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

high holy days · judaism · sermon · story · torah

The binding of Isaac… and Ishmael

Life is sacred. It is not just meaningful, though it is that. Nor is it simply beautiful, although it can be. Life is sacred. Given by God, uniquely to everyone in existence, with a specific purpose. Our lives – the lives of everyone in this room, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t – are loving gifts from our Creator. With them, we can either repair or destroy the world.

I hope that we’ll be able to come out of this Holy Day season more aware of the sanctity of our own lives and of everyone else’s. spiritual ideals to the fore. But whose lives are sacred? Whose lives do we truly value, and whose lives do we treat as disposable? It can be harder to see the sanctity in some lives than it is in others. It is harder – perhaps hardest – to see sanctity in the lives of people we don’t know. There are people we forget and erase before we’ve even had the chance to see God’s spirit in them.

The Torah portion for this week, the Aqedah, is an example of such a problem. One line sticks out for me in this parashah. In this story of the patriarch Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son on the altar, it is perhaps the most troubling. It seems innocuous at first. But I keep coming back to it, and the more I come back to it, the more it bothers me. The text says:

Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah.[1]

Take your son, your only one… The text says that same phrase three times. When the angel intervenes and speaks to Abraham, we hear:

Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For I now know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.[2]

Your only son…

After Abraham sacrifices a ram in the place of Isaac, the angel speaks again:

Since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…[3]

Again and again, ‘your only son.’ But that’s impossible! Abraham does not have only one son. Isaac is the younger of two children. Abraham has an older son, Ishmael. In only the immediately preceding parashah, Abraham sent away Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Has he forgotten them already?

This problem has bothered rabbinic commentators too. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, offers up a story:

“But I have two sons,” Abraham said.

“Your only one,” was the reply.

“But each is the only one of his mother!”

“Whom you love,” he was told.

“But I love both!”

“Even Isaac.”[4]

The conversation he puts in Abraham’s mouth is really the conversation of the reader with the text: doesn’t Abraham have another son whom he loves? How can Ishmael be erased so flippantly and insensitively from the text? Rashi suggests a number of solutions:

Perhaps lest Abraham’s mind reeled under the sudden shock. Further, to make his command more precious to him. And finally, that he might receive a reward for every word spoken.[5]

Yes, God is speaking like this to calm Abraham down. If he just blurted out: “Go and kill Isaac!”, Abraham might not have had the strength to do it. So God breaks the commandment down, gently feeding him each bit. But Rashi’s answer doesn’t tell us the most important detail: what on earth has happened to Ishmael?

Some rabbinic commentators have tried other approaches. Some suggest that we could translate יְחִֽידְךָ֤ not as your only one, but as your favourite one.[6] But the root of the word יְחִֽידְךָ֤ is אחד – one, and it doesn’t mean favourite in any other context. We can only really translate it that way if that’s what we want it to mean. And is that what we want it to mean? Do we want to think of Abraham, the father of all nations, as choosing a favourite between the children that will create Judaism and Islam? Does it actually make the text that much better?

Not only is God asking Abraham to kill Isaac, but God has already erased Ishmael. Can that really be true? Is that the God we believe in and worship?

It bothered me so much I went for lunch with a Muslim friend to ask him what he made of it. How did his tradition, that holds Ishmael in such high regard, deal with this troubling passage? I asked: “what does your tradition say about the binding of Isaac?”

“You mean Ishmael?” he said.

“No, no,” I said, “Isaac, who Abraham takes up Mount Moriah to sacrifice.”

“Ishmael,” he countered, “who Abraham takes up Al-Haram…” He grinned at me. “I know your tradition says something different…”

It was so funny. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the Islamic story might be different. We took out a Quran and read the story as it appears:

Abraham said, “Indeed, I will go to where I am ordered by my God; Who will guide me. My God, grant me a child from among the righteous.”

So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached the age of exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.”

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, And We left for him favourable mention among later generations: “Peace upon Abraham.”[7]

It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it? But there’s a new problem: this text doesn’t mention Ishmael either. It doesn’t mention Isaac, but it doesn’t mention Ishmael. In fact, it turns out that in the early days of Islamic jurisprudence, the interpreters were undecided. 135 authoritative readings said it was Isaac; 113 said it was Ishmael. But gradually the weight shifted, and by the 10th Century, everyone agreed that it was Ishmael.[8]

So here we have two contradictory traditions: a Jewish tradition that erases Ishmael and an Islamic one that erases Isaac. What do we do with this? How can we reconcile these stories?

I think the Tosefta, that first text of rabbinic commentary, offers a compelling answer. The sages were dealing with a problem of two contradictory schools of thought – the House of Shammai said that a room was unclean and the House of Hillel said a room was clean. The Tosefta reaches this conclusion:

Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.[9]

David Hartman, a rabbi from the Bronx in New York, suggests this means we need to be able to hold multiple contradictory ideas at once. Whereas Western philosophy tries to drive everyone to one conclusion at the expense of all others, Jewish thought teaches that all words about God are words of God. Judaism teaches us to sustain and embrace contradiction.[10] We learn to build a heart big enough that it can include all voices, especially the voices that we might want to drown out.

So perhaps that’s an answer to my problem. We need to reconcile these two contradictory stories: Isaac was offered up as a sacrifice, and so was Ishmael. Isaac was Abraham’s favourite son, and so was Ishmael. Both a source of blessing, both blessed, both their lives sacred, both our traditions sacred, all stemming from one God.

The Torah says that Isaac was Abraham’s only son because, in a way, there only ever was one son. That one son was both Isaac and Ishmael. Some Christians say that the sacrifice of Isaac prefigured the crucifixion of Jesus, or represented it.[11] Yes, let us include that truth too. Rather than try to erase difference, let’s embrace the tension of contradiction and recognise what is sacred in every story. The message is the same in all of them: a rejection of violence, opposition to the sacrifice of human life, reverence for the God who created us all.

I think this religious analysis has some important political implications. Two years ago, the former Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, published a book called ‘Not in God’s Name’. The theology of it was subtle and beautiful. He used stories like those of Isaac and Ishmael to suggest that all people were meant for their own blessings. He extrapolated this to thinking about religion: that nobody should make an exclusive claim to truth – that Jews, Muslims and Christians should all be able to respect one another.[12]

But from this solid foundation, Jonathan Sacks went in a troubling direction. He said that people should not try to make exclusive claims to truth, and then focused most of his book on criticising Muslim terrorists for doing that. Of course, I agree with his opposition to such terrorism. But given that his book was inevitably going to be read almost entirely by Jews, shouldn’t he have said more to challenge his own community? In the way he set it out, it felt very much like he was accusing everyone else of carrying out violence, without acknowledging that we, too, are imperfect. Such rhetoric only encourages division and continues the cycle of hate.

It turns out that Jonathan Sacks did not just make a rhetorical error. Earlier in the year, he recorded a film for Mizrachi Olami, a far-right religious nationalist party in Israel, where he encouraged Jews all over the world to join the organisation on a march through Jerusalem.[13] This is an annual march, drawing thousands of people, who run through the Palestinian part of the city in the east, intimidating residents and shouting racist slogans. On this day, shops close and streets clear as people prepare for violence.[14] Under pressure, Jonathan Sacks eventually agreed that he would not actually march with the group, but continued to produce promotional material for them.[15] I have to seriously question what this does to suggest that different religions can be blessed, or that all lives deserve respect.

I think that if we are going to build a heart of many rooms, it must at least be big enough to accommodate the grievances and frustrations of Palestinians. We must be able to see how we can be oppressors, as well as victims. We must confront all the contradictions that living in this modern world involves.

I spent August studying Hebrew in Jerusalem. It is a place that really confronts you to deal with contradictory truths. I spent my days in a university where I learnt so much and met so many exciting people. On my breaks, I’d stare out over the garden. That university overlooks a refugee camp, full of high-rise buildings, crowded with people who have been stateless since the War of 1948, and surrounded by a concrete separation wall.

I found myself feeling safer wearing a kippah than ever before, and at the same time so much more uncomfortable. I quite like wearing the kippah in England, where it feels like a symbol of difference, personal piety and a reminder to live up to the best expectations of others. In Jerusalem, where the religious-right are in power and wield religious symbols to trample on the rights of various people, my clothes took on a new meaning I didn’t like. I know of one rosh yeshiva, a rabbi heading up a study-house in Jerusalem, who wore only half a kippah, to reflect the conflicted place he felt, torn between the religious and secular worlds, externalising his inner turmoil.

I want to be able to live with these tensions, but it is not an easy feeling. Maybe that’s necessary. Dealing with contradictions means being uncomfortable. There is something frightening about truly believing that life is sacred. It means knowing that we are special, unique and placed here by God. But it also means acknowledging that this is true of everyone, including of people whose stories might contradict ours.

This year, may we build hearts large enough to include those stories, and all stories of struggle. May we learn to see the sanctity in all lives and, above all, may we find a way to peace.

Shana tovah.

ram

[1] Gen 22:2

[2] Gen 22:12

[3] Gen 22:16-17

[4] Soncino 108

[5] Soncino 108

[6] Sefaria; JPS

[7] Qur’an Surah As-Saffat 37:99-111

[8] Reuven Firestone, ‘Journeys in Holy Lands’, pp. 153-151

[9] Tosefta Sotah 7:7

[10] David Hartman, ‘A Heart of Many Rooms’

[11] e.g. Jung, ‘Answer to Job’

[12] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZr_lsT6vkE

[14] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.791549

[15] http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.789728

high holy days · liturgy · sermon · Uncategorized

Is the Kol Nidrei prayer angry enough?

There are two versions of the Kol Nidre prayer. One in Hebrew; one in Aramaic. One ancient; one more modern. One looking forward; one looking backwards.

The original, older prayer in Aramaic, has these words:

All vows, oaths and promises which we make to God from this Yom Kippur to the next and are not able to fulfil – may all such vows between ourselves and God be annulled. May they be void and of no effect. May we be absolved of them and released from them. May these vows no longer be considered vows, these oaths no longer be considered oaths, and these promises no longer be considered promises.

The reformers decided to substitute it for a Hebrew alternative, and you can probably see why. Before we have made any promises, we announce our intention to annul them. We cancel every vow in advance. This was deeply worrying to many rabbis throughout history. The prayer was used as fodder by antisemites to accuse Jews of being duplicitous and untrustworthy.

Many Jews worried that it gave off the wrong impression. More than that, they were worried for their own integrity. One of the most important principles for the earliest reformers was that they would not say with their mouths what they did not believe in their hearts. So they scrapped prayers that talked about their expectations for the Messiah or their desire to build a Temple. They got rid of prayers cursing their enemies or extolling the greatness of one nation over another.

It was inevitable, then, that they would have to remove the Aramaic Kol Nidre prayer. Not only did they not believe in it, the prayer was actually about not believing the words they were saying. So they substituted it for a new version in Hebrew: “Source of Our Being, accept the vows of the children that they will turn away from evil, and walk in the ways of your Law of righteousness and justice.” Our siddur includes a reading from the American Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner to drive home the point about keeping promises:

All vows, promises, and commitments made in Your presence –

May we be given the strength to keep them

[…]

We meant them when we made them,

But distractions were many, and our wills were weak.

This time may we be strong enough;

May our better selves prevail

I want to ask: what do we gain and what do we lose by changing the prayer in this way? I think it is evident what we do gain. These words are so much more comfortable to say. It is so much more credible that we want to keep our promises than that we want to annul them.

But perhaps this very gain is also our loss. I recently ran a retreat for Jewish activists, including some members of this congregation and many from elsewhere. One participant had grown up Orthodox but found she no longer had a home there. She had turned away from Judaism and was now, tentatively making her way back. At the end of a morning prayer service, she said to me: “The trouble is, you’re making Judaism too easy! Liberal Judaism cuts out all the anger and the edge.”

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Prayer should be comforting and uplifting, but if it is only those things it is incomplete. If our prayers are going to speak to real life, they need to speak to every emotion we experience. They should encapsulate our sadness, our anger and our frustrations, as well as our happiness and joy. This year, I realised how inadequate my prayers were when I looked up at the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower and realised that I did not have the words to mourn such callous loss of life. We need prayers that reflect our anger.

The original Aramaic prayer has something edgy about it. Tonight, we are told, God’s face comes closest to the earth. God’s presence is with us more than any other night. And what do we do, faced with our maker? We set out a list of demands: that every promise we make should be annulled and every vow irrelevant. Not the mistakes we’ve made with other people, but specifically we annul our promises to God. Worse than that, we say we want them all forgiven in advance. We haven’t made a single promise and already we want to annul it. That is a pretty audacious prayer.

The Hebrew alternative, though more honest to the best of what we mean, might be less honest to how we feel. Coming to synagogue on Kol Nidre can feel like a big deal. For many of the people who attend synagogues across the country this evening, this will be only the time they come all year. That’s great, because this prayer was written expressly so that people who had fallen out of participation could join in again. In Eastern Europe, it helped Jews who had fallen out with their friends and family to reconnect with the community. In medieval Spain, it helped Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to keep up a sense of commitment, even if they were too afraid the rest of the year. For those people coming, isn’t there something more honest, more empowering, about annulling vows and expressing that anger than about resolving to be a more faithful person? Don’t we all, no matter our piety, come to prayer with a little bit of frustration and anxiety, especially as we enter Yom Kippur?

As well as a difference in tone, I think there’s a difference in timing. I find the idea of time in the two prayers really interesting. In the Aramaic prayer, we annul the promises that we’re going to make in the future. In the Hebrew one, we repent for our sins and we resolve to be better in the present. But the language was changed to Hebrew by the reformers because they thought that the more ancient language was the more authentic. They reached deeper into the past in order to be better in the present. Between these two prayers, I feel like there is a conflict not just over what we want to say, but over where we are and in what direction we are going. On this most holy night, with God closest to us, where do we really stand in time? Who really are we?

These prayers seem to stand in conflict, but they don’t have to. There are good reasons for the Hebrew prayer and good reasons for the Aramaic one. Perhaps the answer is we need both. We need to be humble and we need to be angry. We need to be faithful and we need to be honest. We need to repent of the sins of the past and annul the vows of the future because, when we do so, we can stand in that Infinite Space where all sins are forgiven and all promises are forgotten. We can greet God with our whole selves, complete with all our emotions, ready to say: I’m sorry. I’ll do better again next year.

Gmar chatima tovah.

kol nidrei

This sermon was originally given for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Friday 29th September (Erev Yom Kippur 5778) and originally published by Leo Baeck College