judaism · sermon · theology

How will we know when this crisis is over?

How will we know when this crisis is over?

Because this crisis will end. Every catastrophe there ever was has been brought to closure at some point.

Wars have begun with shots fired on foreign shores and ended with neighbours kissing outside their front doors.

Our scientists have conquered tuberculosis, leprosy, HIV and polio. It may take months and it may take years, but they will find a cure and people will recover.

Humanity has survived ice ages, famines and nuclear meltdowns. And it will survive this. This crisis will, one day, be over.

And when it is… how will we know?

The ancient world had rituals for bringing every ordeal to a close. When the sick returned from their quarantine, they were ritually bathed seven times, given new clothes, and shaved from head to toe.1

We, too, will wash ourselves anew. We will look at water and soap differently. We will cry in the shower to produce as much water as possible, knowing that those cleansing droplets are the secret to life itself.

And we still won’t know whether the crisis is over.

The priests of the bible would perform ceremonies to indicate that closure had occurred. On recovery from sickness, they would give offerings of unleavened cakes, fine flour, oil and animal blood.1 They would thank God for their health with their sacrifices.2 They would wave their hands in the air, bringing the ingredients together, embodying their wholeness.3

We, too, will make offerings. We will return to reopened pubs and put our glasses in the air and celebrate our survival with pints of cider and drams of whiskey and we will say ‘l’chaim’ like we never knew what it meant to say ‘to life’ before.

We will be grateful. We will thank God that we were among those who survived. We will thank God that even those who did not survive would be proud to see the continuity of the world they built. We will realise that a day when you can drink surrounded by friends and family should never be taken for granted. We will truly understand that life is a gift.

And still we will not know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark transitions with words. When good things happened for the first time in a long time, they instituted that we should say “blessed are you, Eternal One our God, Creator of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and allowed us to reach this season.”4

We will do old things for the first time. We will play in parks with our children again. And they will meet new children for the first time. And we will leave our houses without a purpose just to knock on old friends’ doors and see their faces for the first time. And we will hug. And we will kiss. And we will go to cinemas and nightclubs and gyms and synagogues. Yes! we will most certainly pack out our synagogues again. And we will treasure those moments and thank God that we lived to see them.

And we won’t know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark the bad with the good. They knew that not every transition was a recovery. They knew that sometimes people died and it felt like the whole world had been destroyed. They knew how to mark it. They told us to rip our clothes and let our hair grow long.5 They knew that sometimes so many loved ones would die that we would have to shred our whole wardrobes.6

We will grieve. We do not yet know how many we will grieve. It may be only the thousands who have already died. We will learn not to call thousands of deaths ‘only’. We may lose a person whom we love. We may lose many people whom we love. We will grieve for all of them.

We will cry in the streets in funeral processions for all those who never had the chance to mourn properly on lockdown. We will wail without abandon for every life taken too soon. Every life that will be taken will have gone too soon. We will huddle together in houses and let out all our sadness and anger.

We will feel guilty. Because, after all, feeling guilty is a part of grieving and surviving isn’t always such a cause for celebration. And although we will not believe it at first, we will recover. And we will move on.

And we still will not know whether the crisis is over.

Because the crisis will not yet be over.

If we leave our houses and go back to our old jobs to pay rent and mortgages in the same houses to barely survive in the same cities, Coronavirus will not have been defeated. We will only have signed an armistice with sickness, knowing that another plague will face us again. This will not be the last virus. Any effort to return to normality will only exacerbate the problems that have gone before.

Never again will we fight each other for dried pasta and toilet roll and sanitary pads and formula milk. Never again will we stare into our cupboards and wonder how long our tinned food will last us. We cannot ever return to the days of scarcity.

Before we can begin to move on, we have to be assured that all of humanity’s basic needs will be met unconditionally. Healthcare, food, water and clean energy will be considered human rights. When we struggle for them, we will struggle for everyone to have them. We will insist on it the way that world leaders pledge at the end of wars never to pick up weapons again, only this time we will mean it.

And still that will not be enough for us to say that the crisis is over.

Never again will people carry on working when they are sick because dying of starvation sounds worse than dying of disease. Never again will people live one pay cheque away from homelessness. Never again will family homes be foreclosed. Never again will people worry how they are going to self-isolate when they have nowhere to live. Housing will be provided universally on the basis of need, so that these crises can never be repeated.

And that won’t be enough for us to say it’s over.

Because there are today vulnerable, elderly and disabled people who are saying that self-isolation was already their standard practice, and that they did not choose it voluntarily. Because there are sick people who already feel like they are a burden to society when their lives are a gift from God. Because there are families torn about by borders and there is escalating racism that makes people feel even more afraid and we know that loneliness and bigotry and fear make life unbearable. We will judge our society not by the strength of its economy but by the strength of its weakest members. Only when we are assured that the value of human life is unquantifiable will be able to draw a line under the past.

And that day will come. This crisis will end. Ever crisis that ever was has come to an end.

And we will mark it. Every human being who is alive will sign a new international constitution, swearing allegiance only to each other and to God. And we will swear to protect everything that lives and the precious planet that sustains it. And on that document we will enshrine rights we never thought possible. And it will be the benchmark for everything that comes afterwards.

And everyone, all around the world, will subscribe to it.

We will not know the crisis is over because everything goes back to being the same. We will know the crisis is over when we are certain that everything has changed.

Then we will know beyond all doubt that this crisis is over.

salah taher peace treaty

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College, Parashat Tzav. I then decided to publish it early because I have too much free time. 

1Lev 14:1-10

2Lev 7:1-15

3Plaut 787

4Berachot 54a

5Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 7

6Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 8

festivals · sermon · social justice · theology

Those who attack the weak

Purim is such a strange time. It is a time when everything is turned upside down. In our story, the oppressed become the oppressors; the ones who wanted to slaughter become the slaughtered; Jews become Persians; Persians become Jews.

We act out the topsy-turviness of it all by dressing up in costumes, getting drunk, and generally living as we normally wouldn’t. Somehow this grand inversion festival is one of my favourites, but I’m never really sure what it was about until it’s over. In fact, every year for the last year, I’ve preached about Purim after it happened, rather than before. I suppose that fits with the overall back-to-front-ness of the whole celebration.

This year, what struck me most was the connection between the Torah portion and the Megillah reading.1 In our Megillah, the story of Esther, the enemy is the evil Haman. Haman sets himself up as a god, demanding that people bow down to him, and when they do not, he seeks to wipe out the Jews. The Jews, in this antique Persian context, are already the most vulnerable people. They are the smallest minority, unarmed, and completely powerless. Haman decides to wipe them out.

In the Torah reading, taken from Deuteronomy, the enemy is Amalek. We are enjoined to remember him and what he did to the Israelites in the wilderness.2 The Amalekites had attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest, dehydrated and suffering without water.3 According to our commentators, Amalek attacked from behind, killing the weakest first.4

The Megillah tells us that Haman was a descendant of Amalek, via their king, Agag.5 We do not necessarily need to believe that Haman had any genetic connection to Amalek. What they had in common they showed through their actions. Both attacked the weak. Both went for the most vulnerable first. They are not only symbols of antisemitism, but of all tyrants. This is how the cruel operate: by doing first to the weak what they would like to do to the strong.

It is deeply distressing to see in our times that the ideas of Amalek still prevail. At this moment, the world is closely watching the Coronavirus. My rabbinic colleagues in Italy are on complete lockdown. Many services have been cancelled. I am giving this sermon, for the first time, over the internet, rather than in person with my regular congregation.

That there is a pandemic should not be too alarming. There are often diseases going around the world – some are more contagious and more deadly than others. This one, it seems, is much less deadly than bird flu, but is more contagious than regular flu, and we do not yet have immunity to it.

In these times, maintaining calm and supporting each other is of the utmost importance. We should all, I am sure you already know, be meticulous about following NHS advice to wash our hands regularly, avoid touching our faces and not get too close to each other. If you exhibit symptoms, like a dry cough, shortness of breath, or fever, you should stay home for 7 days. Don’t go to the hospital or the GP.6

Yet there are those who have not helped maintain calm, but who have almost revelled in the potential death toll. Jeremy Warner, a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote in his column that the death of the weak from Coronavirus could be good for the economy. He said:

Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.7

With this one sentence, the Telegraph reminded me that Amalek’s ideology never ceases. It is in the idea that the weak are disposable, that the strongest survive, and that the strength of the economy or the nation matters more than the lives of the vulnerable.

The idea espoused by Warner might be called ‘social Darwinism’. It is a theory of evolution that sees all species as rugged individuals, fighting over resources. Sickness and death are nature’s way of weeding out those who are unnecessary. If people survive, it is because they deserved to. This was the logic that allowed the weak to be killed by the Nazis. It is the theory that underpinned government inaction to HIV as it killed off gay and black people.

It must be opposed. No idea could be more antithetical to the Jewish mind. We affirm that every human being is created in the image of God, and every life has intrinsic value. The disabled, the elderly and the immuno-compromised are not valuable because of how much they can contribute, but because God has placed them on this Earth. The Creator’s purpose for humanity far exceeds what any stock market has in mind.

We must oppose it not only because it contradicts religious truth, but also because it contradicts scientific truth. In 1902, the biologist and Russian Prince, Piotr Kropotkin, wrote his major work, ‘Mutual Aid’.8 In it, he argues that the survival of the species is due as much to cooperation as it is to competition. In the animal realm and throughout history, the major reason for life’s continuity has been its ability to work together.

Different species depend on each other and selflessly help each other. Most of all, human survival is intrinsically linked up with our social nature. Our skill lies in our ability to communicate complex ideas with each other. We are, by nature, dedicated to the preservation of our young, our elderly and our neighbours.

That is the message we must take away today in this time of sickness. We must support one another. For some, this means staying home so that they do not infect others. For some, this means checking in on our neighbours to see how they are and what they need. For others still, it means making donations to charities and mutual support organisations.

Purim was a time of inversion, when old habits were reversed. Let us shake off the old traditions of individualism and greed, to replace them with the Torah values of love and support.

In the face of those who attack the weak, we will be the ones to make them strong.

Shabbat shalom.

mutual aid animals

1 Mishnah Megillah 3:6

2 Deut 27:17-19

3 Ex 17:8-16

4 Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael 17

5 Esther 3:1

 

I donated to Queercare, who are doing work for at-risk LGBT people. I encourage you to give to the charity of your choice.

judaism · sermon · theology

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven. The Tabernacle was built according to the dimensions of the world. And the world was built according to the dimensions of Heaven.[1] This is what the Zohar, our mystical text tells us.[2] What does this mean?

This week’s parashah describes the raw materials of the Tent of Meeting: blue, purple, and crimson yarns; the ephod made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; sheets of gold and cut threads to be worked into designs.[3] The Torah tells us precise measurements for precious metals: 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold; 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver.[4]

In the kabbalistic system of the Zohar, these are not only the dimensions of our Tabernacle, but a blueprint for the universe and a mirror of Heaven. Is this, then, the makeup of the universe? Does it, too, have crimson yarn and twisted linen and talents of silver?

No. That is not the nature of this text. The Zohar is not an Ikea assemblage manual, but a work of Jewish mysticism. Its concern isn’t with the physical arrangement of the world, but with the esoteric secrets underpinning it.

The Zohar was compiled as a commentary on the Torah in 13th Century Spain by Rabbi Moses de Leon and has circle.[5] This text became the central canonical text of Jewish mystical theology, known commonly as kabbalah.

Only within the terms of the text itself can we understand how the Tabernacle had the dimensions of the world and the world had the dimensions of Heaven. First of all, please understand that, by Heaven, it does not mean the cartoon of clouds in the sky where baby-angels play on harps. Nor is it talking about the afterlife. In this context, Heaven is the ‘Upper World’: the place beyond our understanding where God lives. It is not so much a physical space as it is a ‘divine realm’.

The dimensions of Heaven, then, were not physical, but were divine qualities. The Zohar notices a connection between the qualities with which the Tabernacle’s architect was endowed and the qualities God employed to create the world. God appoints a man named Bezalel ben Uri to oversee the creation of the Tabernacle. God tells Moses: “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge.”[6] Elsewhere, in the book of Proverbs, we learn: “The Holy One founded the earth by wisdom; God established the heavens by understanding; through God’s knowledge the depths burst apart, and the skies distilled dew.”[7]

These, then, are the dimensions that the world and the Tabernacle held in common: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The qualities needed to create the world were the same as those needed to create the Tabernacle.

In the context of the Zohar, however, these terms take on an even deeper significance. In this world of mysticism, wisdom, understanding and knowledge are not simply creative faculties, but are part of a divine reality beyond what we can see.[8]

In this view of the world, there is an aspect of God called the ‘ein sof’ – that which is without end; the part of God that is limitless and incomprehensible. From this Infinite Unknowability flow ten sefirot, attributes of God’s self. They filter down into the knowable universe, to the level of the Shechinah – God’s dwelling-place in the human realm.[9]

At the highest levels are three sefirotketer – literally meaning ‘crown’, but fundamentally associated with God’s infinite knowledge; chochmah, meaning ‘wisdom’, which holds the archetypes of all things that must come into being; and binah – ‘understanding’ – in which is held the undifferentiated model of creation.[10] Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding: these are the highest rungs of the emanations of God’s presence. These are the qualities with which Proverbs tell us God created the world. These are the qualities with which Exodus tells us Bezalel ben Uri was endowed when he came to create the Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle, then, was not a physical blueprint of the universe, but a spiritual one. It was comprised of the same mystical dimensions that also went into creating the world. Each of these was some part of God’s creative power. Through these, God’s creative power is manifest in Heaven, the world and the Tabernacle. They are acting as a form of creative power, transcending space and yet utterly active in it. Through this analogy, we understand that the world, Heaven and the Tabernacle are not just created, but are constantly creating, and being created.

That may all sound very difficult to understand, but it has significant implications for us. If the Tabernacle, the world and Heaven share a common creative blueprint, then what was done in the Tabernacle was replicated in Heaven. Thus, the Zohar tells us: “The Temple [the successor to the Tabernacle] was an abode of peace for the worlds […] so that the actions below could be united on the model of the world above.”[11] What they made true in the Temple, God made true in Heaven.

From this, the Zohar makes an even more audacious claim. It tells us that, in Heaven, God studies new interpretations of the sacrifices in the name of Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai. It tells us that, even though God does not need to eat or drink, out of love for the Jewish people, God eats and drinks with us in Heaven.[12] Because of the deep connection between this world and the world above, God is able even to suspend the laws of the universe to replicate what we do on Earth.

What does this mean then for us, modern Jews, for whom the synagogue has permanently replaced the Temple? I would like to think that, just as the Temple was once a mirror of Heaven, our houses of meeting are today, too. When we gather together in community, some profound unity is recreated in Heaven. When we sing in unison on Shabbat mornings, new blessings and prayers are created in the World Above. When we read about the dimensions of the Tabernacle in this week’s Torah portion, those creative faculties that once created the world are the Temple are put into action once more and, through them, entire new worlds are made possible.

Sometimes it is easy to feel like our actions have no impact. The Zohar gives me hope. If what we do on Earth is replicated in Heaven, our actions cannot fail to be meaningful. When, here, we strive for a better world, that same campaign ignites in the upper echelons of the universe. When, here, we celebrate love, birthdays and the lives of our congregants, the Heavenly hosts are brought closer together in solidarity with us. Our kindness, our optimism, our compassion in this world are mirrored on a cosmic level.

The teachings of the Zohar may be complex, but their result is simple: We live in a world that shares its dimensions with Heaven. We are tasked with the spiritual health of the entire universe.

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven. So let us strive to create Heaven on Earth.

Shabbat shalom.

Kabbalah_Art_-_Diamond_Painting_Kit_grande
Kabbalistic art

I first wrote this sermon as an essay for a class at Leo Baeck College on Kabbalah. I adapted it for use and delivered it at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue on 7th March 2020.

[1] Zohar II, 220b-221a

[2] I have relied for translations and interpretation on Tishby, Isaiah. The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts (Vol III), trans. David Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 909-930

[3] Ex 39:1-3

[4] Ex 38:27-28

[5] Scholem, Gershom G. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Shocken Books, 1946), pp. 156-159

[6] Ex 31:2-3

[7] Prov 3:19-20

[8] Laenen, J. H. Jewish Mysticism: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 46

[9] Laenen, pp. 46-48

[10] Laenen, pp. 48-49

[11] Zohar II 241a

[12] Zohar III, 241b

judaism · sermon

The Tabernacle or The Temple

When Israel Mattuck, Britain’s first Liberal rabbi, went on holiday, he used to spend hours visiting the churches and cathedrals wherever he was. His biographer, Pam Fox, writes endearingly about how much it used to annoy his family.1

I really relate to this. There is something quite wonderful about seeing how others pray. From the mosques in Turkey and southern Spain to the cathedrals in France and Italy, I’ve never found a holiday partner I couldn’t frustrate by dragging them into every little religious building I see.

These buildings communicate messages about what believers make of their religions. The last time I was here in the Three Counties, I sat with my boyfriend in Gloucester Cathedral and we listened to Saturday night evensong. The organ roared through the cavernous building, as if to remind us how terrifying God could be. I went away from the service feeling stirred in a way synagogue services rarely make me feel, and I wondered what parallels there were in our practice.

Perhaps part of the appeal of these spaces is that we have no Jewish equivalent. There is, after all, no such thing as Jewish architecture. What does a “Jewish building” look like? What are its features? Beyond a mezuzah on the doorpost, very little ever identifies a space as Jewish.

In part, that is because of history. Forever a transient people, we have rarely invested in plush buildings, knowing well that our communities were so wont to move and change. In the medieval synagogue in Barcelona’s Calle, the only distinguishing feature is that the wall protrudes slightly onto the cobbled street so that worshippers can face east. It has had no problem being repurposed variously as a home, a factory, a cafe and a museum. The site of the synagogue in Lincoln, dating back over a millennium, was only recently repurposed by its Liberal Jewish community. And, still now, it’s really just a very old room.

Yet even today in modern Britain and the USA, where Jews have lived comfortably for some time, there is little that can be identified as Jewish architecture. The Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood is identifiable by its Greek columns. Temple Emanu-El in New York looks indistinguishable from a Cathedral. Even modern Israel has developed no architectural style for its religious buildings. The places where I have prayed in Jerusalem seem no different to shop front shtiebels. For some reason, we have an aversion to creating Jewish buildings.

This casts an interesting light on this week’s parashah. Here, we read about the Israelites’ instructions for building a Tabernacle. This was a giant portable tent in the desert, where the freed slaves would come to offer sacrifices and experience their God. What a space it must have been! Every precious metal is enumerated; the finest kinds of wood; fabrics dyed in the hardest-to-find colours of crimson, purple and blue; goats’ hair and dolphins’ skins. We read about the incenses and it’s as if we can smell them wafting through the sacred space.2

This Tabernacle in some way must have mirrored the First Temple. In our haftarah, we read of King Solomon’s building of the Jerusalem Temple.3 About 30 metres long and described in glorious detail, this was the central focus of the Israelite cult for around 400 years.4

One of the great debates between Liberal and Orthodox Jews in the last century was which one preceded the other: did the Temple come first, or the Tabernacle? For Orthodox Jews, who treated the Bible as a historical account of the journeys of the Israelites, the Tabernacle must have come first, and been a blueprint for the Temple that would later follow. For Liberal Jews, who accepted the conclusions of the historians of the time, the myth of the Tabernacle was constructed later, when the Temple already stood, as a way to justify the religious centralisation brought about under Solomon.

As it turns out, we might both have been wrong. It is unclear whether Solomon’s Temple ever really existed. We have no archaeological evidence for it.5 There have been attempts to prove that such a space existed, but these have all been exposed as hoaxes. That doesn’t mean it definitely didn’t exist – lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, and Jerusalem is a notoriously difficult place to do archaeological digs. But we can reasonably suspect that Solomon’s Temple may have been a myth.

One of the things that was most missing from these heated debates in the last century was that the Tabernacle and the Temple were fundamentally different places. The Temple had attributes that would have been impossible for the Tabernacle to have: fixed foundations, windows, stone quarries and multiple rooms. The Tabernacle, by contrast, was a mobile, portable space, that had to be lifted and reassembled regularly as the Israelites went about their journeying.

Through their different architectural styles, the two spaces communicated fundamentally different messages about the nature of God. The God of the Tabernacle was transient, travelling with the people as they came out of slavery and wandered in the desert. It had no fixed home and could speak to people wherever they were. The God of the Temple was fixed in one place. It had a home and its worshippers needed to travel from all the surrounding towns to pray there.6 One God was national; the other universal.

At the heart of these debates between Liberal and Orthodox Jews was an issue that was far more theological than it was historical. Orthodox Jews needed to believe that God had pre-ordained the Temple because they wanted to see a Messianic Age in which it was rebuilt. They maintained that our God was still a national God who would one day return to live in Jerusalem. Liberal Jews needed to exercise doubt because, for them, God was transcendental and Judaism had no central home.

This brings me back to the question with which I first began: why is there no such thing as Jewish architecture? Perhaps it is about much more than historical circumstance or artistic predilections. Perhaps it tells us something deeper about how we see God. Our God, like us, is rootless and unchainable. Our God, like us, reveals its nature more through loving deeds than through material accomplishments.

As a community, we move regularly from one place to the next. We spend our services variously in Ledbury, Ross, Up Hatherley, Gloucester and across the Three Counties in each others’ homes. Let us rejoice in this fact. We are, like our forebearers in this parashah, wandering Jews. We are, as our Liberal rabbis would have hoped, physically demonstrating God’s transcendent mobility. Every house and community centre we enter becomes full of the richness of tradition and, for the time that we are there, is transformed.

There is no such thing as a Jewish space because every space where you find Jews is Jewish.

temple emanu el
Temple Emanu-El in New York

 

I gave this sermon on Saturday 29th February 2020 at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Trumah

1 Pam Fox, Israel Mattuck: Architect of Liberal Judaism

2 Ex 25

3 1 Kings 6

4 BT Bava Batra 3a

5 Finklestein and Lieberman, The Bible Unearthed

6 Mishnah Sukkah 4

judaism · sermon · torah

Whose hearts will turn?

A scorpion asked a frog to carry it across the river on its back. The frog said: “Absolutely not. If I carry you, you will sting me.” The scorpion replied: “If I do that, we will both drown. It goes against my interests.” Reluctantly, the frog agreed and let the scorpion onto its back. They began swimming without a problem. Then, midway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog anyway. The dying frog asked the scorpion: “Why would you do that? Now we’re both going to die.” The scorpion replied: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

This famous animal fable, originally from 20th Century Russia, speaks to something both familiar and uncomfortable about the world. We know that people, no matter how much they want to change, often end up hurting others and themselves as if motivated by a fundamental nature.1 But the story is also problematic. It suggests that people have fundamental characters that cannot be overturned. Such a perspective is incompatible with religious Judaism, which teaches that everyone can change.

It is with this in mind that I read the opening of our parashah: “God hardened Pharoah’s heart. God hardened the hearts of everyone around him.”2 Literally, God made their hearts heavy, weighted, immovable.

In most places where we read this, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but here, God hardens it.3 This poses a fundamental question for us about free will. Could Pharoah not have repented? Could he not have turned around and told the Israelites they could leave?

The Torah tells us God did this “in order to show these signs among them”.4 Those signs included locusts that swallowed up all the crops, darkness that blinded everyone in Egypt and, ultimately, death to the firstborn. Were these signs, then, unavoidable? Did the ordinary people of Egypt have no choice but to endure these “miracles”?

Ibn Ezra, the great Spanish exegete, reverses the concern. He points out if somebody wants to do wrong, the opportunities will be available to them.5 In other words, God does not prevent people from doing good, but neither does God prevent them doing evil. On this reading, God did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, but simply allowed it to happen. That answer sits well with us theologically: free will must mean the freedom to do wrong. And, partly, this fits with our historical memory. In this week of Holocaust Memorial, we are painfully reminded that God’s gift of free will can be outrageously abused.

But that conclusion seems too ready to resolve discomfort. It glosses over something else we know about history: that when hearts are hard, they stay so. No dictator has ever willingly given up power; no slavemaster has ever freed their slaves without significant pressure.6 Indeed, the price of ending slavery in America was a civil war. In Britain, the slave-owners were paid heavy compensation for their loss of income after more than a century of struggle.

That is not simply because slave owners are evil or dictators are wicked. In truth, every one of them could turn away from their wrongdoing and choose the path of righteousness spelled out by God. But they do not. In Germany, not every Nazi believed in the racist ideology, but all became complicit in its atrocities.7 Like the scorpion who stung the frog even knowing they would both die, the wicked continue in their wickedness, even if they know it is ultimately destructive. And that is because, while they are free, they are fundamentally constrained.

If Pharaoh were to turn around and say that the Israelites were free, he would have every Egyptian landowner at his door demanding what had happened to their possessions. He would have to answer to the Egyptian poor who, despite having nothing, at least had their superiority over the Israelites. There would be immediate chaos and revolution. It is not only people that create immorality, but systems that engender them. Once a system is in place that enables slavery, it is very difficult for any individual to decide they no longer want to own slaves. Pharaoh’s heart is hard, then, not only by choice, but by necessity. It is in Pharaoh’s nature that he must uphold the oppression he has created.

Interestingly, we learn from the Torah portion that the contrary can also be true. As the slaves prepared to leave Egypt “God placed favour in the eyes of the Egyptians” towards the Israelites.8 The Egyptians, the Torah tells us, encouraged the people to leave, handing over to them food, money and clothes.9 While Pharaoh and his courtiers can do nothing but harden their hearts, the ordinary Egyptians are compelled to be supportive. If we remove the possibility that God literally interfered with their freedom, the lesson may well be that there are people who, by their very position in society, find themselves becoming allies in struggles against oppression.

This side of the Shoah is also true. Most places under Nazi occupation handed over their Jews willingly, sometimes enthusiastically, as in Poland. Where Bulgaria’s Jews survived it was not because of the goodwill of the government or their leaders’ unwillingness to participate in the slaughter. Much historical evidence suggests that the contrary was the case. It was because the ordinary people of Bulgaria, their non-Jewish neighbours, decided to show them compassion. These citizens worked against their government and occupying powers to stop the persecution and deportation of Jews.10

If we learn anything from this parashah, it is not that we do not have free will but that some hearts are easier to turn than others. Some people are more naturally our allies than others. Over the last few years, much of the Jewish community has engaged in its campaigning against antisemitism by focusing on the people at the top of the political pyramid, making enemies and allies. It is now becoming clear to most that some of those enemies were not as hostile as imagined, and some allies were not really so friendly.

It is a healthy reminder of the saying from the Mishnah: “Be careful with the powerful for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they will not stand by you in the hour of your distress.”11 This dictum may, unfortunately, reveal itself to be true.

But that should not cause us to despair. While the top of the pyramid may be unstable, we can count on the strength of its base. Our allies are the same people they have always been. They are our neighbours, our colleagues, the people who we see every day. They are the people who stand up to racism when they see it on public transport and on the street. They are the ordinary citizens of Britain, with whom we have built strong relationships over many years. Through our solidarity and interactions with them, we can build up the strength not only to overcome the prejudice against us, but against everyone. Together with Muslims, immigrants, foreigners, disabled people, LGBT people, Black people and all those who face discrimination, we can work together to defeat intolerance. And we will succeed. It’s in our nature.

pharoah prince of egypt

I gave this sermon for Parashat Bo on Saturday 1st February at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue

1 cf Lasine, Weighing Hearts

2 Ex 10:1

3 Rashbam to Ex 10:1

4 Ex 10:1

5 Ibn Ezra to Ex 10:20

6 cf Frederick Douglas: “power concedes nothing without a demand”

7 cf Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichman in Jerusalem’

8 Ex 11:3

9 Ex 12:33-36

10 cf Todorov, the Fragility of Goodness

11 Pirkei Avot 2:3

sermon · theology

A chosen people

You are a chosen people.

Singled out from every other people on the planet and selected by the one true God to have a unique and special relationship spanning generations into the past and future. You are among the chosen people, because you are a Jew. And you, particularly, have been chosen. As a Jew.

How do you feel?

Well, bloody uncomfortable, I expect. The very concept of chosenness is quite toe-curling. It has so many airs of superiority. It sounds smug at best and racist at worst. It feels incompatible with everything else we think about ourselves and about God. 

But it’s there. It’s there in this week’s parashah. God calls out to Moses and tells him:

I am the Eternal One. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my ineffable name I did not make myself fully known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. And now I have heard the wailing of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.

This is the holy relationship between us and God. It was laid down to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was repeated to Moses, where it grew stronger. It was on the basis of this special relationship that God drew us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand so that we would be a holy people and God would be our God. God, universal and everlasting, would be a God to us, personal and special. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

In the mouth of God, it certainly does. It sounds like a real and loving relationship that we can sustain together. In the mouth of another Jew, it sounds slightly narcissistic. The idea of being a ‘chosen people’ is something rarely discussed among Jews. It features little in our understanding of ourselves. Which means we hear it most commonly in the mouth of antisemites. In their mouths, it sounds like either an accusation or a taunt. 

As an accusation, it is recriminating. How can you believe you are so special? Does this status give you the right to do whatever you want? What must it mean for the rest of us, we whom you have decided are unchosen? How can you hold by such an insulting theology? As a taunt, it is a reminder of our weakness. Is this God’s chosen people? Is this dispersed and tiny group supposed to be somehow special? Is this deeply flawed group, so easy to criticise for our conduct, supposed to be exemplary?

Many of us would have a hard time agreeing with the idea of chosenness when it is framed in this way. Some have sought to downplay or erase the idea. When the Enlightenment came and we moved out from the ghettos, many Jews began to resist the idea of chosenness, saying that we were not chosen at all. But this seems to turn external hatred into self-hatred. Yes, it is hard to maintain an idea of chosenness when you have to explain it to others. But in doing so it may feel like we are also giving up some of the richness of Judaism.

An alternative approach has been to neutralise the claim. In our liturgy, Liberals will often say “על ישראל ועל כל בני אדם” – for all the Jewish people and for all of humanity. We universalise this theology – affirming that we have a special relationship with God and asserting that others can do so too. This was summarised by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks when he was going through his postmodernist phase. He said

God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims . . . God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.

These words were met at the time with anger and ridicule. Rabbi Sacks was forced by the Conservative wing of Orthodoxy to rewrite the book. In the second edit, Sacks suggested that with the coming of the messiah, eventually everyone would be Jewish. At the time, most progressives came to his defence on the matter, and understandably so. He was vilified for holding a position that most believers in a universal God would say was intuitively true. Yet, with hindsight, it is also right to probe this position. What does chosenness even mean if everyone is chosen? The word loses any of its value.

So we have three positions, none of which feel particularly palatable. We can either dig our heels in and insist that we are, in fact, the chosen people, and that everyone else is not. Alternatively, we can scrap the whole business and say that we are not chosen and neither is anyone else. Or we can insist that we are chosen and so is everyone else. All of them are valid. All of them are somehow disappointing.

I want to propose another way of thinking about chosenness. Let us return to the text and ask instead: why were the Jews chosen? God says: “I have heard the wailing of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving.” In this narrative, we were not chosen because we were great. We were not chosen because we had any special skills or qualities. We were chosen because we were oppressed. 

This carries a different meaning entirely. It suggests that God stands with those who suffer. And that God continues to stand with us in memory of our suffering. Being chosen, in this context, does not mean having priviliges, but being heard. We are recognised by our Creator for our suffering. And when we remember that suffering, we experience the chosenness again as we realise the moral consequences of the cries of others. God, the voice of morality in every generation, stands by the side of the victims of injustice, even when they do not experience miraculous interventions. 

We are approaching Holocaust Memorial Day. This somber time is a reminder to us of the divine help that never came for the 6 million Jews and 3 million others who died in the Nazi genocide. In the face of such tragedy, it is hard to sustain a theology that says that God protects us. But we must nevertheless affirm the belief that God stood by our side. Through the horrors of Auschwitz no less than slavery in Egypt, God heard the cries of the oppressed.

If being chosen means anything, it should mean being obligated to hear those cries. We should hear the wailing of those who went before as reminders to us of who we are. We should hear the oppression of all those who still cry, and whose oppression goes on, often in the face of indifference. 

Marek Edelman, a fighter in the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis said: “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.” May we, like God, always count ourselves among those who stand by the oppressed.

Shabbat shalom.

 

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vaera on Saturday 25th January 2020 at 3 Counties Liberal Judaism

sermon · torah

Are we supposed to like Joseph?

Are we supposed to like Joseph? Are we supposed to find him endearing?

Are we supposed to cheer for him as the story progresses? Because, honestly, I find it hard.

He is the protagonist for more than half of the Book of Genesis. Other than Moses, nobody in the Torah gets as much airtime as Joseph. So you would think that the hero of our story would be a bit more, well, heroic. Instead, in this week’s parashah, Joseph comes across as pretty conceited.

It is one thing that his father made him a colourful coat to show Joseph that he was the favourite. He can’t help that. Such blatant favouritism is probably bad parenting on Jacob’s part. It’s not something that Joseph had any control over. But did he have to wear the coat? Did he have to wear it all the time?

The very first thing we hear about Joseph is that he snitches on his brothers to Jacob. He follows them around while they’re working and then runs back to their dad to tell on them. When we hear that Joseph’s brothers wouldn’t talk to him, we can hardly be surprised. What did he think would happen?

And then he has his dreams. He tells his brothers that they were harvesting wheat in the fields, when his sheath stood upright, and theirs all bowed down to his. ‘What could it possibly mean?’, he asks them? Perhaps, Joseph, it means some dreams are better kept inside your head.

Then he has another dream, where he is the shiniest star in the sky, and all the other stars, plus the sun and the moon, all bow down to him. Jacob wastes no time picking up the suggestion that not only are his brothers bowing down to him, but that his mother and father are prostrating themselves too.

Honestly, I know we know how the story ends, and yes it all turns out OK, but it really is hard to sympathise with him. I’m not saying he deserved to be sold into slavery. Nobody deserves that. It was definitely an overreaction on the part of his brothers. I’m just saying that he didn’t really make life easy for himself.

And does he even change? His brothers go on a sincere journey of self-discovery. They learn to feel remorse, to repent, and not to make the same mistakes again. That’s why, when Joseph sets up a test at the climax of the story to see whether his brothers will stand up for Benjamin, they do. Judah even volunteers himself as a slave to defend Benjamin. The brothers learned their lessons.

What does Joseph learn? He endures slavery, false accusations and imprisonment. But in the end he becomes vizier for all of Egypt. And, having reconciled with his brothers, he reassures them that this must have been God’s plan all along. Joseph started out the story believing that he was destined for greatness, and ended it by finding out he was right.

What is the moral lesson we are supposed to gain from Joseph, then? Or, rather, what could Joseph have done differently that I might give a more favourable sermon on him?

The answer, I think, comes from a man who was very similar to Joseph, and yet separated from him by many thousands of years: Oscar Wilde. Like Joseph, Wilde was a youngest brother. Like Joseph, he wrongly spent a long stint in prison. Wilde even had a multi-coloured coat. While other Victorian gentlemen wore drab black suits, Oscar Wilde pioneered the aesthetic movement with purple velvet outfits, colourful corsages and impressive top hats. Most importantly, like Joseph, Oscar Wilde was an individual. He was different, and he knew it.

What differentiated Wilde from Joseph was that Wilde had a much better analysis of his situation. Wilde knew that he was an individual, and he did not try to change that. But he also knew that the hostility to his individualism came from inequality.

In 1891, inspired by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde wrote his only major political work, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’. In it, he rails against the reality that individual expression, through art, poetry and philosophy, is only the preserve of a privileged few, while the poor are required to toil in repetitive drudgery. This inequality, he argues, means that most people never access their individualism, and so despise those who are privileged enough to be able. In a startling polemic, he calls for the abolition of private property altogether.

I think his analysis is really correct. We know that groups need individuals. But it is equally true that the individual needs the group. Human beings are pack animals, and we need to find some collective expression if we are to have any chance of standing out as individuals.

Perhaps, then, Joseph wasn’t so bad. He was a product of his circumstances. Had Jacob treated all the brothers with equal love and nurtured what was special in all of them, there might not have been such a need for bitterness and jealousy. Joseph may have been able to dream his dreams in a position of humility, and fulfil his destiny without infuriating everybody else. Granted, it wouldn’t have made such a good story, but I’m not aiming for good literary tension here.

And yet what we have really is a good story. Part of the reason why I find Joseph so objectionable is because I find him so relatable. I know I am prone to all the same behaviours for which I have criticised Joseph. I know that I can just as easily bluster my way through life and try to stand out. The Torah tells us this story because it is telling us something honest about ourselves.

And yet Oscar Wilde is also right. The problem is not that one person should want to express themselves, but that not everyone should feel able. As Liberal Jews, we prize the individual and we give great value to people’s personal expression. 

As a community, Harrow is now in the process of deciding who to recruit as your new rabbi. Like every community in a similar position, you are faced with an impossible task. You will want to find someone who is energetic, but experienced. Traditional but innovative. And, as in the protagonists of this story, individual but able to be part of a collective. 

Often conversations about this focus on who the individual should be and what they should do. The truth, as we learn from this story, is that it’s never just about one person. It’s about the culture we build as a community. It’s about how people work and grow together.

Let us not only ask that everyone feel able to live their own Jewish journey, but go further and ask how we collectively empower each other to journey together.

Shabbat shalom. 

Wilde

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vayeishev on Saturday 21st December at Harrow Mosaic Liberal.