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.

sermon · theology · torah

It is not your fault

This week I was sick.

Normally I’d think it self-indulgent to talk about that, but here in Manchester, where Disability and sickness play such a key part in so many congregants’ lives, I think it’s important to discuss it. For those of us with chronic illness and disability, sickness isn’t just something that happens, but something that has multi-layered meanings.

It was just flu. Normally, it wouldn’t be worthy of remark. But I have a spine disease for which I take injections of immunosuppressants, so the flu knocked me out cold. I slept pretty much non-stop for three days. I just ate bread.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, the spine disease I have is made better by exercise and aggravated by inactivity. So after just a day of doing nothing, my joints started to fuse and swell. My back, neck and jaw were in pain.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, sickness is mind-numbingly boring. I feel like a healthy person in my head, and like my body is just getting in the way of all the things I want to do. I looked at my to-do-list, and wondered how a previous me ever imagined I’d have the energy for all of it.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my fault.

No matter how progressive I am, or how far removed those kinds of ideas are from my own theology, I couldn’t escape believing, at some level, that this sickness was a punishment.

It’s not hard to see why. That is a major lesson from this week’s parashah. It concerns צָרָ֑עַת – commonly translated as ‘leprosy’, although it would be better understood as ‘fungal skin disease’.[1] From the sounds of the text, this was quite a common infection that afflicted people. It appeared as white blotches, then disappeared after a few days.

When suspected of having this infection, a person is required to bring themselves before the priest who, after examining it, would declare them impure.[2] The person with this impurity is then completely ostracised. They rent their garments and pull their hair as if in mourning. They go through the streets shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” They are prohibited from living with the others and remain in isolation until all signs of the disease have disappeared.[3] If the infection disappears, the priest performs a sacrificial sin-offering on their behalf to purify them.[4]

What is clear throughout this text is that, if somebody has this kind of sickness, they are morally dangerous. It is not just that their medical state might be infectious; it is that the guilt from the sin they’ve committed might be spread too. By the very fact of being sick, the person with fungal skin disease poses a risk to the entire community.

Their danger comes from the fact that they have done wrong. The Torah makes this even clearer later in the book of Numbers. There, Miriam criticises Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. As punishment, God afflicts her with this very fungal skin disease. She is forced to exclude herself and ritually immerse to cleanse herself of guilt.[5] Clearly, wrongdoing can be punished by sickness in the world of Torah.

In the world of the rabbis, the very fact of becoming sick is evidence of having sinned.[6] The Talmud tells us: “The Sages taught: One who became ill and tended toward death, they say to him: Confess, as all those executed by the courts confess.”[7] More than that, according to Rav Oshaya, just thinking about committing a sin can be enough to bring on skin diseases. This comes as part of an overall sugya that spells out how sins are punished by stillbirth, infant mortality, spousal death, exile and war.[8]

These ideas are, I hope, troubling to the modern mind. We might want to apologise for our forebearers by saying that they couldn’t have known. They didn’t have access to the medical knowledge we do today. They didn’t know where diseases came from or why they spread.

But that doesn’t answer the question: why, knowing all that we do, do these ideas persist? For all our scientific advancements, there is still so much stigma and blame attached to sickness. I began by apologising for even talking on the matter, because just mentioning sickness can feel like a burden. Moreover, despite medical diagnosis and a better understanding of biology than the rabbis, I cannot shake from myself the feeling that my illness is somehow a result of personal failings.

True enough, some aspects of bad health are down to my own actions. Every time I light up a cigarette, I am conscious that I’m endangering my health and making my condition worse. But it’s also interesting how quick people are to ascribe blame when they encounter somebody who is ill. Any sickness of any kind is often attributed to smoking, lifestyle, weight or, failing any of those, just a bad attitude.

It should be unsurprising then, that some of this feeling of blame carries over into our theology. In a culture that seeks to attribute responsibility for sickness onto sick people, it makes sense that people would also imagine that divine retribution plays a role.

I think all these different explanations for sickness – whether in the Torah, the Talmud, or our own society – come out of people’s own fear of lacking control. Ultimately, there is no telling who will get sick, or when, or why. The healthy want to imagine it could never happen to them. The sick want to find some meaning in it all. So we grasp for explanations. We invent reasons and rituals that explain away our fears. In our very human need for order, we imagine that God has some great plan that is being enacted on us.

Part of me wants to leave it there, and say that ultimately the truth about why people get sick is unknowable. Our rabbis did entertain this theory of divine retribution, but they left open others, never arrogant enough to claim they had a hold on absolute truth. As with so many things, questions of suffering are left to the Great Mystery that lies beyond our understanding.

But if we leave the question open, we leave room for an answer that is unconscionable. We leave open the possibility that the God we worship makes children disabled as punishment for the sins of their parents or their own past lives. We allow for the possibility that God exacts vengeance on people’s bodies through cancers and strokes. When we say we don’t know, we run the risk of allowing this dominant discourse of blame to have some strength.

In so doing, we may inadvertently legitimate the punitive measures implemented by governments to assess and control Disabled people. We may feed into sick people’s own narratives of self-hate and despair.

No. There are many things we cannot say with certainty. Faced with suffering, silence is often the best response. But there is one thing we must repeat, over and over again until it is believed: it is not your fault.

It is not your fault.

blame

I gave this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Parashat Tazria, Saturday 6th April 2019.


[1] cf Jacob Neusner, The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism

[2] Lev 13:3-7

[3] Lev 13:45-46

[4] Lev 14:7

[5] Num 12

[6] cf Solomon Shechter, Studies in Judaism

[7] Shabbat 32a

[8] Shabbat 32b-33b

judaism · sermon · social justice · torah

Can we talk about menstruation?

This week’s portion is about menstruation. Listener’s discretion is advised.

When Nathan asked me to sermonise on this parasha, the first thing I said was: “Are you sure? Is this… is this definitely in the lectionary?” I was surprised to even think that it was a topic to discuss.

Yes, it’s there, and there’s no getting round it. I did even try. I looked through the rest of the parasha. The section immediately before it dealt with the defiling force of semen; the one just before with scaly skin diseases. Whatever I did I was going to have to talk about bodily functions, and the one portion for today looks at menstrual blood.

Nathan said: “It’s OK. You don’t have to do it on exactly the topic in the parasha.” Why was it that this topic made us both so uncomfortable? What is it about this very normal and natural process, integral to human reproduction and a big part of many congregants’ lives, that should set it outside of discussion in synagogue?

I know of a senior Liberal rabbi who was so affronted to hear a Bat Mitzvah student speaking on the topic of menstruation that he literally heckled during her sermon. He was embarrassed. So was everybody.

It can’t be that menstruation isn’t a suitable topic for discussion in synagogues per se, because it is right here in the text of the Torah. All over the world, people in different communities will be studying this passage today. It can’t be that this topic is out of place in a Liberal synagogue. If anything, our track record of feminist thought and openness to ideas should make us more willing to talk about difficult topics.

Here’s the reason: menstruation is taboo. It’s taboo for me. It was taboo for that senior Liberal rabbi. It’s so taboo that, at least in the male and mixed spaces I move in, it almost never gets talked about, and when it does, it’s spoken about in euphemisms and hushed tones. It’s that time of the month. I can’t help but feel that the best way to deal with a taboo is to face it head on. If we feel uncomfortable about it, I think, perhaps, the best thing for us to do, is to feel uncomfortable together.

Presumably menstruation also made the redactors of the Torah uncomfortable. As it’s worded in the Torah: when blood comes out of a woman’s body, she is unclean. Not just her, but anything she touches is unclean. The bed she slept on, the chair she sat on. Even if she licks a thread to stitch a garment, that whole garment becomes unclean. Anyone who touches her becomes unclean by association. According to Rashi, if anyone touches her accidentally, they’re unclean for seven days. If they do it deliberately, they can be cast out of the community altogether. It is a very negative reaction.

But more than that – it is punishing. We learn elsewhere in the Torah that if somebody is unclean they have to stay outside the camp. They are to be isolated away from everybody else. They can’t see their family. They can’t participate in Temple rituals. They can’t earn a living or gain social status. Something about menstruation made the authors of this text so uncomfortable that they wanted to exclude women who were bleeding. That was their way of dealing with taboo: to get it out of sight and out of mind.

The first thing anybody will notice is how gendered this is. Unlike other parts of the Bible, which may well include songs and stories by women, the books of Leviticus and Numbers are unambiguously written by men. These are the works of male Temple priests, most likely living in Jerusalem, just before the great Babylonian exile.

These rabbis make a clear connection between women, menstruation and dirt. The Torah text makes that clear, speaking about it in very gendered language. We can compare this to how men are treated for secreting semen. A man would be unclean and kept outside the camp for one day. A woman for seven days. Moreover, the chances of a man having a nocturnal emission are pretty rare. For most adult, pre-menopausal women, menstruating is a monthly event. This means that women would spend most of their lives excluded from society. This is, then, powerful men, telling women who make them uncomfortable that they don’t belong in society.

In the Talmud, restrictions only became worse. The rabbis ruled that a woman couldn’t be considered clean until seven days after her period had finished, whereas the implication of the biblical passage is that it ends seven days after the start. They purposefully narrowed the amount of time women could spend in public space and have sex.

This attitude must, of course, have no place in the modern world. And yet. And yet. Right now, in most Orthodox and many Masorti communities, menstruating women are regulated by the rules of niddah – the Talmudic codification of what women can and can’t do while bleeding. This involves sleeping in separate quarters, not able to see their husbands. It involves ritual immersions to “cleanse” themselves of the “pollutant” of menstruation. It forms a big part of life for many religious Jews.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from it. Many women talk about the joy of the mikveh, the ritual cleansing bath, and the relief of not having to see men when they’re at their most vulnerable. People have made these rules into sources of strength and empowerment. As much as we might acknowledge that, however, this is a practice rooted in patriarchal stigma against women’s bodies.

Even in secular society, the menstrual taboo continues as a major force for controlling women’s lives. The amazing Jewish feminist, Gloria Steinem, writes: “what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could notClearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event. Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day. To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”

She’s joking, of course, and things have come on a long way since the 1980s when she wrote it. But it speaks to an important point: women really are demonised for menstruating. They really are ignored by doctors for it. They really are excluded from power for it, as happened in the rhetoric used against Hillary Clinton when she was running for President. Women’s exclusion for menstruation may not be codified in law today as it was in ancient Israel, but it is still a major barrier to participation in public life.

This has become a key topic for women’s rights campaigners. The result of the taboo on menstruation is that teenage girls are skipping school when they’re menstruating because they fear the risk of bleeding in public, and the shame and stigma attached to that. This is as much a problem in the UK as it is anywhere else in the world.

Over the course of a lifetime, the average woman will spend £18,450 on products for dealing with menstrual blood and pain. On top of all this, thanks to a bizarre policy, sanitary products for menstruation are taxed at 5%. And here’s where the problem goes from tragedy to farce: according to research by the Guardian from the beginning of this month, the money levied by the tampon tax is being used to fund – wait for it – anti-abortionists. The government had pledged to scrap the tax but, in the last budget, decided to instead keep it and distribute some of the money to women’s health charities. Perhaps a noble endeavour, but one of those charities is called Life, which describes abortions as “death penalties” for foetuses, calls aborted foetuses “corpses” and warns young women against terminating their pregnancies. This is not the policy of a backwater fundamentalist country, but something that is happening in Britain right now. Women are paying an unavoidable tax, only to have that money spent on restricting their rights. No wonder feminists are up in arms to end this tax on tampons.

I began by saying this topic made me uncomfortable, and perhaps it made you uncomfortable too. Menstruation may well be a taboo, but what does that taboo do? It stops women accessing public life. It stops girls being able to access school. It costs inordinate amounts of money. There are, unfortunately, girls who still don’t know what periods are until they get their first one and think it is a sign of impending death.

Our silence can be dangerous. Menstruation might make us uncomfortable to talk about, but if we stay silent on it, we could be letting down loads of women and girls. So although it may be difficult, perhaps it’s time to break that taboo.

Shabbat shalom.

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I gave this sermon at South London Liberal Synagogue on 29th April 2017, before I had begun at rabbinical school. When I delivered it, I looked out at the congregation and near panicked. I was especially worried that I would upset the sensibilities of older members. After the service, many of these same older members came up to express their agreement and chime in their concerns about period poverty. It was a real moment of realising how open I could be with a community I knew well. I think, if I were to give the sermon today, I would be far less apologetic.

judaism · sermon

My DNA test results

When I sent the sealed tube back to a laboratory in America, I had high hopes for what would come back. My parents were mixed – Scottish Presbyterian and Anglo-Jewish. I had grandparents and great-grandparents from Poland, Portugal, Peru and Prussia. (By Prussia, I mean Germany, but that doesn’t begin with P). Family legends trace our roots to Italy, Spain and North Africa.

I was excited. I hope my DNA results would come back like a scratch map of the entire world. I would proudly proclaim myself a global citizen. I would research my relatives in Tanzania, the Philippines and even more exotic locations like Scunthorpe.

After weeks of waiting, I opened the results with trepidation. Here they were. European: 99.7%.

Breakdown: 47.8% British and Irish. 48.4% Ashkenazi Jewish. Trace amounts of other ancestries: 1.9% ‘Broadly European’. 0.7% French and German.

I was so disappointed. Where was my globe lit up with dots on every continent? Where were my secret ancestors from places I’d never heard of? And what was I going to do with all my ‘We Are the World’ t-shirts? Perhaps all the family narratives were unreliable.

Maybe I’d need to rethink my entire identity. I wondered if I should perhaps just accept my Ashkenazi heritage and start pronouncing tafs as samechs, mumbling my prayers to myself, even letting my sideburns grow into locks. Or perhaps I should celebrate my connection to the British Isles by listening to Gaelic folk music and trying to revive Welsh as a language.

I confessed my confusion to a friend, who is a geneticist. He reassured me: “these tests are 92% nonsense.”

“But what about the other 8%!” I exclaimed, “surely that counts for something.”

He laughed “That 92% is just as arbitrary as all the percentages on your DNA results. DNA testing is like getting your fortune read at a funfair. They pick 100 genes out of a sequence of thousands, run them up against trends they’ve already found, and act like they’ve given you a whole picture. Treat it as a science-based game, not as a guide to your whole history.”

Well, now I felt even more confused. My family history might be unreliable, and the science was probably pretty suspicious too. The pillars I thought I could rely on for my identity were toppling around me.

I thought about this week’s parashah. Here, in Shmini, as part of all the levitical rules on sacrifice and cultic life, were the rules on which foods we could and couldn’t eat.

Although historians once understood these rules to be about health and cleanliness, biblical critics are now less sure. They point to the fact that any of these meats could cause diseases, and raise the issue that almost every neighbouring nation of the Ancient Near East had its own proscribed foods. Rather than taking a rational, medical approach, they suggest that the original purpose of these rules may have been to develop a sense of national unity. When people knew they had to eat the same foods as each other, they bonded as a community, creating an in-group. Kashrut rules were really there to form a sense of national identity.

I wondered if I could apply this to my own life. Perhaps what made me Jewish was my engagement with its food and ritual life. I seek out beigel bakeries, love challah, won’t eat pork or shellfish, and make cholent on Friday nights.

Maybe that was what made me British too. I think the slightest glimpse of sunlight is an excuse for a barbeque. Nothing makes me feel more at home than a pint of cider in a beer garden. I even like marmite.

I lived out my internationalism, too, in all the curries, sushi and pizza I could eat as a Londoner. My internationalism was bound up in important rituals like voting in the most important decisions facing our continent, like who should win Eurovision.

But this answer wasn’t that satisfying either. Rituals and foods can help build communal identities, but they don’t tell us that much about who we really are. These forms of banal nationalism might well create a sense of in-group, but the flipside is they create exclusions. In the wrong hand, any sense of nationhood based on these traits can be turned to nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia. By comparison, DNA results and family legends felt relatively benign.

I came to realise what the founders of Liberal Judaism understood long ago. All ideas of nationhood are myths. Whether we route them in science, history or culture, they’re just stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. They don’t really help us know how to act, and in the globalised world of the 21st Century, they can even be harmful to facing our challenges. What we should really ask ourselves isn’t “who are we?” but “what do we need to do?”

In 1917, in the midst of the First World War, Lily Montagu delivered an address to the West Central Club. In it, she gave a scathing critique of Jewish nationalism, challenging its very foundations. She insisted that her citizenship was British, but her primary allegiance was to the religious goals of Judaism. At its inclusion, she declared: “the Jewish ideals, the ideals of peace and unity and love and righteousness, are for all times and all places. We are to express them to the world. That is our life’s task.”

Reading this again now, I realise that the reason why Liberal Judaism is so embracing of mixed families, of converts and of diversity, is not just a matter of pragmatism or a weak sense of tolerance. It is born out of the firmly held conviction that what makes life matter is what we do with it. What makes a Jewish life matter is how ethically we live, and how hard we strive to apply these values of social justice in our world today.

When Judaism is defined not by nationhood, but by ethical principles, it is open to everyone who shares them. What is at stake in conversations about who belongs is a fundamental question about what being Jewish really is.

Our founders had it right when they proclaimed Judaism’s emphasis to be in its prophetic vision. Today, what makes us who we are isn’t who our ancestors were but what world we create for our descendants. That is our life’s task.

Shabbat shalom.

dna-illustration

I delivered this sermon on Shabbat 30th March for Parashat Shmini at Finchley Progressive Synagogue. I’m still disappointed by my DNA results.

judaism · sermon · story

Blot out the name of Amalek

It was the evening of Purim in the shtetl. The rebbe and his disciples were sat in the cold wooden yeshiva. They were reading the Megillah. They had almost reached its climax, when the rebbe slammed his hands down on the table, bolted upright on two feet, grabbed his coat and headed for the door.

His disciples were dismayed. “Where are you going?” they asked.

“To blot out the name of Amalek!” he replied.

The students were anxious. They shuffled in their seats. They knew who Amalek was. They knew what the injunction to blot out Amalek’s name meant.

When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, the Amalekites attacked them from behind, targeting the weakest members; the old, the ill and the tired. The book of Deuteronomy adjured them: “blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Never forget.”[1] This call in the Torah spoke to far more than historic memory. It was a call to violent revenge. Surely this couldn’t be what the rebbe meant?

One of the rebbe’s students stood up. “Rebbe, you can’t be serious?”

“Of course I’m serious,” said the rebbe. “It’s Purim.”

Purim? Purim, of course. It was the time to read the story of Esther. Haman, the wicked adversary of the Jews in the story of Esther, was an Amalekite. Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek. Haman had plotted to kill the Jews in their entirety. As they read the Megillah, at every mention of his name in the scroll, the disciples had been booing to drown out the word. By the end of the story, Haman’s fortunes have been completely overturned. The king decrees that, instead of Haman being able to kill all the Jews, the Jews can kill all of Haman’s supporters and descendants. They go on a fortnight-long massacre, killing 75,000 people.[2]

This has always been interpreted as part of the act of blotting out the name of Amalek. Surely this couldn’t be what the rebbe meant? Surely he didn’t think that violence and genocidal rampaging had any place in Judaism? It was a bawdy story, not an instruction manual. What could the rebbe be thinking? The students followed him out into the streets, rushing after him as he pattered away down the cobbled path.

One of his students caught up with the rebbe, panting, saying: “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Our Talmud teaches us that we no longer know who the nations are. Empires and diasporas have scattered us. Nobody knows their lineage. We cannot possibly know who the Amalekites are any more.”[3]

The rebbe was undeterred. “You do not need to know somebody’s ancestry to know who Amalek is,” he said, as he carried on walking. “We know our enemy.”

Another student shot up and interjected. “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Our commentators argue that the duty to blot out Amalek is upon God. The Torah says that Amalek should be blotted out from under Heaven. That is, it is Heaven that will destroy Amalek, not us.”[4]

“Nonsense,” said the rebbe. “Judaism calls us to action. We cannot wait for God to solve our problems. We must go and address them now.”

He marched on, now with the whole village trailing behind him. Everybody was agitated, determined to keep him from doing something foolish.

Another student challenged the rabbi. “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Nahmanides teaches that we cannot attack Amalek out of a sense of revenge, but only out of a sense of the honour of God. If you seek destruction now, you will be violating this mitzvah, not honouring it…”

It was too late. The rebbe had already arrived at the nearest village. He headed straight down for a Cossack inn, and burst open the doors. The folk band stopped playing. The publicans looked up in stunned silence. The Jews huddled outside, expectantly looking in. The rebbe stretched out his hand.

Silence. A moment that felt like an eternity. Then, suddenly, a Cossack got up and took the rebbe’s hand. To everybody’s surprise, they began to dance. The band started playing again. Some of the students tentatively made their way into the inn. They, too, began dancing with Cossacks. Before long, all the Jews and all the Cossacks were dancing. This Purim party spilled out into the street. They danced all through the night until they could feel the veins in their feet pumping. They laughed until their bellies ached. They ate and drank and comingled until nobody could tell who was Jew and who was Cossack.

As the sun came up, the rebbe and his students fell about in a heap outside the pub, laughing. “That”, said the rebbe, “is how you blot out the name of Amalek. You see, Amalek is not a person. Amalek is the part of us that wants to trample the weak, just as Amalek did to Israel in the desert. Amalek is the part of us that wants to crush difference and secure power, just as Haman did to the Jews in Shushan. Amalek is any part, in any of us, that chooses hatred. The reason our sages told us not to turn to violence to blot out Amalek is because Amalek cannot be destroyed by violence; only by love. That is our weapon against hatred.”

This is a lesson we have to learn again and again, in every generation. When this week began, we woke up to the news of Muslims being killed at their places of worship in New Zealand. This week has seen yet more attacks on mosques. In Birmingham, a vandal took a hammer to the windows of several masjids across the city. The rise of the far right has spread to the Netherlands, where fascists have made significant gains and unseated the government.

We live in times when the violent attack the vulnerable; when hatred seeks out to take over; when diversity is under threat.

It is understandable that we should feel fear. It is righteous that we should feel anger. But we must also greet these times with an open and outstretched hand, willing to accept that a better world is possible, hopeful that people can change, faithful that we can drown out the impetus to hatred. We must be ready to dance. That is how we blot out the name of Amalek.

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I gave this sermon at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue on Shabbat 23rd March. Although the parasha was Tzav and the themes of this sermon are more congruent with the readings for the previous week, Parashat Zachor, I felt it was important to draw the connections between the just-completed festival of Purim and the week’s news events. I heard a very abridged version of this story as a Hassidic folktale, but I could not remember where I heard it or find a source. If anybody knows its origin, please provide it so I can give due credit.

[1] Deut 25:19

[2] Esther 9

[3] Berakhot 28a

[4] Rabbeinu Bahya on Deut 25:19