article · high holy days · judaism · sermon · social justice · torah

Living up to our ethical calling

If a woman steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving family, has she really done anything wrong?

This moral question is familiar. We have heard it before. We hear the question and all of us intuitively answer “no.” Nobody would hold her guilty.

And I don’t dispute that gut reaction. When it comes to matters of morality, the answer our conscience automatically gives is usually the right one. But what does this answer tell us? What does it mean about ethics?

The question is, in fact, first asked and answered in the Book of Proverbs: “Nobody hates a thief who steals to satisfy hunger.” (6:30) It is the Bible itself, where we also read “thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) that tells us that, of course, we would not hold it against a starving person to steal.

Perhaps, we might conclude, there are limits to the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we should see the sixth dictum not to steal as a guideline rather than a rule. We might even conclude that there is no absolute morality, because there will always be exceptions and extenuating circumstances to mitigate against our moral judgements.

For me, that answer doesn’t feel right. It is not that no sin has been committed, but that a far greater one is hiding in the fact that the very question has been asked. What we should really ask is: how is it possible that this woman’s family is starving? Who has permitted poverty to even exist? That is the moral question facing us.

In these days of awe and religious introspection, most of us focus on our own conduct throughout the year. We wonder how much we have exhibited kindness and generosity since we last stood in synagogue and pledged to do better. But the sound of the shofar calls us to a far greater reckoning than just the state of our own souls. The High Holy Days call on us not only to take responsibility for our own actions, but for the state of our society.

The prophet Isaiah, whose haftarah we read on Yom Kippur, called us to exactly this accountability. He pours scorn on the Israelites’ prayers: “Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness.” (58:4) He tells them in no uncertain terms what is required of them: “Loose the fetters of wickedness. Break the yoke. Give bread to the hungry and homes to the poor.” (58:6-7)

The early Jewish reformers treated this text as the springboard for their theology. Scripture, they argued, was not primarily interested in the minutiae of ritual observances like kashrut and keeping shabbat. God’s direction to the Jews was to perfect the world through the pursuit of social justice.

That demand remains just as relevant today. Our prayers may be beautiful. Our services may be meaningful. We might read the Torah with feeling and precision. But all of that is utterly worthless if it doesn’t direct us towards an ethical life.

But Isaiah is also doing something far more radical. He is transforming morality from an individualistic concern with one person’s behaviour into a collective expectation of equity. Isaiah’s insistence on food for the hungry and houses for the homeless only makes sense if it is directed at society as a whole. Nobody in the peasant smallholder society of ancient Israel would have the power to do that on their own. Isaiah’s is a fundamentally political prophecy.

The moral task of the Jew, then, is not the relatively easy requirement that the comfortable should not steal, but an urgent calling to dismantle poverty entirely.

Never before in my lifetime has that felt so important in Britain. Today, there are well over 2,000 food banks in our country. Academics warn that they are becoming so institutionalised that we may well soon accept these symbols of poverty as normal. They were created to fill the gap left by savage cuts to the welfare to which people were once entitled. Some experts warn that they may soon replace benefits altogether.

When critics call our state today Dickensian, they are not exaggerating. The diseases of poverty-stricken Victorian England are back on the rise. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever and malnutrition are making a very unwelcome comeback. None of us can deny having noticed more rough sleeping, cramped housing or slum-like living conditions.

We cannot blame this increase in poverty on personal failings when there are such clear structural causes. Joblessness and housing shortages; austerity and recession; political policies. These are the causes of inequality in Britain, the world’s fifth richest nation. Individual action alone will never come close to remedying these ills.

Poverty in Britain today is both a political choice and a moral disgrace. As we pray in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we must pay attention not only to our own conduct but to our whole country’s. We must be prepared to live up to the true ethical calling advanced by our tradition. The responsibility rests on us to make sure that poverty is completely eliminated forever.

Nobody should ever have to steal to feed a starving family. Nobody should ever have a starving family.

dickens england

I wrote this sermon for Liberal Judaism’s Days of Awe series

high holy days · judaism · sermon · social justice · theology · torah

On this day, you were created

On this day, you were created.

Although your body was born into this world at a different place and time, today is the day that you were created. This is the day that the part of you that makes you more than a body was born.

On this day, your soul was created. Our Creator had already formed light and darkness, separated water from land, built mountains and rivers, and introduced every living thing from the fruit fly to the tiger onto our planet. Then, on the sixth day, God created you. Today is the anniversary of the day when God crowned the completion of the world by making humanity.

You are already familiar with the story of the first human beings. They were created out of red mud and holy fire. Perhaps you do not yet know that, on this day, God also created every soul that would ever live.[1]

Back then, at the very beginning of our history, God took all the souls of everyone who would ever live around the Garden of Eden. Your soul saw how perfect the world could be, and your Creator instructed you.[2]

“This is the moral truth that I have established for all time,” God said to these souls. “You shall not kill. You shall not hurt animals. You shall pursue justice. You shall create a haven of love and honour.” And you, the part of you that absorbs truths that can’t be understood only with limbs and eyes and senses, took in those teachings.

When you were born, you may have forgotten what the Garden looked like. You may not remember the sound of the voice of your Creator. But ever since birth, your soul has clung to your body, reminding you of right and wrong.

That is, of course, just a story. Few Liberal Jews would say that it was an authoritative account of history. But this aggadic midrash, which appears in many rabbinic traditions, points to something that, to me, feels intuitively true. Our moral claims are real. When we say that murder is wrong or that love is right, we are not simply offering opinions about our personal preferences. We are describing transcendental facts about the universe.

There was a time when few people questioned that morality was real. While Greek philosophers and biblical prophets may have understood the origins of morality differently, or disagreed about their ethical applications, everyone agreed on a fundamental truth. Morality was meaningful.

Centuries of thought have sought to undermine that claim. Sociologists have argued that, instead, morality is simply a set of rules that human beings have developed to function in civilisations. Psychologists have shown that our brains are just machines responding to positive and negative stimuli. Many of the advancements in the name of science have reduced us to amoral automatons.

In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is an affirmation of a fundamental religious truth. This world was given to us as an act of love by the Source of all righteousness. We were born imprinted with an innate sense of how we can bring this world closer to Heaven, or to turn it into a living Hell. This ancient ritual embodies our tradition that humanity was created in the image of God, endowed by our Creator with a profound sense of right and wrong. That belief may not be provable, or even rational. It speaks to something that goes beyond reason.

When we blow the shofar, it is not supposed to sound pretty or musical. It is supposed to sound like an anguished cry. It is the wailing of all creation, calling on the soul to attention. It is a reminder of the truths we learnt in the Garden of Eden, long before our bodies were born.

I believe, I have to believe, that all people do have consciences. Against all evidence to the contrary, I want to believe that people do know good from evil, and do strive to choose good. I know that we don’t always. Most of the time, when we err, it’s because we have been too hurried or caught up in our own struggles to see that a more righteous path is possible. Sometimes we can all make mistakes from callousness or indifference.

But there is a type of evil that people can only do if they wilfully ignore their own consciences. There are evil acts that are cruel and calculated. Such acts can only be performed out of sheer moral nihilism.

It is with that in mind that I read news coming in from the USA. Across the Mexican border, the American president has built holding centres, where migrants seeking a better life are incarcerated. So terrifying are these spaces that some have dubbed them ‘concentration camps’.

We have seen videos emerge of dehydrated women crying out from glass boxes, yelling to journalists: “ayudame! Ayudame!” Help me. Help me. We know that the children in these camps have been denied beds. They are kept awake all hours, never granted the respite of darkness to sleep. Trump’s attorney general has denied that these children need toothbrushes or soap. They do not have adequate food. They have no access to lawyers.

One month ago, Trump’s administration announced that all these practices were legal. They did not even try to claim that these camps were moral. They simply stated that the people living in these camps deserved their suffering, because they were illegal. They crossed the border. They broke the law. These are the consequences for people who are no longer perceived to be human.

How can we talk about these actions as anything other than immoral? If we reject the spiritual truth of moral realism, we leave these camps as a matter of opinion. Whether people should be held in these conditions becomes simply a matter of personal preference. Worse still, we can reduce it to clinical policy choices, with cost-benefit analyses of how worthwhile it is to give prisoners toothpaste.

It is not out of malice that I say I believe those running these camps know they are wrong. Quite to the contrary: it is an affirmation of their humanity. Any one of us can commit acts of evil. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there is another way.

A Jewish group called Never Again Action have taken up that role. They are carrying out direct action to disrupt the functioning of the camps.On Tish b’Av, thousands  of them marched for change. As Jews, they perform our people’s sacred task of being the moral voice to all humanity.

These Jewish activists rightly invoke the memory of Auschwitz with their slogan: “never again”. Our communal history teaches the dangers of holding people deemed “illegal” by dint of their existence in camps.

But these activists may also invoke the memory of Eden. As Jews, they may remember a time, on this day, when God brought their souls into the Garden, and taught them the difference between right and wrong. They can call on our centuries of tradition to remind world leaders of their moral obligations.

Many of their supporters have intoned that history will not judge Mr Trump kindly. But who is history, and why should we care what it thinks? Should the leaders of America only care that one day someone will write in a textbook that what they did was wrong?

I believe these appeals to “history” are really secularised versions of a truth that was once well-known: a moral force outside of time is judging us. God is judging us. God takes note of our deeds.

Even the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest military will have to answer. No matter how powerful anyone is, the moral arc of the universe stands higher. The immutable force that teaches us the difference between right and wrong still takes note. And that force, our God, loves us enough to allow us to change.

Despite everything, I believe we all still want to do good. Even for those whose actions are hurting people today, there is still the chance to turn back. Everyone has it in them to turn away from evil and return to the natural state their souls knew when they were first placed in the Garden at the beginning of time.

This new year, may we commit ourselves to remembering what we learnt in Eden. May the sound of the shofar awaken all of our souls.

Shanah tovah. Happy new year.

GardenOfEden

I delivered this sermon at Lincoln Synagogue for Rosh Hashannah on Monday 30th September 2019.

[1] Pesikta deRav Kahana, Piska 23

[2] BT Niddah 30b

sermon

Can a dog have a bar mitzvah?

The issue I want to talk about today may be controversial, but I know that you are not afraid to be challenged. It is, in any case, a question that is very dear to my heart. This question has been posed by many over the years, and I feel it is important that I give a serious and considered answer.

Can a dog have a bar mitzvah?

Last year, the ultra-Orthodox Israeli member of the Knesset, Mordechai Eliav, rebuked progressive Jews by saying “go bar mitzvah your dogs!”[1] I will be honest with you. I didn’t have much of a desire to carry out such a ceremony, but after that outburst, I really did. There was just something about the way he said it that made my contrary spirit think: I can’t wait to get the chance.

To the best of my knowledge, no such ceremony has ever been performed in a synagogue of any variety. There are, however, documented cases of such celebrations taking place in Jewish homes. These simchas have been lovingly dubbed “bark mitzvahs”. As I understand it, these usually take place when the dog turns 13 in dog years, which is at around their 3rd birthday in human years.

But what does it mean to conduct such a ceremony, and why did the idea make Mordechai Eliav so angry? Surely he must know that, throughout history, dogs have been quite friendly to the Jewish people. According to the Exodus narrative, no dog barked as we were leaving Egypt, so we were able to sneak away in silence.[2]

Perhaps, within Orthodoxy, the idea is risible. Orthodox Judaism is primarily concerned with ritual observance and adherence to halachah. In Orthodoxy, the term “bar mitzvah” is interpreted to mean “liable for the commandments”. To them, becoming bar mitzvah is taking on responsibility for the 613 statutes codified by Maimonides. So we need to know whether a puppy that came of age could engage in such pursuits.

Could a dog switch to a kosher diet? Certainly. There are plenty of kosher meats. In fact, every year, London’s Orthodox Beit Din publishes a list of approved pet foods. There are even brands dedicated to providing such snacks. Unsurprisingly, their price increases significantly around Pesach. According to this list, one can not only have a kashrut-observant chihuahua, but also a halachic hamster, guinea pig, rabbit, rat, goldfish, cat or budgerigar. Dr Dolittle would have no problem maintaining a kosher kitchen after all.

But could our canine friends observe any of the other traditional mitzvot? A Jack Russell terrier could not light shabbat candles. With the best will in the world, that is a task that requires opposable thumbs. Now, some dogs might be able to handle tefillin. The head tefillin could certainly fit on a Doberman, but can you imagine trying to place an arm tefillin on a Dachshund?

A dog might even be able to join in with traditional davening. I once led a Friday night service in East London that was attended by a Giant Schnauzer. When everyone rose for the Amidah, he rose too. When we sat for the psalms, he sat too. When we got up and bowed in Lecha Dodi to welcome the sabbath, yes, the dog bowed. He even covered his eyes when it came to the Shem’a. By the time we were reciting Aleinu, I realised that the dog was mumbling along to the prayers, following along in the Koren Sacks. I said to his owner: “this is incredible. Your dog could be a rabbi!” She said: “Tell that to him. He wants to be a taxi driver!”

If following commands is what it takes to lead a normatively Jewish life, surely that’s what dogs are best at. I am concerned, however, that even if a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel could be trained to follow most of the rules by command, she still would not be able to fulfil the mitzvah of transmitting these teachings to her puppies.

Enough speculation. I clearly do not have the necessary skills to assess a Dalmatian’s suitability for being called up to the Torah. I need to turn to our textual tradition. Thankfully, a book has already been written on this subject. In 2007, the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary published their definitive guide, ‘How to Raise a Jewish Dog’.

I had hoped that this would answer the important theological questions I am posing. As it quickly became apparent, however, this text was only applicable to the specific minhag of coastal North American Ashkenazi secular Jews. It advises dog owners, instead of saying no to your dog, ask him: “how can you do this to me? What did I do to deserve this? Is this my fault? Go on, you can tell me.” When your dog errs, the book suggests, remind him of everything you’ve done for him – and this is the thanks you get! And, of course, as a proud parent of a Jewish dog, you must make sure your pet knows not to mumble when he barks, cover his mouth when he sneezes and not to whine. Either ask for something or be quiet.

The truth is, however, that neither the secular approach nor the Orthodox one will help us ascertain whether any progressive British synagogue will have a Maltese poodle giving sermons from the bimah any time soon. For that, we have to understand what a bar mitzvah means in our own specific context.

When I first sit down to teach bat mitzvah students, I always begin by asking them: what do you think you need to do to become bat mitzvah? Usually, they will answer that they need to learn Hebrew, read from the  Torah, give a drash, and learn the prayers. No, I say. She does not need to do any of these things. All she needs to do to become bat mitzvah in a progressive synagogue is turn 13. So, why then, do we spend with them a year learning Hebrew, Bible, theology, ethics, interpretation and how to politely gossip about the rest of the congregation?

Because, a progressive Jewish bat mitzvah is, first and foremost about choice. It is a young adult’s choice to make informed choices about what being Jewish means to them. They learn all this because they are becoming adults, and adults need to make decisions. They will need to decide how they read the Torah, how often they go to synagogue, what being part of a community means to them, and what role they want to play.

Above all else, our tradition teaches them how to make moral choices about participating in the modern world. Yes, Judaism speaks to the concerns of our society today. This week’s parashah contains a slogan that so perfectly summarises our values it may well be the international strapline for Progressive Judaism: tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice, you shall pursue.[3] Not the justice that can be blindly followed by adherence to commandments. Not the justice that you can achieve solely through creating culture. No. The Torah teaches that we must pursue the type of justice that needs to be reasoned, debated and pursued based on conscientious conviction.

I teach a regular cheder class. Recently, I overheard the students, unprompted, discussing whether they would participate in the Youth Climate Strike. Across the country, school students have been leaving school to protest against the destruction of our planet by corporate greed and government inaction. Their debates were informed and wise. They each discussed the respective attitudes of their schools, parents and peers. They talked about the repercussions if they participated and the possible consequences if they did not. They shared their best understanding of the scientific, moral and political concerns involved.

And I marvelled. No dog could ever have such a conversation. Most 12 year olds would not engage like this. Whatever conclusions these students came to, only a religion school that centred informed choice and civic conscience could generate such discussions. This is our Judaism. And that is why, no matter what criticisms Mordechai Eliav wants to throw at us, I am proud to be a progressive Jew.

Shabbat shalom.

jewish dog

I gave this sermon at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Shoftim on 7th September 2019. An earlier version of this sermon misattributed the offending remarks to Stav Shafir, who in fact had been defending Reform Jews, for which I apologise.

[1] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-ultra-orthodox-mk-to-reform-jews-go-bar-mitzvah-your-dogs-1.5820653

[2] Ex 11:7

[3] Deut 16:20

judaism · sermon · theology · torah

Does it have to end this way?

“Does it have to end this way?” asks Moses.

“Please, God, I beg you, let me cross the Jordan.”[1]

Forty years of struggle. Forty years of exile. Forty years of wandering. And here Moses stands, on the brink of realising the end of all his labours, only to be denied access.

“God,” says Moses, “you are so strong, so great and so incomparable. Please give me a taste of the Promised Land. Please let me see Lebanon.”

“No,” answers God. “This is enough for you. Don’t speak to me any more on this matter. It’s over.”

How can we feel anything but pity for this great leader, reduced to grovelling as he is faced with death and disappointment?

All that is left in the Torah narrative now, taking us through these last parshiyot of Deuteronomy, is Moses’s final speech and death. Here, in the height of summer, just after Tish b’Av, in the slow climb to Rosh Hashanah, all that is left is to wrap up the story. We join Moses at this juncture, looking back over the wandering in the desert, to the miraculous revelation at Sinai, over slavery in Egypt, back through our ancestors Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, back all the way to God’s creation of the universe. And what do we feel? For all our hope and joy, this part of the story invites mostly longing and despair as we ourselves wonder if the story had to end this way.

The rabbis who devised our lectionary cycle asked the same question. At one time, scholars argue, the Torah was not a Pentateuch – a collection of five books – but a Hexateach – a collection of six. Whereas the Torah we know begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy, a previous version of the Scroll continued into the sixth book of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Joshua.[2]

In Joshua, the Hebrews move into the Land of Israel, conquer it, colonise it and either drive out or subjugate the tribes living there. Some of the stories from this are famous: Joshua’s success in the battle of Jericho, where he tore down the city walls with the sound of the shofar is among the most popular stories we teach in cheder.[3]

For Progressive Jews, it is probably a mercy that we don’t have to regularly read such violent texts today. But from a literary point of view, concluding with Joshua makes far more sense. Concluding here, as we do, with Moses’s demise in Deuteronomy leaves us on a cliff-hanger. Quite literally, as Moses stands on a mountain overlooking the Jordan. We do not know what becomes of the Israelites.

If we ended with Joshua, everything would be wrapped up. The leader dies but the nation is born. The journey is long but the land was reached. If we wanted to make a comfortable, Disney version of the Torah, Joshua would be its climax.

So, why do we today end with Deuteronomy? Do we have to end it this way? Some scholars guess that the answer is yes. In exile, they argue, the trauma of losing the land of Israel was too great. Our rabbis could not stand the great hardship of being removed from their holy land, so they cut off the story early and relegated Joshua to the prophetic texts.

This explanation is highly unsatisfying, and unlikely to be true. The lectionary we have was not devised in the immediate aftermath of exile, when the trauma of dispersion was raw, but in Babylon some time between the 2nd and 6th centuries. During this period, Jews were not outside of the Land of Israel because they were trapped, but because they didn’t particularly want to return. Our rabbis went back and forth between Palestine and Babylon, sharing the teachings of the two communities with each other. Some migrated, but migration out of Eretz Israel to the more prosperous Babylon was more common than the other way around.

The rabbis of the Talmud developed theological positions about their relationship with this country. Some said they were forbidden to move to the Land of Israel. Some said it was only forbidden if they attempted to move en masse. Others said they were entitled. Others still felt it was mandatory.[4]

The reason for such vast divergence in opinion was not simply a tension between their religious text centred on Israel and their economic life in Babylon. It was that Israel, to them, was not simply a location between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, but a symbol of Messianic hope.

Prophets like Haggai[5] and Malachi[6] had assured their ancestors that return to Jerusalem would herald the end of days and the coming of the Messianic age. As a result, the land was more a metaphor for emancipation than a location where they could live.

Israel, Jerusalem, Zion – these words signified something far greater than physical space. They pointed to a time of complete liberation. Arriving there was not reaching a destination but reaching the climax of history – when justice would reign supreme. I believe, then, that the Torah had to end with Deuteronomy not because the Jews were distanced from the land of Israel, but because they were so removed from the vision of social justice that this word symbolised.

In Progressive Judaism especially, that is what this national language signifies. On a theological level, it does not speak to us about aspirations for migration or statehood, but about our sacred task on earth to perfect the world. The Reformers who founded our movement taught that the task of every Jew was to heal what was broken in humanity and advance all of us towards a messianic age of truth and righteousness..

The language of our liturgy reflects this interpretation. In the weekday amidah, we recite that God will build Jerusalem and bring forth a sprouting of justice.[7] Our prayers are structured to give Jerusalem a deep meaning no matter where we live, as a locus for reflection on our hope of living in a world of justice. Jerusalem can stand as a meaningful word to everyone regardless of their political opinions about Zionism and the State of Israel because it does not refer to an earthly city but to a Heavenly kingdom

It was, undoubtedly, this interpretation of the Promised Land that Martin Luther King had in mind when he gave his last speech. Preaching in Memphis, at the height of the black civil rights struggle, that great Christian minister concluded his sermon to his congregation:

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[8]

The next day, he was assassinated. King’s Zion – an America where Black people would live with equality, dignity and safety, was not realised in his lifetime. Nor has it yet been realised in ours. But we can have no doubt that he took the world closer on its journey to that destination.

The story of Moses ended with Deuteronomy. Martin Luther King’s ended in 1968. And what about us? Must our story end this way too? Must we finish our lives glimpsing at the world of social justice to come from the other side of the river, or may we yet cross the Jordan into a world where the whole of humanity is emancipated?

We cannot know what the products of our efforts will be. All we can do is try. Together, without Moses, we the Jewish people must continue to march. And although we can see our endpoint only faintly, we must walk towards it with the certainty that it exists. We must try to perfect the world, hopeful that for somebody, someday, it will not have to end this way.

Shabbat shalom.

cornwall shore
By Malcolm Ludvigsen

I gave this sermon on Saturday 17th August 2019 at Kehillat Kernow, in Cornwall.

[1] Deut 3:25

[2] cf Wellhausen

[3] Joshua 6

[4] Ketubot 111a-111b

[5] Haggai 2:9

[6] Malachi 3:1-4

[7] Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 81

[8] https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

The Fragility of Progress

When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.

The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.

I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”

“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”

She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.

She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.

A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.

Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.

It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.

This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.

Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.

What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.

Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.

History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.

How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?

The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.

The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.

Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”

The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.

But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.

Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.

hopeful sunrise

I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019

liturgy · sermon

What makes a life worth grieving?

The advent of Eurovision on Saturday reminded me of another anniversary I needed to mark. A year ago, at this time, many of us assembled in Parliament Square to publicly grieve the killing of Palestinians at the Gaza border. At the time, I wrote this sermon. While I shared it with friends and colleagues, the climate felt far too hostile to publish this. Perhaps I should have done. A year on, here is the sermon I never delivered at the time.

We tell ourselves that the grave levels all distinctions. Kittels don’t have pockets. You can’t take any of it with you when you’re gone. In death, all are equal.

Anybody who has ever lost somebody knows that is untrue. The grave shines a light on differences that we could otherwise ignore. As we scramble together the funds for a funeral, often several months’ wages, we realise how much class mattered in life. The poorest families cannot even attend the funerals of their loved ones, as councils bar them while they dispose of the body. People find out how much they were worth in round figures.

Grieving rituals reflect strongly on a person’s life. At the graveside, you can see what a dead person valued, and what people valued about them. You find out how many people their lives touched, and how much. Even early in our roles as rabbinic students, my classmates and I have begun to see what a profound impact a person’s death can have on the people who loved them. You find out what value gets placed on a life.

Jewish mourning rituals help us to make sense of such loss. The kaddish prayer is a blessing for the living; an Aramaic chant in praise of the Almighty; an appeal to Whoever is Up There to intervene and give us peace in every sense of the word. Conducting Yizkor services at Yom Kippur, I have seen how just the fact of reciting those words once a year can alleviate pain and bring healing. Its rhythm has its own power.

But the rules around these rituals can hurt as well as heal. Judith Hauptman, a Talmud scholar, has recorded how the limits on who can be mourned have narrowed over time in Orthodox halachah. A shorter version began as a blessing for any learning experience. From there, it became a graveside prayer one could say for all family members and teachers. Over time, it has been slowly whittled down to include only a mourners’ own parents. Hauptman points out that this system poses a problem in the modern world, where parents regularly re-marry and families are often cobbled together in ways that don’t match up with normative expectations.

I feel like limiting who can be ritually mourned poses a much deeper, existential question: what makes a life worth grieving? How do we decide what makes a death worth commemorating? What does it say about the value we place on somebody’s life when they were living, if we can’t remember them when they die?

In the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, Liberal Jews began saying kaddish weekly, independent of who was in the synagogue. There were too many people left behind who had nobody to mourn for them. There was too much unspeakable suffering to moderate who could be mourned and how much. It was a way to affirm the dignity of Jewish life against a racist movement who sought to wipe it out completely.

That was how I was raised: reciting a blessing every week for members of my family I never knew, and people I’d never met, to sanctify their memories lest they should be forgotten. We prayed, too, for earthquake victims, people dying in famines, those killed in school shootings and terrorist attacks. Whenever there were people whose names needed to be remembered, we remembered them.

Perhaps, my more conservative friends suggest, that ritual expands the bounds of mourning too far. I do not know what it is like to grieve for a parent. I haven’t had that experience. I don’t know how it compares to the loss you feel when you lose a friend, or another family member. I only know what it is like to have somebody die and wonder whether I can grieve for them, and how much I’m allowed to do it.

I know that feeling too well. The gay community is famous for its statistics. Alcohol, drugs, suicide, homelessness, murder, depression, loneliness. I have had friends die and wondered whether I could pray for them. And wondered what I could pray for them. In that moment, I have found out the uncertain value that I myself place on a life. We cannot mourn everyone equally, but we surely can mourn. Somehow. The kaddish is the only vocabulary I have for sanctifying death, so I have said kaddish for people who were not my parents; who were not Jews; who I did not know.

That is the question of deep religious significance behind the conflict in the Jewish community over the recitation of kaddish for those the IDF killed in Gaza last month. Everybody has their own views on who is responsible for violence in the Middle East and how it can be resolved. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has changed their mind significantly on that front. My views on the matter are well-known, and I won’t go into them here. But I do want to talk about the halachic and spiritual concerns that this issue has raised.

I want to affirm, without reservation, that I believe we were right to say kaddish for the Palestinians. Reciting that prayer said something that no other kind of protest or placard or petition could. It said that the souls of those killed were worth grieving. It said that their lives were worth living. In a world beset by war and injustice, that prayer, for those people, at that time, reminded the whole world of the existence of a loving Creator, Whose ways are peace.

They were not the parents of anyone present there. Nobody davening in Parliament Square knew any of the Palestinians who were killed. In a sense, that might make the prayer inappropriate. But only if you accept that we can only grieve for the people who gave birth to us. If that is your position, I respect it, but I don’t agree with it. I think we are right to mourn people with the only religious language we have when we are moved to do so.

None of the people killed in Gaza were Jews. Like most Palestinians living in that area, most of those who died were Muslims. There are some who claim that kaddish should be a prayer reserved only for Jews. If that is your position, I cannot even respect it. Kaddish does not make any religious claims about the status of the person being mourned. It does not have any impact on their metaphysical state. It is a prayer for the living, to help them cope with the trauma of death. If we limit that prayer only to other Jews, we limit ourselves and our capacity to care for others. We send out the horrifying message that only ‘our own’ deserve to be remembered. We suggest that only ‘our own’ led lives worth living.

Perhaps they were members of Hamas. It is, after all, the largest political organisation in Gaza, acting both as an armed militia against Israel and as the primary provider of welfare services to Palestinians. It is a reactionary, fundamentalist, sexist and homophobic party. It is not a group I would ever support or join. But even its members led lives worth living. They had deaths worth mourning. They were created in the image of the Holy One, Whose will brought the Heavens and the Earth into being. No amount of political disagreement can detract from that.

Hamas’s views on Jews are unconscionable. If they ruled the world with the views they hold now, the lives of all Jews would be a misery. But they do not rule the world. They barely have control over a small strip of land, locked in by Egypt and Israel as a military buffer zone. They do not have any control over their neighbouring Mediterranean Sea, where Israel, Cyprus and Turkey police what goes in and out. Even how much food and aid enters the land is rationed by the United Nations. Their skies are not their own. However horrid their ideology, they have no power to enact it. They are, by far, the weaker party.

Perhaps the very fact of how vulnerable they are makes them less worthy of being mourned. In Frames of War, Jewish academic Judith Butler writes about what makes life grievable. She looks at how a media culture that showcases war as a daily occurrence has desensitised people to its unimaginable suffering. She shows that the people whose lives are most precarious – that is, those who we already don’t expect to live very long – are treated as if they are most disposable. Their lives are hardest to completely mourn.

Intuitively, we know this is true. We are so used to hearing about people there dying, or so accustomed to the idea that war is normal in ‘places like that’ that they don’t induce international horror any more. But they should. If we were fully human, living up to the highest values taught in our Torah, we would live in a permanent state of distress. But we don’t, because we have to survive. We treat precarious lives as if they are disposable.

Critics of the kaddish for Gaza have pointed out that the protesters didn’t pray for people killed in Syria, Congo, Central African Republic or Yemen that week. We didn’t. We should. If they are criticising the protesters for not grieving enough, I extend a wholehearted invitation to cry with me about the state of our broken world. There are too many tragedies left ignored. But they want people to hurt less, or not at all, how can we possibly accept? How can anyone agree not to feel rage and sadness at unjust killing and remain human? And call themselves Jewish?

Despite all desensitisation, when Israel gunned down the Land Day protesters in Gaza, suddenly we could not ignore it any more. Only the day before, Netta had won Eurovision. President Trump was in Jerusalem, opening an embassy. All eyes were on Israel. And Israel shot 63 people in one day. Israel, that declares itself the Jewish state, a body politic that has taken up the mantle of our sacred task on earth to be a light unto the nation and spread the message of ethical monotheism, shot down 63 people in one day. They sent out one message about what value they placed on certain lives. The Jews in Parliament Square sent out an alternative message.

I don’t know what makes a life worth grieving. I don’t know who should mourn for whom and how much. I don’t know where to place the limits. But I know that when people do decide to grieve, they decide that a life was worth living. Those Palestinians’ lives were worth living. Their deaths were worth grieving. Their mourners were worth supporting. They did not deserve to die.

By making the decision to pray for the Palestinians, the people in Parliament Square did the most Jewish thing we could. We sanctified life in the name of the Holy One. We recognised that the bonds of faith that bind together humanity are stronger than the bonds of blood that bind together one people. With our words, we gave each other hope for a redeemed world, saying:

“May the Almighty’s Sovereignty be established in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire Jewish people, speedily and soon.”

And let us say: Amen.

kaddish for gaza

The fallout from this action can still be felt, and many in the community are hurting. I hope that publishing this does not reignite flames but helps demonstrate that we were coming from a place of heartfelt Jewish religious feeling, even for those who disagree.

sermon · social justice

Whose responsibility is climate change?

Whose responsibility is climate change?

For years, climate change has been in the corner of my peripheral vision. It has been like a mould growing in my bedroom. Every time I’ve seen it, I’ve quickly turned away and pretended it wasn’t there. Acknowledging the problem would mean I have to do something about it. But what? I don’t know how to deal with it. Isn’t there somebody professional that can sort it out?

It’s not that I haven’t been aware of climate change. At university, many of my friends campaigned on it so enthusiastically. They understood the problems. They campaigned for fossil fuel divestment, transition to renewable energy, commitments to meet carbon emission reduction targets. And I pretended to understand what they were saying. I cared about it, but only because they cared about it.

One of my first jobs was working for an amazing charity called People & Planet. This organisation supported activists to campaign on issues of political import. The campaigners in the office were split into two teams: those focused on people, and those focused on the planet. You can guess which side I was on.

I was campaigning against sweatshops and labour rights violations. The other team campaigned on… something to do with the environment. Wind turbines maybe? I honestly don’t think I ever knew. The planet campaigners had graphs and maths and scientific facts. Our campaigns team had people crying out for solidarity as they took on their bosses. It was easy to identify with factory workers. It was much harder to identify with changing global temperatures. I didn’t understand it, so I took it to be somebody else’s responsibility.

If the goal of Extinction Rebellion was to give people a wake-up call, in my case they have succeeded. Over Pesach, London was suddenly disrupted. Cars pulled to a standstill. Every day they were on the news as old ladies got arrested and carted off in police cars. They forced me to think. If these people care so much to take on that level of responsibility, there must be something important happening.

I decided to do my research. Like any good rabbinic student, I started with a sacred tradition: watching Netflix. It turns out there are a lot of documentaries about nature if you’re not actively avoiding thinking about the death of the planet. There was a show about coral. An easy start, I thought. Corals are pretty and everyone loves the ocean.

It turns out that most of the ocean’s coral are now dead. Overheating of the ocean has caused the coral to bleach and die, leaving white skeletons along the seafloor. This means that the natural habitat for so much of our sealife has been destroyed, possibly beyond repair.

That mould I talked about in my bedroom suddenly looked a lot bigger. I’ve ignored it for so long that it’s taken over the house and the foundations are at risk.

Somebody has to do something, I thought. If the oceans have been so depleted, how much more damage is being done unseen to our forests, fields and wildlife? I don’t want to think about it. I know I must. Extinction Rebellion warns us that humanity itself may become an endangered species if we do not act.

Somebody has to do something. But who? One of the critiques of the climate movement has been that it puts too much responsibility onto individual consumers and not enough onto the biggest perpetrators of pollution and destruction: corporations. The CEOs of the world’s biggest gas, oil and coal companies have a lot more to answer for than individuals who use plastic straws or take baths instead of showers.

But if the world’s top richest exploiters of the environment disappeared tomorrow, what would happen? New CEOs would emerge in their place. Mining would not stop, nor would oil extraction. People would continue to fill up their cars with petrol. Loggers would keep chopping down rainforests. As long as our global economic system is predicated on constant growth, expansion and exploitation of natural resources, our living planet will remain under threat. Only systemic change of how the world’s resources are distributed and consumed will fundamentally help save the planet.

This isn’t a call to revolution. Although I am hardly opposed to such a thing, revolution does not answer the question I am posing. I am not asking what must be done, but who must do it. Whose responsibility is climate change anyway? By putting the onus onto global system change, it can make the much-needed action feel too abstract and inaccessible. In his groundbreaking book on Jewish messianism, Gershom Scholem observes the paradox that the more grand and utopian Jewish visions of the future have been, the less likely people have been to act on them. If we set the bar too high for the change we want, people will fall into the despondency of inactivity. We will end up waiting on God to fix the problems that are incumbent on us.

Saving the planet should not be considered a radical, messianic idea. It should be plain common sense that if we want to live to old age and hand over a healthy world to  our grandchildren, we have to reverse climate change and restore our natural world now.

None of this is to let the big companies and governments off the hook. They may well be the biggest cause and have the most power to affect change, but the responsibility has to lie with us. All of us.

This week’s parashah is Kedoshim. It is the Torah’s greatest hits, bringing together laws concerning sacrifice and ritual purity with moral rules about respect for the elderly, empowerment of the Disabled and justice for the poor. “A holy people you will be,” it begins. “For I, the Eternal One, am holy.” It does not ask to be responsible because we are capable, nor because we are at fault, nor because we understand. It tells us to take responsibility because that is what God does. Every one of us is tasked with the moral welfare of the world, for no less reason than that doing so is a holy act.

It goes further, teaching us not to show deference to the rich or favour to the poor. Everyone is liable. Everyone must do justice. We may not be able to do everything, or fundamentally change society on our own, but we have to act as if the responsibility falls on us personally.

The Talmud teaches us that every Jew is responsible for every other. The midrash teaches us that humanity has been granted stewardship over the earth. While Judaism is a profoundly collective religion, it is also a call to every individual to do justice. My responsibility to tackle climate change comes, then, not as a citizen, consumer, worker or even as a human being, but as a Jew commanded by God to be holy.

With all that in mind, I have run out of excuses. I can no longer ignore climate change. I cannot plead ignorance. I cannot hope that people more expert will sort it out. I cannot blame CEOs without doing anything to hold them to account. I cannot say we need system change without working to bring it about. I cannot wait another day.

The responsibility for climate justice lies with me. I am still very uneducated and will need a lot of guidance, but I know I must make a start. I have joined Extinction Rebellion Jews. And I hope you will too.

coralbleaching
Bleached coral

I gave this sermon on 11 May at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. As it stands, the lectionaries of the Liberal and Orthodox movements, as well as of Israel and the Diaspora, are out of synch. In the land of Israel, Pesach traditionally has seven days, while in the Diaspora it traditionally has eight. This means that for Diaspora Jews there is an additional Shabbat that falls on Pesach, while for Israelis, the lectionary resumes one week earlier. For the next few weeks, then, different synagogues will be out of synch. The early Jewish reformers felt that there should be no difference between Israel and the Diaspora, since we no longer laid a religious claim to Israel, so ordained that our calendars would align. As a result, most progressive synagogues would have been reading Emor this Shabbat, while most Orthodox ones read Kedoshim. I chose to read Kedoshim not to make any theological or political point, but simply because I prefer that parashah.