fast · sermon · theology

Tonight, we begin grieving.

Tonight, we begin grieving.

As the sun goes down, I will eat my last meal for 25 hours. I won’t bathe or shave or change. I’ll probably read a book, or some poetry, and contemplate what it means to be destroyed.

Tonight, the fast of Tisha bAv begins. It commemorates every disaster that has befallen the Jewish people. If we were to dwell on every time we had been injured, our year would be non-stop suffering. We would never have time to celebrate. 

So, we compound all our catastrophes onto a single day. Every exile. Every genocide. Every desecration of sacred texts and spaces. Every racist law and every violent uprising. As far as we are concerned, they all happened on this day: on Tisha BAv.

It is a day of immense profundity. The tunes are haunting. The texts are harrowing. It is the hardest fast of the year, taking place in the heat of summer, with long days and disturbing topics. 

For years, I marked this fast alone. Very few Progressive Jews wanted to participate. Many Reform and Liberal synagogues don’t mark it at all. I would turn up to Bevis Marks, the centre of Sephardi Jewish life in the city, where cantors from the Netherlands regaled us with their greatest piyyutim. But this occasion attracted so little interest from the people who shared my religious beliefs: the other Progressives. 

Why would they not want to mark it?

The first reason is emotional. It is difficult to sit in misery for a full day. It paints a tragic picture of our past, compounding every struggle we have faced into a single problem, overwrit by centuries of destruction. 

In fact, I think this objection is what really commends Tish bAv. Grieving what’s gone can teach us important lessons. It can put us in touch with our most challenging emotions, like guilt, misery and despair. 

True, if we went around all the time complaining about how difficult Jewish history had been, we would never move on, and we would be bound by a negative self-image. By placing all of Jewish suffering on a single day, we are able to confront atrocities, and engage with them, then move on.

Progressives have also objected to Tish bAv on theological grounds. As Reform Jews, we have no desire to return to the Temple or its sacrifices. We are the heirs to the rabbinic revolution, which rebuilt our entire religion after Jerusalem was destroyed. 

Because of the early rabbis, we became a Diaspora people; replaced animal slaughter with prayer; and substituted hereditary priests for a system in which all Jews could be equals. 

But those rabbis understood something profound. You have to engage with the past in order to progress from it. We cannot just pretend things never happened. 

Our rabbis pored over their ancient texts, repeated their oral traditions, and grappled with the world that had gone before. They may have moved beyond the time of the Temple, but they always referred back to it. They faced their tragedy, and rebuilt their religion.

Perhaps the biggest reason that Tish bAv is not given the respect it’s due is because it has been replaced. Since the Second World War, many Jews now instead mark Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Memorial Day.

This is understandable. The Holocaust was, of course, unprecedented in the scale of slaughter; the degree to which industrial machinery could be dedicated to human suffering; and the gleeful participation of so much of Europe in Jewish extermination. It is absolutely right to mark it and honour so many outrageous deaths.

But these events have their own theology. They teach that Jewish suffering was a thing of the past, now resolved. In the case of Holocaust Memorial Day, the problem has now been solved by the United Nations in international commitments to human rights. 

Yom HaShoah is part of the secular cycle of the Israeli calendar, a week before Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates Israel’s victory in 1948, and a fortnight before Yom Yerushalayim celebrates Israel’s Conquest of Jerusalem in 1968. Yom HaShoah suggests that the answer to Jewish suffering is the state of Israel’s military might.

These may well be the political views of some congregants, but they are not the religious views of rabbinic Judaism. Judaism shies away from simplistic answers to subjugation and refuses to allow genocides to be resolved by slogans. We actually have to engage with the horrors of the Shoah, and to understand that they cannot be explained away. We have to sit with our grief.

Tisha bAv poses an alternative response to our experiences of evil. It tells us to fast and grieve, but, unlike on any other fast, we are to carry on working. We can still do many of the things we would on a normal day. Our world is upended, but we must keep going. 

The idea of Tish bAv is that we can face destruction and, through faith and community, nevertheless survive. We can still hold onto our God and our values. Even while we are being destroyed, we are able to rebuild.

Consider how Reform Jews of the past responded to the Shoah in the 20th Century. While in the camps, Rabbi Leo Baeck preached Torah beside waste heaps. When he was liberated from Theresienstadt, he immediately published a work of optimistic theology, expressing his hope of Judaism’s continuity. Think of Rabbi Albert Friedlander, who, having escaped the Nazis, spent the post-war years establishing synagogues and saving scrolls so that our religion could be preserved. Their lives are a testament to Jewish hope in the face of despair.

That is the story told by Tisha bAv. That, yes, we have suffered, but we have also survived. We have refused to let Judaism be extinguished. Into every generation, we have passed on our values and our faith. We have always found ways to rebuild. Tish bAv teaches us that we may always suffer, but that we have also always carried on. 

So, tonight, we begin grieving. I hope you will join me at ELELS for our ECAMPS service to mark this important fast. We will read poetry, hear the chanting of the Megillah, and reflect on the tragedies of destroyed cities and vanquished people. And, through this sorrow, we will learn again the strength and creativity of our people. We will remember all those who have kept this Judaism alive.

Tonight, we begin grieving. Tomorrow night, we will begin rebuilding.

Shabbat shalom.

halachah · sermon

What makes food kosher today?

Not long ago, after a near-lifetime of vegetarianism, I decided to try treif. And not just any treif, but the real deal: pork.

I knew I wanted to give it a go but I was afraid of being seen by other Jews. So I went on holiday to Gran Canaria, sat down in a fancy restaurant, and ordered a full-blown roast pork.

As I was waiting, however, a couple from my old congregation walked into the same restaurant. They instantly recognised me and came up to say hello. Just as we greeted each other, my pork came out from the kitchen: a giant pig on a massive platter with a big red apple in its mouth.

Flummoxed, I exclaimed: “My goodness… so this is how they serve apples here!”

OK, so that last part didn’t happen, but I really did decide to try treif about a decade ago. I’ll be honest with you, some of it tastes pretty good, but they’re not worth giving up Judaism for.

I hadn’t eaten pork since childhood. Aged 6, I had precociously insisted to my parents that I wanted to be religious and go to synagogue. My mum had told me that if I was going to force her to go to synagogue, I’d have to give up sausages. I wanted to be Jewish and I wasn’t allowed to do it half-heartedly.

I think all of us know that food laws play some role in our Judaism. Some of you here keep kosher kitchens. Some of you guiltily sneak a steak when you think you won’t get caught. Some of you, like my brother, eat extra bacon ‘to make up for all the ancestors who missed out on it.’

Whatever your choices, being a Reform Jew means to get to make those decisions for yourself. Our movement believes in informed choice.

Making the choice is your responsibility. But making sure you are informed is mine. So it’s my responsibility to share with you that there are lively debates happening in the Reform rabbinate about what kosher should mean today.

I recently attended my first Assembly of Reform Rabbis, where learned colleagues were discussing kashrut for the first time since the 1970s. It says something interesting that the topic hasn’t been addressed in such a long time.

The reason we are discussing kashrut again today is that the government is contemplating whether to ban traditional ritual slaughter – shechita. For many centuries, Jewish butchers have used the same methods for killing animals. That is: they slit their throats, puncturing the trachea, oesophagus and arteries with one rapid incision.

Throughout our history, Jews have considered this to be the cleanest and most humane method of killing animals. It comes out of a desire to show respect for the animals and to minimise risk of diseases.

Today, however, there is a new movement to favour stun slaughter. In this method, animals are electrocuted before they are killed. For cattle, this means putting a charged bolt through their heads. For chickens, it means electrifying them as a group. Proponents argue that this is more humane, since it renders animals insensitive to pain in their final moments.

There are two other factors that have made stun slaughter so popular, neither of which should be ignored. One is that industrial meat production means that factories produce far more meat. They want to be able to slaughter as efficiently as possible to maximise profit from the animals. Industrial stun slaughter certainly helps here.

Another factor is antisemitism. Across Europe, the movements to ban traditional slaughter have largely been led by white supremacists. Their primary target is Muslims, whose customs around halal slaughter are very similar to our own methods of shechita. Jews are really collateral damage in cultural wars about trying to retain Europe’s status as a Christian continent.

These factors make addressing this issue exceptionally complex. Proponents of stun slaughter ask us to set aside questions about racism and capitalism, just to focus on the issue at hand. I find that very hard to do. Rabbinic law is never about making moral decisions in the abstract. We make our ethical choices as real people living in the real world.

I think it is highly doubtful we will ever be able to prove that taking an animal’s life is better served by electrocution than through throat slitting. It may well be true that these new methods of industrial killing cause less pain, but shechita requires butchers to actually look animals in the eye before taking their lives. I’m not convinced either is more humane.

But, even if one were, we cannot escape the horrific systems that underpin animal consumption. Right now, the insatiable demand for meat is one of the leading causes of global warming. This week, we saw record-breaking temperatures. We can expect such heat waves to take place more regularly and more ferociously as runaway climate change unfolds.

The meat industry is an enormous enterprise that involves destroying natural habitats, depleting the oceans, battery-farming animals, deplorable working conditions, and unspeakable cruelty.

In every generation, Reform Jews have to work out anew what the most ethical way of living is. Today, it is hard to make the case that this includes participating in such an unjust system.

Rather than engaging in debates about specific methods of killing, I feel the appropriate response should be to question whether we should keep eating meat at all.

Indeed, this synagogue has long been an exclusively vegetarian site. This is partly because of convenience: it means we can host anyone and we can avoid messy arguments about separating meat from milk. But it also comes from the moral courage of previous leaders in this community, like Rabbi Henry, who felt that was the best way to live our values.

Please do not think me preachy. Quite on the contrary, I want to be open about my own hypocrisy. I still do eat meat on occasion, especially fish and chicken. I eat eggs and cheese. But, deep down, I know that the ethical vegans have already won the argument.

I once expressed my sadness about this to a frum vegan friend. She advised me: don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. If you wish you could be vegan but can’t give up cheese, be vegan except for cheese! If you wish you could be vegetarian but like fish too much, be pesacatarian! We must all find ways to reduce our meat intake and limit our negative impacts on the planet.

The Reform rabbinate is still in open conversation about how we redefine kosher for our age. We did not settle the matter at the Assembly, and I don’t want to leave this sermon as if I have reached a definite conclusion. Instead, I want to bring you into the conversation. I want to hear how you think we should best live our values today.

Let us engage in open discussion. Let us talk with each other about our own practices and our own driving values. And let us fashion together a new future for what an ethical Jewish life looks like.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · sermon

Ordination address

The most commonly asked question I’ve had while training to be a rabbi is “why?”

And I always tell them the same thing.

I was sitting in synagogue one shabbat morning, when a great beam of light came in through the sanctuary window, the heavens opened, and a great booming voice said: “Lev! Apply to Leo Baeck College!”

Of course, that didn’t happen. And it doesn’t take people long to realise I’m joking.

Rabbis don’t get called on by God. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud were pretty suspicious of any purported voices from heaven.

Today, I will share with you the real reason I wanted to be a rabbi. During my twenties, I began to wonder what happened to gay men over 30. I knew so few.

At the same time, I saw some friends, in different ways, destroy themselves. They were all queer.

And I didn’t need to ask why. I understood how living in a homophobic and transphobic society could make them believe that the world didn’t want them.

I had grown up in that world too, often experiencing homophobic violence.

But I had one thing that differentiated me from some of my friends who didn’t think they belonged in this world.

I never had to doubt that I had a family, a community, and a God who loved me.

I grew up in a synagogue that accepted and embraced me as a gay and gender non-conforming child.

I knew, too, that were gay rabbis out there. At least two. Over decades, pioneers had fought for a Judaism that would benefit people they would never know. That would shamelessly embrace difference. That would speak out for social justice against conformity.

And I wondered if, perhaps, I could pass on something similar. That others might grow up with a God and a community and a religion that loved them. That, if they did, perhaps they wouldn’t destroy themselves.

So, in that sense, I feel like I was called.

Called upon by future queer kids, asking, will you make space for us?

Called upon by past generations of Jews, many lost to the centuries, saying, we brought this Judaism this far. We nurtured inclusive Judaism for you to inherit it. Will you keep it alive for us now?

Called upon by those that didn’t make it, asking, will there be communities that can love us, too?

And yes. Called upon by a loving God. The voice of justice. The moral force of the universe that will always stand with the oppressed.

The outstretched hand that brought us out from Egypt so that we might spread a prophetic message of equality and justice throughout the world.

That voice doesn’t come as a booming sound from the heavens. It is a still, small voice. It is a gentle murmur, calling us to do right, urging us to rectify iniquity, offering hope.

Such a voice can only be heard if there are people to amplify it. To those who have kept it reverberating throughout the ages – thank you.

It is calling us all.

May we merit to answer.

Amen.

judaism · sermon · torah

That land had neither milk nor honey


“There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese!”

In one of my favourite childhood movies, a gang of mice pranced about the film screen singing these words. There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese.

In An American Tail, the protagonist is a seven-year-old Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. In his home country, the mice are terrorised by cats. They struggle to eat and sustain their traditions. His whole family dreams of making the journey across the Atlantic to a new country where they won’t face these problems any more.

In America, they imagine, the cats, which represent persecution or kossacks or fascists or pogroms, won’t exist any more. After years of not eating, America will provide them with every food they have imagined. Over the ocean, even the streets will be paved with cheese.

As the plot unfolds, the mice arrive in New York. Fievel discovers that America’s streets are no more cheesy than the old country’s, and that cats are just as prevalent. In their new land, they will also be hungry, and persecuted, and tired, just as they were in the old. Their dreams could not be realised by moving from one country to another.

In this week’s parashah, Moses sends out scouts to survey the land of Israel. He asks twelve envoys to go into the country they expect to possess and report back on its contents.

I imagine this must have been a moment of great trepidation. We today know what other countries look like. We are able to travel abroad; we meet migrants from foreign places; we have access to people anywhere in the world through media in the palms of our hands.

Not long ago, such journeys were rare. People did not know how expansive the globe was or how similar and different people around the world would be to them. Perhaps travelling merchants brought fantastical tales from places they had never been. Some maps were marked with warnings of sea monsters and dragons. For the Israelites making the journey to Canaan, it would have been their first time leaving their valley in Egypt. Anything could await them on the other side.

When they came back, ten gave their report. The land has fertile soil, with large grapes growing on vines. But the people who live there are numerous and giant. We looked like grasshoppers to them. The cities are walled, fortified, and guarded. We have no chance of taking that land, and, even if we could, it will swallow up everyone who inhabits it.

Caleb and Joshua disagreed. They offered a minority report. We can do it. We can take this land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. As long as you obey God and Moses, you can capture that place and live the life you have fantasised about.

According to our story, the other ten scouts were struck down with plagues and punished for their transgression. How dare they give such a negative report?

Only Joshua and Caleb go on to enter the Promised Land. Rabbinic commentaries make much of how courageous and optimistic those men were. They had faith. They believed in God’s strength and their own.

But here’s the thing. Joshua and Caleb were lying. That land was not flowing with milk and honey. They really were outnumbered. They really were about to take on fortified cities. It really was unlikely that an exhausted band of runaway slaves were going to be able to conquer an entirely new country.

All Joshua and Caleb were offering were politicians’ promises. They were giving false hope to keep people in line and stop them rebelling against Moses.

They say, at this moment, God decided that this generation would not enter the Promised Land. They were too rebellious and stubborn. Only Joshua and Caleb, who actually believed in God, would be permitted admission. This was their punishment: they will not know what the Land of Israel looks like, and they will wander further.

But, if they had entered the land, the whole Israelite people would have seen that the first ten scouts were right. They would have realised that Joshua and Caleb had fleeced them. They would have seen that Moses promised them a land that did not exist.

Preachers often lament how sad it was that Moses never saw the Promised Land. But how much sadder would it have been if Moses had reached it? Imagine if Moses had travelled all those miles, given up everything, fought with everyone, and struggled endlessly, only to see that the much-vaunted land of his ancestors was just another desert.

The lands of Israel are no more fertile than the plains on the east side of the Jordan. They are filled with inhospitable desert. While the Israelites have had to fight with Amalekites and Moabites to reach their destination, in the new country they will battle Canaanites, Philistines and other tribes. For all the promises of peace, the war is not over.

Moses had brought the Israelites away from Egypt promising freedom. In the new country, there will still be slaves. There will still be priests and kings to subjugate them. There will still be debts to pay and unaffordable rents and famines and strife. They will still see death, sickness, and injustice.

How tragic would it have been for Moses to reach that land flowing with milk and honey, where he would find that it had neither. The Promised Land was not as promised.

There were still cats in America. The streets were not paved with cheese.

At the conclusion of An American Tail, the mice eventually band together to defeat the cats. Using their cunning, technology, and finding surprising friends, they build a contraption to scare away their evil persecutors. They learn that there will be cats, but that they have to work in solidarity if they want to defeat them. They discover that streets are not paved with cheese, but that, if they find some, they can share it, and in those moments they will feel sated and free.

None of the spies could really give a report on the land, because it wasn’t a place they were going. It was somewhere they imagined they might build by common endeavour.

They could have said: “That land does not flow with milk and honey. But it could. We could make it feel like it was.”

Maybe we don’t learn those things from speeches and scouts’ reports. We only learn how to work together by doing it. We only discover what we are capable of if we try.

Only by working together can we make a world that flows with milk and honey.

Together, we can free the world of cats and pave the streets with cheese.

Shabbat shalom.


festivals · sermon

But Ruth was a Moabite

In the Louvre, there is a towering stele, engraved with glyphs in an ancient language. Cast into the stone are the words purported to come from King Mesha of Moab. It tells of how the kingdom of Israel waged war against the Moabites and subjugated them.

He tells how King Omri decided to destroy the house of Moab forever. How he occupied land and oppressed the people. How the Israelites demanded tribute from the Moabites and forced them to send hundreds of men as captive slaves.

And our sources? Our sources agree. The Bible tells the same story. In the book of Kings, Mesha, king of Moab, is described as a sheep breeder who had to hand over 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. He is treated as a despised servant, mocked for his weakness at being conquered. Our Bible groats that the Moabites were utterly destroyed.

But. But Ruth was a Moabite.

Ruth came from the plains of Moab where there was famine and joined herself to Naomi’s household. She joined with them and was a model of love and kindness. She was strong and noble. Ruth is still the model of decency. And she was a Moabite.

These weeks, we turn to the book of Numbers. Almost the entirety of this chapter is a polemic against the Moabites. It tells of never ending war. It talks about how the Moabites feared the Israelites strength and number; how the Israelites went and crushed them. It triumphantly promises that a scepter shall rise out of Israel and smash the forehead of Moab. Death to Moab. Death to the Moabites.

But… Ruth was a Moabite. Ruth was a Moabite. Could she be included in these celebrations of ethnic cleansing? How could anyone do that to Ruth?

In the Psalms, God jokes that Moab is a washpot. The basin in which God’s feet are cleaned. Ezra laments in disgust that Israelites would ever marry Moabites. Numbers calls the Israelites who married Moabites harlots. Deuteronomy treats this intermarriage as a sin.

But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And their story is the one we turn to when we want to understand true love. Their union is how we imagine all marriages should be. For them, marriage wasn’t a problem. It was a joy. Who could forbid such a thing?

When King David took power in Israel, he set out to conquer and destroy the Moabites. He trapped them in the valley and allowed nobody to leave. He split the Moabite camp in two with a line. On one side, he massacred them. He killed them without exception. On the other side, he enslaved them, and kept them as degraded servants.

But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And they has children. And grand-children and great-grandchildren. And one of those descendants was David. Yes, King David, too, was a Moabite by ancestry. He was a product of one of those forbidden unions.

In so many places, the Bible speaks of destroying and degrading the Moabites. Only a few verses in one solitary book speak of Ruth as a Moabite, and position her as a source of love and the originator of the Israelite nation.

The Bible is not so much a book, but a library in discussion with itself. It is a compendium of different contradicting voices.

Somewhere, at some time, some voice thought it was important to say that Ruth was a Moabite. And she was a model of love and kindness. And she took better care of her family than anyone could. And she was the pinnacle of loyalty and devotion. And she was the grandmother of King David. And she was a Moabite.

You might wonder why anyone would bother. The entire Bible is a torrent of hatred against Moabites. Every word is oppositional. All the history speaks of war and conquest. Why would one lone author put their head above the parapet to suggest something otherwise? Why would it be worthwhile to say that Ruth was a Moabite?

But think about it. There are countless verses of contempt for Moabites, and only one that suggests they are worthy of love. And which one do we remember? Does anyone today feel any animosity towards the ancient tribe east of the Jordan? Does anyone still take pride in Israel’s long-gone military victories against its neighbours?

No. But people remember that Ruth was a Moabite.

Empires rise and empires fall. Nations come in and out of being. The names of kings and warriors are lost to the ages. But one loving word can last a thousand lifetimes.

The voices of hatred and jingoism are fleeting. They cannot be sustained. But the voice of love – the voice of humanity – that speaks out across centuries and spans generations. It lasts long after the malaise has subsided.

Ancient Israel was a great kingdom. It was able to conquer lands and bring neighbouring nations to their knees. It could compel people to erect stone monuments to their own misery. And the thought of it makes us, at best, uncomfortable.

But, now, all we take pride in is love. The love our people have had for their God. The love our leaders have had for their Torah. The love they have had for each other. They love they have had for strangers.

Gentle words. Small memorandums of compassion. Fleeting acts of kindness.

A verse. Ruth was a Moabite. Remember that, Ruth was one of them.

Shabbat shalom. Chag sameach.

festivals · sermon

Will there still be Jews?

A young Talmud scholar moves from Lithuania to London. Years later he returns home to visit his family.

His mother asks: “Yossele but where is your beard?”

“Oh, mama, in London, nobody wears a beard.”

“But do you at least keep Shabbat?”

“No, mama, in London people work all the time. We have to make money.”

“Oy vey. But do you still keep kosher?”

“Mum, I’m sorry, kosher food is expensive and hard to find.”

“Yossele…” she says. “Are you still circumcised?”

Thus joke points to a perennial Jewish anxiety: will people stay Jews? Will Judaism continue?

In every generation, a study is published, fearfully proclaiming that Jewishness is declining, which will be swiftly followed by rabbinic pronouncements about how to save it, philanthropists putting money into projects that engage young Jews, and various pundits proclaiming that this proves exactly what they had always said.

Why, when this problem has been repeatedly highlighted, has Judaism nevertheless continued, and Jewishness never seen the burial it was foretold?

For starters, it turns out that many of the things that people assured us would mark the end of Judaism were not that threatening after all. At the start of the Enlightenment, Orthodox leaders agonised that, if Jews went to universities, they would be needlessly subjected to heretical ideas and turn their backs on religion. In the end, Judaism and academic study proved more than compatible.

The fear about Jews losing their beards turned out not to be so troubling either. After all, half the Jewish people had never been able to grow them! In the 90s, the great moral panic centred on mixed marriages, which, experience has shown, only grew the Jewish population, rather than diminishing it.

So, why all the worry? In fact, these concerns undoubtedly go back to the beginnings of Jewishness. In the book of Ruth, we read a story of a young woman faced with the choice of whether to remain with the Jewish people. Either she could stay with her mother-in-law and run the risk of never marrying; or she could return to her original village and begin her life again.

Being Jewish was the harder option. Being Jewish was riskier and unknown. Ruth’s sister, Orpah, chose to leave the Jews and rebuild. Ruth chose Judaism.

She must have seen something in it that made her want to stay. Perhaps it was the God, or Naomi, or the people, or the way they lived. Judging by what she said, it was a combination of all of these. She chose the harder option, because it was the more beautiful one.

That has always been the way with Judaism. High risk. High reward. Hard to maintain. Worth maintaining.

That is why we feel anxiety about Jewish continuity. We know that it is not the easy option. It takes work. So we look around for people who will do it.

Our rabbis understood this feeling well. They told a story of the revelation at Sinai: that, on the day when God gave the Israelites the commandments, God raised Mount Sinai over their heads and told them to accept them. If they took them on, they would live. If not, the mountain would come crashing down on their heads and make the desert their grave.

“Choose life” wasn’t advice. It was a threat. Of course, they accepted.

But, said the rabbis, there were other times when they took on the commandments too. When there were no threats from God but plenty from the ruling powers. They point to the story of Esther, when the Jews lived under Persian imperial rule and could have been slaughtered for practising their religion. God did not appear to make promises or offer consolation. But they chose Judaism anyway.

This is a narrative of how Judaism has been continued. On an individual level, this is what happens to many of us. As children, we go to synagogue because our parents tell us to. We live their ways and eat their food because we have no other choice. Now, as adults, we turn up because we want to. There is no compulsion to attend. We do it because we have found in it something beautiful and worthwhile.

This is true, too, of our history as a community. There was a time when we had no choice but to be Jewish. Think of the periods when Jewishness was stamped on our passports and our job application papers; when being Jewish determined what jobs we could do and where we could live. We kept up Judaism because we had no other choice.

But now we have reached a time when it is a choice. Nobody is making us be Jewish. We sustain it because we want to. You who have turned up this morning could have gone anywhere. You could have done anything. But you chose to come here. Like Ruth and Esther, you decided that something in Judaism was beautiful and worthwhile.

You decided that this religion and these festivals have meaning. That is why I’m not really worried about Jewish continuity. I know that you are keeping it alive. I know that, in every generation, as long as there are a good few people who think Judaism is worthwhile, it will be.

On Shavuot, we renew our covenant with God. We take on the Torah once more. We decide to keep the flame of Jewish truth burning.

And, because of that, Judaism lives on.

festivals · sermon · theology

A night for finding answers

Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight, as we open the haggadah, we will tell the children they are free to ask. We will lay out plates of display foods, including an egg, a bone, and a mushy mixture of fruit and nuts, so that people will ask questions about our exodus from Egypt. 

In “mah nishtana,” the lovely song chanted by the youngest at the table, we hear four questions about why tonight is different from every other. Why do we lean to the left when we drink? Why do we dip things in salt water? Why do we eat that tear-jerking horseradish, maror? And why have we had to substitute delicious bread for mediocre matzah?

So highly valued is questioning at this season that Judaism has been described as a religion of questions. Ask us a question and we’ll answer with another question. A decade ago at this season, the American businessman Edgar Bronfman declared “to be Jewish is to ask questions.” This festival, with all its questioning, he said, proves that Judaism permits plenty of doubt and openness to many answers.

I have a problem with this approach. The trouble is… these questions have answers! They’re not open-ended speculations to which we’ll dedicate the rest of our lives pondering. 

We lean to the left when we drink our wine to show that we are free. We dip parsley in salt water to remind us of the taste of tears that came from enslavement. We eat the bitter herbs in commemoration of the bitterness of slavery. We eat matzah to recall that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry, because we can waste no time in pursuing freedom.

These are the answers. They tell us what the festival is all about and what Judaism really means. It’s about how freedom tastes good and oppression is painful. It’s about the moral message of a God who saw the difference and decided to redeem the Israelites. These questions have a purpose, to provoke us into contemplating justice.

This idea that Judaism is all about questioning and doubt has taken such a hold that people have hung entire theologies on it. There is a story in the Talmud that the two great founding houses of rabbinic Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, were in a conflict for three years. Eventually, a divine voice announced from the sky: “these and these are the words of the living God.”

It is a beautiful story, but it has been repeatedly cited by Jewish educators to justify a relativism that firmly believes nothing. Everything is true. All views are valid.

These teachers always conveniently omit the subsequent words from that divine voice: that the halachah is in accordance with Beit Hillel. They both may have valid viewpoints, but only one can be implemented. The Talmud asks why it was that Hillel’s house won. It answers that they were עלובין – a word often translated to mean ‘modest’ but which really means ‘wretched’ or ‘poor.’

The House of Hillel really were comprised of the poor. Their judgements consistently advocated for the slaves against the masters and the peasants against the patrician class. They strove to make Judaism more accessible to the downtrodden and more just for the oppressed. In other words, God may be able to speak through many voices, but ultimately the one that champions moral truth is still the correct one.

I do understand why people might want to advocate for doubt and questioning. It is an antidote to dogmatism. It stops people becoming fundamentalists, Imagining that they alone can speak for God. 

But there are real problems with leaving everything open to debate. Surely it is not just an open question whether or not to hurt people. The words of oil barons and indigenous climate activists are surely not equally ‘the words of the living God.’ We can’t give equal weight to every view or only question without seeking answers.

My very favourite philosopher was a British-Jewish woman called Gillian Rose. She wrote with such beauty about things that really matter. She saw the problems of only questioning and allowing every viewpoint quite clearly. She also agreed that we couldn’t just assert answers. If either everyone is correct or only one answer is correct, there is no room for discussion. 

So, Gillian Rose says, you have to pick a side. You have to decide what you think is right. You have to look at what your conscience tells you and aim for meaningful justice. You might be wrong, so you have to keep your mind open to nuance and debate. But you also have to know right from wrong. 

Pesach is indeed a time for asking questions. But it is, above all, a night for seeking answers. 

Pesach invites us to ask about freedom so that we will fight for it. Pesach invites us to ask about oppression so that we will vanquish it.

We must ask these questions because Pharaoh was not just a man who lived a long time ago and the exodus was not a one-time event. These are words of a living God because they speak to struggles that are still very live.

Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight is a night for seeking answers.

The great question of Pesach is: what are you doing to bring about justice today?

And now you must give your answer.

judaism · sermon · social justice

You are not sick

Imagine if I stood up here on a shabbat and I told you I could fix you. 

Imagine if I said there was something fundamentally wrong with you. That some property intrinsic to you, about your soul, was fundamentally wrong. Sinful.

Imagine if, when we read out the names of people in need of healing, your name was on there. You hadn’t asked to be placed there and you felt fine. But somebody in the community had decided that who you were, as a person, was contrary to their religious beliefs, and that made you sick.

Imagine if your child or grandchild came to see me at the synagogue and ask for rabbinic advice about their personality. Instead of offering them love and support to be happy with who they were, I told them that they needed to repent. I told them that God thought they should feel guilty. I told them they should pray and fast until the wickedness in them was gone.

Imagine it. Imagine any preacher in any religious building doing such a thing.

You don’t have to imagine. It happens today, here in Britain.

It is called conversion therapy. 

Conversion therapy is when queer people are told, often by a religious leader, that prayer, exorcism or counselling can change their gender or sexuality. It is when somebody tells a gay person that they can be made straight, or a trans person they can be made cis.

It happens in the British Jewish community. One survivor of this practice, Joe Hyman, spoke out about how a religious Jewish group tried to counsel him out of homosexuality. At first, it involved telephone appointments where he was told he could be healed. He sat round in a room and was forced to examine every homosexual thought he experienced through a lens of judgement and shame.

Another British-Jewish woman, Maya, went through conversion therapy classes that told her that her parents hadn’t nurtured her enough and that she must have been abused as a child. 

There are Jewish retreats in New York and Israel, where participants are made to do psychologically damaging activities including stripping naked and berating themselves while staring at a mirror.

You might well wonder why such an abhorrent practice has not yet been banned. For that, you would have to ask Boris Johnson. 

This week, his government leaked reports that they have abandoned plans to stop conversion therapy. They have bowed to pressure from conservatives and fundamentalists. 

When the various LGBT charities expressed their outrage, and the public followed suit, the government back-pedalled, but only slightly. They said they would ban conversion therapy for sexuality, but not for gender identity. They have decided that lesbian, gay, and bi people should not be subjected to this psychological torture, but that they will keep it up for trans people. 

Not content to only permit the practice, the government has decided to get in on bullying trans people. Boris Johnson used a recent speech to mock trans people. A public discourse has emerged that pathologises and humiliates people who do not conform to gendered expectations. 

Trans women, in particular, are the subject of a horrible narrative of hate. I don’t think it would be helpful or responsible to repeat the things I’ve heard, even from respectable platforms like the BBC. You have probably heard it too, and speaking it from the pulpit would only lend this hate speech legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

The pathologisation of sex and bodies is as old as the Bible. In ancient Israel, when a person’s genitals seemed emitted an unusual discharge, or found they could not ejaculate, a priest would declare them a zav. This meant they were ritually impure, prohibited from entering holy places and forbidden from engaging in acts of worship. 

This was not just recognising the existence of genital problems or sexual diseases. It was making them into signs of defilement. It was saying that the people who had them were in some way sinful. It turned the body into something shameful. 

By the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis were conscious of how problematic this system of stigmatising people was. They announced mitigating circumstances for when somebody might not be considered a zav: if they had jumped; lifted something heavy; been unwell; seen something arousing; thought about something sexual; had eaten or drunk something unusual. If they had done any of these things, even if they had symptoms of a zav, they were not considered a zav. They were exempt from being treated as sick.

To this already expansive list, Rabbi Akiva added two more categories: if somebody had eaten or drunk anything at all, they were not a zav. His students were astonished. They said: “if that’s the case, there will be no more zavim anywhere any more!” Rabbi Akiva responded: “it is not your job to make sure people are considered impure.”

Rabbi Akiva understood something profound. Nobody should be considered sick. Nobody should be stigmatised for who they are. So, to combat the stigma, he found a way to make sure everyone was exempted.

That is what is needed today to combat this senseless hatred against trans people. That is why we so desperately need to ban conversion therapy and stop treating people as if there is something wrong with them.

All we are asking is that people can access non-judgemental support to talk about their gender. We are asking that people can be free to explore it, open to the possibility that their gender might not be the one they have always been told it was. We are asking for people to have the freedom to go on a journey with their gender, open to the possibility that this might mean changing their name, or their pronouns, or the way they dress, or the way their body looks. 

I understand that perhaps that might sound frightening to some. But what truly terrifies me is that people can’t. Young people exploring their gender currently cannot feel safe turning to authority figures to talk about their gender when there is so much vitriol emanating from the country’s highest offices of power. And they are even less safe when leaders continue to have the power to tell trans kids that they are sick and can be cured.

From this pulpit, there is only one message you will get. You are not sick. You are loved. You are supported by this community. You are safe to be whoever you want to be. 

In this synagogue, we believe in a loving God. In this religious movement, we affirm that you have a unique journey to find your own way with your Creator. And we will never try to change you.

Shabbat shalom.

With massive thanks to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner for helping me think through how to talk about this when the issue makes me so emotional

judaism · sermon

The tribes that broke apartheid

We are all members of tribes. Human beings are tribal creatures. We organise into packs and stick together. We identify into groups. 

You are probably a member of more than one tribe. You are a member of this synagogue, which binds together hundreds of families into a community. You might also have your workplace, neighbourhood group, union, political party, youth movement, charity association. 

Tribes are a core part of life. And it is this week, as we receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, that the Israelites become a tribe. When we left Egypt, we were slaves. We were a mixed multitude escaping persecution. Now, as we stand in the wilderness, we form into something stronger. But what kind of tribe do we become? 

In 2008, a group of researchers got together to study different tribal cultures. David Logan and his team looked at hundreds of workplaces and social groupings to see how they operated. While all these groups formed tribes, they found that there could be very divergent kinds. 

These researchers divided up the tribes into five kinds, based on their cultures. At the lowest level, Level One, were those tribes that functioned worst and, at the highest level, Level Five, were those that functioned best. 

Interestingly, as we look at the stages, it seems like exactly the progression the Israelites go through as they form as a tribe. They begin low on these researchers’ scale and, as the story continues, they advance to higher levels of performance. 

At Level One, tribes take the attitude that life is awful. They systematically sever relationships with other tribes and pool with people who think like they do. They are entire groups of angry misanthropes. These are the kinds of people who say “everyone is horrible, so we’ll be horrible, too. People will attack and rob us, so we’re going to get them first.” People who think life sucks will be toxic towards themselves, their own group members, and anyone they consider an outsider.

This is the Israelites at the start of the Exodus narrative. They are crying out for help under tyrannical persecution. They are a mixed multitude of all the lowest classes of Egypt, and have no concept of anything but toil. They don’t even trust Moses when he tries to start setting them free.

At Level Two, tribes say “my life is awful, but there is better stuff out there.” The world might be a good place, but I don’t have access to the goodness in it. These are the kinds of people who will bemoan how persecuted they are. They will complain that other groups have better jobs, or get taken more seriously, or produce better culture, or have more influence. These tribes don’t believe in themselves enough to make positive changes for their own tribe, let alone others.

This is the next stage for the Israelites. They decide that there is a better world out there. Their lives are horrible but, if they left Egypt, they might get a taste of something better. They get up and go, seeking to find a new life as they leave through the Sea of Reeds.

In a Level Three tribe, the mantra is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Here, people are competing for prestige, wealth, and honour. These are groups where everyone wants to compare notes about how much better their kids are doing in school, or how much better their careers are going. The tribe can do good things, but only because it creates cultures where individuals flourish.

That’s the level we reach at the start of this week. Betzalel emerges as a fantastic architect and interior designer, showing off his skills at the Tabernacle. Aaron and his family come forward to be priests. They show how well they can perform religious rituals. But, because they have no defining values, they end up worshipping a golden calf and recreating the same systems they knew in Egypt.

Stage Four is where really impressive tribes begin to emerge.  These are groups where people are united by something greater than their individual competences. They turn from small groups into something large and meaningful. They are actually conscious of being a tribe, and united by values. They extend their reach by connecting with other tribes and finding points of value alignment. 

Only now, as Moses presents the Ten Commandments, can the Israelites reach Stage Four. They are a conscious tribe, united by shared values. We, these freed slaves, have one God. We reject idols. We honour our families. We hold time sacred. We refuse to engage in murder, theft and lies. We are one people joined by a shared vision of what a just society could be. Anyone who shares that dream can join us.

But that is not the end of the journey. The highest level is rare, and most groups never get there. 

The fifth level is when a tribe is united by values that affirm life, each other, and the future. We only see glimpses of this kind of tribal behaviour in Tanach – on those incredible occasions when the prophets extend their message full of joy about who humanity is and hope of what it could be.  

The researchers who ranked the groups only offered one example of a tribe that reached such a high level. That was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. 

This was convened in 1996. With Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of formal apartheid, nobody knew which direction the country would go in. Some anticipated civil war, or resurgent racist nationalism.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought together thousands of tribes from all across South Africa. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would aim to restorative justice between all people. Victims and perpetrators faced each other, to speak honestly about what had happened during apartheid, and how they could make amends.

He united people on a programme that they could be better than they had been. He coalesced people around a vision that they could be honest with each other and foster a future based on cooperation. 

Consider what courage and moral fortitude that must have taken. For decades, black, Indian, and Coloured South Africans had been subjected to segregation, poverty and violence. The anti-apartheid activists had faced imprisonment, state abuse, and separation from their families.

After all that, Tutu took these tribes to a level we almost never see. He created a culture where people believed in themselves, in each other, and joined by a vision of joy and hope. 

When Desmond Tutu died just over a month ago, it reminded people of what a giant he had been for religious people worldwide. His theology was one that still intimidates many. He preached true universalism, arguing that God was not a Christian, but belonged to every religion. He advocated sincere justice, never shrinking from social issues. And he believed, despite all he saw, that people were capable of fantastic things.

That was what made his assembly of tribes exceptional. Only those who see the best in people and hold the greatest of values can take people beyond what they know. If we are to defeat the racism, segregation and division that plague us today, we need to muster similar attitudes.

So, which tribe will we Jews be today? Will we sit at the bottom rung, only believing the worst about the world? Will we be like those who complain that we don’t count but others do? Will we create a culture where individuals can flourish but don’t cohere as a whole group? Will we unite around clear values and come together consciously with pride? And can we achieve that rarest of things: a level where we affirm what is wonderful in ourselves and the world, and foster unity around a joyous vision of the future?

The faith that inspired us at Sinai tells us today: we can achieve remarkable things. If we believe in ourselves, we will.

sermon · social justice

Were our prophets crazy?

There was once a magician, a wicked magician, who constructed a mirror whose purpose was that everything good and beautiful, when reflected in it, shrank up almost to nothing, whilst those things that were ugly and useless were magnified, and made to appear ten times worse than before. The loveliest landscapes reflected in this mirror looked like boiled spinach; and the handsomest persons appeared odious, so distorted that their friends could never have recognised them. 

This is the opening of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen. I begin with this story because there was a time when this was how the world looked to me. I once saw the world as full of threats, violence and despair. 

I received a diagnosis of anxiety and was placed on medication. I began talking therapy, which I have now done on and off for many years. I changed my diet and began regular exercise. For what felt like the first time, beautiful landscapes looked like beautiful landscapes, instead of boiled spinach. Friends looked like friends instead of enemies. The world looked… normal. I felt like I could finally think.

Today is Mental Health Shabbat. Across the Jewish community, we are encouraged to spend this day reflecting on our own mental health and that of those around us. 

Sometimes, today, preachers will come up with prescriptions, about how everyone can just sort themselves out. Like how everyone needs to talk more, or we could all do with being kinder, or perhaps we just need more walks in the woods. I find these sermons quite patronising, oblivious to people’s individual circumstances, and insensitive to the realities of psychosis and personality disorders. Not everything can be so easily solved. 

One of the problems with advocating for everyone to be more well-adjusted is, well, adjusted to what? Do we not live in a world that really does pose depressing realities? Do we not see around us a society gripped by isolation and defeat? 

If we want to seriously think about mental health, we need to ask much more probing questions. I want us to think about what sanity and madness really means. I want us to ask real questions about how anyone can be sane in a society gone so wrong. 

That, I think, is part of the question our Prophets were trying to answer. Since the dawn of biblical criticism, scholars have asked whether our prophets were crazy. These great men and women of ancient times saw visions nobody else could see; wept in the street when everyone else went about their daily lives; shouted angrily at a deity that nobody else believed would listen. If they were alive today, they would surely be committed, imprisoned, or put on some very strong drugs.

The greatest of these crazy prophets was Jeremiah, whose haftarah we read today. He is so associated with depression that, as a noun, the word ‘jeremiad’ means “ a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress.” His very name conjures images of sadness and despair; of a tortured soul who saw unfolding doom and was ignored in his predictions.

He was, in his time, treated like a madman. For the crime of speaking his prophecies, Jeremiah was placed in stocks and ridiculed. When his visions came true and Babylon besieged Jerusalem, he was imprisoned by the Judean King in the courthouse. Rulers even tried to kill him. Mocked, assaulted, tortured and imprisoned, Jeremiah was treated as a crazy menace throughout his life, and ended it weeping over the destruction of his city.

We should not be surprised that others saw him as mad. From the moment he received his first prophecy, Jeremiah was assaulted by visions of mundane objects revealing hidden messages to him. In the branch of an almond tree, Jeremiah saw the fulfilment of God’s promises. In a steaming kettle, he envisioned warmongering enemies descending from the north. Modern psychologists might interpret these as paranoid hallucinations, and perhaps it is only the holiness of the ancient text that stops us from agreeing with them.

To meet in public, Jeremiah would have been a frightening sight. He stood at the gates of the city. He ranted at the perceived sinners of the city, telling them that their carcasses would be eaten by birds; that their graves would be dug up and desecrated; and their wives handed over to their enemies.  If you heard such things from someone standing outside a train station, you, too, would likely conclude that the speaker was mad. 

But, perhaps, Jeremiah saw his society more clearly than the sane people who surrounded him. Jeremiah saw widows and orphans attacked; the wealthy hoarding all the resources; the privileged living in luxury while refusing to support those in need. 

If Jeremiah had looked upon such a society and accepted it, or tried only to tinker with it and reason with it, who would he be? We might well accuse him of being callously indifferent.

Yet that is how most of us get by. The way most of us function in this sick society, surrounded by exploitation and greed, is to ignore it. If we truly reflected on all the injustice in the world and saw how complicit we were in its continuity, we would all join Jeremiah in going mad.

So, where does this leave us? I know I’m not going to give up my medication or all the tools I have found to live a better life. I actually want to participate in society, and love that I am no longer gripped by anxiety. 

But I also don’t want to impose a world where everyone sees the same reality. People with mental health issues are often detained and restrained, rather than understood. 

The message of Mental Health Shabbat cannot only be talking more, but also listening more, especially to people who have been labelled as insane. 

I want us to hear people in their depression, in their anxiety, and in their psychosis. I want us to truly listen to what everyone has to say, even if it doesn’t conform to the worldview we know.

That doesn’t mean agreeing with everything others say, or never challenging it. It just means taking it seriously. Just as when we approach sacred texts, we can oppose them while recognising their holiness, so we can do with people. 

So, on this Mental Health Shabbat, I urge you: if you can listen to the Prophets, you can listen to your neighbours in their distress too.

Shabbat shalom.