high holy days · sermon

Stop the privatisation of God


God is for everyone. God is supposed to unite everyone. Worship is supposed to be collective.

But, right now, God is under threat of privatisation.

In recent years, people have begun attempting to carve up God into small pieces and sell God off in individual packages.

Just 100 years ago, people knew that God was something they encountered with their fellow human beings, as they assembled in synagogues. These institutions were often the primary sources of solidarity, comfort, and welfare in any community. They bound people together.

Today, much of that community is collapsing in favour of individualism, where people are left alone to fend for themselves.

To combat this, some religions are starting to run on fee-for-service models, wherein people need not affiliate or contribute anything, but can buy access to religious experiences when it suits them.

This practice won’t save the synagogue. They are its enemy.

In these models, God is reduced to a commodity that individuals can purchase in their own homes. You need not go anywhere, but can browse online for your favourite version of God, packaged however you like it. The privatised God can be paid for whenever required, to perform whatever rites you like. The more money you have, the more of God you can get.

God was never meant to be divisible. The knowledge of the One God did not come from clever men in caves and deserts. Our prophets never claimed to have arrived at their conclusions alone.

Moses was a prince in Egypt, learned multiple languages, and could communicate expertly. But he was also the leader of a mass slave uprising in Egypt. His understanding of God’s unity came from a revelation to thousands at Mount Sinai. Together, they heard through clouds of fire: You are one people. There is one God.

Jeremiah was the eldest son of King Josiah’s High Priest, and aided by a scribe. Yet, when Jeremiah preached God’s unity, he did not do so as a lone prophet, but as a spokesperson for a large-scale anti-imperial movement. Huge groups of people were organising to resist invasion by Babylon, under the name of the one God. This collective had built over centuries, amassing momentum, as they agitated for refusal to accept foreign powers or their false gods.

Monotheism was born out of great social movements, in public, among peers.

It began with stories people told each other to build bridges. To keep peace and make relationships beyond their own homes, people developed common narratives.

“Did you know that we share a common ancestor, Abraham? Let me tell you a story of Abraham…” “Have you heard that we come from the same mother, Leah? In my tribe, this is what we know about Leah…” These stories were passed as oral traditions for many centuries, binding people together so that they could trust each other and work together.

As societies developed, so did their stories. Peoples formed into nations, and nations had their gods. The Hittites had Alalus; the Canaanites, Baal; the Egyptians had Ra; and the Sumerians, Anu. These gods looked after specific people within their borders, and supported them in their national wars, triumphs and tragedies.

Initially, the Israelites only had a national god, too, whom we now know as Hashem, or Adonai. It took time for them to develop the understanding that the god they worshipped in Israel was the God for the entire world. And that learning happened on the commons.

In the ancient world, all public activity happened on the commons. The commons brought in strangers from faraway places, and was the meeting-point for every tribe to engage with each other. It was a hub of activity, bursting with children playing, teachers educating the masses, exchange of goods and vegetables and, above all else, ideas.

There, in the open fields and marketplace, where people brought their stories, they swore oaths by their gods, and wrote promissory notes witnessed by every national god, so that their contracts would be binding in every country.

They said to each other: “I swear by Anlil… by Asherah… by Set…” They told the stories of their gods, who had created the world; flooded it; destroyed it; redeemed it.

“Perhaps,” they said, “the god that oversees Babylon is the same as the one who rules Egypt. Perhaps we simply have many names for one entity. Perhaps there is a force greater than national borders, whose justice is as expansive as the heavens, whose providence extends not just to the borders of one nation but to the entire world.”

“Just as we are one here on the commons, we might also be one at a deeper level, united by a common humanity, birthed by the same Creator. We might share a common destiny, to bring about unity on this earthly plane and to make known that God is one.”

Monotheism was a force of thousands of people seeking to reach across boundaries and divisions. A movement to imagine a future in which all people were diverse and equal. The original professors of the truth of one God sought unity of all humanity and nature , held together by something incomprehensibly greater than any of them.

Today, we still know the one God by many names. Hashem, Adonai, Shechinah. Allah, Buddha, Jesus, Jah. The names come from many languages but speak of a single truth. One God. One world. One people. One justice.

Of course, that unity is threatening to some. There are those who have a vested interest in maintaining tight borders, ethnic supremacy, and division. They have stoked up wars between the different names for the one God, seeking to divide that single truth again along national lines. Buddha was pitted against Allah; Jesus against Hashem. In Europe, they waged wars in the name of different understandings of one God and one book. Catholics and Protestants took doctrinal divisions and used them to carve up an entire continent and suppress all dissent.

For three centuries, European states fought each other over which version of God was the correct one. On either side of the divide, Jews were murdered, tortured and exiled, because if other Christians could be wrong, the Jews were really wrong. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered because powerful people had stripped monotheism of its context and abused it to create new divisions.

At the end of the wars, European leaders ushered in a new age, that they called modernity. They vowed that they would never again fight wars on such grounds. They decoupled citizenship from faith.

Religion was now not national, but completely private. You could have a religion, but only in the privacy of your own home. The Jew would be a Jew at home and an Englishman in the street. If you want to keep a kosher kitchen, that’s your business, but you’d better not bring your values out into our political space.

In some countries, every detail of religious life was taken under the state’s authority. The religious could no longer do anything that would interfere with the supremacy of the nation state.

But monotheism was never meant to serve private individuals. It was developed to bring people together, regardless of nation or creed. The problem of wedding religion to nations was not that it made religion too public, but that it made religion not public enough. The one true God was supposed to transcend all borders and remind people that no matter their language or appearance, they originated from the same Creator.

In recent times, the privatisation of God has gone even further.

The mass collective meetings of religious people have declined in favour of each individual having their own “spirituality.” No more can people develop their sense of unity in public, but they must have their own little snippet of truth that they hold tightly and do not share. The one God has been carved up into tiny little pieces so small that they can only be held in each individual’s heart. The one great God is now reduced to seven billion small ones.

All of this only further divides people. It breaks people apart, entirely contrary to what monotheism was supposed to do.

Monotheism began as a movement of ordinary people coming together on the commons.

The task of this generation is to bring God back to the commons. Religion must again become a force that breaks down all divisions and brings people together.

To stop this tide of individualism, there is really only one thing you need to do: join and build the synagogue.

It doesn’t even have to be this one – although, obviously, we would love to have you. The important thing is to join.

The synagogue still stands as a bulwark against this atomisation of society. It requires of people what we really need to keep the one God alive: commitment to each other in public. When people pay their subscriptions into a synagogue, they are not buying a service for themselves, but sustaining a community for everyone else.

In this synagogue, we are seeking to build community beyond our own walls, currently fundraising for local youth, the nearby refugee group, and our sister community of Jews that have fled Ukraine.

We must build communities in these small places where we live, while looking beyond them, with a knowledge that our God is so much bigger than any one community.

The message of monotheism is that all of truth is for all the people. Not some bits of truth for some. One love, one justice, one truth, uniting one people on one planet.

Our liturgy teaches that, once humanity has shaken off the fetters of prejudice and the worship of material things, equality and justice will reign over every land.

We must work towards the day when all peoples declare in every tongue that they have a common Creator, and that the destiny of one person is bound up in the fate of all humanity.

On that day, God will be one and known as One.

Shanah tovah.

high holy days · sermon

Why the world was made

There are some places in this world that fill me up with an awe of creation more than anywhere else can. Places so beautiful they make me wonder why they exist.

The Scottish Highlands are such a place. Those mountain landscapes are cragged rocks and stark hills stitched together by seas and tarns and smaller rock pools. They are peat bogs and waterfalls growing shrubs and trees, so full of life it feels as though they are themselves breathing. 

This year, I went to visit them. With my partner, we walked through the hills, saw old churches, visited a beloved rabbinic mentor, and witnessed the birds and wildlife. 

In between completing my dissertation and getting ordained as a rabbi, I decided to make a pilgrimage to mark the transition. It truly felt like a religious moment; a chance to draw closer to something sacred.

As we walked, we met with a land that was part of our country but felt decidedly foreign, and we met myths that, while part of our heritage, seemed alien. 

For the Gaelic-speaking peoples of Scotland and Ireland, these landscapes have their own origin story.

Those mountains are no accident. They were built intentionally, but a type of deity called Cailleach. Known also as Beira, or the Queen of Winter, she is an aged crone; one-eyed and completely white. 

She battles spring each year to reign her icy dominion over this hemisphere. She is a deer-herder, a lumberjack, and a warrior. She carries in her hand a great hammer as she strides across the Celtic Isles. She is the mother-goddess.

It was Cailleach who built the Highlands. She pulled rocks out of the sea and carved out stepping stones for her giant strides. She pushed through the space, breaking up new mountain faces with her hammer. She walked as winter through the new landscape she had made, and allowed waters to flow and overflow in every crevice.

I was enamoured by this story. Yes, that is what it looks like. It looks like an enormous witch has made it. It feels bursting with purpose.

My boyfriend prefers another version. He is a scientist, a doctor. We see the same world but through different lenses.

Millions of years ago, he read, the earth endured an ice age. Frozen water cut through the earth and wore down the ancient mineral rocks at a glacial pace. When the waters finally thawed, they left behind these precipices and pastures on the Scottish coastlines.

But isn’t that just the same story, told in a different way? Cailleach is simply an anthropomorphic ice current. The processes attributed to gods and fairies – that breaking and carving and flooding – are repackaged in scientific language. The scientists can give us approximate dates and name when the layers of sediment formed, but they are effectively telling the same story.

What difference does it make whether these wells were made by frozen currents or by the Wild Woman of Winter?

It is not fair to say that one is rational and the other is mythical. Both accounts are testament to humanity’s ability to understand its surroundings. The story of Cailleach is no less important a contribution, and we cannot just dismiss it. 

Equally, we cannot treat the national myth in the same way as we would our best scientific discoveries. They are not equally weighted as theories about how the earth was formed. Centuries of technological advancement and detailed research have given us this account of the Highland’s foundations.

The difference between these stories is not whether they tell us something true, but what kind of truth they point us to. The scientific explanation tells us the history of the world in context of great geological events. It teaches us how to identify, exploit or protect the natural surroundings we have inherited.

The story of Cailleach, by contrast, tells us about the unquantifiable truths of the Highlands: the awe they inspire; the magic they seem to hold. It teaches us about the shared national destiny of the Scottish, Irish, and Manx people who tell her story. 

These are not competing, but complementary, stories of creation. One tells us the truth of how a place was made, the other tells us why.

At this time of year, we turn to our own national myth and origin story. Our new year recalls the creation of the world. It is a day for us to delight in the fact that we are alive.

The biblical account of creation does not only explain the origins of one geological formation, but seeks to tell the genesis of the entire world.

5,783 years ago, the world was made in six days, from explosive dividing light, through land and seas and atmosphere, through to sea creatures, winged beasts, mammals, and human beings.

It is no good to compare this religious tradition with the theories of the Big Bang or evolution through natural selection. They are telling the story of the same thing, but from totally different perspectives. 

Science attempts to understand how the world was made; our myths ask us why.

The first chapter of Genesis suggests some reasons. The world was created with great purpose. Each day, with everything that God created, God saw that it was good.

When God created humanity, God gave us responsibility for the earth and what is in it. God gave us companions and promised us regular rest. God created the world for goodness, with humanity at heart.

The scientist and the theologian alike look at the world with a sense of wonder. We both feel awe as we track their stars in their orbit. We both marvel at the fact that a planet has produced the perfect conditions for life to form and grow entire ecosystems to sustain myriads of plants and creatures.

On this we agree.

The difference is that, for the believer, we do not just gaze in awe. Awe gazes back at us. 

You are not just amazed at the world, but the world is amazed by you. 

Not just the parts of you that you share in common with all other living beings, but those things that are unique to you. 

Not just the fact that you have functioning organs and limbs, but you. That transcendental, magical part of you. We might call it personality or soul or neshama.

It is not something mechanical or quantifiable. There is something about you that is wonderful and irreplaceable.

That is you

When we are confronted with the wonder and beauty of the world in which we live, we are tempted to ask what it is all here for. The answer of Judaism is that it is here for you.

To the religious imagination, your life is not an accident. It is a blessing. You were created for the sake of the world and the world was created for the sake of you. 

According to our Torah, at first creation, God wandered round to take in the Garden of Eden in the cool of day. And, there, God called out to the first human being: “Where are you?” God was looking for the human.

The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, understood that this question is addressed to every human being in every age. We, too, are forever hiding, behind the stories we tell ourselves that our lives are meaningless and our actions matter little. We find ways to try and escape truth, even to hide from ourselves. 

And God, that great Source of amazement, nevertheless seeks us out, asking “where are you?”

So, Buber says, you have to answer that question. You have to seek deep inside your soul and answer who you really are. You have to try and give an account of what you are doing on this earth. You have to make yourself present, ready to face Truth, and, crucially, to change.

Where are you?

You are on this beautiful earth, crafted by a magnificent Creator. You are here and alive. You are a miracle.

God is amazed at how wonderful you are.

And now you have to show that God’s faith is rightly placed.

Shanah tovah.

Cailleach, Queen of Winter
high holy days · sermon

God has decided to let you off this year

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial. The Heavenly Court convenes and charges the Jewish people with its sins. 

The Accuser lays out the prosecution. They have sinned. They have betrayed. They have been two-faced. The people have been angry, cruel, violent, hypocritical, dishonest and corrupt. All the evidence is laid out before the Holy One, who presides over the case as its Judge. 

The evidence is pretty compelling. We have been everything that the Accuser says we have, and more. We cannot pretend to have been perfect. In fact, we have fallen pretty far short of decent. 

The Angel of Mercy steps forward to plead in our defence. True, the Jews have been callous and unkind, but they have also been charitable, supportive, participated in mutual aid groups, called up vulnerable people, tried to make peace with their friends and neighbours. They have done their best.

The Accuser laughs out scornfully. “I challenge you,” says the avenging angel, “to weigh up this people’s good deeds against its pad. Set their mitzvot on the scales of justice and see how they manage against all their malice. Let’s see whether their good even comes close to counter-balancing their bad.”

The Angel of Mercy is nervous. Of course, they won’t win. The good deeds aren’t nearly numerous enough. Every one has been kept and held tight over the year. This is a sure way for the Jews to lose.

Perhaps the compassionate Angel can plead extenuating circumstances. After all, we’ve been through a pandemic. There has been so much uncertainty. The Jews have had to work from home with screaming children. They have been cut off from all their usual support systems. They have dealt with unimaginable stress. 

Surely, God understands that they can’t be expected to have been on their best behaviour. Not this year. This has been the hardest year yet. And, yes, to be fair, the Angel of Mercy did make the same excuse last year, but this year really was even worse. It really was.

God interjects; raises a single finger. “Enough evidence,” God says. “This year, I have decided just to let it slide.”

Now, both prosecution and defence look confused. They glance at each other, the assembled Heavenly Court room, and we defendants here gathered in our witness box. Perhaps the Holy One has made a mistake?

“It is true,” says God “that this people Israel has done much evil, and it is true that they have done some good. Their good does not amount to much and their evil is pretty damning. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances, but they are not very convincing. I did, after all, give this Torah to all times and places, including to Covid-stricken Britain. So there is no good reason to forgive the Jews. But, having weighed up all the evidence, I’ve decided I’m just going to forgive anyway. I’m just going to pardon them. Court adjourned.”

And that’s it. That’s the end of Yom Kippur on high for another year. 

It was over quickly. But it went exactly as it did last year. And the year before that. And every year going back to when humanity was first created. 

This is the story told by Pesikta Rabbati, a great collection of stories and sermons from Jews in the 9th Century CE. According to this midrash, when Yom Kippur comes around, the Accusing Angel charges the Jews with all its sins before God.

This Angel heaps all of our sins on top of the scales of justice. They weigh down heavily, and it’s clear that the sins outnumber the good deeds.

God then gives greater value to the good deeds so that they can override the evil, but the Accuser has many more sins to submit in evidence.

So, says our midrash, God hides our sins. God wears a long purple cloak and shoves all the sins under it. God sneaks the sins off the scales, and determines to find us innocent anyway.

Our sins are removed and hidden away.

“Yom Kippur” is often translated as “The Day of Atonement,” but the literal meaning of “kippur” is “cover,” “curtail,” “tuck away.” This is the day when our sins are submerged under the great cover of God’s forgiveness. 

They don’t disappear, but God is able to hide them away and forget them. For the sake of love of humanity, God just lets us off.

Lo ‘al tzidkateinu – not because of our righteousness do we pray for God’s forgiveness, but because of God’s unending love. Only on account of God’s infinite compassion do we get to carry on. God’s forgiveness is infinite and instant. 

But if we already knew God would forgive us, why do we bother? Why turn up here for Kol Nidrei, and afflict ourselves, and spend 25 hours in prayer? What’s all this for? 

Well, it might take God only a short while to forgive, but for us it takes a bit more work. We have to go through some effort to get to a fraction of that clemency. So, we take our time to look within, examine our imperfections, and release the guilt we have been feeling. Now is the time for us to forgive.

This year may seem like it requires more forgiveness than usual. This is an unprecedented time for conflict between friends and family, personal struggles, grief, job losses and frustration. It is hardly surprising that people feel so much resentment. 

I speak to people angry about how much they have lost. Time. Money. Strength. Health. Joy. Socialising. All these things that we have been robbed of. We have struggled in ways never experienced before.

Understandably, people want to place the blame elsewhere. They project their anger onto others who they imagine haven’t followed the rules enough, or who have taken it all too seriously, or who don’t think the same way as they do. 

All that anger does is sit inside of the people who hold onto it. It won’t help get back what has been lost. The weight of holding onto slights without forgiving just pulls us down. It just holds us back from growth. The only way to move forward is to let go.

That is why we have forgiveness. We acknowledge our hurt. We take stock of the injuries. And then, although it may be painful, we let go. We accept the way things are and make peace with what can’t be undone.

So, I urge you to forgive.

You might not get closure. You might not get apologies. You might not get reconciliation. Try to forgive anyway. 

The people who have hurt you probably did much wrong. And they probably didn’t do enough to make up for it. And all the dire circumstances will not feel like enough to excuse their behaviour. If you can, excuse it anyway.

The people who you forgive might not be big enough to forgive you back. Still, consider forgiveness.

In the build up to Yom Kippur, we were supposed to apologise to everyone we wronged. You did apologise, didn’t you? Me neither. Not enough. Not completely. Not to everyone. Not for everything. 

And I know my own reasons. I have been so tired and preoccupied and overworked and anxious. I have been too busy getting by to be trusting or vulnerable. The right time to apologise just never came up. 

But I still want to be forgiven. And I know God has already found a way to be merciful towards me. So I will have to reciprocate. 

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial, and God finds us not guilty. Not because we deserve it, but because God has decided to put trust in us. Our task over Yom Kippur is to validate that trust. 

So, we will try to forgive. It is not easy. It may well feel incomplete, and some things may be beyond pardon. Nevertheless, let us try to leave some of the pain of the previous year behind. 

Let us endeavour to accept people, including ourselves, flawed as we are, and move on.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

This is my Kol Nidrei sermon for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

high holy days · sermon

A life without regrets

If today were your last day, what would you make of the time you have had? Would you be satisfied that you’d lived your life right? Would you feel like you had left much undone or unresolved?

If today was your last day, would you feel confident in your end? Would you know for certain what had made your life worthwhile?

These are the uncomfortable questions Yom Kippur pushes us to consider. And they are indeed uncomfortable questions. Without even mentioning God, morality, or religion, I know that some will feel affronted by the line of questioning. I know that if I were the one being asked, I would feel affronted. I would be raising objections to the questions. 

But everything about the rituals of Yom Kippur forces us into that way of thinking. 

We dress in the clothes in which we will be buried. A kittle, or cassock, for Ashkenazim. A simple tallit for Sephardim. No jewellery, no perfumes, no fancy shoes. We are dressed not too differently from how we expect to leave this world.

We pray.  We pray that we will be allowed to live. We recount the many ways in which we might die: by fire, water, beast, sickness, ordeal. We recite vidui: the final words we expect to say on our deathbed.

We fast, afflict, and deprive ourselves. All of this is supposed to make us reckon with our mortality. It is a death rehearsal. Yom Kippur asks us whether or not we are ready for death.

Today is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While some of our readings are special to the occasion, the Torah continues where we last left it before the High Holy Days, with Moses proclaiming his last speeches of Deuteronomy. 

At this stage, Moses knows that he will die, and he contemplates his coming end. His life is over, and so is his mission. He will not reach the Promised Land to which he has travelled, and he must handover power. God tells Moses: “The time is coming close for you to die. You will soon lie down with your ancestors.”

God offers Moses no reassurance that he has succeeded in his life’s task. Quite the opposite, God tells Moses that the people will now chase after false gods, neglect the holy laws, and forget their covenant with God.

After all that. Plagues and miracles in Egypt. Signs and wonders and an outstretched hand to deliver them. They had seen the sea part and bread fall from the sky. They had received the commandments from a thunderous mountain. Now, God tells Moses, they will forget it all and ignore what they learned.

Moses must have wondered in that moment if his life had been worth living at all. His projects may not be continued. His beliefs might not be upheld. Everything he did may have been for nought. 

Yet, somehow, Moses seems to have achieved a kind of calm. He no longer protests against his Creator. He does not challenge the decree. He hands over to Joshua and lets him take the reins.

Perhaps, by this stage, Moses has learned that what matters in life isn’t whether your work succeeds, but whether you perform it with integrity. What matters isn’t whether you find out all the answers, but that you seek to learn. And what matters isn’t whether you perfect the world, but that you treat the world as if it can be improved. In short, what matters is that you do your best.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rava tells us that, upon dying, Heaven will ask of us six questions:

  • Did you have integrity in your work?
  • Did you make time to study Torah?
  • Did you care for your family?
  • Did you try to make the world better?
  • Did you welcome new ideas?
  • And did you have reverence for your Maker?

Our task on earth is not to be wealthy or famous or powerful. It is to be honest, studious, caring, supportive, optimistic, inquisitive and loving. It doesn’t matter so much what we do with life, but how we do it.

Heaven doesn’t ask what our job was. It asks if we did it faithfully. Did we conduct our working lives in ways that we could be proud to give account of ourselves before God? Did we act as if how we treated others in business mattered for the sake of our own souls?

Heaven doesn’t ask if you can recite the whole of the Mishnah by heart. It doesn’t ask whether you mastered some sacred texts. It doesn’t even ask if you learnt your aleph-bet. Did you try? Did you take an interest in your traditions and heritage? Did you actually look to the past to see if it had any bearing on your own life?

Heaven doesn’t expect you to have had only one marriage of the right kind. It asks whether you actually looked after people. Did you care for those around you? According to palliative nurses, the most common regret among the dying is that they did not spend enough time with those they loved. At the end of life, God also challenges you with the same question. 

Heaven does not ask if you brought about salvation of all humanity. It asks tzafita lishua? Were you on the look out for redemption? Did you search for chances to make the world better? Did you hold onto hope that the world could be changed?

And Heaven does not ask if you arrived at the right answers. It asks whether you asked wise questions. Were you curious? Were you inquisitive? Were you interested in what others have to say?

Above all else, the question we are asked is whether we had yirat Hashem, awe of God. Without this, all the other questions are irrelevant. The Talmud compares someone without reverence for Heaven to someone who only has the keys to the door inside the house, but can’t actually get into the house.

Ultimately, what matters is that we treat our lives like they have meaning. You have to actually care about how you live, and believe that it really matters.

When Moses reaches the end of life, he doesn’t wonder whether it was worth it. He is faced with the far more fundamental question of whether he really lived right. 

Integrity. Curiosity. Kindness. Justice. Effort. Love.

These are the things that really matter in the end. We will get to the end and our only regrets will be the attitude we took towards life itself. 

Yom Kippur is, indeed, a preparation for death. But above all else it is a calling to live. It demands of us that we look at our lives and resolve to conduct them better, with fewer regrets.

Shabbat Shalom

high holy days · sermon

The changing face of the Jewish family

Imagine a Jewish family. Go on, close your eyes and envisage what a Jewish family looks like. 

How many of them are there? Where are they? What do they look like? What are they wearing? 

OK, you can open your eyes again. 

Perhaps you pictured one of the families from Shtisel. You’ve conjured up Haredim in black hats and long coats and white socks. You might be picturing women with covered heads, racing around a dinner table, providing food and clearing away dishes, while a bearded patriarch at the head of the table murmurs prayers from a benscher. Yes, that is a Jewish family. 

Or maybe you imagined the family from Gogglebox. A husband and a wife. Two children, a boy and a girl. They sit on the sofa in front of the TV. They eat their meals on their laps. They light the shabbes candles and sing together the brachah, then go back to watching X Factor.

Yes, that’s a Jewish family too.

Or maybe you’re remembering your own family, from your own childhood, at some festival or simchah, and seeing yourself in your own family make-up. 

You might reminisce on siblings, cousins, single mother, married parents, step-parents, step-siblings, uncles, aunties, grandparents, great-grandparents, step-great-grandparents, neighbours, babies, babysitters, cats, dogs, goldfish. You can scratch out and fill in whatever applies. You’ve got a Jewish family. 

If you’ve got a family and there are Jews in it, that’s a Jewish family.

The truth is there is no one way to have a Jewish family. We come in so many shapes and sizes. We are too diverse even for a single stereotype. 

Still, people often have an idealised vision of what a Jewish family should be and how it should look. Take today’s Torah reading. 

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read of Sarah’s anguish at having one too many children. 

In our parashah, Sarah knows she must provide an heir to Abraham. At first, she offers up her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate so that Abraham might sire a child. This is successful, and leads to the birth of Ishmael. Later, God blesses her with her own child, Isaac. 

But this is where things get really complicated. Sarah wanted Hagar to have Ishmael when she thought he’d be the only one. She liked the idea when she was providing her heir for her husband. But now Ishmael looked like a competitor for her son Isaac’s birthright. 

Sarah had an image in her head of what her family was supposed to look like. When her surrogate son plays with the child that she gave birth to, Sarah decides only one of them can last. Sarah instructs Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Now, the Jewish family of five gets swiftly reduced down to two. 

Sarah had an image in her head of how her Jewish family was meant to look. But it didn’t match up with reality. Rather than adjust her expectations to her reality, Sarah decided to make reality conform with the fantasy. Even if it meant making people destitute and homeless. Even if it meant cutting up the family she had.

Unfortunately, this desire to force reality to fit the fantasy still permeates Jewish life centuries later. In our communities, people still want to police what a Jewish family should look like. 

The result can only be disappointing for everyone. Families that don’t fit the mould find themselves excluded and cast out from communal life. The people who are “on the inside” get increasingly frustrated that nobody is coming along to synagogue who matches up with their idealised vision of the Jewish family. Eventually, synagogue leaders find themselves exasperated that their membership is dwindling and short on children. 

Rather than fighting reality by clinging onto a fantasy, successful synagogues find ways of embracing change. The best and most active shuls make sure they celebrate diversity, rejoicing in how manifold their membership can be. 

So, let’s take stock of what Jewish families really look like today.

Today, a Jewish family may only have one Jew in it. According to research, a quarter of Jews are in mixed relationships with people from other religions and none. 

In the 90s, moral panic about Jews “marrying out” meant a lot of community resources were spent trying to get Jews into relationships with each other by any means possible. After decades of bemoaning mixed families and complaining that these Jewish groupings don’t look right, there are more mixed families than ever. That number is set to grow.

Contrary to Orthodox and establishment Jewry, Reform Jews made it our mission that we would celebrate families in all their diversity. People could know that, no matter who they loved, the synagogue would be here for them and support them through every step of their life’s journey.

Because the family has changed, conversion has changed too. Decades ago, you could reasonably assume that, if somebody was converting, it was for marriage. That is no longer the case. 

The vast majority of Jewish converts over the last few years have been “spiritual seekers”: people looking for God who have found something meaningful in our traditions. Last year, over 80% of candidates at the Reform Beit Din were lesbian, gay, bi and trans. They are people who looked for a religion of integrity that celebrated them as they are, and found it with us. 

Like the rest of the country, our families reflect the choice that people have over how they want to live. Our families are sometimes one dad with three children and sometimes two mums with a baby; they are cousins and grandparents living under one roof; and they are friends raising children together as neighbours. 

So, imagine your Jewish family again. And again. And again. Keep picturing them until, as in Abraham’s promise, you have as many configurations of families as there are stars in the sky.

Yes, now we know what a Jewish family looks like.

And now we can welcome and encourage them in all their diversity. We can find ways to bring everyone into the synagogue and feel like this is a home where they are loved and encouraged. We can make sure that nobody is turned away.

Imagine the possibilities.

Shana tova. 

I gave this sermon on Second Day Rosh Hashanah at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

climate change · high holy days

Another trip around our fragile planet

 

This year, Richard Branson saw the planet from a completely different angle. The owner of Virgin was on board a rocket and saw the Earth as it appears from space.

It must have been incredible. The globe with its big blue oceans and grey-green continents, set against the great dark expanse of our solar system. 

I have always associated that image with Rosh Hashanah. I remember being in cheder as a child, drawing out the world like this in crayon.

“This festival is the birthday of the world,” I learned. 

We celebrate the world’s creation and another trip around the sun. According to rabbinic tradition, the Earth is now approaching the ripe old age of 5782. Mazal tov!

Our ancestors may not have known that the world was, in fact, billions of years old. They probably did not even realise that it is, as Branson would have seen, spherical and rotating on its own axis. 

But they understood something deeply important. This planet is a gift from God. It is a sacred place, existing in an improbable balance that allows the perfect conditions for life. It is filled with more animals and plants than we will ever be able to name. As the Psalmist declared: “How manifold are your works, Eternal One!” 

At the Jewish New Year, we celebrate creation and our place within it. We thank God for the bees that made us honey and the trees that bore us apples. We count another year when God placed human beings in a perfect garden and charged us with caring for it.

What Richard Branson might not have seen from all the way up there was how delicate this planet really is. Once again, we experienced our hottest summer on record, where wildfires spread across the western coast of North America. Some congregants at my synagogue in Essex lost their homes to flooding, as sudden thunderstorms struck. 

Our climate is rapidly changing. We have witnessed snowstorms in Texas and flash floods in China and Germany. Whole swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. Parts of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia have died from sun bleaching, leaving ocean graveyards behind.

Experts warn that melting polar ice caps and close contact with cattle will mean even more deadly pandemics.

The midrash on Genesis teaches that God took Adam and Eve around Eden, showing them every living thing . “Look after this world and care for it,” said the Holy One. “For if you destroy this world, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”

Now look at this world. Are we not in danger of ruining it? As it stands, the planet is being consumed by a few, while the many are exploited, in a way that could destroy us all.

We cannot separate Richard Branson’s trip into space from the unfolding ecological disaster. Every rocket launch emits one hundred times more greenhouse gases than a single flight on an aeroplane. 

Right now, Branson is engaged in a battle with other billionaires for who can most colonise the atmosphere. Other heads of corporations, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are engaged in a space race. They want to project themselves furthest away from this planet and create an entire industry charging others for the same privilege. 

I do not want to see the world from space if I cannot live in it. I certainly do not want only a covetous few to explore space if it means they leave a burning planet behind for the rest of us.

This earth cannot have been given by God only so that a wealthy few could enjoy seeing it, but that every one of us could live in it and marvel at its wonders.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The last year has shown us how fragile the planet is. But it has also shown us how adaptable human beings are. 

We know how caring and supportive people have been to each other throughout the last year’s difficulties. The Jewish community has shown the very best of itself in its mutual aid and compassion for our most vulnerable members. 

Incredibly, we have also seen a vaccine developed, approved, and distributed in record time. Everyone across the community has rallied to take up the offer of protecting themselves and others. 

We have the power to send people into space and cure diseases. Through hard work, cooperation, and creativity, humanity has already shown it can face off its greatest challenges.  

As Progressive Jews, we talk often about the importance of “tikkun olam”: healing the world. We have a sacred duty to preserve and perfect the planet. 

The energy and investment that has gone into space programmes could support the development of new green technologies and a just transition to a sustainable future. 

Across the country and the world, campaigners are pushing us to rethink our entire economy. They urge governments of the world to invest in jobs, resources and renewable energy. It is not too late to defeat climate change, even as it arrives on our own doorstep.

We can have clean air and clean waters; a flourishing planet for our children to grow up.

If it is possible to see the world from space, it must also be possible to save it.

This year, let us rise to the challenge.

Shanah tovah.

fast · high holy days · sermon

Closing the Gates

These are the short sermons I delivered for the final two services of Yom Kippur 5781.

Yizkor

This morning, I talked about how this year could be understood through the lens of grief. Yet nothing can compare to the grief of losing a loved one. Every feeling we described, of denial, bargaining, sadness, anger and acceptance, is intensely heightened by the enormity of the lives that have been lost in this last year.

I will not say numbers. Their lives were not statistics. They cannot be reduced to the collateral damage in government reports about which measures worked best. They were full human beings, imbued with the sacred light of God. They were people with pasts and dreams, filled with stories. They were complete people, with flaws and complexities and little idiosyncrasies.

And we have not yet even begun to mourn them. In the midst of a pandemic, we have been like the Israelites in the desert, forced to keep on moving and maintaining high spirits for an undefined period of time. We keep looking straight ahead to keep our spirits awake, so struggle to look back at the hurt. Even old wounds from people long dead have returned to us, and we have struggled to find ways to heal.

Here, in this moment, for this brief service, we can take the time. Let’s stop in this space and reflect. We remember the names of everyone who mattered to us. We loved them. We cared for them. They cared for us. We admired them. We looked up to them. They took inspiration from us. We laughed with them. We cried with them. We got angry with them. We hated them. Sometimes. We spent precious time with them. We did not spend enough time with them.

And now, in this moment, we remember them. And we refuse to let them ever be forgotten.

Neilah

This year has been challenging for all of us. As much as our physical health has been at stake, everyone’s psychological wellbeing has taken a toll. Public health experts warn that we are facing a delayed mental health crisis. 

This morning, I spoke about how the year could be understood through the stages of grief. Those feelings, however, can be pathological when taken to an extreme. Sadness can become depression. Anger can become anxiety. Denying what exists and accepting what does not can result in psychosis. 

We will need to pull together in the coming year. We will need to check in on each other more than ever and find new ways to support each other. Above all, please talk about your feelings. If it feels like it’s going too much, do talk to a rabbi for pastoral support, or to a doctor for medical help. It is important that we all look after each other.

I know that we begin Yom Kippur by annulling the vows we have made with God. I think, however, this year, we need to end by making a new one. We need to promise each other we will make it. We must swear to each other that we will do everything we can to keep our bodies, minds and souls alive in the coming year. Say it to God, make it a vow.

As the gates of prayer close, I vow that I will care for myself and my community. I vow that I will be honest with my feelings and kind to my body. I vow that I will be here next year.

Next year, in a world without pandemic. Next year, in a world built back better without racism and injustice. Next year, in a world where we can see each other in person. Next year, in the building, with each other, holding hands and singing together.

We will make it to next year. Shanah tovah.

high holy days · sermon

Being holy

These are the short sermons I am giving at Glasgow Reform Synagogue for Yom Kippur afternoon 5781.

Being holy

This afternoon’s Torah service instructs us: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal One your God, am holy.” But how do we live holiness? An answer to this comes from the great tradition of mussar. This was a movement that emerged in 19th Century Vilna for promoting Judaism as an ethical movement. The musarnikes, or moralists, argued that study alone was not enough, but that it had to be directed towards making Jews into better people.

The heir to that movement is the Mussar Institute in the USA. Earlier in the year, its leader, Alan Morinis, gave a four-day virtual conference at Edgware Reform Synagogue, advocating its ideas. In the musar system, people have attributes, called middot, that we must cultivate in order to be a holy people. Qualities like faith, modesty, willingness, and joy. In these short divrei Torah for the afternoon, I will give stories and quotations from the mussar tradition that reinforce our liturgical readings.

At every stage of this Torah reading, the reason for each commandment is “because I am the Eternal One your God.” It is repeated at the end of almost every verse. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, taught: “Do all you can to internalise faith and live with it daily.”

I know faith will mean many different things. For some, it is in God.  For others, it is in our fellow human beings. And for others still it is in the possibilities the future holds. Wherever your faith lies, cling to it, strengthen it, and build it into every decision you make.

Being simple

Our next Torah reading comes from Deuteronomy. It tells us: “These teachings are not too baffling for you, nor are they beyond your reach. It is not in the Heavens […] nor is it over the sea.” The Torah, we understand, is a simple text with a simple message. That message is summarised by Micah in the dictum: “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

This simple message is reinforced by the mussar tradition. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a leader of the Orthodox community in 20th Century Britain, taught: “Human beings pursue worldly pleasures because they have a subconscious urge to still the pangs of spiritual hunger. Everyone has this nameless inner yearning: the longing of the soul for its state of perfection. Earthly indulgence is only an illusory substitute for this.”

In these trying times, we have to enjoy the simplicity of what we have. We may not be able to enjoy the luxuries of previous years, and even many essentials may seem out of reach. But this provides us with an opportunity to get in touch with what really matters. With our souls, with ourselves, with each other. To walk humbly with our God.

Being willing

Jonah ran away from everything he was supposed to do. He ran away to Tarshish to get away from Nineveh. He hid in the boat rather than face the other sailors. He sat in the belly of a giant fish before he accepted his responsibility. 

On Yom Kippur, we pray about the sins we have committed willingly and unwillingly. I think this year, we might also reflect on the good deeds we have done willingly and unwillingly. What has been a challenge to us to do right? 

Sometimes, for many, even getting out of bed in the morning feels difficult. The first line of the first part of the major law code, Shulchan Aruch, teaches: “One should strengthen herself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve her Creator, so that it is she who awakens the dawn.” 

The greatest challenge facing us this year is not to give in to futility. Whatever we can do, we must be full of enthusiasm. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of 18th Century Italy taught that we have to be self-motivated and not abandon ourselves to heaviness so that we come to merit divine service.

Even when the days can take their toll, may we approach winter’s tasks with willingness. May we pursue the needs of our community with enthusiasm, and hurry to do more for our loved ones.

Being joyous

We must be joyous. Of all the attributes to strive towards, joy might seem the strangest to mention in between the death bed confession and the recitation of sins. But it is, by far, the most important.

Rabbi Dovid Bliacher taught: “when faced with trouble, do not see it as a punishment for a past lapse, and do not be filled with guilt and despair. Rather, rejoice in this new opportunity to rise up by the medium of the test you now face.”

Even in the hardest times, we have to approach them with joy. Yes, we live in a crisis, but this is also an opportunity. Out of the rubble of Coronavirus, we can build back a better society, where people care for each other, where intergenerational communities support each other’s health and happiness, and where the needs of every human being on the planet are met.

Let us not delay for a moment in seeking to achieve that. And, as we go, let’s take joy in all that we have. This community. These friends. These bodies. This earth. This one precious life, in which every moment is a gift from God. Let us greet every day with joy.

high holy days · sermon

Grieving the Year

Stage 1. Denial

At the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, the grief expert David Kessler described our relationship to these unprecedented times as a mourning process:

“The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively.”

No doubt, over the past 6 months, many of us have felt that complicated array of emotions associated with grief. Indeed, today, it is hard not to feel some anxiety and dissonance that we cannot do Yom Kippur in our usual ways.

Kessler suggests that the best way to face up to this feeling is to know the stages of grief and understand them. Denial. Bargaining. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance.

Each of these feelings is important and needs to be honoured. The Jewish tradition has much to teach us about them. In each of these difficult feelings there is holiness and meaning. I am going to tell Chassidic stories about each of these stages of grief, beginning with stage one: denial.

Rabbi Shmelke once asked the Maggid of Mezritch, to explain a difficult theological concept to him. He said: “Our sages teach that we should thank God for suffering as much as for wellbeing, and receive it with the same joy. How is that possible?”

The Maggid told him to seek out Zusya. Zusya had known nothing but poverty and heartbreak in his life. He had lost his children and lived with chronic illness. “He will explain suffering to you,” said the Maggid.

Rabbi Shmelke found Zusya at the House of Study and asked him the question: how is it possible to thank God for suffering? Zusya laughed: “You’ve come to the wrong person. I haven’t suffered a day in my life.”

As Rabbi Shmelke left the room, he realised that he must accept all suffering with love.[1

Stage 2: Bargaining

Abraham bargained with God to prevent the utter annihilation of Sodom. Moses bargained with God so that not all of Korach’s supporters would be killed. ‘Perhaps,’ thought an old Jew in Jerusalem, ‘I might be able to intercede with God too.’

So every day she went down to the Kotel – the Western Wall in the Old City. Each morning, she davened and prayed to God: “Sovereign of the Universe, I beseech you. Please bring an end to this plague and to economic crisis. Please put an end to the bush fires and the wars.”

“God,” she cried out at the Wailing Wall, “if you grant us peace and stability, I will devote every moment of my life to Torah and prayer. I will be the most righteous person in the world.’

She went down every week on Shabbat. And then every morning. And then three times a day. And then she was praying every day three times a day for months on end.

Her daughter asked her: “how do you feel with your new piety?”

“Like I’m talking to a brick wall.”

Stage 3: Anger

Once, Rebbe Levi Yitchok of Berditchev saw a tailor remonstrating as he prayed, throwing his fists up in the air. After the service, he called over the tailor to ask him what he’d been saying to God.

The tailor said: “I told God what was what. I said: ‘Listen, God, you want me to repent of my sins, but I’ve only committed minor offences compared to You. Sure, I don’t keep perfect shabbat or kosher, and I’m sorry about that. But You – You have taken away mothers from their babies and babies from their mothers. You have allowed all manner of injustice to continue. So let’s call it quits: You forgive me and I’ll forgive You.”

The Berditchever Rebbe laughed: “You’re a fool. You let God off far too easy. You should have demanded the Messiah and the redemption of Israel. That would have been a much fairer exchange.”[2

Stage 4: Sadness

Once, in the middle of the night, one of the Mitteler Rebbe’s children fell out of bed. Entirely engrossed in his studies, he did not hear the child’s cries. However, his father, the Alter Rebbe, heard the cries, closed his Torah books, and went to comfort the child. The Alter Rebbe later said to his son: “No matter how deeply immersed you are in holy pursuits, when a child cries you must hear it; you must stop what you’re doing and soothe their pain.”

So too: we must hear the crying child within us, and acknowledge our own pain.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Professor Aisha Ahmad is a political analyst in Canada, who has worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, and Lebanon, often in some of the most challenging situations. She recently warned that, in her experience, the 6 month mark in a sustained crisis is always very difficult. She advises us:

“It’s not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about 4-6 weeks if you ride it out. This six month wall both arrives and dissipates like clockwork. So I don’t fight it anymore. We have already found new ways to live, love, and be happy under these rough conditions. Trust that the magic that helped you through the first phase is still there. You’ll be on the other side in no time.”

Once, Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchev was asked: “You are poor, rebbe, and yet every day you thank God for taking care of all your needs. Isn’t that a lie?”

“Not at all. You see, for me, poverty is what I need.”[3]


[1] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hassidim: Early Masters, pp. 237-238

[2] Louis Newman, Hassidic Anthology, p. 57

[3] Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, p. 49

high holy days · sermon

Who is responsible?

This High Holy Days, I am only giving short divrei torah. These are the words I offer for Erev Yom Kippur 5781.

  1. All our vows

Remember this time last year? All the promises we made? How good did we think we would be, and how much did we think we would accomplish? It’s probably for the best that we get the chance to annually annul those commitments. 

Let’s begin by being honest. We ask too much of ourselves. The criticisms you make of yourself would make you shudder if you heard them said aloud, even to your worst enemy. Do you really believe God sees you in such a light? God, the Eternal One, full of compassion and slow to anger, lifts you up in kindness and forgets your transgressions.

Tonight is a chance to see yourself through Heaven’s eyes. The frustrations you feel at your projects can wait. Your aspirations can be laid aside. Right now, you are only human, held in the loving embrace of God’s peaceful tent. Forget everything you promised yourself you would become, and allow yourself to just be, as we join together for kol nidrei.

  1. Like clay in the potter’s hands

Who by fire, who by water, who by plague? Who at the right time, and who after a short life? 

We pray these words and they take on a heavier meaning this year. We are living through a pandemic that puts pressure on life, and seeing people taken before their time. 

I need you to know something of great importance. You are not being punished. God is not exacting revenge on you personally. Your loved ones are not suffering because of anything they’ve done wrong.

When the world flooded, the water did not discriminate between the righteous and the wicked. When the Angel of Death was released in Egypt, it did not look at the first borns’ deeds. And when the great martyrs of the rabbinic tradition were killed by Rome, it was not because of any failings on their part.

You did not create this, and any theology that casts personal blame for this situation does not represent a loving God. We must accept the things we cannot change. We are like clay in the hands of a potter.

  1. Responsibility in a pandemic

Sometimes being in a community means coming together in the same place. Sometimes being in community means doing things apart in our own homes. 

In either case, we are doing what we do out of love and moral responsibility to each other. In normal times, that means showing up for each other, bringing food and giving each other hugs. 

These are not normal times. Right now, the morally responsible thing to do is to stop the spread of the virus. The loving thing to do is to protect each other, especially our most vulnerable members. Doing things this way, by holding our services over Zoom, is our way of affirming that we truly care for each other as part of a community.

I know that this synagogue has been doing amazing work to support its members. It is so important at this time that we look out for each other, through our mutual aid societies, neighbourhood groups and social support networks. Please continue to call each other, drop round packages and be on the lookout for your community’s needs. And please donate what you can to the charity appeal.