sermon · social justice · judaism

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. 

israel · sermon · story

The holiness of Mount Meron

I want to talk about what it takes to make a space sacred. 

And I want to consider what it would take to desecrate a sacred space.

There is a cave on Mount Meron. It is not just any cave. It is a pilgrimage site whose reputation and mystery has grown over the centuries.

And this is the place where, on Thursday night, thousands were trampled in celebrations of Lag BaOmer. 

In this cave, two of Judaism’s greatest sages are said to be buried: Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai, abbreviated to Rashbi, a tanna in 2nd Century Yavne, and his son, Elazar ben Shimeon. 

Rashbi was a rebel against Rome. He criticised the imperial regime to his fellow rabbis. His colleague, Rabbi Yehudah, went straight to the Roman authorities and snitched on him. The Romans immediately promoted Yehudah and put out a bounty to kill Rashbi.

And that was how Rashbi and his son first wound up in a cave. The Talmud, written around five centuries later, says that this was a site of great miracles. There, in that grotto, a carob tree sprouted so that the two would always be able to eat. A well of water sprung out from the ground so they would always be able to drink. 

Every hour of the day, Rashbi and his son sat in the sand, buried up to their necks, hiding and studying Torah. They prayed and learned their traditions. After twelve years, the prophet Elijah, known for visiting pious sages, came to the cavern’s entrance and told the rabbis that the emperor had died and they were free. 

But during those twelve years of religious study, Rashbi had acquired knowledge and power far beyond what he previously knew. He went out into the world and looked upon it. 

Everywhere he went, he saw sin. Wherever he laid his eyes, Rashbi shot fiery lasers that destroyed everything in sight. God called out from the Heavens that he had better get back inside the cave. He stayed again for another twelve years. 

Finally, he came out from the cave and was able to participate in the world. 

Many years later, Rashbi died on Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day between Pesach and Shavuot. He was buried in a cave on Mount Meron. 

That was the beginning of the sanctification of the cave. 

No sources say that the cave where Rashbi and his son experienced miracles was the same as the one where they were laid to rest. It takes imagination to make the connection.

Such imaginative storytelling spurred on the legend of the cave. In 13th Century Guadalajara, in northern Spain, a mystic named Rabbi Moshe de Leon published and sold a mysterious new book. He claimed it contained the secrets of the universe itself. This book was called the Zohar. 

The text, said de Leon, had been written by Rashbi, a thousand years previously. He promoted a story: during Rashbi’s legendary time in that cave, he was not just a witness to miracles. He received a divine revelation. 

God disclosed to him hidden meanings of the Torah. These teachings, encapsulated in the Zohar, were the foundation of an esoteric practice that we now call Kabbalah.

Over the course of centuries, such Jewish mysticism would gain ever greater traction. Disciples of Kabbalah spread, and so did the myth of the cave. As the story grew, the cave became even more holy and potent. 

Three hundred years later, Kabbalah had become a movement. In the Galilee region of northern Eretz Yisrael, students of Yitzhak Luria and other great mystics assembled to learn these special teachings. They developed their own liturgy and renewed Jewish theology. They also initiated pilgrimages to sacred sites, including the tomb in the cave on Mount Meron.

In the subsequent centuries, the movement of Chassidism in Eastern Europe came to preach the importance of kabbalah. They popularised folk stories, promoted ecstatic singing and taught that there were certain special rebbes – charismatic leaders that pious Jews should follow. 

They called these legendary leaders ‘tzaddikim’ – righteous ones, and considered Rashbi a prime example. They believed that praying by the tomb of a tzaddik would make God more likely to hear them.  So, even in the 18th Century, when travel was difficult, Chassidim voyaged across Europe to visit Rashbi’s shrine.

Now, for more than 200 years, this cave has been a prime site for Orthodox Jews to attend and worship. In particular, on Lag BaOmer, Rashbi’s yahrzeit, the place fills up with people. In the preceding days, people camp across the mountain. 

On Lag BaOmer itself, fires are lit, songs are sung and people come to celebrate from all around the world. The stories that have made the cave sacred are retold.

That was what it took to turn this cave into a sacred place. Miracles. Legends. Imagination. Revelation. Pilgrimages spanning centuries. Millennia of development of Jewish tradition. 

Mostly, the cave has been sanctified by storytelling. 

For the purposes of storytelling, it does not matter whether Rashbi was really granted miracles. It is of no importance whether the caves were the same. 

It is even less significant whether Moshe de Leon inherited the Zohar from that ancient sage or made the whole thing up himself. What matters is the story. The Jews have turned this into a holy space by how engaging with it.

But that engagement has not been entirely for good and not every story is positive. Now comes the story of the disaster.

In 1911, just over a century ago, a catastrophe struck the cave. The roof above Rashbi’s shrine collapsed, killing 11 people and injuring many more. At the time, campaigners called for health and safety regulations to be implemented so that no such catastrophe could occur again. Their warnings were not heeded.

Rabbi Mark Solomon, one of our senior teachers at Leo Baeck College, recalls attending the pilgrimage in 1983. Even then, he said, “the crowd was so intense that I was sure I was going to be crushed to death. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.” 

In the years since, the number of attendees has only grown. But, despite appeals to the government, no health and safety measures have been added. This year, with so little planning due to Covid, there were even fewer arrangements to keep people safe.

And so, on Thursday night, catastrophe struck. People were trapped in a tight space with no crowd control. They panicked. A crush ensued. People threw themselves over each other. Hundreds are in hospital or seriously injured. 44 people were killed, among them little children.

Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, immediately spoke out. Like thousands of Jews, he had to check that members of his own family were not numbered among the dead. 

“We could have prevented this,” he said. He insisted this was not a natural event like plague or fire, but something in which human beings had colluded. He has called for an immediate inquiry.

And that, I believe, is where the question of whether a site can be made from holy to profane begins. It begins with what story we tell next.

Mount Meron is a sacred site because it is imbued with spiritual stories. We cannot allow those stories to be replaced with memories of whitewash and cover-up. People must take responsibility and there must be changes so that nothing like this happens again. 

We know from experience in Britain that the only way to heal from a tragedy is through honesty, transparency and change. We learnt this far too late from the Hillsborough Disaster and still have not seen those lessons learnt with Grenfell. When officials refuse to accept liability and instigate changes, all that remains on the sites where disaster happens is the trauma of failure.

If a site can take centuries to make sacred, it can be desecrated in an instant. 

Let us pray, then, that the government, officials and religious leaders engage in serious introspection. Let us pray that real changes are made to prevent repetitions of such disasters. Above all, let us pray for recovery for the injured and the memories of the dead. May their memories be for a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

sermon · social justice · torah

A charter of Disabled people’s rights

Do not curse the deaf. 

Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.

Revere your God.

This week’s parashah is Kedoshim, the centre of the whole Torah. It is the centre in two senses: we are slap bang in the middle of our scroll. When the warden performs the hagbahh tomorrow, the Torah will look almost completely even on both sides.

It is also, I feel, the spiritual centre of our Scripture. This is the part of the Torah that tells us what the rest of it was for. All the stories and speeches that surround the rest of the text can be summarised in this portion. 

Many of the verses from elsewhere in Torah are repeated. Some of it might seem superfluous. Kedoshim reads a little bit like the Torah’s greatest hits, reminding us of some its most popular laws and aphorisms.

But the collection is not random. The smattering of commandments I recited at the beginning all have something important in common. They are about what rights and obligations people have in relation to each other.

This year has brought home to many of us that we cannot take our health for granted. Our bodies are fragile and the time on earth we have is precious.

If you were to become blind, or deaf, or sick, or old, what could you expect from society? What are the minimum standards that others owe you? And, if you are blessed with youth and good health, what must you do to honour others?

Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. You might think: of course! Who would do such a thing? Who would want to trip up the disabled? But cities are structured and buildings managed in ways that are full of stumbling blocks. Every staircase to access public transport; every meeting held miles away from places people can reach; every building without a wheelchair ramp; every space without accessible toilets; every show without subtitles; and every badly laid-out street. These are all stumbling blocks.

Do not curse the deaf. And again, you would say: who would do such a thing? Surely nobody would be so cruel as to insult people who cannot hear them! But this happens all the time. Every headline that calls disabled people scroungers; every job that refuses to make adjustments; every effort to make welfare harder to access; every time the price of medication is jacked up; every time a comedian makes fun of a disability… aren’t all these insults to the deaf?

These are all ways that disabled people are kicked while they’re down.

Instead, the Torah tells us we need to lift each other up.

May we be the ones to remove every stumbling block and replace every curse with a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Kedoshim, on 23rd April 2021

sermon · social justice · theology

God is the reason I am gay

God is the reason I am gay. 

I am not making any claims about how God made me or what plans God had in store. I have no idea whether my personality was predetermined. I do not have any opinion on whether I am gay because of nature or nurture. I stopped caring about that a long time ago. 

But I still say that God is the reason I am gay. Because God is the reason that, if I were given the choice whether or not to keep being gay, I would stay exactly as I am. God is the reason I am proud to be open.

Growing up, there were many reasons I ought to have felt shame. In the 1990s, there was widespread public panic about gay men. I remember as a child opening up a ‘dictionary of new words.’ On one of the first pages was AIDS, whose entry redirected to ‘Gay-Related Disease.’ News stories proliferated about gay men grooming children, having sex in toilets and ruining families. The public image, only 20 years ago, was that gays were dirty, lived in sewers, and spread disease. 

Synagogue was a place where I felt safe. In the small shul in my provincial town, I found serenity. And I heard religious leaders and cheder teachers speak about the innate dignity of all human beings; the Divine spark that permeated through everyone; the obligation to protect the stranger and the vulnerable. 

The first time I ever heard an adult defend gay rights was in a community member’s living room. I must have been 11. Recently, a local parliamentary candidate had been outed after he was found having sex in a public toilet. Someone said something homophobic – I don’t remember the details. 

A middle-aged Jewish woman leapt to the gay man’s defence. She spoke with absolute passion. She laughed when one of the homophobes said he had a gay friend. She was a grown-up telling off a bigot, and she rallied the rest of the room behind her. 

As a young queer boy questioning who I was, I looked up to her and thought that was what Judaism looked like in practice. That was what it meant to defend the marginalised. I had permission – from her, and from the God in whom she believed – to be gay.

Gradually I came to realise that I was one of the people that the Jewish woman in the living room had been defending. I didn’t meet many other people like me until I got to university. When I did, I heard from many of them how religious hatred had hurt them and made them reluctant to be open about who they were.

I was grateful that I had known the true God. Progressive Jews worshipped the Source of love and justice, the universal God who did not judge, and who always stood beside the oppressed, and never sided with the oppressor. I thanked God for making me gay.

Later still, I looked around for role models. I wondered what gays could become. I knew a few celebrities existed, like Graham Norton, Elton John and George Michael. But my greatest comfort was knowing that there were gay rabbis. Rabbis like Lionel Blue. 

As I looked for purpose in my twenties, I had an inspiring lesbian rabbi. I realised how much strength and joy a synagogue could give, especially to future LGBT kids. I decided I had to create that safe space for others. So God made me gay and, in turn, being gay made me seek out God.

That is the power of religion. Done right, it can affirm people when they are weakest. It can give hope to children that people like them deserve defending. It can be the champion of all who are suffering. It can be the cause of their liberation. 

And that power can be profoundly abused. There are those who wield religious power to scare gays into submission. There are those who sit down with queer children and tell them that they need to seek forgiveness for their sinful thoughts. That they have been brainwashed by transgender ideology. That they are mentally disturbed. That they are possessed by demons. 

Apparently it is called ‘conversion therapy.’ In this practice, authority figures tell LGBT people that they can stop them being trans or turn them straight. They convince them that if they suppress their personalities, conform to rigid gender roles and only love who they are told, they will be healed. And they do so in the name of God.

And this practice is legal. In Britain. Today. 

It is even practised within the British Jewish community. Recently, LGBT people have come forward to share their traumatic stories of how they were manipulated into believing they could be ‘cured’ of non-conformity. They were convinced that if they failed, they would lose their family and community for having let down God.

If queer-affirming religion can make me the person I am today, imagine the damage it can do to teenagers struggling to work out who they are. 

As the possibility was raised that this cruel practice could be stopped, a coalition of evangelical churches comprising thousands of members published an open letter saying that banning conversion therapy would effectively outlaw their religion.

At Easter, Labour leader, Keir Starmer, went to one of those very churches to give his festive address. In response to the consternation this provoked from LGBT people, Stephen Timms, a Labour MP, tweeted in support of the homophobic church.

The two most recent prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, had both visited this church too, causing outrage. The former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, recently accepted a donation of £75,000 from an evangelical church that lobbies in defence of conversion therapy.

When politicians spend their time and take money from homophobic religious institutions, they send out a clear message. They tell religious lesbian, gay, bi and trans people that they are, at best, indifferent to homophobia. 

When public figures choose to attend these places of worship that claim they can cure gays, rather than any of the mainstream faith houses that embrace gays, they send a message about what they consider to be proper religion, and which God they think matters.

But it is possible to send a different message. We can say that conversion therapy is unacceptable. While banning the practice won’t stop it happening, it lets everyone know that it is not OK. Young people will still talk to their rabbis about how they’re feeling, but religious leaders should not be able to answer LGBT children by promising to take away their gayness or transness.

Instead, they can give them a better message. Young LGBT people can grow up to see that their lives are sacred and deserve to be protected. They can know that they are wonderful as they are and do not need to be changed. 

God is the reason I am gay, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College, where I am in my fourth year of studies.

festivals · sermon

The four children of Covid

Every seder, we read about the four children. These characters in our Haggadah have come to us from the Palestinian Talmud, and are based on Torah verses. They’ve entered our liturgy as a joyous part of the seder ritual.

It’s a fun annual party game to speculate about which of the four you might be, and even to assign the attributes to other guests at the party.

For what it’s worth, I usually play the wicked child of the Haggadah. I quite like the idea of being the trouble-maker.

But is it really how we want to define people, and their relationship to Judaism? My teacher, Professor Jeremy Schonfield, has pointed out that all the four children are really quite negative stereotypes, and they all get punished for their questions.

The chacham – or wise child – might better be called the know-it-all. She sits at the seder and already knows all the answers. So she comes along and, puffing up her chest, asks: “what are the laws of Passover?” Oh, she thinks she already knows. She’s asked this question every year. She can smugly rattle off to you how well she prepared koshering the house and she has strong opinions on what everyone else should be eating. Yes, you’ve met her.

So how do you respond to her? Tell the wise child the most complicated laws about Pesach, even the one about how you don’t start the second part of the meal until you’ve found the afikomen. That’s at the very end of Mishnah Pesachim, and she probably won’t have got that far. That’s it, put her in her place. Make sure she knows that she doesn’t really know it all. Thank you, chacham, for your very wise remarks, the rest of us would like to get on with the meal.

Then you’ve got the rashaa – the wicked son – who asks “what does all this mean to you?” To you, not to him. He doesn’t care. He’s not interested. Why are you doing all this? Your wicked son will do whatever he likes, but from his aloof standpoint, he can take a shot at you with your primitive rituals. The accusing patriarch responds to this by telling him he should have been left in Egypt. Hope you can take scorn as good as you give it, rashaa.

Next comes along the child who is tam. The Reform Haggadah generously translates this as naïve, probably to avoid the ableist overtones of the more familiar translation that this child is simple. The word could just as easily mean ‘mute’ or ‘modest’, but we’re probably meant to imagine her as clueless. She asks: “what’s this?” Like a lost sheep bewildered by the most basic rituals of the most famous festival, she’s stuck, absently pointing at objects and asking what’s going on.

How do we help her? The seder leader responds by saying “God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand…” – and then doesn’t even bother finishing the sentence. There’s a long verse you could quote to the tam but you assume she’s already lost interest and, frankly, you’ve already lost patience. Why bother with someone who’s simple?

You turn straight to the child who doesn’t know how to ask. And you repeat exactly what you just said to the simple child. How much more patronising can you get? You’re not going to even bother trying to include him. You just tell him what he already knows because he just heard you say it to your daughter.

If anything, the Haggadah is a model in how not to engage people. It’s an exercise in what happens when you label children and assume the worst in them. You respond with terrible answers that leave your dinner guests feeling deflated.

In 1950, the great Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg wrote a response to the Four Children. It was the only poem she ever wrote about the Second World War, and it’s a stunning meditation on how the trauma of genocide shaped her contemporaries’ outlooks. In this poem, she completely reimagines who the four children are, picturing each of their postures as a trauma response.

She begins with the child who does not know how to ask, imagining a woman heartbroken by survivors’ guilt. She has witnessed the most horrific brutality and lived to talk about it. Only now she has no words. Stumped, she asserts:

I am not wicked, not smart, not even simple,

And for this reason, I asked no questions

Her survivor cajoles the reader: If you can, then open me up.

Goldberg then helps us understand why someone might become ‘wicked.’ She tells of a man who has been toughened up by circumstances and now cannot bear to empathise. His tears have dried up and his heart has hardened. So he vows to be cruel and cool and estranged. He tells God:

To you, I blunt my teeth.

What about the simple child? Goldberg tells us of someone who has known so much pain that just looking at stars reminds her of her anguish. She looks at the millions of stars and sees the millions dead. The stars remind her of her night terrors:

On all other nights against a dark arrogant sky,

Against a delirious moon and against the milky-way

Great gloomy ghosts of a day gone by

And, just once, she wants to get back her naivety. She wants to be able to stop seeing her pain when she looks up at night. So she implores:

On all other nights, anticipation, silence

On this night – only stars

Why shouldn’t she be permitted her simplicity?

The wise child, in Goldberg’s poem, is the one who says the least. He is the one who died. That is what wisdom meant to a survivor of the Shoah.

Reframed through Leah Goldberg’s eyes, we can understand the four children not by their worst intentions but by the trauma they carry and the way they deal with pain.

This seems to me a much better way of greeting dinner guests. It should be a starting assumption that everyone we meet is carrying baggage. Everyone is hurting. We have to be able to meet people at their most vulnerable and our most sympathetic.

As lockdown eases, I am aware that many people are only just processing what we have been through. I am not by any means comparing what we have experienced to the Holocaust, but we have certainly been through something unprecedented and destabilising. Our old certainties about our religion, our health, and our community have been disrupted. We have known death, heartache, family struggles and isolation.

Now we meet each other. We can choose what responses we adopt. We will meet people who seem wicked, or who seem naïve, or who seem like they know it all, or who seem like they have nothing to say. We may well want to blunt our teeth at them and put them in their place. We may want to be impatient or patronising.

But the better response, the more Jewish response, will be to meet them where they are, and hear them in their hurt. Whatever type of child they seem to be, the important thing to remember is that inside them is a child. Someone inside of them is vulnerable, scared, and looking for assurance. Someone inside of you is the same.

Let us not label each other and dismiss people, but greet each other with compassion and empathy.

Moadim lesimcha.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Seventh Day Pesach, 3rd April 2021

festivals · sermon

Reform Judaism – or Revolution Judaism?

There was a seder that lasted all night. We talk about it every year.

It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all that night until their students came and said to them: “Our teachers, the time has arrived to read the morning Shema.”

How could it be that five rabbis could talk all night and not know that the time had come to say Shema? We might imagine them engrossed in animated conversation, but even the best dinner party guests can identify when the sun has come up. The Shema is to be recited at dawn, and surely five great sages would know when the dawn has come.

Unless, of course, they couldn’t possibly know whether it was dark or light. Perhaps, our commentators now speculate, the rabbis were deep underground in a cave. You see, these rabbis lived through the great revolt against Rome, the Bar Kochba Rebellion. During this time, Jews hid out in caverns, as armed conflict raged between Judean zealots and Rome’s imperial armies.

The year was 132 CE. The great Temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed 60 years earlier. The wicked emperor Hadrian, who was also responsible for the Wall less than an hour from this synagogue, had overtaken the entire region. He erected a new temple to the Roman god Jupiter, renamed the capital city after himself, and persecuted the inhabitants.

Hadrian further antagonised the Jews by introducing new taxes and prohibiting certain religious practices. Shimon bar Koseva, better known as Bar Kochba, emerged as a military leader, determined to wage war against Rome. He gathered troops and summoned the entire Jewish diaspora into revolt. He called on our sages: “get armed! Get ready to reclaim Jerusalem!”

Every single one of the rabbis had an opinion on the matter. The core question facing them was whether they, the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, should get behind the armed struggle. Do they join with the ranks of the militants, or seek to make compromises with the Empire? Do they risk dying on their feet, or concede to live another day on their knees?

The new Reform Haggadah stages a debate between these five thinkers. Throughout rabbinic literature, we have statements attributed to each sage, many of which may have been directly connected to the struggle against Rome. Haggadateinu stitches them together into a dialogue, where each rabbi advocates his position.

Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Joshua tried to persuade the others of pacifism. The Torah teaches peace, so that was what they should pursue. The Jewish mission, after all, was to beat swords into ploughshares.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer countered them. The Jewish mission was to declare victory for God by opposing tyranny. This was, after all, the festival of Pesach, the celebration of freedom from Pharaoh, when the Jews had brought down the greatest empire of the age. They could relive their former glory, with swords in their hands and God on their side. A messianic fervour took hold of them, and Akiva even concluded that Bar Kochba must be the Messiah, ready to lead the Jews to ultimate salvation.

They continued the debate all night. They didn’t realise that dawn had come.

We do not know whether any of the sages changed their mind. But we do know what happened next. The Jews joined en masse in the revolt against Rome. And they lost. Hadrian persecuted them and destroyed an entire generation of rabbis. Akiva was flailed to death as he recited his prayers. Tarfon joined him as one of the ten martyrs.

So, with hindsight, which one of them was right? A cynic would dismiss Rabbi Akiva’s passion, saying he was foolhardy to take on the empire. But there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t have suffered just as much if they hadn’t resisted.

Maybe collaboration with Rome would have secured their survival. Our ancestors could have gone down Rabbi Tarfon’s route. They could have negotiated and compromised. Perhaps he would have permitted them to stay under his rule in Palestine and they would have lived there.

Then who would we have been? We would never have spread across the Diaspora as a light unto the nations. We may never have composed the Mishnah, the Midrashim, the Talmuds, or any of the subsequent generations of rabbinic literature. Quite possibly, if every Judean of the time had survived, the people would have lived, but there would be no Judaism. We needed the revolutionary spirit, that sense of injustice, and that determination to fight for what was right, in order that we could truly pass on a tradition.

Our Judaism is the Judaism of Rabbi Akiva.

But it is also the Judaism of Rabbi Tarfon. After the failure of the revolt against Rome, our rabbis had to regroup and reconsider what Judaism would mean. They re-made their religion as a movement that was not tied to any country or Temple, but that could live everywhere in the world. They did away with ancient sacrifices and replaced them with universal prayers. They found a way to make an accommodation with reality.

And they held onto Rabbi Akiva’s dreams, too. For two thousand years, Judaism has sustained its hope for a messianic age. At the end of the seder, we still declare ‘next year in Jerusalem!’ We are not making a plan to buy plane tickets. We are talking about the Jerusalem that Akiva had hoped for – the time of the Messiah. The age when tyranny is destroyed and war abolished.

We are, therefore, a religion of both revolution and reformation. We are still holding that tension, between working within oppressive systems, and seeking their abolition. We continue to recite the words of all five sages, holding their ideals alive.

And, as we recall their seder in Bnei Barak at our sederim in Newcastle, we join them back in those caves. We are with them, asking the same questions. We still want to know: how will we get free? What must we do? When will we know that the time has come?

We are still, in many ways, in Mitzrayim. The messianic age has not arrived. But every year we raise our glasses and welcome Elijah. We eat our symbols of liberation. We pray for the coming of a new day.

Yes, although we may feel that we are in darkness, we know that the dawn will come.

The dawn will surely come.

Chag Pesach sameach vkasher.

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.

festivals · sermon · spirituality

It’s time to start spring cleaning already.

It’s time to start spring cleaning already.

Around this time of year, I start to notice the mess that has built up. The crumbs in the toaster. The oven I haven’t cleaned in such a long time. The floorboards and high surfaces- how did they get so dusty?

It’s Shabbat Parah. Purim has passed and this week’s extra reading from Numbers reminds us that the next festival to come is Pesach. Yes, it’s really only a month away, and it’s snuck up on us so quickly this year.

In our additional parashah, the priests undergo a strange cleansing ritual. They sacrifice an unblemished red cow and use its ashes like a soap, sprinkling it over themselves and their surroundings. Of course, it makes no sense to us, and even our medieval commentators admit to being a bit baffled.

But that’s the way cleansing rituals are. You can’t explain them. You just do them. The meaning is implicit. Or, rather, we feel it on an emotional level, rather than being able to rationally think it. 

A couple of years ago, Marie Kondo impressed Western audiences by bringing Shinto spirituality to house clearances. Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, encouraged people to rethink their relationship to their things. She asked people to look at the items in their houses and ask: “does this spark joy?” Her philosophy was that something should only be kept in your home if it was useful or beautiful. 

At the time, the trend passed me by, and I didn’t realise how profound it was. How we organise space has a profound impact on how we see ourselves. My boyfriend jokes that he can tell the state of my mind by the state of my room.

This period, from Shabbat Parah until Pesach, is our period for clearing out clutter. It is a spiritual time for tidying up. Tradition says we should be hunting out chametz – bits of leavened bread – and getting ready to remove them from the house. 

But it’s so much more than that. It’s a chance to clear our houses and our heads. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate what things we need and what we don’t.

So let’s take to it – slowly and gently, finding our own meanings in the clutter. Spring cleaning is here. Let’s do it.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Shabbat Parah, on Friday 5th March.

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.