judaism · sermon · torah

Hold onto your grudges

Friends, the message of this week’s homily is: hold on to your grudges. 

Throughout your life, people will hurt you. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, and you must hold on tight to that hurt. Make sure you bottle it up and let it fester until you are ready to seek revenge. 

That’s where great drama always comes from. Thanks to grudges, we were treated to eight seasons of Desperate Housewives.

At the end of your life, you may wonder what legacy to pass on to your children. Perhaps you have considered wealth or sentimental items or tidbits of wisdom. Can I suggest that you add to that list: give your children a grudge to bear.

The best kinds of grudges are intergenerational. It’s never enough to be resentful on your own. Share it with your loved ones.

If you can keep a grudge going until nobody remembers what the original broiges was about, you will have really succeeded. Without ancient grudges, we would never have had Romeo & Juliet. And look how well that turned out. 

So remember every way in which you were wronged and make sure to even the score.

That’s what King David did. At the end of his life, reflecting on his mortal life, and preparing for the hereafter, he called his son Solomon near to him. He began by offering up some advice. “Act like a man,” David instructed. 

From personal experience, I can tell you that whenever somebody has told me to man up, what follows is always emotionally healthy. And this occasion is no exception. 

David told Solomon: “Remember what Joab, son of Zeruiah, did to me. Remember how he engaged in bloodthirsty mutiny. Do what you like with him, but do not let his grey head go down to the grave in peace.”

And David wasn’t done. He had other grudges to pass on. “Solomon,” he urged. “Remember Shimei son of Gera, the Benjamite from Bahurim, who called down bitter curses on me the day I went to Mahanaim. I said I wouldn’t kill him. But I didn’t say you wouldn’t kill him. So do what you like with him, but do not let his grey head go down to the grave in peace.”

Like a good Jewish boy, Solomon made sure his reign over Israel began with a killing spree.

Let King David be a role model to you all. If someone has insulted you during the course of your life, make sure you remember their names. If you can’t get retribution yourself, make sure your bitterness lives on beyond the grave.

Now, you might think, “of course, King David has big gripes to pass on. He’s a king, after all. He had real enemies. All of my slights feel petty in comparison.” Don’t worry. If misery is good enough for the elites, it’s good enough for the masses, too. It’s time we took a stand for equal distribution of resentment. Anyone can carry hate.

Just look at Jacob. Jacob was blessed with thirteen children. And couldn’t stand any of them. Throughout their lives, he made sure they all knew who his favourites were. First, Joseph. Then Benjamin. 

At the end of his life, Jacob did what every good Jew ought to do. He settled old scores and told everyone what he really thought of them. He brought his boys round to make sure they could hear his views.

“Gather round, my sons, and listen to your father.”

“Reuben,” he says, “you will never succeed at anything.”

“Simeon and Levi, you are too angry to deal in anything but violence.”

“Issachar, you’re an ass. Dan, you’re a snake. Gad, people will trample all over you.”

Then, just to top it off, he turns to Joseph and says: “Joseph, you are really beautiful. You’ve done great things.”

That’s how you do it. That’s how you end your life, making sure the people close to you knew how little you thought of them.

But, for some reason, Joseph’s brothers did not love their blessings. They had hoped for a slightly more conciliatory deathbed scene.

So, they got together and talked to Joseph. They said: “Um, Joseph, you might not have heard this, but as dad lay dying, he begged you to forgive us. He said, now that you’re in charge of Egypt, you shouldn’t hurt us and you should let us have food here.”

And Joseph said: “Dad didn’t say that, did he?”

“No. Dad didn’t say that.”

If Joseph had learned from history and all the good examples you’ve heard, Joseph would have known that the best thing to do is hold onto his grudges and get revenge on his siblings while they were weakest.

But, in a shocking turn of events, Joseph decides not to. He says: “I’m not in the place of God. I’m not here to keep score and dole out punishment. Whatever has happened, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.”

And, with just a few words, Joseph can annul decades of mistrust. He can undo his father’s callous favouritism. He can bind his siblings back together as a family.

And, with those words, Joseph seemingly corrects every sibling rivalry of his family. From Cain and Able to Abraham and Lot to Jacob and Esau. All of a sudden, an intergenerational curse is lifted. They can heal. 

Joseph had every reason to hold onto his grudges. He was sold into slavery. His brothers pretended he was dead. He was wrongly imprisoned. He was betrayed by his friends. Of everyone who had held their grudges, Joseph probably had been through the worst. 

But he decided to forgive. He concluded the origin story of the Jewish people with love and kindness. 

The Baal haTurim, a great Jewish lawmaker of the 14th Century, said that Joseph should stand as an example to us all. Say out loud what is hurting you rather than holding onto your pain. And harbour no desire for revenge.”

So, OK, I lied. The moral of this sermon wasn’t that grudges are good. Sure, they are natural, but they’re not helpful or healthy.

I don’t really think you should pass on your bitterness to your descendants. Tempting, but not constructive.

In fact, for a lot of this, I was being sarcastic. I hope you won’t hold it against me.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · sermon · torah

If you don’t believe in equality, you don’t believe in love

This is the week of our Torah dedicated to love stories. Our religious texts often contain laws or stories of struggle, but this is a unique reprieve, in which we are offered some romance.

At the beginning of our parashah, Sarah dies, and Abraham bargains for the perfect burial site. He wants to ensure her burial arrangements are in exact order. Later, he will be buried beside her, so that they can be joined forever in the hereafter.

The Talmud clearly picks up on how sweet these negotiations are, because it embellishes a story of what happened many centuries after they had died. Rabbi Benah was marking burial caves. When he arrived at the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah were buried, he found Abraham’s faithful servant Eliezer, standing before the entrance.

Rabbi Benah said to Eliezer: “Can I go in? What is Abraham doing?”

Eliezer replied: “Abraham is lying in Sarah’s arms, and she is gazing fondly at his head.”

Rabbi Benah said: “Please let him know that Benah is standing at the entrance. I don’t want to barge in during a moment of intimacy.”

Eliezer said: “Go on in, because, in the higher world that they inhabit, souls no longer experience lust. All that is left is love.”

Benah entered, examined the cave, measured it, and left.

It’s such a beautiful story. It teaches what an ideal relationship should be, where a couple loves each other long after death.

Perhaps, most significantly, it tells a story of mature love; of what happens when relationships really do last, and people carry on loving each other until their last days. I think we all know of such couples, but their stories rarely appear in our culture. We get romantic comedies. We get depictions of what love is like when it’s just starting out, but not so much about how it endures. Our media shows the hero get the girl, but not how they make their relationships work.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good rom com. Yes, I did think Ten Things I Hate About You was a masterpiece when I was a teenager. And I absolutely did binge watch both series of Bridgerton on Netflix.

They all follow a predictable plotline. Two loveable heroes, and you’re rooting for them both. They encounter a tribulation. They overcome an obstacle. There’s a grand gesture. They realise they’re supposed to be together. In the end, there’s a wedding and they all live happily ever after.

In a way, that’s the story that we find immediately after Sarah’s funeral. Abraham realises that Isaac needs a wife. He sends out a search party, led by ten camels. He sets a test: whichever woman offers water to the camels by the well is the one meant for Isaac.

Immediately, we root for Rebekah. She is beautiful. She’s strong. She’s hard-working. She offers to feed all the camels, and rushes back and forth, drawing water from the well, feeding an entire herd of camels. Obstacle surmounted, we get our grand gesture. She is presented with a huge gold nose ring and two huge gold bracelets. She accepts. Their families rejoice. Everyone agrees that this was arranged by God.

There’s just one snag to reading a romantic comedy into all of this. The hero in the story isn’t Isaac. The man who goes out with all the camels, sets the challenge, starts the relationship, and makes the big gesture, is Abraham’s servant, Eliezer. By rights, if this were a love story directed by Richard Curtis, the wedding would be between Rebekah and Eliezer!

Isaac isn’t even involved. They’re engaged and the deal is done before the couple have met. Rebecca doesn’t know what he looks like. When Isaac later comes clopping along on his horse, Rebecca asks who it is. We have to hope that she was impressed, but we can’t be sure.

All we know is that, once married, Isaac feels comforted after the death of his mother. The heroin in our story, at the end, is reduced to a replacement mum for her husband. A love story this is not.

But, do they at least go on to have a happy marriage? Of course not. They were forced together as strangers as part of an economic arrangement.

In the entirety of our Torah, they never say two words to each other. They just pick favourite children and pit them against each other. They trick each other, lie, and form an unbelievably dysfunctional family.

The whole thing is a nightmare. It’s far more Silent Hill than Notting Hill.

This could never have been a love story! We’d never have got Sandra Bullock narrowly missing out on an Oscar for her heart-wrenching performance as Rebekah. We can only wish for Sacha Baron Cohen bumbling as a comedy father Abraham.

90s cinema didn’t invent romantic love, but it was far closer to its origins than Isaac and Rebekah were. The idea of romantic love, as we know it, was born out of the Enlightenment.

During the Age of Reason, philosophers had the wild idea that partnerships between people might be based on more than just combining property and keeping families happy. They suggested that marriage might not just be a way for nobility to make treaties between nations, but borne of a deep feeling common to all people. They even offered up the radical idea that women were people, and might have an opinion on their relationships too.

In those heady days, Judaism split between those who accepted the ideas of the Enlightenment, and those who did not. We, who embraced those fantastic ideas of equality, became the Movement for Reform Judaism.

As we accepted the ideas of love between equals, our rituals and ceremonies have progressed with us.

In a traditional ceremony, the woman is acquired with a ring. The ring is, in its origin, a symbol that the woman has been purchased. When Rebekah received her nose ring and bracelets, she was effectively accepting the shackles of her new owner.

In our ceremonies, both partners to the wedding mutually acquire each other, or even forgo rings in favour of an alternative symbol of equal partnership. Both partners encircle each other under the chuppah, showing their shared space.

Whereas in a traditional ceremony, a woman may remain silent, Reform weddings require explicit consent from both parties. Both read their vows, and some couples choose to produce their own.

This may now seem obvious and intuitive, but it is only because the ideas of the Enlightenment have taken such hold. Love – the idea that people can be equal and caring partners – has had to be won.

Love is really a Reform value. It is something special to our movement. Our ancestors spent centuries fighting for the idea of meaningful love, so that we could celebrate it today in all its forms. You can only really celebrate love in a place that really believes human beings are equal.

And that is why Sarah, holding Abraham in her arms, gazing lovingly at his head, joined with him in an immortal embrace, was the first Reform Jew.

Shabbat shalom.


Parashat Chayyei Sarah, 5783

judaism · social justice · story

Welcome to the Queer Yeshiva

Hello and welcome to the Queer Yeshiva.

My name is Lev. I’m one of the teachers here, with Jo, Hava and Daniel.

A month ago, I was ordained as a rabbi. One of the things that most made me want to be a rabbi was bring gay. I wanted to be part of a religious life that made being queer feel as empowering and magical as it really is.

I love being queer. I love queer people. One of the things I love most about us is that no matter what life throws at us, we always rebuild.

I think about the lives of queer people. Everyone I know has had to struggle with who they are, face down violence, and out of adversity, rebuild themselves as someone stronger than anyone could have imagined.

When I was a kid, I was already too fabulous to be contained. All I wanted in life was to wear dresses and do Spice Girls dance routines. I knew I was different and I didn’t care.

But the rest of the world did. I grew up in a small town with few opportunities. For most of my teens, I was beaten up on a near daily basis. I was attacked at school, walking home, in the shops, and outside my front door. That was only the other kids. The adults were worse: at best they ignored it; at worst they encouraged it. At the school leavers’ assembly, the teachers gave me an award for “most likely to have a sex change.”

But I’m not bitter. I’m proud. I came out of all that knowing who I was and willing to fight for others. That’s why we have parades. That’s why we stand up celebrate our community, because we have withstood discrimination and violence and built out of it fantastic cultures. All that queer art, queer music, and queer innovation- that came out of queer struggle. We are who we are because of who we were.

And that’s not limited just to us here. That’s something queer people have to do in every generation. Think how many times we have been destroyed, and think how many times we have rebuilt.

Consider only the last century. At the beginning of the 1900s, our people were dealing with criminalisation, as many had been imprisoned. Against that backdrop, Magnus Hirschfield created the Institut for Sexualwissenschaft, pioneering the understanding of queer people.

His work was burned by the Nazis. Queers were turned into pariahs and murdered in te death camps. Even once the Second World War was over, many homosexuals were forced to stay in prison to complete their sentences.

In the aftermath, our ancestors picked themselves up again. They built the Gay Power movement. They formed the Lavender Menace. They created the ballroom scene in the nightclubs of New York.

Once again, they were decimated by the AIDS crisis. Government indifference and vengeful homophobia killed a generation of queers.

And still, we could not be destroyed. We came back stronger, demanding legislative changes and pushing for a transformed world. We recreated community to fight for our liberation.

In every generation, people have tried to destroy us. In every generation, they have failed. We will always rebuild. We will always imagine a greater future. We will always reappear.

We are indestructible.

In that sense, we are the heirs to the rabbinic tradition.

Judaism, as we know it, is the product of people who saw their world crash around them repeatedly and, every time, rebuilt it.

Our Judaism was born out of a time of fundamental crisis. At the start of the last millennium, the Jews were a nation. They had their country, the land of Israel. They had their capital, Jerusalem. They had their cultic centre, the Temple. They had their religious leadership, the priests. And they had their religious practices, sacrifices.

Then, they faced catastrophe. The Romans came and waged an aggressive war, killing off the leadership, and starving the people of Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple and abolished its customs.

Yesterday was the fast of Tish BAv. It was, for many religious Jews, a day of weeping and despair. We recalled the genocide, the disruption, the pain. We remembered the destruction of the Temple in the context of all the times that Jews have been destroyed.

But, in that act of ritualised remembering, we also remember that we have survived. Jews and Judaism have kept going, even two thousand years later.

Let us remember why.

Faced with annihilation, the Jews had three choices. One: they could dig their heels and pretend nothing happened. They could decide that they were going to carry on with the Temple and the priesthood, even though they were gone.

Two: they could abandon their old religion altogether. That was what normally happened to ancient peoples when they were conquered: they gave up their old traditions and gave in to colonisation.

Three, the third option: they could retell their story for the sake of their contemporary situation. They could look at everything they had been, and use their history to reimagine their future.

Our rabbis chose option three.

Put yourself in their position.

Imagine you were there, not just in the aftermath but right in the thick of it. Jerusalem is under seige. Your family are starving. Your people are fighting the Romans, but mostly they’re fighting each other. You can see your world on fire. You don’t even know if you will survive.

What would you do?

That’s how it was for Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai. He was alive then. That was what he saw.

He told his students to put him in a coffin, pretend he was dead, and smuggle him out of Jerusalem. Once out of the besieged city gates, he got out and demanded to speak to the Roman emperor, Vaspasian.

As it happened, Vaspasian was willing to compromise. He said: “OK, tell me you want.”

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai said: “Give me Yavne and students of Torah.”

What was Yavne? It was a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. It was filled with displaced people. Who were the students of Torah? Just a bunch of people who remembered what the old religion used to be like.

Why? Why would you ask for such a thing? If the commander of the imperial Roman army is willing to negotiate, why not find a way to get the troops to leave?

Because a people that knows who they are cannot be destroyed.

Sure, the colonisers might go, and the Jews might live, but Judaism could end. The only way for anyone to live on after facing near annihilation is to look at where they’ve been. They have to take a long look at their story and reimagine it for a new era.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai and his students learnt everything. They committed to memory their whole history so that they could recite it by heart.

Then, they revolutionised it. They said: we don’t need the land of Israel or Jerusalem any more. From now on, we’re going to be spread across the whole world. We’re going to make our religion portable so that it can be sustained in any nation.

They looked at their Temple and its sacrifices and said: we’re not going back to that. We’re going to reinvent our practices. We will replace them with prayer and study. As long as people keep our words alive, we won’t need for animals to die.

They looked at the priesthood and said: that’s done. From now on, we have no hierarchy.
From hereon out, we are equals. The measure of Jewishness won’t be who your father was but how imaginative you can be in reexamine your tradition.

They looked over their old systems of justice, and interrogated them. Who is included here, and who is left out? What is justice going to look like for us now? They were so radical that they tried to work out how they could turn the Torah against the Torah.

And that instantly transformed Judaism. Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples weren’t from the elites. They were blacksmiths and peasant farmers and outsiders. They saw, from that vantage point, how their people could creatively rebuild. And that is why we have our Judaism today.

And here’s the thing. Rabbi Yochanan had, maybe, ten students. There were fewer people in his beit midrash than there are in this room.

You only need a handful of visionaries to spark a revolution.

Be in no doubt, that is what could happen here this week.

We are, as always, facing catastrophe. Queer people are under attack once more. The planet is burning. Capitalism is in crisis. The old ways of doing Judaism are floundering.

Do you think that the future of Judaism is going to be secured by happy people in their comfortable homes? No way. They have nothing to lose from the current situation. They don’t have the imagination to see how things could be different.

The future of our people lies with those on its margins. Its the queers. It’s the weirdos. It’s the radicals. It’s you.

That’s why we’re here. We’re going to do what queers and Jews have always done. We’re going to rebuild while our world is on fire.

We’re going to learn everything we can, internalising the words of our ancestors so fully thar they will travel with us everywhere. We’re going to re-analyse them in light of our own circumstances, seeing how these traditions bear on our own lives and struggles. And, out of that, We’re going to completely retell our story.

This is where the future of Judaism starts again.

I love being queer. I love queer people. And I can’t wait to see what we achieve.

This talk was based on the Crash Talk by Rabbi Benay Lappe, used for Queer Yeshiva Summer Intensive 5782 in Essex

judaism · sermon

Ordination address

The most commonly asked question I’ve had while training to be a rabbi is “why?”

And I always tell them the same thing.

I was sitting in synagogue one shabbat morning, when a great beam of light came in through the sanctuary window, the heavens opened, and a great booming voice said: “Lev! Apply to Leo Baeck College!”

Of course, that didn’t happen. And it doesn’t take people long to realise I’m joking.

Rabbis don’t get called on by God. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud were pretty suspicious of any purported voices from heaven.

Today, I will share with you the real reason I wanted to be a rabbi. During my twenties, I began to wonder what happened to gay men over 30. I knew so few.

At the same time, I saw some friends, in different ways, destroy themselves. They were all queer.

And I didn’t need to ask why. I understood how living in a homophobic and transphobic society could make them believe that the world didn’t want them.

I had grown up in that world too, often experiencing homophobic violence.

But I had one thing that differentiated me from some of my friends who didn’t think they belonged in this world.

I never had to doubt that I had a family, a community, and a God who loved me.

I grew up in a synagogue that accepted and embraced me as a gay and gender non-conforming child.

I knew, too, that were gay rabbis out there. At least two. Over decades, pioneers had fought for a Judaism that would benefit people they would never know. That would shamelessly embrace difference. That would speak out for social justice against conformity.

And I wondered if, perhaps, I could pass on something similar. That others might grow up with a God and a community and a religion that loved them. That, if they did, perhaps they wouldn’t destroy themselves.

So, in that sense, I feel like I was called.

Called upon by future queer kids, asking, will you make space for us?

Called upon by past generations of Jews, many lost to the centuries, saying, we brought this Judaism this far. We nurtured inclusive Judaism for you to inherit it. Will you keep it alive for us now?

Called upon by those that didn’t make it, asking, will there be communities that can love us, too?

And yes. Called upon by a loving God. The voice of justice. The moral force of the universe that will always stand with the oppressed.

The outstretched hand that brought us out from Egypt so that we might spread a prophetic message of equality and justice throughout the world.

That voice doesn’t come as a booming sound from the heavens. It is a still, small voice. It is a gentle murmur, calling us to do right, urging us to rectify iniquity, offering hope.

Such a voice can only be heard if there are people to amplify it. To those who have kept it reverberating throughout the ages – thank you.

It is calling us all.

May we merit to answer.

Amen.

judaism · sermon · torah

That land had neither milk nor honey


“There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese!”

In one of my favourite childhood movies, a gang of mice pranced about the film screen singing these words. There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese.

In An American Tail, the protagonist is a seven-year-old Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. In his home country, the mice are terrorised by cats. They struggle to eat and sustain their traditions. His whole family dreams of making the journey across the Atlantic to a new country where they won’t face these problems any more.

In America, they imagine, the cats, which represent persecution or kossacks or fascists or pogroms, won’t exist any more. After years of not eating, America will provide them with every food they have imagined. Over the ocean, even the streets will be paved with cheese.

As the plot unfolds, the mice arrive in New York. Fievel discovers that America’s streets are no more cheesy than the old country’s, and that cats are just as prevalent. In their new land, they will also be hungry, and persecuted, and tired, just as they were in the old. Their dreams could not be realised by moving from one country to another.

In this week’s parashah, Moses sends out scouts to survey the land of Israel. He asks twelve envoys to go into the country they expect to possess and report back on its contents.

I imagine this must have been a moment of great trepidation. We today know what other countries look like. We are able to travel abroad; we meet migrants from foreign places; we have access to people anywhere in the world through media in the palms of our hands.

Not long ago, such journeys were rare. People did not know how expansive the globe was or how similar and different people around the world would be to them. Perhaps travelling merchants brought fantastical tales from places they had never been. Some maps were marked with warnings of sea monsters and dragons. For the Israelites making the journey to Canaan, it would have been their first time leaving their valley in Egypt. Anything could await them on the other side.

When they came back, ten gave their report. The land has fertile soil, with large grapes growing on vines. But the people who live there are numerous and giant. We looked like grasshoppers to them. The cities are walled, fortified, and guarded. We have no chance of taking that land, and, even if we could, it will swallow up everyone who inhabits it.

Caleb and Joshua disagreed. They offered a minority report. We can do it. We can take this land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. As long as you obey God and Moses, you can capture that place and live the life you have fantasised about.

According to our story, the other ten scouts were struck down with plagues and punished for their transgression. How dare they give such a negative report?

Only Joshua and Caleb go on to enter the Promised Land. Rabbinic commentaries make much of how courageous and optimistic those men were. They had faith. They believed in God’s strength and their own.

But here’s the thing. Joshua and Caleb were lying. That land was not flowing with milk and honey. They really were outnumbered. They really were about to take on fortified cities. It really was unlikely that an exhausted band of runaway slaves were going to be able to conquer an entirely new country.

All Joshua and Caleb were offering were politicians’ promises. They were giving false hope to keep people in line and stop them rebelling against Moses.

They say, at this moment, God decided that this generation would not enter the Promised Land. They were too rebellious and stubborn. Only Joshua and Caleb, who actually believed in God, would be permitted admission. This was their punishment: they will not know what the Land of Israel looks like, and they will wander further.

But, if they had entered the land, the whole Israelite people would have seen that the first ten scouts were right. They would have realised that Joshua and Caleb had fleeced them. They would have seen that Moses promised them a land that did not exist.

Preachers often lament how sad it was that Moses never saw the Promised Land. But how much sadder would it have been if Moses had reached it? Imagine if Moses had travelled all those miles, given up everything, fought with everyone, and struggled endlessly, only to see that the much-vaunted land of his ancestors was just another desert.

The lands of Israel are no more fertile than the plains on the east side of the Jordan. They are filled with inhospitable desert. While the Israelites have had to fight with Amalekites and Moabites to reach their destination, in the new country they will battle Canaanites, Philistines and other tribes. For all the promises of peace, the war is not over.

Moses had brought the Israelites away from Egypt promising freedom. In the new country, there will still be slaves. There will still be priests and kings to subjugate them. There will still be debts to pay and unaffordable rents and famines and strife. They will still see death, sickness, and injustice.

How tragic would it have been for Moses to reach that land flowing with milk and honey, where he would find that it had neither. The Promised Land was not as promised.

There were still cats in America. The streets were not paved with cheese.

At the conclusion of An American Tail, the mice eventually band together to defeat the cats. Using their cunning, technology, and finding surprising friends, they build a contraption to scare away their evil persecutors. They learn that there will be cats, but that they have to work in solidarity if they want to defeat them. They discover that streets are not paved with cheese, but that, if they find some, they can share it, and in those moments they will feel sated and free.

None of the spies could really give a report on the land, because it wasn’t a place they were going. It was somewhere they imagined they might build by common endeavour.

They could have said: “That land does not flow with milk and honey. But it could. We could make it feel like it was.”

Maybe we don’t learn those things from speeches and scouts’ reports. We only learn how to work together by doing it. We only discover what we are capable of if we try.

Only by working together can we make a world that flows with milk and honey.

Together, we can free the world of cats and pave the streets with cheese.

Shabbat shalom.


judaism · sermon · social justice

You are not sick

Imagine if I stood up here on a shabbat and I told you I could fix you. 

Imagine if I said there was something fundamentally wrong with you. That some property intrinsic to you, about your soul, was fundamentally wrong. Sinful.

Imagine if, when we read out the names of people in need of healing, your name was on there. You hadn’t asked to be placed there and you felt fine. But somebody in the community had decided that who you were, as a person, was contrary to their religious beliefs, and that made you sick.

Imagine if your child or grandchild came to see me at the synagogue and ask for rabbinic advice about their personality. Instead of offering them love and support to be happy with who they were, I told them that they needed to repent. I told them that God thought they should feel guilty. I told them they should pray and fast until the wickedness in them was gone.

Imagine it. Imagine any preacher in any religious building doing such a thing.

You don’t have to imagine. It happens today, here in Britain.

It is called conversion therapy. 

Conversion therapy is when queer people are told, often by a religious leader, that prayer, exorcism or counselling can change their gender or sexuality. It is when somebody tells a gay person that they can be made straight, or a trans person they can be made cis.

It happens in the British Jewish community. One survivor of this practice, Joe Hyman, spoke out about how a religious Jewish group tried to counsel him out of homosexuality. At first, it involved telephone appointments where he was told he could be healed. He sat round in a room and was forced to examine every homosexual thought he experienced through a lens of judgement and shame.

Another British-Jewish woman, Maya, went through conversion therapy classes that told her that her parents hadn’t nurtured her enough and that she must have been abused as a child. 

There are Jewish retreats in New York and Israel, where participants are made to do psychologically damaging activities including stripping naked and berating themselves while staring at a mirror.

You might well wonder why such an abhorrent practice has not yet been banned. For that, you would have to ask Boris Johnson. 

This week, his government leaked reports that they have abandoned plans to stop conversion therapy. They have bowed to pressure from conservatives and fundamentalists. 

When the various LGBT charities expressed their outrage, and the public followed suit, the government back-pedalled, but only slightly. They said they would ban conversion therapy for sexuality, but not for gender identity. They have decided that lesbian, gay, and bi people should not be subjected to this psychological torture, but that they will keep it up for trans people. 

Not content to only permit the practice, the government has decided to get in on bullying trans people. Boris Johnson used a recent speech to mock trans people. A public discourse has emerged that pathologises and humiliates people who do not conform to gendered expectations. 

Trans women, in particular, are the subject of a horrible narrative of hate. I don’t think it would be helpful or responsible to repeat the things I’ve heard, even from respectable platforms like the BBC. You have probably heard it too, and speaking it from the pulpit would only lend this hate speech legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

The pathologisation of sex and bodies is as old as the Bible. In ancient Israel, when a person’s genitals seemed emitted an unusual discharge, or found they could not ejaculate, a priest would declare them a zav. This meant they were ritually impure, prohibited from entering holy places and forbidden from engaging in acts of worship. 

This was not just recognising the existence of genital problems or sexual diseases. It was making them into signs of defilement. It was saying that the people who had them were in some way sinful. It turned the body into something shameful. 

By the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis were conscious of how problematic this system of stigmatising people was. They announced mitigating circumstances for when somebody might not be considered a zav: if they had jumped; lifted something heavy; been unwell; seen something arousing; thought about something sexual; had eaten or drunk something unusual. If they had done any of these things, even if they had symptoms of a zav, they were not considered a zav. They were exempt from being treated as sick.

To this already expansive list, Rabbi Akiva added two more categories: if somebody had eaten or drunk anything at all, they were not a zav. His students were astonished. They said: “if that’s the case, there will be no more zavim anywhere any more!” Rabbi Akiva responded: “it is not your job to make sure people are considered impure.”

Rabbi Akiva understood something profound. Nobody should be considered sick. Nobody should be stigmatised for who they are. So, to combat the stigma, he found a way to make sure everyone was exempted.

That is what is needed today to combat this senseless hatred against trans people. That is why we so desperately need to ban conversion therapy and stop treating people as if there is something wrong with them.

All we are asking is that people can access non-judgemental support to talk about their gender. We are asking that people can be free to explore it, open to the possibility that their gender might not be the one they have always been told it was. We are asking for people to have the freedom to go on a journey with their gender, open to the possibility that this might mean changing their name, or their pronouns, or the way they dress, or the way their body looks. 

I understand that perhaps that might sound frightening to some. But what truly terrifies me is that people can’t. Young people exploring their gender currently cannot feel safe turning to authority figures to talk about their gender when there is so much vitriol emanating from the country’s highest offices of power. And they are even less safe when leaders continue to have the power to tell trans kids that they are sick and can be cured.

From this pulpit, there is only one message you will get. You are not sick. You are loved. You are supported by this community. You are safe to be whoever you want to be. 

In this synagogue, we believe in a loving God. In this religious movement, we affirm that you have a unique journey to find your own way with your Creator. And we will never try to change you.

Shabbat shalom.

With massive thanks to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner for helping me think through how to talk about this when the issue makes me so emotional

judaism · sermon

The tribes that broke apartheid

We are all members of tribes. Human beings are tribal creatures. We organise into packs and stick together. We identify into groups. 

You are probably a member of more than one tribe. You are a member of this synagogue, which binds together hundreds of families into a community. You might also have your workplace, neighbourhood group, union, political party, youth movement, charity association. 

Tribes are a core part of life. And it is this week, as we receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, that the Israelites become a tribe. When we left Egypt, we were slaves. We were a mixed multitude escaping persecution. Now, as we stand in the wilderness, we form into something stronger. But what kind of tribe do we become? 

In 2008, a group of researchers got together to study different tribal cultures. David Logan and his team looked at hundreds of workplaces and social groupings to see how they operated. While all these groups formed tribes, they found that there could be very divergent kinds. 

These researchers divided up the tribes into five kinds, based on their cultures. At the lowest level, Level One, were those tribes that functioned worst and, at the highest level, Level Five, were those that functioned best. 

Interestingly, as we look at the stages, it seems like exactly the progression the Israelites go through as they form as a tribe. They begin low on these researchers’ scale and, as the story continues, they advance to higher levels of performance. 

At Level One, tribes take the attitude that life is awful. They systematically sever relationships with other tribes and pool with people who think like they do. They are entire groups of angry misanthropes. These are the kinds of people who say “everyone is horrible, so we’ll be horrible, too. People will attack and rob us, so we’re going to get them first.” People who think life sucks will be toxic towards themselves, their own group members, and anyone they consider an outsider.

This is the Israelites at the start of the Exodus narrative. They are crying out for help under tyrannical persecution. They are a mixed multitude of all the lowest classes of Egypt, and have no concept of anything but toil. They don’t even trust Moses when he tries to start setting them free.

At Level Two, tribes say “my life is awful, but there is better stuff out there.” The world might be a good place, but I don’t have access to the goodness in it. These are the kinds of people who will bemoan how persecuted they are. They will complain that other groups have better jobs, or get taken more seriously, or produce better culture, or have more influence. These tribes don’t believe in themselves enough to make positive changes for their own tribe, let alone others.

This is the next stage for the Israelites. They decide that there is a better world out there. Their lives are horrible but, if they left Egypt, they might get a taste of something better. They get up and go, seeking to find a new life as they leave through the Sea of Reeds.

In a Level Three tribe, the mantra is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Here, people are competing for prestige, wealth, and honour. These are groups where everyone wants to compare notes about how much better their kids are doing in school, or how much better their careers are going. The tribe can do good things, but only because it creates cultures where individuals flourish.

That’s the level we reach at the start of this week. Betzalel emerges as a fantastic architect and interior designer, showing off his skills at the Tabernacle. Aaron and his family come forward to be priests. They show how well they can perform religious rituals. But, because they have no defining values, they end up worshipping a golden calf and recreating the same systems they knew in Egypt.

Stage Four is where really impressive tribes begin to emerge.  These are groups where people are united by something greater than their individual competences. They turn from small groups into something large and meaningful. They are actually conscious of being a tribe, and united by values. They extend their reach by connecting with other tribes and finding points of value alignment. 

Only now, as Moses presents the Ten Commandments, can the Israelites reach Stage Four. They are a conscious tribe, united by shared values. We, these freed slaves, have one God. We reject idols. We honour our families. We hold time sacred. We refuse to engage in murder, theft and lies. We are one people joined by a shared vision of what a just society could be. Anyone who shares that dream can join us.

But that is not the end of the journey. The highest level is rare, and most groups never get there. 

The fifth level is when a tribe is united by values that affirm life, each other, and the future. We only see glimpses of this kind of tribal behaviour in Tanach – on those incredible occasions when the prophets extend their message full of joy about who humanity is and hope of what it could be.  

The researchers who ranked the groups only offered one example of a tribe that reached such a high level. That was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. 

This was convened in 1996. With Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of formal apartheid, nobody knew which direction the country would go in. Some anticipated civil war, or resurgent racist nationalism.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought together thousands of tribes from all across South Africa. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would aim to restorative justice between all people. Victims and perpetrators faced each other, to speak honestly about what had happened during apartheid, and how they could make amends.

He united people on a programme that they could be better than they had been. He coalesced people around a vision that they could be honest with each other and foster a future based on cooperation. 

Consider what courage and moral fortitude that must have taken. For decades, black, Indian, and Coloured South Africans had been subjected to segregation, poverty and violence. The anti-apartheid activists had faced imprisonment, state abuse, and separation from their families.

After all that, Tutu took these tribes to a level we almost never see. He created a culture where people believed in themselves, in each other, and joined by a vision of joy and hope. 

When Desmond Tutu died just over a month ago, it reminded people of what a giant he had been for religious people worldwide. His theology was one that still intimidates many. He preached true universalism, arguing that God was not a Christian, but belonged to every religion. He advocated sincere justice, never shrinking from social issues. And he believed, despite all he saw, that people were capable of fantastic things.

That was what made his assembly of tribes exceptional. Only those who see the best in people and hold the greatest of values can take people beyond what they know. If we are to defeat the racism, segregation and division that plague us today, we need to muster similar attitudes.

So, which tribe will we Jews be today? Will we sit at the bottom rung, only believing the worst about the world? Will we be like those who complain that we don’t count but others do? Will we create a culture where individuals can flourish but don’t cohere as a whole group? Will we unite around clear values and come together consciously with pride? And can we achieve that rarest of things: a level where we affirm what is wonderful in ourselves and the world, and foster unity around a joyous vision of the future?

The faith that inspired us at Sinai tells us today: we can achieve remarkable things. If we believe in ourselves, we will.

judaism · sermon · social justice

How much should I give away?

In 2013, a survey revealed that Jews were the second biggest charitable donors in the UK. 

Muslims were first. 

Ever since, I’ve been trying to recruit Jews into competition so that next time a survey is run, we will win.

Coming second is fine, I guess. But if we’re going to be a light unto the nations and take moral responsibility for the world, we should be coming first no problem. 

They didn’t win because there are more of them than us. That wouldn’t be a fair comparison. Muslims outdid us on both how much each person gave on average, and how much they gave as a proportion of their income.

I’m not really advocating getting into a competition between the religions. There’s enough of that going on in the world.

But I do think there is something important we can learn from Muslims. One of the reasons they do so well on charitable giving is because of how seriously they take the messsage from this week’s parashah. 

Here, we read Reeh. This part of Torah introduces the concept of tithing. Tithing is an old English word, meaning ‘taking a tenth.’ And that is exactly what is prescribed here. Every Israelite must take a tenth of their produce and give it to the priests for redistribution. 

The priests then use some of it for upkeep of the community; some for orphans and widows; some for the poor; and some for supporting migrants passing through. 

This is the basis of Ancient Israelite society. The world of the Bible was very unequal, and living conditions were particularly harsh, so they truly saw the importance of a basic welfare system. 

In the Ancient Near East, almost everyone was a subsistence farmer. Each extended family had a small plot of land, which they would use for harvesting crops, rearing animals, and general living. One bad year on the farm could render an entire family destitute.

The Torah introduced social provision, so that everyone contributed and anyone who needed it could benefit. Richer people did pay additional levies on their crops, so that a tenth was the minimum, but some could give much more. The earliest tzedakah was probably much more like modern taxes for the welfare state than charity. 

But that should not excuse us taking seriously our obligation to give to charity. I’m sure we all agree that the welfare state is a wonderful thing, and that it is impressive that it has a biblical basis. I don’t need to tell you to pay your taxes. You don’t have much choice in that.

What you do have control over is your tzedakah. Your charitable giving. It is a mitzvah doraita, a commandment from Torah, that we are supposed to give 10% of our take-home income to charity. 

Now, who actually gives 10% of their income to charity? Anyone here? I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t. I have regular standing orders that go out to causes I care about, but when I look back on the year, I never actually make it to a tenth of my income.

I feel especially ashamed to admit this, because that tenth is supposed to be the bare minimum. Maimonides teaches that people should give more if they can, as long as they are not consequently rendering themselves in need of charity. 

But my motto is never to lead perfect be the enemy of good. All of us can start by taking charitable giving seriously as a spiritual practice and building it into our daily lives.

Muslims do this with what they call “zakat.” At the end of every week, they give at least 2.5% of their earnings to charity. They’re big donors because they make this a consistent practice and see it as a fundamental part of their religion.

It is also a fundamental part of Judaism. Charitable giving is supposed to be essential for us all. Some older members may remember that, not long ago, every home had a pushke, or tzedaka box, which would collect whatever spare change a person had. Giving has been heavily integrated into some people’s Jewish lives, and it should be again.

Elul is coming. It is the last month of the Jewish year. It is our time for reflection. We use this time to look inward and assess our deeds. 

In Hebrew, this process of introspection is called “cheshbon hanefesh” – auditing the soul. We weigh up our good deeds with our bad, and put our own morals on the scales of judgement. A part of this must surely mean re-examining our giving. A cheshbon is a bill, a record of how much you owe. We owe many things: deeds, love, kindness and study. But we also do literally owe money to those who need it more than we do. 

Now is the time to redouble our efforts at donating and to make sure we do fulfil our sacred requirements. The synagogue will be sending round its High Holy Day appeal soon, and I encourage you to give it a good look.

Giving to others is good for us. It strengthens our soul and sense of self-worth. It is good for others. It means people less fortunate get the support they need. It means great causes can continue to thrive.

And, of course, giving is good for the Jews. Especially if it might mean we win a competition. 

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · liturgy · sermon

Pray for the right kind of rain

Every day, we pray for the right kind of rain. 

The Amidah praises God’s holiness and dominion over the natural world. 

We change how we address God in rhythm with the seasons. In the summer, we thank God for making dew descend. in the winter, for bringing on heavy rains. 

For us living in cities, we can feel quite disconnected from how important this water cycle is. I only catch snippets of how it causes concern. A radio broadcast says British farmers are worried that there hasn’t been enough frost in January. In a supermarket, a cashier tells me there is a shortage of aubergines because there wasn’t enough rain in Portugal this year. 

The cycle of the right rains affects whether we have enough to eat. It can mean the difference between living safely and losing everything. There is a reason the greatest catastrophe our ancestors could imagine was a flood.

This week, we gained a sense of how important and delicate the rain cycle is. 

At the start of the week, I was heading back from a holiday in the Lake District. It was searing hot. The hottest summer we’ve ever had, people kept saying. As I climbed mountains, normally soft moss felt like dry straw under my hands. The shops had stopped selling barbecues and matches. 

Everyone said that the slightest spark could set the whole forest on fire. We would wind up like California or the Amazon, with acres burnt to a crisp. Thankfully, it didn’t happen, but I left with an awareness of the forests’ fragility and a deep concern that England was not ready for climate catastrophe. 

Only days later, I came back to intense flooding. The rains fell intensely, relentlessly. I thanked God that I was safe inside as the skies turned black and stayed that way for what seemed like days. The area around our synagogue was drenched. Charlie Brown’s roundabout flooded again. Some in this community saw damage to their property. Members of our synagogue were displaced: moved initially to the higher floor of the care home, then relocated. 

I was taken aback by how well our care team took to handling the crisis. Claire, Sue, Debz and others made sure everyone who might be affected received calls, and that anyone who needed help got it. They showed the very best of what this synagogue is for. 

But I was most impressed by the bnei mitzvah students I met this week. Jacob and Layla, twins, are preparing to come of age around Pesach, at the time when we stop praying for heavy winter rains and start celebrating the gentle dew. I asked them what they want to be when they grow up. Jacob wants to be a primary school teacher. Layla says she wants to be an environmental activist.

I have to be honest. When I was Layla’s age, I had no idea campaigning could be a job. It is a testament to her curiosity and sense of justice that she has found this out.

But it is also a wake-up call of how dire things are with our environment that Layla has to think of this job. The problems we saw this week had many causes. We have a rapidly changing climate. Companies have over-consumed fossil fuels and spoiled the ecosystem. Developers have built on flood plains. Much of the development after the Olympics destroyed natural wetlands, worsening the situation. But all of these factors share a common problem: we have taken nature for granted.

In this week’s parashah, we read: 

If you listen, if you truly pay attention, the Eternal One your God will grant the right rains at the right times: autumn rain for autumn and spring rain for spring. You will be able to eat and so will your cattle. 

But you must guard yourself against a straying heart. If you serve other gods and bow down to them, God’s anger will blaze out against you. God will shut up the sky. There will be no rain.

This text might feel familiar. It is the second paragraph of the Shema, found on page 214 in your siddur for the Shabbat morning service. You may have read it before, but it’s unlikely you’ll have heard it read aloud in any service. 

It is the custom of this synagogue, and of all Reform synagogues, to read these verses in silence. So, why do we whisper it? 

One reason is that we are very uncomfortable with what is implied theologically here. It suggests that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. We know this isn’t true. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Our rabbis knew long ago that there is no individual reward for good deeds in this life. So we won’t say it out loud when we have doubts about it.

But what if it is true? The warnings in these verses are not about how God might deal with individuals, but the impact of actions on entire groups of people. If you don’t pay attention to the ethics of Torah, you all can be destroyed. If you worship gods other than the Source of all creation, you will find yourself helpless before the forces of nature. Cause and effect. Action and consequence. 

In the biblical world, worshipping other gods meant turning to material things. Whereas the idol-worshippers bowed down to wood and stone, what marked out the ancient Israelites was that they only prayed to the transcendental God, who held all of nature in balance.

And that is what is happening in our world today. We are disregarding our ethical obligations to care for the planet, and we are seeing what happens. People have substituted the Eternal God for the material elilim of oil and gas. We have traded humility before nature for the arrogant belief that we can control and manipulate our environment without consequences. 

Now we are living the impact. We are dealing with the wrong rains. We are witnessing floods here, in China, in Germany, in New York, and in India. 

The Torah warns us: “Do not believe you have made all this with your own hands!”

We may have built cities and roads and bombs and planes, but we didn’t make the grass grow. We haven’t made the sun shine. It’s not us that makes the rains fall. 

All that is in the hands of a supreme Creator, who has charged us with protecting and sustaining this planet. We must hear, and truly pay attention, to that God, whose Word calls to us today. We must take up the challenge of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy; of rebuilding our world in harmony with nature, rather than against it; of tackling carbon emissions and climate disaster. We must enable Layla to inherit a living planet so that she actually has something to protect.

We must act now. 

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, 31 July, Parashat Eikev

judaism · ritual · spirituality

Wrap your body in prayers

Most of the time, when I’m experiencing something emotional, I feel it in my body before I can even process it. 

I’ll feel a sinking in my stomach and know I’m dealing with dread. I’ll wake up grinding my teeth and realise I must be anxious. I go to bed feeling full of life and visceral feel my joy.

Every emotion is a physical experience. It is not just something we can rationally understand.

In Biblical Hebrew, if you want to say that you are angry, you say that your nose flares. If you are compassionate, you are womb-ful. If you are sad, you rip your hair. If you are lustful, you are big-balled. If you feel respect and awe, that’s in your liver.

In the biblical imagination, the body is a map of all the emotions we might feel. Each limb and organ corresponds to the full range of affective experience. 

We must bear this in mind when we come to read this week’s parashah and its resultant commandments:

Put these words that I command you today on your heart… Wrap them as signs on your arms. Bind them in front of your eyes. 

The words are recited daily by the most observant Jews. They form part of the first paragraph of the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer. 

The Shema begins with an instruction to listen; to pay attention. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God. The Eternal God is One. 

It then tells us the embodied experiences we must have to make sense of what we are hearing. Heart. Arms. Eyes. 

Of course, these carry metaphorical meanings. For the ancient Israelites, the heart was the seat of thinking, much in the same way as we consider the brain in the modern West. When Torah tells us to keep it on our hearts, it means that it should be part of our whole intellectual being.

The arm is the site of action. It is synonymous with power. The arm is what gives to charity and shields the vulnerable. It is also the body part that raises swords and strikes stones. With an outstretched arm, God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt. The instruction to keep God’s word on our arms is a call to use our power for God.

Eyes, for the Hebrews, are for desiring. Your eyes can wander after foreign gods. They can delight at the wonders of nature. They can covet things that aren’t yours. They can favour children. The Eternal’s eye is always on those who have hope and mercy. If the commandments are frontlets before your eyes, enacting them as all you want to do. You are singularly focused on doing good deeds. 

Over time, our ancestors came to see these words as more than just symbols. Rabbi Akiva, the Mishnah’s great thinker on metaphor and interpretation, is credited with codifying the rules for tefillin.

Tefillin are compartmentalised boxes affixed to leather straps. You can see people wear them wrapped around their heads and arms in weekday morning prayers. 

These prayer aides were invented so that observant Jews could literally enact the commandment of binding the words on the body. Inside the boxes are the words of the Shema. Cheder children tell me they look like Go-Pros.

Carefully, we tie them to our arms, close by our heart. We wrap the leather straps around our arms, seven times. We place them as a crown around our heads, settled between our eyes. We finish up by plotting the straps around our fingers and palms in a set pattern.

If ever you come to Leo Baeck College’s shacharit services, you will see a bunch of students and teachers adorned in them. 

If the founders of the College and its movements could see us, they would be aghast. For many of the originators of our movement, such embodied practices were strange and arcane. 

Progressive Judaism was a response to the Enlightenment. Across Europe, people heralded the triumph of science and reason. Ideas, not feelings, were paramount. Rational thought, not embodied emotion, would be what guided humanity to greatness. 

Reforming rabbis of the past called the practice of bending knees in prayer “bowing and scraping.” They saw their Orthodox contemporaries’ kissing the scroll as a form of idolatry. Above all, they certainly never wore tefillin. 

When, in my early 20s, I asked my dad for a tefillin set for an upcoming birthday, he raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that an Orthodox thing?” he asked. We didn’t talk much about the theology, but I told him I liked the idea of it, and he got me a beautiful pair.

In a way, he was right. Tefillin were an Orthodox thing. But, over time, progressive Jews have reclaimed them and made them our own. 

Reason is still deeply important. We still hold to the importance of modern scientific inquiry and rational debate. It’s just that we can no longer isolate what goes on in our bodies from what goes on in our brains. 

Living with chronic pain, I see daily how intertwined are my spine and my spirit. Every part of my mental and physical health is connected. I would struggle to draw a line between my body and my ‘self,’ and can’t really comprehend their separateness. 

This is just as true in prayer. So I wrap tefillin. I feel my religious inclinations before I can process them. 

I’ll stick a box on my left bicep and know that my body is part of the miracle of creation. I wrap it around my arms and I am bound by God, submitting to the commandments. I set the straps over my head and feel the weight of responsibility. I rest the box before my eyes and see what I have to do. I tangle the knots around my fingers as if I am being married and I am overwhelmed by the loving gift of a new day.

I wrap my body in prayers. I can work out what they mean later. 

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s newsletter, Parashat Vaetchanan