judaism · sermon · torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.


Parashat Chayyei Sarah, 5783

israel · protest · sermon

Not in our name

This week, Israel went to the polls, electing its most far right government yet. Netanyahu is set to return to power, and take control of the legislature to stop them prosecuting him on corruption charges.

To secure power, he has allied himself with extremist religious nationalists, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. They are unabashed racists, who are explicitly opposed to Reform Judaism.

Their whole ideology is about securing an ethnically Jewish majority, by deploying military means against the Palestinians, preventing mixed marriages, and expanding the borders as far as they will go.

They want to make sure all Jews are reproducing to win their demographic war, so promote institutionalised sexism and homophobia. In particular, Smotrich wants to ban abortions, bring back conversion therapy, stop trans access to healthcare, and ban gay men from donating blood.

In the preceding weeks, Jewish News warned that this was not an Israel British Jews would want to see. Many quarters have expressed great alarm at the election results.

In fact, this is not so new or surprising. There was a time when Naftali Bennet, also a religious nationalist, was considered the most far right voice in Israel. He has now spent the last year as Prime Minister, ruling on a supposedly moderate ticket, mostly because of how far right the rest of the religious nationalist movement has become.

It is not simply that they are bigots. It is not just that they loathe me and everything I stand for. On that front, the feeling is very much mutual. It is that they have twisted Judaism into a bellicose hate cult.

You can find them rioting through East Jerusalem, terrorising the Palestinians to scare them out of their homes.

You can see them expanding into new settlements, throwing people out of their family homes.

You can hear them singing at the Western Wall that they will violently wreak vengeance on the Palestinians.

And, of course, you can find them in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, passing laws. Their most recent triumphs are declaring that Israel is only a state for the Jews and that Arabic is not a recognised language; and defending settler violence in the West Bank.

All this, they say, is to defend the Jewish people.

Perhaps, we might concede that they and their friends are stronger because they have the full might of a large army behind them. If that is their definition of Jewish defence, fine.

But it has nothing to do with defending Judaism. Their so-called Judaism is based on perverse, anti-rabbinical readings of religious texts. They see the whole of the Jewish tradition and history as a summons to colonise the entirety of David’s historic kingdom and annihilate anyone who stands in their way.

They do so in our name. And in the name of our Torah.

While the general thrust of our religious text is towards peace and justice, there is more war in the Torah than you might expect. The Torah is, after all, an ancient Near Eastern text, from a time when emergent states and nascent empires were locked in near-constant battles for territories and resources.

This week’s parashah is a prime example. Lech Lecha dedicates an entire chapter to a fantastical description of war.

Abraham enters a military pact to defeat the armies led by Kedorlaomer. Often called “The War of the Nine Kings,” the chapter includes descriptions of alliances, rebellions, military campaigns, and looting the spoils of war.

If you are hearing this story for the first time, you are not alone. We often skirt over it in favour of the more elevating sections of this week’s reading.

It’s not just our very polite sensibilities as British Reform Jews. In general, the rabbinic tradition as we know it, has downplayed the Torah’s violence, or reinterpreted it to be about more moral topics.

Judaism as we know it was born out of abortive wars and failed uprisings, so our rabbinic progenitors went to great lengths to caution against war and violence. In practice, Judaism has been pacifist, if only out of pragmatism, rather than principle.

The preceding periods, in which pre-rabbinic Jews did have military power, were pretty horrific. The Second Temple period, under the Hasmonean Dynasty, saw brutal repression of any deviation from official state religion. Its leaders were corrupt, seeking to control every part of legislative and economic life. They were tyrannical.

When our rabbis rebuilt Judaism out of the ashes of the destruction of the Temple, they wanted to introduce necessary correctives to historic fundamentalism. They sought to create a Judaism that would be ethical, based in the grassroots, committed to diversity, and, above all, peaceful.

So, our tradition opted to understand the Torah’s violent exhortations differently. The rabbis understood the calls to massacre entire nations as personal struggles to blot out the violent parts of ourselves.

In our parashah, they understood the text not as a summons to war, but to faith. They read Abraham’s conquests as a moral message about the importance of trusting in God. When the King of Sodom offers Abraham spoils of war and he refuses, our rabbis interpret this not as a rebuttal of a future military alliance, but as Abraham saying that real riches come from God in the form of blessings.

This moral and peaceful hermeneutic became the foundation of Judaism.

All that changed in the 19th Century, with the emergence of the religious nationalists. For them, the Torah was not a moral handbook, but a military one.

They were inspired by Christian fundamentalists who wanted to see a world-ending war. Still now, those evangelicals are their primary financial backers.

When they read our parashah, they treat it as a call to arms. “Lech lecha” is not, for them, a moral command to follow God, but a political one to move to Israel. The wars are not stories of an ancient civilisation, but justifications for military violence today.

When they read biblical mandates to massacre nations, they take them literally. They imagine that they are divinely mandated to enact genocide.

This is not a fringe group on the margins of Israeli politics. This is the Israeli government, and it has been for decades.

This is not an aberration in Israeli politics. It is the trajectory the country has been on at least since I was born. The far right have continually dominated, show no sign of abating, and hold every possible government to ransom.

Liberal leaders keep saying that, at some point, when the racism gets too much, they will withdraw their support for Israel, but the day never comes.

At this point, it has to be asked: how far is too far? If Ben Gvir and Smotrich are not too much, what will be? Will there ever be a point at which people are finally willing to draw a line? When will we say that enough is enough? When will we cry out: not in our name?

We do not like to look at the verses in Torah that glamourise war and nationalism. We do not like to look at the news from Israel that does the same.

But, right now, we have to look at it. Because these facts are staring at us. And we can no longer presume to turn away.

When this government imposes its reactionary plans, they will be doing so in our name. In the name of our Torah. We have to stand up and assert that they do not.

The so-called Judaism of the religious nationalists is not ours. We repudiate their racism, their fundamentalism, and their militarism.

We affirm the Judaism of the rabbis and the Reformers – based on ethics, dignity, piety and peace.

We will do everything we can to resist this government’s perversion of Judaism.

Not in our name. Not in the name of our Torah. Not in the name of our God.

Shabbat shalom.

festivals · high holy days · sermon

Is time a cycle or a line?

Do you ever feel like we’re going round in circles?

No, really.

We just spent our evening going round and round. We circled the synagogue seven times; we spun around on the spot. We rotated so much we got dizzy.

Then, having spun and circled and danced with the Torah, we read the very last bit of the story, only to begin it again. No sooner had our narrative ended than we immediately restarted it.

Our storytelling does not begin with creation and end with the death of Moses, because the death of Moses is immediately followed by the story of creation. You cannot hear one without hearing the other. We are locked in a cycle.

How fitting that this celebration of circling is the completion of our High Holy Day festivals. They began with Rosh Hashanah, when, our tradition teaches, the world was first created, and they end with Simchat Torah when, we read, the world was first created. Our festivities began with a new beginning and end by redoing the same beginning all over again.

This makes sense in the context of our festival cycle, where one simchah always follows from the last and leads to the next one. Which one is the beginning, and which one is the end? If you tried to place your finger anywhere in the cycle, you would soon find it slipping away from you, as it made way for the next turn on the same wheel.

Our Torah, our festivals, our planet, and our bodies, all turn with anticipated regularity. So we go on in circles.

This view of time is antithetical to the modern mind. Everything in contemporary thought speaks of progress. We came from a finite beginning, and we are heading to a finite end.

The world began at one point, when it was created, and will end at another, when it will be destroyed. Humanity came into existence around 300,000 years ago, and could last another 8 million, but it will at some point cease to be.

In the intervening period while humans exist, we progress from intelligent apes to hunter-gatherers, to shepherds, to subsistence farmers; through the metallic ages to feudalism, to capitalism.

Yet this view of time, as a progression from one clear point to a closing at another, is a distinctly modern one.

For most of Jewish history, time has not been a journey from beginning to end, but a constant cycle.

The great 20th Century literary critic, John Berger, explained this mentality. For those who work the land, life is precisely a cycle. The work of each day is in a routine with every other. Each year follows the same pattern as the one before.

Autumn, spring, summer, winter. We reap, we sow; we plant, we harvest. We mulch the ground and till it with seeds and water it and take in the yield and repeat the same process again.

Every individual is born into a world where that wheel is already in spin and, when they die, the world carries on turning in just the same way.

When peasants imagine time, therefore, they think only of three stages. The first is our present life of survival, confined as it is to that ongoing cycle. At either end is an identical period of perfection. We began in a paradise and we are heading to a paradise. The ideal world existed long ago in the distant past, and we will return there when the world is set right.

If the distant past and the messianic future are the same place, then time is a cycle. We are only ever heading to the place from which we began.

This is precisely the position of traditional Jewish theology. Our souls began in Eden, dwell temporarily in this life to struggle, and will one day return to that same Eden.

It is the traditional Jewish view of time. Humanity was given a perfect world; we live now in a time of violence and injustice; the world will be returned to its sublime state once more.

When we put the Torah back in the ark, we summon this Jewish view of time: חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם – renew our days as of old. Make our times new, like they were at the beginning.

Within these times, then, says Berger, our only way forward is to trudge the same path. We walk on the same roads as our ancestors did and beat them down again for the next generation.

In Judaism, we call that path “halachah”: the way, the route. These are the rites and customs of our ancestors. We will repeat them and we will pass them on. The cycle continues.

But there is a problem with this view of time. Berger acknowledges that, if life is seen from this standpoint, the only correct moral viewpoint is conservative. We must repeat what we have done before. We cannot deviate from it whatsoever.

That is, effectively, a parody of Orthodox Judaism’s view of history. The religion is the same as it always was and we must endeavour not to let it change. Our ancestors knew more than we did, and we will be in a constant descent of generations until a long-awaited messianic age.

In such a worldview, there is no room for development, innovation, or change.

There is a reason why “going round in circles” is an insult!

However much progress may conflict with the passing of the seasons, it conforms with what we know of what has happened over the centuries.

We are all here as Reform Jews because we have seen something in the past that we wanted to correct: whether it was inequality between the sexes; an inability to watch TV on a Saturday afternoon; or simply a desire to hear the organ in shul. If everything must remain static, our synagogue could not exist.

Reform Judaism is an effort to reconcile the two views of time. It straddles the traditional cycle and modern progress. It says that we can go round and go forwards at the same time.

How is this possible?

I like the analogy of time as a snail shell. Yes, it goes in cycles, but at the end of each turn, it moves forward, just slightly. We go round and we go out. We go back on ourselves in order to advance.

If it feels like we are going round in circles, that’s because we are, but we are not always coming back to exactly the same place.

When we arrive at this new Simchat Torah, we are reliving the old one, but we are here as transformed people. We are slightly different than when we saw it last, so the festival is too.

We go back on ourselves in order to move forwards.

Chag sameach.

festivals · high holy days · sermon

From an open roof to a closed scroll

We are nearing the end of Sukkot and entering Simchat Torah.

We move from fragility to strength, from an open roof to a closed scroll, from the impermanence of life to the eternal truth of God.

What makes a sukkah kosher is its frailty. With its open walls and starlit roof, it stands in for all our wanderings and confusion. It is makeshift and temporary.

In its fragile state, it teaches us about the human condition: that we are vulnerable, at the whim of forces beyond our control. Into this transient home, we bring guests, both living and ancestral, who teach us that we only live by community. 

The sukkah teaches us about the human heart: that it must be open and porous, welcoming to strangers, able to let others in and accept our own emotional helplessness.

But the sukkah also has another feature of what makes it kosher. It must be able to stand for eight days. It must be strong enough to withstand the weather. It cannot be drowned by rain or upended by windstorms. 

This, too, teaches us about the spirit. We must be resilient. We must be confident enough to know our boundaries. We must be strong enough not to let others wave or topple us.

This is the tension we hold in the transition between Sukkot and Simchat Torah: between fragility and strength.

There is a story that Abraham’s tent was open on all sides. 

Wherever Abraham looked, he could see whether strangers were coming to visit him.

If he looked out and saw them coming, he would run to meet them. Abraham was the model of generosity, so full of love for the wayfarer that he would do anything to let them in.

This explains why he greeted the angels who came to visit him at Mamre so enthusiastically, even though he thought they were just human beings. It explains how he was righteous enough to receive God’s blessing, and to become the progenitor of monotheism. 

This is the version of the story that we find in Bereishit Rabbah, and you will find it printed in all sorts of commentaries. It is a beautiful myth that captures our imaginations and features heavily in sermons preaching charity. It teaches us about the importance of welcoming. 

But it is not the only version of the story in rabbinic literature. A few centuries later, Avot deRabbi Natan, a commentary on the same text, explains it slightly differently. Instead of the example of Abraham, this midrash says we should be like Job. 

It teaches:

Your house should have a spacious entrance on the north, south, east, and west, like Job’s, who made four openings to his house. Job opened up every side so that the poor would not be troubled to go all around the house: no matter what direction a stranger came from, they could enter in their stride.

At a glance, it tells the same story, just with a different prophet named. Job was also described as righteous and upright, a man who feared God and turned away from evil. 

But there is a difference. Unlike Abraham’s, Job’s house is actually mentioned as having four sides. How do we know? Because, at the very start of Job’s story a messenger comes to tell Job that his house has blown down. “A mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on the young people and they are dead.”

Job’s house was so open that it was destroyed and killed everyone in it.

Job’s house was open on all sides. No wonder it fell down!

This later midrash is satirising the earlier one. Sure, openness is good, but too much openness leaves you exposed. 

We have to exist, instead, in the tension between fragility and strength; between vulnerability and boundaries.

It may seem strange to preach boundaries from the bimah. Admittedly, it feels strange to me. 

I used to believe that openness was the ultimate religious value. That being hospitable and welcoming were the most important spiritual attributes. And I do still hold them in high regard.

But I am increasingly learning that it is equally important to have structural integrity, and borders, and lines that cannot be crossed. Without them, the entire structure collapses, and the people the structure was established to protect can be destroyed with it.

Sukkot teaches us to live with utmost susceptibility, but only for a short time. We must eat and sleep and live in this shaky fruity shack, exposed to all elements and strangers. It teaches us to put ourselves in harm’s way. 

But not forever.

At some point, the sukkah must come down. At some point, we must return to our own beds and kitchen tables and modern comforts. At some point, we have to hold on to something firm.

As we enter Simchat Torah, we turn to that certainty. That is our Torah, our faith, our belief in God-given moral truths. We grasp it steadfastly, and refuse to waiver from it.

Torah is our foundation. It is our immovable structure. There is some truth that we must hold on to tightly, never allowing it to be permeated or eroded. For us, that is our moral conviction.

The Mishnah instructs us to build a fence around the Torah. This commandment has been abused by some in Orthodoxy to justify always taking the most conservative approach, defending every law against the slightest leniency or adaptation. As such, Reform Jews have often poured scorn on the assertion, seeing it always as a reactionary threat.

But a fence is not the same as a wall. In fact, the word used in the Mishnah is siyag, which is closer to hedge. It is a boundary. It is a line that keeps some things in and some things out. It is a way of protecting the essence. 

That does not mean it has no ways in and no ways out. It just means that some things must be shielded. 

We are nearing the end of Sukkot and entering Simchat Torah.

We move from fragility to strength, from an open roof to a closed scroll, from the impermanence of life to the eternal truth of God.

We have learnt to be vulnerable and precarious. Now, we must learn to protect what we love.

Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat Chol HaMoed 5783, October 15th 2022

fast · high holy days · sermon

Creating cultures of repentance

We are, apparently, in the grips of a culture war. 

It must be an especially intense one, because the newspapers seem to report on it more than the wars in Syria, the Central African Republic, or Yemen, combined. 

According to the Telegraph, this war is our generation’s great fight. It was even the foremost topic in the leadership battle for who would be our next Prime Minister, far above the economy, climate change, or Coronavirus recovery.

Just this last month, its belligerents have included Disney, Buckingham Palace, the British Medical Journal, cyclists in Surrey, alien library mascots, and rural museums.

But which side should I choose? One side is called “the woke mob.” That seems like it should be my team. After all, they are the successor organisation to the Political Correctness Brigade, of which I was a card-carrying member when that was all the rage.

The so-called “woke mob” are drawing attention to many historic and present injustices. From acknowledging that much of Britain was built on the back of the slave trade to criticising comedians who say that Hitler did a good thing by murdering Gypsies, they are shining a light on wrongs in society.

The trouble is, I hate to be on the losing side. For all the noise and bluster, this campaign hasn’t managed to get anyone who deserves it. The most virulent racists, misogynists, abusers, and profiteers remain largely unabated. 

Even if they were successful, I find the underlying ideas troubling. It seems to assume that people’s wrong actions put them outside of rehabilitation into decent society. Some people are just too bad

This strikes as puritanical. While the claims that so-called “cancel culture” is ruining civilisation are wildly overstated, it is right to be concerned by a philosophy that excludes and punishes.

So, will I throw my lot in with the conservatives? Perhaps it’s time I joined this fightback against the woke mob. 

On this side, proponents say that they are combatting cancel culture. How are they doing this? By deliberately upsetting people. They actively endeavour to elicit a reaction by saying the most hurtful thing they can.

When, inevitably, these public figures receive the condemnation they deserve, they go on tour to lament how sensitive and censorious their opponents are. As a result, they get book deals, newspaper columns, and increased ticket sales. 

Ultimately, this reaction to “cancel culture” is a mirror of what it opposes. It agrees that people cannot heal or do wrong. It celebrates the idea that people are bad, and provides a foil that allows people to prop up their worst selves.

If this is the culture war, I want no part in it. Neither side is interested in the hard work of repentance, apologies, and forgiveness. It offers only two possible cultures: one in which nobody can do right and one in which nobody can do wrong.

This is the antithesis of the Jewish approach to harm. 

Our religion has never tried to divide up the world into good and bad people. We have no interest in flaunting our cruelty, nor in banishing people.

Instead, the Jewish approach is to accept that we are all broken people in a broken world. We are all doing wrong. We all hurt others, and have been hurt ourselves. The Jewish approach is to listen to the yetzer hatov within us: that force of conscience, willing us to do better.

The culture we want to create is one of teshuvah: one in which people acknowledge they have done wrong, seek to make amends, apologise, and earn forgiveness. 

A few weeks ago, just in time for Yom Kippur, Rabbi Danya Rutenberg released a new book, called Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World.

Rabbi Rutenberg argues that Jewish approaches to repentance and repair can help resolve the troubled society we live in.

She locates some of the issues in America’s lack of repentance culture in its history. After the Civil War, preachers and pundits encouraged the people of the now United States of America to forgive, forget and move on. It doesn’t matter now, they said, who owned slaves or campaigned for racism, now they were all Americans. 

The Civil War veterans established a social basis in which there was no need for repentance or reparations, but that forgiveness had to be offered unconditionally. Without investing the work in true teshuvah, they created an unapologetic society that refused to acknowledge harm.

We, in Britain, also have an unapologetic and unforgiving culture, but our history is different. 

True, we also failed to properly address our history of slavery. When the slave trade was abolished at the start of the 19th Century, former slave traders and slave owners were given substantial compensation. The former slaves themselves were not offered so much as an apology.

But we have not been through a conscious process of nation-building the way the United States has. 

In fact, Britain has not really gone through any process of cultural rebuild since the collapse of its Empire. In 1960, the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave his famous speech, in which he acknowledged “the wind of change” driving decolonisation. Whether Brits liked it or not, he said, the national liberation of former colonies was a political fact. 

At that time, he warned “what is now on trial is much more than our military strength or our diplomatic and administrative skill. It is our way of life.” Britain would need to work out who it was and what its values were before it could move forward and expect the family of nations to work with it.

More than 60 years later, it seems we still have not done that. As a nation, we are simply not clear on who we are. We do not know what makes us good, where we have gone wrong, or what we could do to be better.

So, we are caught in shame and denial. Shame that, if we admitted to having caused harm, we would have to accept being irredeemably evil. Denial that we could be bad, and so could ever have done wrong.

The two sides of the so-called “cancel culture” debate represent those two responses to our uncertainty. Those who are so ashamed of Britain’s history of racism and sexism that they have no idea how to move forward. And those who are so in denial of history that they refuse to accept it ever happened, or that it really represented the great moral injury that its victims perceived.

This creates a toxic national culture, stultified by its past and incapable of looking toward its future. 

So, Rabbi Rutenberg suggests, we need to build an alternative culture, one built on teshuvah. We need a culture where people feel guilty about what they have done wrong and try to repair it. For those who have been hurt, that means centering their needs as victims. For those who have done wrong, that means offering them the love and support to become better people. 

Rutenberg draws on the teachings of the Rambam to suggest how that might happen.  The Rambam outlined five steps people could take towards atonement, in his major law code, Mishneh Torah. 

First, you must admit to having done wrong. Ideally, you should stand up publicly, with witnesses, and declare your errors. 

Next, you must try to become a better person. 

Then, you must make amends, however possible. 

Then, and only then, can you make an apology. 

Finally, you will be faced with a similar opportunity to do wrong again. If you have taken the preceding steps seriously, you will not repeat your past mistakes.

For me, the crucial thing about Ruttenberg’s reframing of Rambam, is that it puts apologies nearly last. It centres the more difficult part: becoming the kind of person that does not repeat offences. It asks us to cultivate virtue, looking for what is best in us and trying to improve it.

You must investigate why you did what you did, and understand better the harm you caused. You must read and reflect and listen so that you can empathise with the wronged party. And, through this process, you must cultivate the personality of one who does not hurt again.

That is what Yom Kippur is really about. It is not about beating ourselves up for things we cannot change, nor about stubbornly holding onto our worst habits. It is not about shrugging off past injustices, nor is it about asking others to forget our faults.

It’s about the real effort needed to look at who we are, examine ourselves, and become a better version of that.

If there is a culture war going on, that is the culture I want to see. 

I want us to live in a society where people think about their actions and seek to do good. I want us to see a world where nobody is excluded – not because they are wrong or because they have been wronged. One where we are all included, together, in improving ourselves and our cultural life.

To build such a system, we need to start small. We cannot change Britain overnight. 

We have to begin with the smallest pieces first. Tonight, we begin doing that work on ourselves.

Gmar chatimah tovah – may you be sealed for good.

high holy days · sermon

Come back to hoping, even if only slightly

Do you remember how you were as a child, when you only believed good things about the world, and you thought everyone was trustworthy and kind, and you felt you could achieve anything with the power of imagination? Come back to that. Just for a while. Come back to that.

Before the cynicism of adolescence set in and you realised your parents didn’t know everything and you started to question life’s meaning. Come back to that.

You can’t go all the way back. Years of experience have softened some pretensions and hardened some edges.

But try to reclaim a little bit of that optimism and wonder. The person who believed those things lives somewhere inside you still.

You don’t have to come back all the way. You don’t have to believe everything.

You don’t have to believe that God is perfect and created the world and will bring about the Messianic age any day now and will reunite us all with our loved ones.

You don’t have to have perfect faith. I don’t. I doubt many sincere people do.

But you have to hold onto some faith. You have to believe in something. You have to have hope, no matter how fragile it is.

Today is Shabbat Shuvah: the sabbath of return.

It calls on the words of our haftarah, Hosea, where the prophet beseeches us: “come back, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God.”

Return to the faith you once knew.

You have abandoned your self-confidence, says Hosea. You have accepted defeat by Samaria. Assyria will not save you, nor will its gods.

The prophet calls out: “You could blossom like a lily and be beautiful like an olive tree. You can live again.”

Reviving belief is a challenge. We have all suffered our defeats, personal and communal. They have embittered us with cynicism.

Shabbat Shuva is a calling back to faith. It is an invitation to try and remember what it was like to dream.

That is not easy. Some people had life’s harsh realities thrust upon them too young, and had to grapple with injustice too soon.

Primo Levi was such a man.

He was a Jewish chemist in Italy.

When I was a teenager and full of the arrogance that I’d got the world figured out, my dad gave me one of Levi’s books, The Periodic Table. Outside of religious literature, I think that is the only book I’ve finished reading and immediately restarted.

The Periodic Table tells of Levi’s story, through the prism of different elements.

From the noble gases of his Italian-Jewish heritage to the hard, grey metal of Vanadium in his old age, Levi talks us through his experiences of fascism in Italy, which began when he was an infant.

Italy was the first country to adopt fascism. Mussolini came to power on a platform of nationalism, tradition, corporatism, and dictatorial control. His slogan was “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

In Primo Levi’s teenage years, the Italian fascists introduced their racial laws, directed primarily against Italian Jews and Africans. The Africans were placed in colonial concentration camps. The Jews were initially stripped of citizenship and assets, banned from the professions.

At the time, Levi was training as a chemist in a laboratory. His Christian classmates were civil, but withdrew from him, and regarded him with suspicion, and he became a loner. He took solace in chemistry, hoping that its solid truths could puncture fascist lies.

To survive the racial laws, Levi said, he needed to take advantage of his youth and turn a willing blindness to everything happening around him. He needed to imagine that the world was still fine, as he imagined it ought to be. In that naivety, he did not even realise he could actively resist fascism.

When he and his comrades decided to fight the fascists, they turned to the Bible. He saw in his own struggle the struggles the prophets had waged against empires. But he also looked up to the sky and felt that it was empty. God would not save them. They would have to save themselves.

Perhaps this is what it means to have just enough faith. Not so much that you blindly invest your hopes in a God who rescues, but enough that you can draw inspiration from others, past and present. Enough faith to believe that your cause is just and that fascism can, ultimately, be defeated.

Levi knew he had to get angry, and act. He filled his heart, more with desperation than hope, and took up arms.

In the snowy mountains, he fought as a partisan, and was captured by the fascists.

How did he survive the camps? Levi took pride that he went into the camps as an atheist and never wavered in his disbelief. But he refused to succumb to pessimism. He never allowed himself to become disheartened completely. He would not let the fascists take from him his hope.

Who could blame Primo Levi for not having ultimate faith in God’s redemption? But he had just enough faith. Just enough to stay alive and keep fighting and, afterwards, to testify to the truth.

You do not have to believe everything. But you must believe something.

You must come back to hoping, even if only slightly.

I think you already know why I am telling you this.

Precisely one hundred years after Mussolini marched on Rome, the fascists have returned to power in Italy.

In the days before the election result came through, an Italian friend of many years texted me, to say how scared he was. It looked like the far right’s victory was already assured before the polls.

When the results came, they were worse than expected. Giorgia Meloni, and her far right party, the Brothers of Italy, had trounced all other parties at the ballot box, and would not even need Berlusconi’s support to form a government.

In her election address, she promised to give back Italian national identity that had been stolen by “international financiers.” She said she would bring back the family, which had been eroded by LGBT people.

She immediately pledged to replace the post-war constitution, which had enshrined democracy and minority rights.

I do not want to be alarmist, but I am also unable to blindfold myself to experience. There was a generation who could wait and see how fascism would pan out in Europe. We do not have the pleasure of such naivety.

We have to be sober. We cannot allow ourselves to be blindfolded to what is happening.

But we cannot ever allow that to become despair.

Hosea does not just implore the Israelites to return, but promises that God will come back too.

The Holy One promises: “I will heal them. I will cause them to return to Me in love. I will turn away from My anger.”

If you take a small step towards hope, hope will step towards you too. Hope will carry you.

On this Shabbat Shuva, however much faith you have, try to have a little more.

Remember faith. Come back to hoping, even if only slightly.

Shabbat shalom.


high holy days · sermon

Stop the privatisation of God


God is for everyone. God is supposed to unite everyone. Worship is supposed to be collective.

But, right now, God is under threat of privatisation.

In recent years, people have begun attempting to carve up God into small pieces and sell God off in individual packages.

Just 100 years ago, people knew that God was something they encountered with their fellow human beings, as they assembled in synagogues. These institutions were often the primary sources of solidarity, comfort, and welfare in any community. They bound people together.

Today, much of that community is collapsing in favour of individualism, where people are left alone to fend for themselves.

To combat this, some religions are starting to run on fee-for-service models, wherein people need not affiliate or contribute anything, but can buy access to religious experiences when it suits them.

This practice won’t save the synagogue. They are its enemy.

In these models, God is reduced to a commodity that individuals can purchase in their own homes. You need not go anywhere, but can browse online for your favourite version of God, packaged however you like it. The privatised God can be paid for whenever required, to perform whatever rites you like. The more money you have, the more of God you can get.

God was never meant to be divisible. The knowledge of the One God did not come from clever men in caves and deserts. Our prophets never claimed to have arrived at their conclusions alone.

Moses was a prince in Egypt, learned multiple languages, and could communicate expertly. But he was also the leader of a mass slave uprising in Egypt. His understanding of God’s unity came from a revelation to thousands at Mount Sinai. Together, they heard through clouds of fire: You are one people. There is one God.

Jeremiah was the eldest son of King Josiah’s High Priest, and aided by a scribe. Yet, when Jeremiah preached God’s unity, he did not do so as a lone prophet, but as a spokesperson for a large-scale anti-imperial movement. Huge groups of people were organising to resist invasion by Babylon, under the name of the one God. This collective had built over centuries, amassing momentum, as they agitated for refusal to accept foreign powers or their false gods.

Monotheism was born out of great social movements, in public, among peers.

It began with stories people told each other to build bridges. To keep peace and make relationships beyond their own homes, people developed common narratives.

“Did you know that we share a common ancestor, Abraham? Let me tell you a story of Abraham…” “Have you heard that we come from the same mother, Leah? In my tribe, this is what we know about Leah…” These stories were passed as oral traditions for many centuries, binding people together so that they could trust each other and work together.

As societies developed, so did their stories. Peoples formed into nations, and nations had their gods. The Hittites had Alalus; the Canaanites, Baal; the Egyptians had Ra; and the Sumerians, Anu. These gods looked after specific people within their borders, and supported them in their national wars, triumphs and tragedies.

Initially, the Israelites only had a national god, too, whom we now know as Hashem, or Adonai. It took time for them to develop the understanding that the god they worshipped in Israel was the God for the entire world. And that learning happened on the commons.

In the ancient world, all public activity happened on the commons. The commons brought in strangers from faraway places, and was the meeting-point for every tribe to engage with each other. It was a hub of activity, bursting with children playing, teachers educating the masses, exchange of goods and vegetables and, above all else, ideas.

There, in the open fields and marketplace, where people brought their stories, they swore oaths by their gods, and wrote promissory notes witnessed by every national god, so that their contracts would be binding in every country.

They said to each other: “I swear by Anlil… by Asherah… by Set…” They told the stories of their gods, who had created the world; flooded it; destroyed it; redeemed it.

“Perhaps,” they said, “the god that oversees Babylon is the same as the one who rules Egypt. Perhaps we simply have many names for one entity. Perhaps there is a force greater than national borders, whose justice is as expansive as the heavens, whose providence extends not just to the borders of one nation but to the entire world.”

“Just as we are one here on the commons, we might also be one at a deeper level, united by a common humanity, birthed by the same Creator. We might share a common destiny, to bring about unity on this earthly plane and to make known that God is one.”

Monotheism was a force of thousands of people seeking to reach across boundaries and divisions. A movement to imagine a future in which all people were diverse and equal. The original professors of the truth of one God sought unity of all humanity and nature , held together by something incomprehensibly greater than any of them.

Today, we still know the one God by many names. Hashem, Adonai, Shechinah. Allah, Buddha, Jesus, Jah. The names come from many languages but speak of a single truth. One God. One world. One people. One justice.

Of course, that unity is threatening to some. There are those who have a vested interest in maintaining tight borders, ethnic supremacy, and division. They have stoked up wars between the different names for the one God, seeking to divide that single truth again along national lines. Buddha was pitted against Allah; Jesus against Hashem. In Europe, they waged wars in the name of different understandings of one God and one book. Catholics and Protestants took doctrinal divisions and used them to carve up an entire continent and suppress all dissent.

For three centuries, European states fought each other over which version of God was the correct one. On either side of the divide, Jews were murdered, tortured and exiled, because if other Christians could be wrong, the Jews were really wrong. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered because powerful people had stripped monotheism of its context and abused it to create new divisions.

At the end of the wars, European leaders ushered in a new age, that they called modernity. They vowed that they would never again fight wars on such grounds. They decoupled citizenship from faith.

Religion was now not national, but completely private. You could have a religion, but only in the privacy of your own home. The Jew would be a Jew at home and an Englishman in the street. If you want to keep a kosher kitchen, that’s your business, but you’d better not bring your values out into our political space.

In some countries, every detail of religious life was taken under the state’s authority. The religious could no longer do anything that would interfere with the supremacy of the nation state.

But monotheism was never meant to serve private individuals. It was developed to bring people together, regardless of nation or creed. The problem of wedding religion to nations was not that it made religion too public, but that it made religion not public enough. The one true God was supposed to transcend all borders and remind people that no matter their language or appearance, they originated from the same Creator.

In recent times, the privatisation of God has gone even further.

The mass collective meetings of religious people have declined in favour of each individual having their own “spirituality.” No more can people develop their sense of unity in public, but they must have their own little snippet of truth that they hold tightly and do not share. The one God has been carved up into tiny little pieces so small that they can only be held in each individual’s heart. The one great God is now reduced to seven billion small ones.

All of this only further divides people. It breaks people apart, entirely contrary to what monotheism was supposed to do.

Monotheism began as a movement of ordinary people coming together on the commons.

The task of this generation is to bring God back to the commons. Religion must again become a force that breaks down all divisions and brings people together.

To stop this tide of individualism, there is really only one thing you need to do: join and build the synagogue.

It doesn’t even have to be this one – although, obviously, we would love to have you. The important thing is to join.

The synagogue still stands as a bulwark against this atomisation of society. It requires of people what we really need to keep the one God alive: commitment to each other in public. When people pay their subscriptions into a synagogue, they are not buying a service for themselves, but sustaining a community for everyone else.

In this synagogue, we are seeking to build community beyond our own walls, currently fundraising for local youth, the nearby refugee group, and our sister community of Jews that have fled Ukraine.

We must build communities in these small places where we live, while looking beyond them, with a knowledge that our God is so much bigger than any one community.

The message of monotheism is that all of truth is for all the people. Not some bits of truth for some. One love, one justice, one truth, uniting one people on one planet.

Our liturgy teaches that, once humanity has shaken off the fetters of prejudice and the worship of material things, equality and justice will reign over every land.

We must work towards the day when all peoples declare in every tongue that they have a common Creator, and that the destiny of one person is bound up in the fate of all humanity.

On that day, God will be one and known as One.

Shanah tovah.

high holy days · sermon

Why the world was made

There are some places in this world that fill me up with an awe of creation more than anywhere else can. Places so beautiful they make me wonder why they exist.

The Scottish Highlands are such a place. Those mountain landscapes are cragged rocks and stark hills stitched together by seas and tarns and smaller rock pools. They are peat bogs and waterfalls growing shrubs and trees, so full of life it feels as though they are themselves breathing. 

This year, I went to visit them. With my partner, we walked through the hills, saw old churches, visited a beloved rabbinic mentor, and witnessed the birds and wildlife. 

In between completing my dissertation and getting ordained as a rabbi, I decided to make a pilgrimage to mark the transition. It truly felt like a religious moment; a chance to draw closer to something sacred.

As we walked, we met with a land that was part of our country but felt decidedly foreign, and we met myths that, while part of our heritage, seemed alien. 

For the Gaelic-speaking peoples of Scotland and Ireland, these landscapes have their own origin story.

Those mountains are no accident. They were built intentionally, but a type of deity called Cailleach. Known also as Beira, or the Queen of Winter, she is an aged crone; one-eyed and completely white. 

She battles spring each year to reign her icy dominion over this hemisphere. She is a deer-herder, a lumberjack, and a warrior. She carries in her hand a great hammer as she strides across the Celtic Isles. She is the mother-goddess.

It was Cailleach who built the Highlands. She pulled rocks out of the sea and carved out stepping stones for her giant strides. She pushed through the space, breaking up new mountain faces with her hammer. She walked as winter through the new landscape she had made, and allowed waters to flow and overflow in every crevice.

I was enamoured by this story. Yes, that is what it looks like. It looks like an enormous witch has made it. It feels bursting with purpose.

My boyfriend prefers another version. He is a scientist, a doctor. We see the same world but through different lenses.

Millions of years ago, he read, the earth endured an ice age. Frozen water cut through the earth and wore down the ancient mineral rocks at a glacial pace. When the waters finally thawed, they left behind these precipices and pastures on the Scottish coastlines.

But isn’t that just the same story, told in a different way? Cailleach is simply an anthropomorphic ice current. The processes attributed to gods and fairies – that breaking and carving and flooding – are repackaged in scientific language. The scientists can give us approximate dates and name when the layers of sediment formed, but they are effectively telling the same story.

What difference does it make whether these wells were made by frozen currents or by the Wild Woman of Winter?

It is not fair to say that one is rational and the other is mythical. Both accounts are testament to humanity’s ability to understand its surroundings. The story of Cailleach is no less important a contribution, and we cannot just dismiss it. 

Equally, we cannot treat the national myth in the same way as we would our best scientific discoveries. They are not equally weighted as theories about how the earth was formed. Centuries of technological advancement and detailed research have given us this account of the Highland’s foundations.

The difference between these stories is not whether they tell us something true, but what kind of truth they point us to. The scientific explanation tells us the history of the world in context of great geological events. It teaches us how to identify, exploit or protect the natural surroundings we have inherited.

The story of Cailleach, by contrast, tells us about the unquantifiable truths of the Highlands: the awe they inspire; the magic they seem to hold. It teaches us about the shared national destiny of the Scottish, Irish, and Manx people who tell her story. 

These are not competing, but complementary, stories of creation. One tells us the truth of how a place was made, the other tells us why.

At this time of year, we turn to our own national myth and origin story. Our new year recalls the creation of the world. It is a day for us to delight in the fact that we are alive.

The biblical account of creation does not only explain the origins of one geological formation, but seeks to tell the genesis of the entire world.

5,783 years ago, the world was made in six days, from explosive dividing light, through land and seas and atmosphere, through to sea creatures, winged beasts, mammals, and human beings.

It is no good to compare this religious tradition with the theories of the Big Bang or evolution through natural selection. They are telling the story of the same thing, but from totally different perspectives. 

Science attempts to understand how the world was made; our myths ask us why.

The first chapter of Genesis suggests some reasons. The world was created with great purpose. Each day, with everything that God created, God saw that it was good.

When God created humanity, God gave us responsibility for the earth and what is in it. God gave us companions and promised us regular rest. God created the world for goodness, with humanity at heart.

The scientist and the theologian alike look at the world with a sense of wonder. We both feel awe as we track their stars in their orbit. We both marvel at the fact that a planet has produced the perfect conditions for life to form and grow entire ecosystems to sustain myriads of plants and creatures.

On this we agree.

The difference is that, for the believer, we do not just gaze in awe. Awe gazes back at us. 

You are not just amazed at the world, but the world is amazed by you. 

Not just the parts of you that you share in common with all other living beings, but those things that are unique to you. 

Not just the fact that you have functioning organs and limbs, but you. That transcendental, magical part of you. We might call it personality or soul or neshama.

It is not something mechanical or quantifiable. There is something about you that is wonderful and irreplaceable.

That is you

When we are confronted with the wonder and beauty of the world in which we live, we are tempted to ask what it is all here for. The answer of Judaism is that it is here for you.

To the religious imagination, your life is not an accident. It is a blessing. You were created for the sake of the world and the world was created for the sake of you. 

According to our Torah, at first creation, God wandered round to take in the Garden of Eden in the cool of day. And, there, God called out to the first human being: “Where are you?” God was looking for the human.

The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, understood that this question is addressed to every human being in every age. We, too, are forever hiding, behind the stories we tell ourselves that our lives are meaningless and our actions matter little. We find ways to try and escape truth, even to hide from ourselves. 

And God, that great Source of amazement, nevertheless seeks us out, asking “where are you?”

So, Buber says, you have to answer that question. You have to seek deep inside your soul and answer who you really are. You have to try and give an account of what you are doing on this earth. You have to make yourself present, ready to face Truth, and, crucially, to change.

Where are you?

You are on this beautiful earth, crafted by a magnificent Creator. You are here and alive. You are a miracle.

God is amazed at how wonderful you are.

And now you have to show that God’s faith is rightly placed.

Shanah tovah.

Cailleach, Queen of Winter
sermon · social justice

A peasant farmer was my father

A peasant farmer was my father

When my mind wanders, I like to think about where I would go if I could travel in time. Have you ever considered this? When you would want to visit?

Personally, my first thought is Paris in the 1890s. In my higher moments, I project myself into medieval Andalus, the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Spain. 

And, of course, I’d love to go back to biblical times. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to see the First Temple in all its glory? What would it be like to inhabit that world of prophets and visionaries?

But this time travel thought experiment always comes with a corollary. I’d have to be a rich man. No matter what spot of history I got dropped in, the only way to enjoy it would be to be part of the elite.

If I were sent back to biblical times without that condition, I’d probably be a peasant farmer. We like to imagine our ancestors as great kings and high priests. In reality, they were less than a small fraction of the ancient Israelite population.

95% of people in the biblical period worked the land. Dropped back to the time of David and Solomon, we probably wouldn’t be in their courts, but in the fields. 

I take a perverse pride in this knowledge.

Think how hard they must have worked to bring that ancient society into being!

As a peasant farmer in the ancient world, you would have about 3 acres, growing different crops, including grains, fruit trees, and olives. You would, almost certainly, have a chicken run and a small herd of goats. 

If you were really fancy, you might also have a cow.

Your home would be a collection of huts and tents, stretching out to include your extended family. Each would be a bustling, cramped place, with pots and pans and a fire stove. Your animals would potter in and out of your sleeping quarters. 

I am not trying to paint a romantic vision of any of this. Your life would be hard. You would pull a plough with your own hands and sow seeds with your back hunched over. You would cultivate and cut and glean your trees in the searing heat. 

You would spin your own wool, stitch your own clothes, bake your own bread, build your own dwellings, subsist on whatever you needed to survive.

Yes, all that is true for women, too, with an additional burden. You would give birth to ten children and breast feed all of them. You would count yourself incredibly lucky if all of them lived past the age of 5. If they did, they would likely be married off in their teens. 

No, there is nothing romantic about the lives of our real ancestors. 

But we should be proud of them. 

Peasants, labourers and serfs might not be the subject of great poetry and sagas, but without their efforts, nothing exists. There could be no food, no shelter, no community, and no culture, without their graft. That gruelling work made civilisation possible.

This week’s parashah tells us something of how they built ancient Israelite society.

If they had just stuck to their own homesteads, they would have had to survive on the paltry gains of subsistence farming. In a bad year – if rains failed to fall or crops failed to grow – they would simply perish.

So, our family, the farmers of the ancient world, signed up to participate in the agrarian state. 

The agrarian state was responsible for distributing food and creating common irrigation and transport systems. In ancient Israel, the centre of that state was the Jerusalem Temple. 

Our parashah explains the criteria for participating in its systems. You must not glean your fields right to their edges, so that you leave enough for travellers and strangers. You must donate a tenth of your grain and livestock to support those in the community who are most vulnerable, like widows and orphans. 

In some ways, this is the foundation of the earliest welfare state. 

But the poor are not the only beneficiaries of this redistribution. 

In fact, they were not even its primary targets. 

Our parashah begins with a ritual that Israelites must undertake each year. At each harvest of the year, you must collect your first and best fruits. You must bring these, the choicest of all the crops you worked so hard to create, and give them to the priests.

You must lift them above your head and say: “A wandering Aramean was my father. He was enslaved in Egypt, but God brought him out into this land of milk and honey. Now, I bring before you, the first fruits of the soil that God has given me.”

The priest will sacrifice it, perform closed rituals, and eat it in front of you.

That priest did not work to produce those fruits. He did not share in the exhausting work of raising children in a hovel, or run ploughs over the land. In fact, he wasn’t responsible for any land.

The priest’s sole job was to be the leader of the ancient cult. He was in charge. He profited from your work. 

That great Temple in Jerusalem, with all its priests and writings and rituals, only existed because the poor majority paid in and made it happen. That entire society functioned on the basis of our ancestors’ labour. How could they have done it without the work of the people who harvested the grain, built the bricks, and cared for the sick? 

I don’t resent the ancient priests. 

That work made possible great cultural developments. At that time, we couldn’t have had literary culture, organised society, music or scientific discovery without a class who had the leisure time to devote to such pursuits.

We then wouldn’t have benefited from the innovations in agriculture, technology, transport and trade that makes our lives today less horrible than they were in ancient times.

But, while resentment for ancient figures might not be productive, we should feel entitled to be critical.

After all, their world is our world. For all the social progress we have made, the divisions that defined civilisations millenia ago are only greater than they were then.

Far fewer people profit far more from the work of the majority than ever did in the biblical period. 

Almost all of us, I know, are worried about how energy price gouging, interest rate rises, and higher costs of living will affect us. Some are already feeling the effects of an economy where wages won’t rise but prices keep going up. 

Meanwhile, the energy companies and their shareholders are making record profits. These last few years, which have been so frightening for most people, have been a period of great abundance for the world’s richest. 

This is not accidental. The rich are not rich in spite of the poor. They are rich because of the poor.

Perhaps those inequalities were essential to create our current world. But how much greater would society be if we decided to eradicate them? Just imagine what we could accomplish if nobody had to worry about heating their home or feeding their family.

We could unleash the great talents of everyone, whether priest or pauper; shareholder or sharecropper; king or taxi driver. We could enjoy this world, with all its bounties, without the constant friction of struggle.

On reflection, if I could travel in time, I don’t think the past would be the place for me. I would prefer, instead, to make my way to the future.

I want to go to the time when technology is harnessed to benefit everyone in the world, regardless of who they are and where they live. An era in which it is not just a small minority that creams off the profits of the many, but when everything is redistributed between everyone. One in which the gains of civilisation are shared with all humanity. 

We can’t change the past. We can’t go back and rescue our ancestors from the harsh realities of peasantry. But we can build a different future for the next generation. We can make it so that the future is not defined by the same problems of the past.

Let us travel to that point in time together. 

Shabbat shalom.

Ki Tavo 5782, South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

sermon · talmud

Can you purify this spider?



Spider season seems to have begun early this year.

It’s that time of the year when we start seeing spiders, climbing up walls, hanging out in sheds, and getting comically stuck in bathtubs. Of course, they live all year round, but in early autumn they are visible everywhere.

I love spiders. I think they’re quite cute. We don’t have any dangerous ones in this country, as far as I know, and they eat the ticks that we really don’t want in our houses.

But I get why other people are creeped out by them. They’ve got eight legs, which is far too many, and they scurry around like they’re up to no good. We’ve been fed media images of terrifying tarantulas and it’s understandable that people would associate them.

The Torah has a word for these beasties. Sheretz. It’s root is resh-vav-tzadi, to do with running around, so most translations render sheretz as ‘creepy-crawly,’ or ‘creeping thing.’ It applies, first and foremost, to mice and lizards, but extends to any scuttling insect or racing rodent. There are also the sheretz bamayim – the creepy-crawlies underwater, like jellyfish, octopus and lobster you might find scampering on ocean floors.

They were created by God on the fifth day. They are mentioned by name. For some reason, God decided that spiders were supposed to exist. God made room for them in the world and dedicated a verse of Torah to celebrating their creation. God made mosquitoes and shrews and chameleons and God saw that they were good. So, if you’re in the camp that loves spiders, you get a point.

God has also banned them. We are prohibited from eating them. They are described as disgusting and as abominations. On some level, we are supposed to revile them. So, if you’re in the camp of people who can’t stand spiders, you get a point too.

(I promise you, this is going somewhere.)

I’ve spent the last week thinking about the sheretz. From Monday to Thursday, this synagogue hosted the Queer Yeshiva. It was a momentous occasion. Never before in Progressive British history have so many people come together to study the Talmud in such an intense way. Everybody talked about how wonderful this synagogue is, and I want to thank you all for opening this space to a bunch of LGBT people to study Torah.

Over the week, we read a sugya of Talmud from Sanhedrin, a tractate that deals with capital crimes. It asks questions about who gets to condemn somebody for the death penalty, and on what grounds.

It contains a list of characteristics expected of Jewish high court judges: tall; wise; handsome; elderly; fluent in at least seventy languages; and, of course, familiar with sorcery.

So, who is eligible? Do we have any candidates for the Sanhedrin in this congregation? I won’t be putting my hat in the ring. It’s tricky to find someone, but I’m sure such people exist.

Then it adds another requirement. Anyone who wants to sit on a Sanhedrin has to find grounds for declaring clean the sheretz. You want to put somebody to death? You’ve got to be able to make lobsters kosher. You have to be able to purify a spider.

Who can make unclean things clean? Who can make what’s treif kosher? If anyone in this room can do it, you will be welcomed with open arms to the Jewish law courts of Babylonia.

But it seems unlikely that will fall within any of our skill sets. It sets an impossibly high standard.

Perhaps that’s the point. You have to be so good at thinking and reasoning that only the highest standards of scholars can join. You have to be of such excellent calibre that you know Torah inside out and can interpret it, even against itself.

Many have understood this edict that way. In fact, elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that there are as many as 150 ways to make shrimp kosher. There’s not just one secret method of purifying a sheretz – there are a whole bunch of them – and you should be able to work them out.

But the Talmud doesn’t give any convincing explanations as to how this is possible. Even where rabbis have a stab at it, they are soon shot down. Nice try, but no. That’s not how you make mice edible.

As a result, plenty of rabbis throughout the ages have tried to show that they can purify the sheretz. Great thinkers who knew the Torah inside out have tried to show that they are eligible for sitting on the Sanhedrin.

But here’s the thing. You can do all the reasoning you like. A spider will still be a spider. A lizard will still be a sheretz. And a sheretz will still be unclean. You can’t actually change what the Torah says.

So the rabbis have made sitting on the Sanhedrin impossible. It is so restricted that we will never find people capable of achieving it. De facto, the rabbis have abolished the death penalty.

This is a tremendous achievement. Subtly, and without saying so, they have done exactly what they say needs to be done: they have turned the Torah against itself. Except, instead of turning the Torah against itself so that they can kill people, they turn the Torah against itself so nobody can!

Suppose somebody were to come along and actually give convincing proof that spiders are really kosher. OK, then we would have a problem. My hunch is that the rabbis have already thought of this. Anybody who could do so would, by their nature, refuse to implement the death penalty.

A person who can see the kosher in a lobster can see the goodness in a convict.

A person who could cleanse the body of a mouse could cleanse the soul of a criminal.

You have to be able to see people, and creepy-crawlies, the way that God sees them: as good.

This is the rabbis’ genius way of telling us who is allowed to judge others. The only person we would permit the authority to judge others is the one who would judge them favourably.

The spiders are out and about in our houses. We might love them or hate them or greet them with indifference. But who gave any of us the right to kill them? God, for whatever reason, has determined that they have a place on this earth and it is not our job to decide they don’t.

The world is full of people we don’t like. Some of them do detestable things. And we might feel fear and hatred and anger towards them. And sometimes those feelings are justified.

But we don’t have the right to kill them.

We are not worthy to judge them.

Unless you can purify a spider, you have to live in this world with everyone else.

God has made enough room for them in this world and we have to make enough room in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.