teeth worked perfectly. Although he carried a stick, he did not depend on it. Physically, he was fine. But, mentally, he was drained.

For forty years, Moses had presided over the people. Gradually, he had tried to cede power. He had appointed judges and officials who would help resolve disputes. He had tried to teach people as far as possible all the laws that he had received from God on that great mountain in the Egyptian desert. More than ever, he felt ready to go. But the question was: were the people ready to be without him? What could he tell them in this last speech to prepare them for a society where they would have to lead themselves?

“You are all standing here today,” Moses repeated. “All of you.”

“But, really, all of you. Women and men. Children and the elderly. All of you are here. All of you were present at Sinai. I need you to know that it wasn’t just me and Aaron who did all this. You emancipated yourselves. Nobody forced you to leave Egypt. You got up and went because you knew you deserved better. You could have turned back to Egypt any time, but you didn’t, because you had faith. Hold on to that feeling now.”

Perhaps, Moses thought, he had not been specific enough. “Yes, the strangers too. All the foreigners who have joined us on the way. And the wood-choppers and the water-drawers. The people who do the most menial work among you. The most neglected among you. I want to mention you especially. I want you to know that you were at Sinai. Nobody can take that away from you. You experienced the full might of God and you choose to be God’s people. Never let any priests or princes tell you this was all their work. It was yours.”

“This,” said Moses. “This covenant that God made stands for all time. It speaks to all future generations to come. The soul of every Jew is here with me. All of you are witnesses. All of you have had the responsibilities of this religion entrusted to you. Even if you are scattered to the ends of the Earth, God will find you there. This religion stands firm in every time and place.”

The Israelites stared back at Moses in a calm silence. Only the sounds of gentle winds and crickets interrupted Moses’s speech. These followers had long known that this speech was coming. They had had plenty of time to prepare for it, and yet felt completely at a loss.

“What I’m saying,” said Moses, “is that the Torah is yours. God didn’t give it to me or to the scholars. God gave it to you, to read it and learn it and interpret it in the way that works for you. These commandments that I put before you today are not too incredible for you, nor are they too far from you. They are not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the Heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No. It is right with you. It has been with you all along. You are in charge of your lives. You are responsible for your destinies.”

That was the message Moses left with the Israelites and through them with us, the Jewish people. It has a stronger bearing on us now than we may realise. It demands of us way more than we might be prepared to accept. When Moses died, he did not place power in the hands of priests and kings. He handed it over to everybody. There would not be anyone to frighten the masses into following orders or to offer up commands. The rules were all already there. The people had been entrusted to follow them for themselves.

With time, certain leaders did try to control Judaism. With the rise of the Temple, a centralised cult in Jerusalem set out the rules. The priests insisted that penance could only be paid with animal sacrifices and ritual fires. They tithed the people and brought them under authoritarian rule. Outside the centre of the city, the prophets chastised the priests. Among the urban poor and the rural peasants, the prophets cried out that God had given the Torah of justice to everybody, that God abhorred inequality and would never give religious power to the elites.

That is why, today, we read also the haftarah of Isaiah. Isaiah looked upon the centralised cult and was revolted by it. He saw a nation rife with exploitation and hypocrisy. He chastised the wealthy: “On the days when you fast, you exploit the workers! You fast and you strike with a wicked fist.” Such fasts, said Isaiah, meant nothing to the Almighty. God would not listen to the pleas of the wicked. Instead, insisted the prophet, God sought for every oppressed person to be free, for every chain to be broken, for every mouth to be fed and every soul to be remembered. This religion, said Isaiah, was never given to the exploiting class. It is the blessing of the oppressed. It is the hope of freed slaves and menial workers. It is a promise of redemption for people who could never quite believe their lives had meaning. We are the heirs to their Judaism: to the Judaism of the prophets.

When the Temple was destroyed, a group of visionary rabbis realised that the time had finally come to take back control from the priests and hand it over to the people. Chief among them was Rabbi Akiva Rabbi Akiva had been a peasant farmer. He did not even learn to read until he was 40. He came from the poorest class and knew their struggles. He saw the Priesthood trying to control our religion in their own interests and vowed to resist them.

Akiva insisted that the Torah was not a dead letter, but the word of a living God. Everyone could read it and find something in it. Every letter could be analysed. Whole worlds lay hidden in subtle sentences in our holy text. Akiva and his disciples replaced Temple sacrifices with prayers, good deeds and study. These were acts of piety available to everyone, no matter what their wealth our status. He created a Judaism of the people, by the people, for the people.

Our parashah today says “the Torah is your life and the length of your days.” Akiva agreed. He said that Torah was to the Jews what water was to the fish.[1] Akiva truly understood what it meant for everyone to receive the Torah. All of us were there for it. Everyone in this room. So all of us know something unique about the words of the living God. All of us have something important to contribute.

Akiva handed us over freedom. He took Judaism out of the hands of invested leaders and put it into the lives of the Jewish people. Read it, he said. You will find your life’s meaning in it. You will see that these are the words of a loving God. You will realise that you were created in a Divine image and that everyone else was too. You will understand the need to pursue justice.

Moses, Isaiah, Akiva. The progenitors of our Judaism. All of them with a simple message: this is your Judaism. You are free to follow it as you wish. With that freedom, they gave us the greatest gift they could. They gave us responsibility. Pharaohs would not govern our lives. Nor would bearded men in big gowns. We would govern our lives. We would have to choose for ourselves between right and wrong. We would have to live according to the justice demanded on High, with nobody to judge us but the still, small voice of conscience God had planted within us.

Take this day of Yom Kippur and realise that your life is in your own hands. Whether the world is just or unjust is up to you. Whether you are kind or unkind is up to you. Whether the oppressed remain oppressed or go free – that is up to you.

Let us resolve this day to take the true meanings of our religion to heart and to pursue justice in every quarter.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

isaiah chagall

I gave this sermon on Yom Kippur morning at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community in Cornwall. If ever you are in the area, I highly recommend going to this warm, welcoming spiritual community.

[1] Berakhot 61b

high holy days · judaism · sermon · theology

Forgive yourself

Forgive yourself.

I’ve always struggled through Yom Kippur. It’s not just the fasting or the sitting in shul all day. That stuff’s tough, but there’s something more existentially difficult about Yom Kippur. I find the prospect of judgement quite scary.

What makes Yom Kippur harder than any other day of the year is I feel myself somewhat stranded without excuses. Any other day, if I get angry or petty or unkind, I have good excuses. I’m busy. I’ve got too much on. I’m tired. On Yom Kippur I have to reflect over all those occasions and my excuses seem pretty inadequate. On Yom Kippur we are stripped bare in front of our Maker, and as I recount the extenuating circumstances to exonerate me for going wrong, I can hear God saying: “Really though?” My reasons don’t cut it when I have to face up to Infinity.

As Kol Nidre comes in, I always feel deeply unprepared for the questions my conscience has prepared for me. By the time we’ve been through 24 hours of praying, studying, silent meditation, chest-beating and singing, the shofar blasts loudly for the last time and I’ve as good as promised myself that the next year I’ll be a saint. Next year, I’ll never get angry. Next year, I’ll never be impatient. Next year, I’ll go to synagogue every week. (Actually that one I probably will do, but you get the idea.) The process of Yom Kippur makes me set the standards for myself so high that by the following Kol Nidre I can only look at myself and realise that I’ve failed to meet them.

This year I’m going to try a new discipline. I’m going to try to forgive myself.

The process I described really is important. Faced with a perfect Being, as we are with God on Yom Kippur, every one of us is lacking. All of us have something to feel genuinely guilty about. All of us need to set our standards for ourselves just that little bit higher. But we also all need to learn to forgive ourselves.

There is a wonderful Chassidic story. Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, a great Polish tzaddik of the 18th Century, approached the gates of Heaven. He stood before the Almighty and was asked: “Did you pray enough?”

“No,” answered the rebbe. “I’m afraid I did not.”

“And did you study enough Torah?”

“No,” said Elimelech. “I didn’t.”

“Did you give enough to support the needy?”

“I did not.”

“Were you kind enough?”

“No.”

“Elimelech,” said the Holy One, “you have told the truth and for that you will pass through to Heaven.”

The truth is none of us can ever do enough. Nobody can ever pray hard enough, read enough Torah, give enough to support the needy or exercise enough kindness. All we can do is be honest with ourselves, and keep trying.

On Kol Nidre, we are faced with the same questions as Elimelech was. We have to inspect the content of our souls in just the same way as he did. Have we prayed enough? Studied enough? Done enough to support others? Been kind and charitable and loving? No, we have not.

And we should not kid ourselves that the stakes are any less high than they were for a man standing at the gates of Heaven. If anything, they are higher, because while Elimelech was dead and could not do anything further to improve, we are still alive and have the chance to be better than we have been.

The rituals around Kol Nidre help to convey the gravity of that situation. First of all, we are supposed to feel a little bit closer to death. Ashkenazi Jews wear kittels, the garments in which we will be buried, to convey that sense of mortality. In reciting Viddui, we say the same words that repentant souls recite on their deathbeds. In fasting, in huddling together, there is some deeper feeling of an intimate proximity to death.

Tonight, everyone wears tallits. This is the only time of the year when the whole community drapes tzitzit from the long white garments over their shoulders. Why do we do this? Because these are the vestments of dayyanim – judges. Tonight, we are a court room. We take the scrolls from out of the ark and swear on them as holy texts. We are a mirror of that divine court that has sat in Heaven to weigh up the balance of our lives and pass judgement.

Now, feel yourself in that position. Realise that you are not just judged but you are also the judge. You are in a room full of other people in the same position. Is there anyone in this room so guilty, so impossibly unrepentant, that you cannot forgive them? Entrusted with the full power of a heavenly court that can choose between life and death, is there anybody you would not forgive?

Now turn that same judgement on yourself. Forgive yourself. Over the next day, we will all carry out moral audits on our lives. We will be encouraged to think through everything we have done wrong and to recount our misdeeds. But let’s focus, too, on forgiving ourselves. Let’s treat our own souls with the love and kindness we wish upon others. Nobody can be a harsher critic of you than yourself, and you know that there are times when you talk about yourself in ways you wouldn’t talk about your worst enemy. So give yourself a break.

I think part of the reason why we recite Kol Nidre, annulling all our vows, right at the start of Yom Kippur, is so that we can do just that. This prayer asks God to realise that all the promises we made from the last year to this one could never be met. This asks God’s forgiveness for the fact that we made promises at all. Because all the vows we made last Yom Kippur were impossible. We said we’d be better Jews this year than we were last year. We said we’d be kinder, more conscientious, and more humble. We said we’d pray more and study more. And we didn’t. Not enough anyway. And that’s OK.

Perhaps among all the promises that we make to ourselves this Yom Kippur, we can add an additional promise that this year we will forgive ourselves. We will be gentler with ourselves. We will love ourselves more. And, even if we don’t succeed, we can be merciful. We can forgive ourselves.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

 

kittel

I gave this sermon for Kol Nidre at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community of Cornwall. It was a wonderful place, and I will write more about it at a later date. One piece of critical feedback I received stuck with me: a woman said that, by saying that we all wear tallits, she felt I had excluded her. She had grown up Orthodox and always felt that the Jewish community was excluding her. My comments, which seemed to only address men, had projected her back to her childhood. At the time, I defended myself, saying that I’d grown up in the progressive world and so had never known a place where women didn’t wear tallits. On reflection, I am not happy with the answer I gave. I was trying out more ‘frum’ practices this year, by wearing slippers and kittel. I know from my own experience that seeing people seemingly adopt Orthodox forms can bring up memories of exclusion and discrimination. In light of that, if I want to experiment with it, I need to be much more explicit about what my values are: how I reconcile socialism and feminism with an interest in halachah. Moreover, Yom Kippur already can feel quite daunting for everyone. It’s supposed to be a time for huddling together and bringing everyone ‘inside the tent’. I need to constantly remind myself that the shared belief of progressive Jews in feminism, queer liberation and anti-racism is not additional to what we do but is at the core of who we are. In future sermons, I hope to be more explicit about that.

high holy days · sermon

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

high holy days · judaism · sermon · Uncategorized

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

high holy days · judaism · story · theology · torah

Jonah is a story about suicide

We know that life is sacred. I have mentioned it a few times over these Holy Days and we hear it all the time in our religion. Yet there is one question on which it seems almost silent. It is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year. Throughout the Tanakh, suicide is not mentioned. No tractates are written against it, no stories are written about it. Where could I turn to provide an answer? It seemed like a glaring oversight, and one that needed an answer more than ever for a generation where issues of anxiety and depression have never been so pronounced. And then, as I turned to the Yom Kippur readings, I realised that the answer had been staring me in the face.

The story of Jonah ends on an anti-climax. After hauling Jonah out of his home, sending him miles away into the heart of empire, drowning him, having a giant sea-monster swallow him, made him chastise his foreign enemy to give up on evil and actually convinced them to do so, God tells Jonah: “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes for a moment. All that, that whole mission, only to tell him that he cared about ignorant people and cattle. All that, when Jonah had thought he’d watch a city, ten times bigger than Manchester, burn to the ground, only to be told that God likes the animals in the city just like Jonah cares for a plant. What a disappointment.

It’s the kind of ending that leaves you scrambling back over everything you’ve read, wondering what the point of it all was. Did I miss something?

And here’s the real kicker: when God tells Jonah that he’s not going to destroy Niniveh, he’s also telling him that he’s not a prophet. In Deuteronomy we learn: “When a prophet speaks in the name of God, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that God has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”[1]

Jonah has prophesied and he’s gone big. He’s told everyone in the capital city of the biggest empire on earth that they’re all doomed to die because they’re sinners. It’s a bit like getting on a boat from Southport, journeying to New York, pitching up in Time Square and announcing to everyone there that they’re about to die. In fact, it’s worse than that, because in this scenario, Jonah’s people and the Americans are sworn enemies. He’s gone through all of that, only to find that his prophesy did not come true. He was wrong. He was not a prophet.

But what was it that God actually told Jonah to prophesy? Was he told that Niniveh was going to be overthrown in forty days? No. At the very beginning, God says: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”[2] Not tell them they’re going to be destroyed. Not tell them they’re all going to die. Not tell them to fast and weep. Just – tell them they’re going wrong.

Here’s what I want to suggest. That anti-climactic ending is much more profound than we might initially realise. The message given to Jonah was so much bigger than that. That prophecy was not about the wrongdoing of a city – it was about suicide. The story of Jonah is a story about a man contemplating suicide, rebutted over and over again by God’s message: choose life.

Today’s Torah portion announces that message. Moses stands on the edge of the Promised Land, knowing he will not be allowed to enter it, and gives the Israelites his final words: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”[3] This message is so profound. Life, it says, is not an accident. It is a choice, and it is a choice we must make. We must decide whether to truly participate in this world.

The prophet Ezekiel says: “Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”[4] This is God’s message to Jonah: choose life, for why would you die? Let’s read the story again, this time assuming the prophecy is different. We’ll realise that the story was not about whether the people of Niniveh should die, but about whether Jonah should live.

Several times throughout the story, Jonah threatens suicide. Sometimes those threats were so imperceptible you might not notice them. At the very beginning, when Jonah flees from Jaffa to Tarshish, he pays the fare before he gets on the boat. That might seem a reasonable enough thing to do now. But in the Ancient Near East, you didn’t pay your fare before travelling, you paid it afterwards. You paid it afterwards because otherwise you’d be at the mercy of sailors, who’d already have everything they needed from you, and could chuck you overboard so they wouldn’t have another mouth to feed. Paying your fare upfront is tantamount to a death-wish.

It doesn’t stop there. Once on the ship, God sends a mighty storm over the seas. Jonah could pray to have his life saved, but instead he curls up in the bowls of the ship, falls asleep and waits for the end. God has other plans, and Jonah will not die yet.

The captain of the ship and the rest of the sailors find him, realise that he’s the cause of the storm and ask him what they should do. Jonah could say: “take me to Niniveh so that I can do what God asked me.” He could say: “help me convince evil-doers to repent from what they’re doing.” Instead he says: “Heave me overboard!”[5] That’s right. Once again, Jonah tries to die. The sailors, who already have his money, who have never met Jonah before, who have a different religion and tribe to Jonah, beg God that they won’t have to kill Jonah. Jonah is insistent.

So the sailors heave Jonah overboard and it’ll take all but a miracle for him not to die. Thankfully, God is in the business of providing such things. God sends a giant fish, which swallows Jonah whole, leaving him able to survive. Jonah sits in the belly of the fish and sings: “I sank to the base of the mountains; The bars of the earth closed upon me forever. Yet You brought my life up from the pit, Eternal One, my God! When my life was ebbing away, I called God to mind; And my prayer came before You.”[6] Finally, it seems like Jonah’s getting it. Finally, brought to the very brink of death, it seems like Jonah is ready to choose life. God commands the fish to spit out Jonah on the land.

This time, Jonah does what God tells him. He heads out to Niniveh, that great city, to prophesy against them. Are his enemies, the overlords of the world’s biggest empire, rife with sin and iniquity, angry at him? Do they try and kill him? No, they’re horrified. It’s as if they’d never even considered what they were doing was immoral. They throw on sackcloth and ashes and prepare themselves for death. They even put sackcloth on the animals, so ready they are for utter annihilation. But God’s intention is not for them to die. As Ezekiel reminds us, God takes no pleasure in the death of them that die, but that they turn from their ways and live.[7]

Jonah is disappointed. He scolds God: “Please, Eternal One, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”[8] Has Jonah learned nothing? Close to death in the belly of the big fish, it seemed like Jonah was finally getting it that all God wanted was for him to live. Yet here he is again, begging to be allowed to die, threatening suicide once more.

God tries a different tactic. Instead of heavy-handed miracles and big displays in Niniveh, God tries out a gentle parable. God allows a gourd to grow over Jonah’s head, then allows it to die. Perhaps this will teach Jonah the precious, fragile sanctity of life. Quite the opposite. Jonah begs for death, saying: “I would rather die than live.” God asks Jonah: “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.”[9]

Finally, we get to the prophecy that had been meant for Jonah all along. God says: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”[10]

That’s why the story finishes by telling us about all the animals. God is saying: “Don’t you realise how much I care about you? I care even about the cattle in this city. I care even about a single plant in the desert. I love even your enemies, who are persecuting you, who do not worship me, who don’t follow my laws. How much do you think I care about you? Can’t you see how important you are? Choose life, Jonah. I’m begging you, stop with these thoughts of suicide. Give up on all that anger and hate you’ve been bottling up. Choose life, Jonah, why would you choose death?”

That’s what this whole story has been about. It was never about sin and death and punishment. It was so much simpler than that. It was about life. “Look Jonah,” says God. “I know you don’t think your life is worth living, but I do. To me, your life has meaning. To me, you are worth everything. Yes, even you. You with your stubbornness, your bitterness, your rage. You with all your unhappiness, your imperfections and mistakes. You mean so much to me that I will perform miracles. I will turn the world on its head to keep you alive. I will send you to the ends of the earth just to tell you I love you. Choose life, Jonah.”

That’s what this whole day has been about. Sometimes in prayer, especially deep in the fast of Yom Kippur, we can get so caught up in recounting our sins and holding onto our guilt, that we forget the whole point of the day. This day is not for wallowing in misery, it is to be thankful for life. We have been called here because our lives have meaning. By dint of being human, we are not just special, we are holy. To be a Jew means to affirm that life matters. It means to be willing to live a life that shows the best of what humanity can achieve. Of course, we may not succeed, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to try? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to choose life?

On the question of suicide, I think that Judaism has an answer. Judaism has only one answer, in fact, to every question, which is that life is holy. We are here to manifest the sacredness of life in everything we do. So today, let’s ask ourselves: are we doing that? Are we holding on to sadness and rage or are we thankful for another day? Are we dwelling on all that we’ve done wrong, or will we embrace the chance to get it right? Won’t we remember today that God wants for us to live?

Today God has put before you two choices: blessing and curse, life and death. Choose life, for why would you choose death?

jonah whale

This sermon was originally delivered on Yom Kippur 5778 at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community.

[1] Deut 18:22

[2] Jonah 1:2

[3] Deut 30:19

[4] Ezek 33:11

[5] Jonah 1:12

[6] Jonah 2:7-8

[7] Ezek 33:11

[8] Jonah 4:3

[9] Jonah 4:8-9

[10] Jonah 4:10-11