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

judaism · sermon · social justice

A world without walls

There was a time before there were fences and walls. 

At some point in the distant past, recorded only in our folktales, the world used to grow wild and free. Trees and plants sprouted wherever they wanted. Animals moved at their own will. There were no roads, no houses, no cars, and no banks. 

Back then, human beings were hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors lived in caves, chased down animals with spears, foraged for berries, and moved wherever the weather was best. 

Then, about 10,000 years ago, something changed. In a place that we now call the Middle East, a group of people realised that they did not just have to take whatever nature allowed them. 

They could change their environment to meet their needs. They could plant, sow, grow, cultivate, reap and nurture crops. They could turn entire fields into places where just one thing was grown, like olive groves, barley fields and orchards. 

This was the beginning of civilisation.

It was also the beginning of war. Armies grew. The spears that had been used to hunt cattle were now used to kill people. 

Fences were put up. At first, they were used to keep animal livestock in. Then, they were used to mark out who owned which fields. Then, they were used to keep people in their place.

The people who had control of the fields needed people to work them. The workers, often vanquished or nomadic people, needed a place to stay and a way to get fed when all the food was fenced in. 

So the workers became indebted to the owners. The landowners would feed and house the workers. The workers would labour over the land to make it profitable. The landowners gained more wealth and more land. The workers became increasingly in debt. 

Sometimes, people were born into slavery, and this would be passed down for generations. Their debt to the landowners could never be repaid. 

The owners, in turn, passed on the land to their children.

This presented a big problem. People could become infinitely indebted, with no hope of their descendants ever paying it off. People could become infinitely wealthy, as they conquered more land and made more people work for them. The owning people would have to use increasingly violent measures to make sure the working people did not rebel against them. 

That was the situation in the ancient world. Debt. Wealth. Slavery. Borders. Violence. Revolutions.

And, according to the 19th Century historian Moses Finley, every revolution had the same demand: cancel all the debts and redistribute all the land. 

When you understand this historical background, this week’s parashah, Behar, makes a lot more sense. This week, we read Leviticus 25. It is a remarkable chapter of the Bible in that, on its own, it comprises an entire sidra of the Torah, and all 50 verses deal with the same subject. This whole chapter is dedicated to how the ancient Israelites could break the cycle of debt, slavery and land acquisition. 

It begins with the shmita. Every seven years, you give the land a break. You cannot overwork it. It is like a shabbat for nature, free from human interference. 

Then you count seven lots of seven, seven shmitas, adding up to forty-nine years. In the fiftieth year, you have a Jubilee. Now all the land must be redistributed again. Noone can accumulate all the fields. It is a complete reset. Everyone goes home. Noone exploits anyone else. 

At this time, all the debts are annulled. Nobody can rack up infinite obligations to others.

There is no ancient version of Carol Vordeman advertising that you can consolidate all your debts into one monthly loan repayment.

This means that even slaves can be set free. The law forbids landowners from charging interest to their slaves. They can’t charge them extra for the food they eat or the place where they sleep. They might be in debt, but they have to have a way of getting out of it. 

Every seven years, slaves have the option to go free. Then, in the Jubilee year, all slaves are redeemed. Nobody can remain in slavery forever.

Repeatedly, Leviticus insists:

 לֹֽא־יִרְדֶּ֥נּֽוּ בְּפֶ֖רֶךְ

Do not grind them down. 

Don’t be ruthless.

Leviticus was written in a time of great inequality, when landowners took up huge amounts of land and charged huge amounts of interest. Workers accrued huge amounts of debt and passed on slavery to their great-grandchildren. Leviticus came to offer an alternative. The system of Jubilees means nobody can become too rich and nobody can become too poor.

This system works because there is someone to defend the poor and resist the rich. There is a force stronger than any spear and higher than any fence. There is a being who will advocate against even the wealthiest landowner and the mightiest army.

That being is God. 

Nobody can be a slave forever, because, ultimately, we all serve God. Nobody can own the land forever because, ultimately, the land belongs to God. In this religious system that our Torah creates, nobody can really claim to be better than anybody else.

God tells us something that no ledger sheet can. Whereas debtors can calculate the value of every loan and landowners can weigh up the worth of every harvest, faith tells us about the things we cannot count. 

You can’t put a value on human life. You can’t put a value on freedom. You can’t put a value on social harmony.

This is why the Torah makes such a special contribution to human history. In a world structured by violence, it tells us that people must be set free. In a world divided by inequality, it tells us that everyone has equal value. It calls on us to relieve all debts and free all slaves. 

Ours is a world of fences and walls. Ours is a world of great debt and great wealth. Ours is a world where some are too poor and some are too rich. 

But Leviticus challenges us to remember a world before this was the case. It instructs us to imagine a world where inequality is no longer the case. 

It teaches us to build a world without fences or walls. Let us heed that call.

Shabbat shalom. 

judaism · ritual · spirituality

Sacred skinny-dipping

It was midsummer in a basin in the Welsh valleys. I found myself completely naked with a friend in a lukewarm tub of rainwater. We were supposed to wait for it to properly heat up over the log fire, but I was in a hurry to go from teaching Torah there to preaching in north-west London. The sunshine compensated for us. 

All around there were huge green trees, rolling hills, a babbling brook. Hippies not far away chanted in Hebrew while banging on drums.

“OK,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“So I’m going to tell you my practice,” she said, “but you can come up with your own.”

Her practice, I later discovered, was the same one as you would find Orthodox Jews performing on Friday afternoons, as sanctioned by rabbis and law books. She had a way of making every tradition feel New Age.

She dunked fully underwater three times, twice emerging to recite a prayer.

Al hatvilah – thank you, God, for making me holy by commanding me in immersion.

Shehechiyanu- thank you, God, for keeping me alive to see this day.

On the third dip, she came up, smiled and said: “That’s all there is to it.”

I copied her every move. And that was it: my first mikveh.

I had previously associated this ritual with Orthodox women washing off the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic. 

The only other people I knew of who did it were converts, undergoing a form of Jewish baptism to initiate them into the religion. I had thought, cynically, that these new Jews were washing off the goy.

But here was my teacher, Yael Tischler, far more radical than I was in terms of religious innovation and transgressive liturgy; a witchy feminist affiliated to the Kohenet movement in America – a bohemian collective for women-centred spirituality. 

With her, the act of immersion didn’t feel problematic. It felt like my whole body was wrapped up in Jewish history. It felt connected to the earthy, fleshy customs of long-gone ancestors.

This was strange, because I know that none of my recent ancestors would have done such a thing. Liberal Jews were, by and large, decidedly opposed to many embodied rituals. 

Like their reforming Christian counterparts, many of the early Progressive Jews felt that religion should be a matter of intellectual faith. It should be stripped down to its essential meanings, devoid of excessive piety or symbols. 

In the great platforms decreed from Germany and the USA, Reform Jews repudiated circumcision, abandoned kashrut and denounced tallits. They ridiculed shockeling, the Eastern Ashkenazi prayer movements, as “bowing and scraping.” One British Liberal rabbi called kippot “the eccentric trappings of the Orient.”

As you can imagine, mikvaot did not get much of a look-in. For decades, ritual immersion was not a requisite part of conversion at the Reform beit din. Today, very few progressive Jews will attend the mikveh before their wedding. It is almost unheard of that a progressive Jew will have a regular toiveling practice as the Orthodox do.

This week’s parashah probably provides a good explanation as to why progressives are so uncomfortable with it. This week, we read Tazria-Metzora, a portion dedicated to defiling skin diseases, leprous houses, sexual infections and menstrual impurity. 

To escape the uncleanness that falls upon people by contact with these things, ancient Israelites would ritually immerse in a mikveh. The Torah describes mayyim chayyim – running water – in which people would wash themselves. We know that in the period after the Great Exile, the mikveh was likely an enormous bath at the entrance to the Second Temple. 

In the biblical world, the mikveh does seem troubling. It exists for a people obsessed by physical purity, who want to remove their blemishes before they enter sacred spaces. I would not feel comfortable advocating immersion to congregants on the grounds that their bodies are unclean and carry associations of sin. 

But my teacher, Rabbi Debbie Young Somers, argues that our rabbis fundamentally transformed what mikveh meant. She did her rabbinic thesis on mikvaot and has taught about their virtues in numerous study sessions. When I asked her for sources for this sermon, she immediately sent me detailed source sheets and tweeted her glee that the subject matter was being discussed in our synagogue. 

Impurity, Rabbi Debbie argues, is not the same as defilement for the rabbis. It is what happens when you come close to something holy. Touching religious texts, having sex, giving birth and changing to a more holy status, are acts that require immersion. Faeces, urine and vomit, which are more obviously disgusting, do not require any religious ritual. When we wash ourselves, we are not scrubbing away sinful dirt, but acknowledging sacred contagion.

In a post-Temple world, nobody can be clean or unclean. The mechanisms for such processes are gone and the need to do so – so that one might perform an animal sacrifice in the correct state – thankfully no longer exists. 

The Talmud records that, nevertheless, Jewish women took the obligation of ritual immersion upon themselves. It was a choice that antique ancestresses made as part of their covenant with God. When they did, the rabbis largely trusted women to self-regulate and organise their own mikvaot. It might well be that they already had very little authority over this aspect of life.

Today, feminists are returning to these practices. Led mostly by religious women, efforts to reclaim the mikveh are popping up all over the world. Scholars and lay people are extolling the virtues of immersion for both men and women.

People take these ritual baths before life-changing events, like trying for a baby, getting married, starting a new job and completing a course of study. They also use the mikveh to process life’s trials, like miscarriage, recovery from illness, divorce and redundancy. 

That was how I ended up, a few summers ago, doing sacred skinny dipping in the countryside. I am now convinced that it is a deeply moving spiritual practice, and I commend it to anyone who is interested. 

The Sternberg Centre in North London has a functioning mikveh. There is also a programme underway called the Wellspring Project, which hopes to soon create a mikveh-oriented wellbeing centre. In Manchester, the new building for Jackson’s Row is planned to have a mikveh.

And the wonderful thing about mikveh is that you don’t have to travel far to do it. You can toivel in any naturally occurring water, like seas, lakes and rivers. Just turn up, jump in, and dip your head underwater. 

And thank God for the commandments. 

And thank God for your body.

And thank God you’re alive.

And thank God that we can take these ancient practices and make them our own.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 17 April 2021 for Parashat Tazria-Metzora at Newcastle Reform Synagogue

festivals · judaism · sermon · torah

We are leaving the tight spaces

As a child, I loved Watership Down. Based on a book by Richard Adams, it was turned into an animated film in 1972. On rainy days, I kept going back to it, and my love has continued as an adult.

In Watership Down, a group of rabbits leave the only warren they have ever known to build a new burrow. They promise each other they will find a “strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.”

Fiver, a small, stammering rabbit has profound visions. His brother, Hazel, explains them to the other rabbits and convinces them it’s time to leave. On the way, these escapees miraculously cross a great body of water, pass over a treacherous highway, lodge with suspicious friends and find terrifying enemies. But ultimately they reach their destination: an enormous, fertile hill, topped by a fruit tree. 

As an adult, I can now see that it was an allegory for the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, now that I look back, I can see how every event in Watership Down maps on somehow to a story in the Torah.

I come back to it with new eyes and realise that Watership Down made the biblical story relatable to me in a unique way. From my perspective as a child in England, I had no concept of what a desert was like and I’d never been to a Middle Eastern city.

But I knew the joy of tall trees and long grass. I knew what it was like to find the perfect hill on a warm spring day. Somehow the rabbits felt real in a way that even Moses and Miriam did not.

Don’t get me wrong. This was no pastoral idyll. Parts of the film were terrifying. Some people look back and wonder how it was even classed as suitable for children. It includes death, peril and violence between bunnies. 

But the most frightening part of all is not the journey the rabbits take. It’s Fiver’s vision of what will happen if they don’t leave. He imagines the rabbits trapped in their burrows, squeezed to death as men filled in the holes. He foresees them all being crushed in the tight confines underground. 

That is their Egypt. I don’t know whether Richard Adams had any knowledge of Judaism. In fact, I highly doubt it. But, somehow, with this image, he captured a great Jewish esoterical tradition about Egypt.

In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. The Zohar, a great medieval exploration of biblical mysticism, breaks down this word. Tzar, in Hebrew, is a narrow place. Tzarim is the plural: narrow places. The prefix ‘mi’ means ‘out of.’ Mitzrayim: “out of confined spaces.” Egypt is the narrow straits we must escape. 

Today is a special Shabbat in the liturgical calendar. This morning, we read the very last of Exodus. Tomorrow, we start the new month of Nissan.  It is called Shabbat haChodesh – the Shabbat of the Month. We leave Exodus and begin the month of the festival of Pesach, the celebration of our liberation.

That liberation does feel quite imminent to me, even if the Jewish calendar doesn’t quite match up with the government’s road map. We are on our way out of confinement and heading for open spaces.

The most profound moment on that journey for me has been getting my first dose of the vaccine. About a month ago, faith leaders were summoned by our local authorities to get the life-saving injection. 

I knew that this was not just important but felt like a holy moment. In the build up to being jabbed, I consulted with all my colleagues about what blessing I should recite when it happened. Everyone had different opinions

Some suggested we should say “rofei hacholim” – God heals the sick. Others thought the best prayer was “shehechiyanu,” the blessing that thanks God for allowing us to live to see the day. In the end, I said “hatov vehameitiv”: God is good and does God. It’s the prayer you say when something happens for your benefit and the benefit of the entire community. 

This week, Reform Judaism distributed our own liturgy for what we can see when the vaccine comes our way. Rabbi Paul Freedman has carefully compiled a single a4 document with words to recite in Hebrew and in English. 

The prayers are familiar, but the opening verses took me by surprise. Rabbi Freedman has chosen to start us off with a line from Psalm 118: 

מן המצר קראתי יה

Out of the meitzar I called to God.

The meitzar. The thing that causes distress. The small and confined place. The thing that presses us down. 

Out of the meitzar. Out of the narrow spaces. Out of Egypt.

Yes, that is truly what receiving the vaccine means. For over a year, we have been in narrow spaces. My French colleagues even call lockdown ‘confinement.’ We have been in our homes. We have been stuck in our front line workplaces and unable to go any further. We have only seen each other in small boxes, the narrow Zoom frames on our small computer screens. These have been our Mitzrayim. 

And now, as we turn to the new month of Nissan, we can finally see a way out. Our own exodus is beginning to feel tangible. In only two weeks, we will do our seder again online, and we will tell each other that we are leaving Egypt. We will promise each other to see each other next year in person. And this time, God willing, it will be possible.

So do take your vaccine when your turn comes. The Jewish community is responding well to the call from medical experts to get immunised, and I’m thrilled every time I hear that one of you has had the jab. 

If you have doubts and want to speak to a medical professional about what it involves, just ask and I will happily put you in touch with someone.

Please don’t hesitate or wait because you think someone else might be more deserving. Our epidemiologists and ethicists all say the same thing: when the doctors say it’s your turn, take your turn. Every immunised person protects many more people in the community.

We have known confinement and narrow spaces. We have lived in Egypt. And now we have been given our own little miracle. The vaccine is a sign and wonder. With an outstretched arm, you can receive it, and thank God that you will live to see another season.

The wide expanse awaits us. Soon, like the rabbits of Watership Down, we too will congregate in open spaces. We will sit under fruit trees on perfectly verdant hills surrounded by family and friends.

Our own Promised Land is in reach.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · sermon

Moses kept wearing a mask

This year has changed us forever.

When Moses came down Mount Sinai, his face was radiant. He had horns of light emanating from his head. 

He had, in fact, been on the precipice for 40 days and 40 nights. During that time, he did not eat food or drink water. Some say he did not sleep. What was it like for him up there? What did he see and feel during that intense period at God’s side?

The Torah only records snippets. A moment where God passed in front of his face. The midrash suggests vignettes: that Moses watched God placing crowns on the letters of the Torah and saw Jewish future. Maimonides imagines Moses acquiring true knowledge, suddenly enlightened by philosophical and scientific truth about how the world was kept in order.

But we have to speculate. It is not just because the Torah is sparse, but because whatever happened on Sinai must have defied explanation. A period of complete solitude. A time when nobody else was there to corroborate events. A time of deep spiritual introspection. Moses saw something he could not fully communicate.

So the only real evidence of Moses’s experience was how it transformed him. Set aside the commandments and the miracles, Moses himself was internally and externally changed by the experience at Sinai. Everyone could see that, from now on, Moses’s face shone with rays of light.

In Jewish terms, it has been a year since lockdown began. A year ago, I attended Leo Baeck College’s Purim party. At the start of our revelry, Principal Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris warned that we should enjoy ourselves because it might be the last time we met for a while. I remember thinking how unnecessarily pessimistic she was being. A week and a bit later, around Shabbat Parah, the government instructed everyone to stay home except for essential travel.

Today is, once more, Shabbat Parah. Happy anniversary. 

It will be hard to explain afterwards what happened in this year. Perhaps we will remember echoes of the rituals that sustained us. Clapping for carers. Zoom services. Calls with family. But if future generations ask me what this year was like, I will struggle to give a coherent answer.

Our experiences over this last year have not been uniform. Some have shielded at home for the full year, only seeing a small circle of people, if that. Others have gone to work in essential services but nevertheless been unable to visit family. Some have had to learn how to homeschool children. Others have been prevented from meeting grandchildren. 

When we doing emerge, I suspect we will struggle to explain even to each other what this year was like. The only proof that we ever went through it will be in how we are changed.

After Sinai, Moses kept on wearing a mask. Now that Moses’ face had those shiny horns, his appearance frightened people. Even his closest relatives found it difficult to look at him. He kept hold of a special veil, which he wore at all times, and only removed to communicate with God.

I suspect we will probably do the same. We will keep wearing masks on public transport now for years to come. We will probably also maintain some of the technology to which we have become accustomed. I’m sure many synagogues will still stream services and do online study sessions long after the pandemic is over as a way to include more vulnerable members. 

But the real evidence of what we went through will be in how we are changed. And that is something we will have to decide for ourselves. 

When the lockdown began, I imagined the great societal changes that might come about as a result. Greater respect for key workers. A commitment to tackling climate change. New rights and protections for the vulnerable.

I still have hopes that those dreams will be realised. But when Moses came down the mountain, he did not only carry with him the moral law. He also brought his own metamorphosis. His shining face and altered insides. 

As the end of lockdown is in sight, I wonder how we will be different as individuals. Will be more focused on family, or more keen to befriend strangers? Will we live carefree, or with more caution? Will we focus more on community or on individuality? And now, after this year, will we feel closer to God, or further away?

Those aren’t questions anyone can answer for anyone else. They are the product of soul-searching. 

We now have a road map out of lockdown. If everything goes well, we could be back to having large gatherings again in the summer. But that doesn’t mean we will go back to being the people we were before. This year has transformed us forever.

Who we will now be we have to decide.

Only we can determine how our faces will shine.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon and Reform Synagogue on Saturday 6th March 2021, Parashat Ki Tisa.

judaism · sermon

What do Jews look like?

A woman on a train walked up to a man across the table. “Excuse me,” she said, “but are you Jewish?”

“No,” replied the man.

A few minutes later the woman returned. “Excuse me,” she said again, “are you sure you’re not Jewish?”

“I’m sure,” said the man.

But the woman was not convinced, and a few minutes later she approached him a third time. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not Jewish?” she asked.

“All right, all right,” the man said. “You win. I’m Jewish.”

“That’s funny,” said the woman.” You don’t look Jewish.”

This classic Jewish joke actually highlights a good question: what do Jews look like? I am often told either that I do look like one, or that I don’t, and when I ask what it is… nobody ever wants to tell me! Whatever the reason, people have in their minds a picture of a Jew.

As it turns out, this isn’t altogether a new thing. Indeed, this week, we read about the clothes for Aaron and his descendants of the priestly caste. They have a strict identifying uniform.

Linen headdress, sash and and robes. A metal encrusted breastplate. Ephod, urim, tumim, incense. Aaron looks holy. Aaron looks like he stands out. Aaron looks… Aaron looks a lot like the Tabernacle he serves.

Aaron is to dress in the same white linen that we are told covers the Holy of Holies. He is to wrap himself in yarns of crimson and turquoise, just like the sashes that decorate the sanctuary. He is framed in gold like the Tabernacle’s curtain rails. He must wear a breastplate encrusted with stones representing the twelve tribes, just as the stones were ritually placed at the major resting points of the Israelites. 

Aaron is the Tabernacle in miniature. He is a microcosmic representative of the function he serves. The clothes he wears even assist in atoning for the Israelites’ sins, just as a sacrificial altar would.

Aaron dresses like what he does. He says: I am going to do holy things, and I require holy garb to do it in.

What a contrast with the Megillah we read just yesterday. In the book of Esther, there is an initial threat to the Jews. Haman, their wicked adversary, stomps through the city and plots Jewish mass murder. But Esther, our triumphant hero, foils the plot and overturns the decision. Now, instead, her uncle Mordechai will stomp through the streets of Shushan.

The Book of Esther draws our attention especially to what Mordechai was wearing on his horseback gallivant. “Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool.”

What does Mordechai look like? He looks just like a Persian palace. He has the crown and clothes of a king. He has the horse of his vizier. He looks like the empire. He looks like his enemy.

Having adopted the outfit of the oppressor, Mordechai soon acts like one. Under his instruction, the Jews go off on their own rampage, killing Haman, his sons, and 75,500 of their supporters. What Haman had planned for Mordechai, Mordechai did to Haman.

In Reform Judaism, we often gloss over this awkward ending, but it is very important. Victims given power can become no different to their persecutors. Here, the Megillah wants to slap us in the face with that fact. Look, it says, Mordechai looks just like everything he set out to oppose!

There must be a lesson in this for us. If we can look holy and we can look like oppressors, we have to think carefully about how we appear. 

Perhaps, then, I am right in my decision to always wear a collared shirt and suit jacket when I come to preach on Shabbat. After all, these clothes show that I’m serious and taking the services seriously. 

Ah, but the trouble is, arms dealers, politicians and tobacco lobbyists also wear suits. Aren’t I just dressing up like them, mimicking the clothing of 21st Century professionals, and subconsciously siding with them?

Perhaps, then, I need to switch to jeans and a t shirt? Oh, those haven’t been subversive since Tony Blair got out a guitar and rebranded the country as “Cool Britannia.” Mark Zuckerberg goes to work in jeans and a t-shirt, I’d hardly be making a different point.

Maybe I should copy our friends in Gateshead. After all, if I wear a black hat, long coat and beard, nobody will doubt that I’m Jewish. The people who stumbled to tell me why I looked Jewish before will now have a very clear answer.

Only the trouble is Haredim just dress like Eastern Europeans did 300 years ago. Theirs might fit someone else’s stereotypes better, but there’s nothing more authentic about it. Besides, I’m not convinced I’d look any less oppressive to a great number of Progressive Jews.

So how do we stop ourselves looking like our oppressors? In honesty, I think a Jew only looks like our enemy when we are determining what Jews should look like. When we stereotype, we repeat prejudices. When we gatekeep people for their clothes, we play into classism and prejudice. When we set out an image of a Jew, we exclude and hurt others. Deciding who looks Jewish is the least Jewish thing we can do.

So, what does a Jew look like? Open arms. An open heart. A broad smile. Curious eyes. A face that says, welcome, you are welcome here. A Jew looks like someone who knows that Jews look like everyone. 

Shabbat shalom.