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. 

sermon · social justice

When did Moses stop being Egyptian?

When did Moses stop being an Egyptian?

When Moses was born, he was decidedly Hebrew. This fact was dangerous. The Hebrews were living under oppressive rule, enslaved and oppressed by hard labour. Fearing the Hebrews’ strength in numbers, the Pharaoh had decreed that all first-born Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the Nile. Staying Hebrew would have meant certain death for Moses.

So, he was raised Egyptian. His mother put him in a basket and sent him down the river, where he was picked up by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the central palace. He was given an Egyptian name and raised as if he was a member of the Egyptian aristocracy. 

But, at some point, Moses ceased being an Egyptian. One day, he saw a slavemaster beating a Hebrew. Seeing the Hebrew as his brother, and the Egyptian as his enemy, Moses struck back and beat the slaver. He killed the Egyptian. Moses fled into exile in the Midianite desert. He knew he was no longer Egyptian. 

There are varying accounts of how Moses ceased being Egyptian. In the classic Dreamworks film, Prince of Egypt, Miriam and Aaron bump into him in the street, reveal to Moses his history, and persuade him to join the slaves’ revolt. The film is so ubiquitous that many imagine this is the Torah’s version of events.

This version makes for fantastic cinema, but doesn’t quite fit with the narrative presented in Exodus. In our story, Moses’s mother, Yocheved, and his sister, Miriam, put themselves forward to care for Moses in the Pharaoh’s palace. Surely his own family, having stayed with him since birth, who look more like him than Pharaoh’s daughter, would have raised him to know his history, even if only secretly. 

As Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet astutely notes, the text suggests that Moses held onto both identities. In the same verse where Moses rises up against the slavemaster, he calls both the Egyptians and the Israelites his “brothers.” He goes out to join his brothers the Egyptians in surveying the building works, then beats the slaver in solidarity with his brothers the Hebrews.

Moses could have quite easily continued living as an Egyptian while knowing he was a Hebrew. Many people throughout history have held multiple nationalities without contradiction. The useful question is not when Moses became Hebrew, but when he stopped being an Egyptian. 

Perhaps, as some of our commentators have suggested, the key lies a few verses before. There, it says that Moses grew up. Rabbis of the past have wondered what this growing up could mean. Surely it can’t refer to weaning or early childhood, because he has the strength to hit back against a fully grown adult wielding a whip. It must refer to a deeper maturity: Moses reaches the age where he can question the lies of Egyptian society. He reaches the emotional maturity to put his heart with the oppressed and rebel against injustice.

Moses was always a Hebrew, but he stopped being an Egyptian once he refused to identify with their system. As soon as Moses was willing to rebel against Egypt, he not only lost his identification with his enemy, but he lost the protection of being part of the elite family. He had to flee into exile. The only circumstance in which he could return was to lead the mass exodus of his people, the Hebrews.

It may seem surprising that Egypt and brutal slavery were so entwined that Moses could not remain Egyptian while opposing the evils of its system. How can it be that this country was so repressive that the slightest opposition made him stateless? How can it be that even a member of the elite, raised in the palace of the most powerful man in the land, could be rendered an exile just by standing up against the cruelest possible thing one human can do to another?

Of course, today we live in more enlightened times. We now live in a society where citizenship is awarded as a birthright, not as a reward for good behaviour. We have systems of international law that guard against making people stateless. Our government in Britain would never behave as Pharaoh’s did. 

Or would they? Two weeks ago, the government passed a law through the House of Commons called ‘The Nationalities and Borders Bill.’ According to this new law, anyone who is entitled to claim another nationality can be stripped of British citizenship without warning. 

This builds on the hostile environment initiated by Theresa May, which makes it harder for immigrants to reach Britain and easier to deport them. Similar policies have already been used to send away Carribeans who have lived in Britain their whole lives and to make refugees in this country stateless.

This new law expands these powers. And it affects us. 

How many members of the Jewish community have held onto second passports in case antisemitism becomes destructive again? How many Jews do you know who are also dual nationals with Israel, South Africa, Canada, or a European country from which they were once exiled? 

My dad and brother claimed German citizenship as part of post-Holocaust reparations. Now, this very fact makes them vulnerable to have their British citizenship revoked at a moment’s notice, without them even being informed. 

Indeed, every one of us could be subjected to similar treatment. A study for the New Statesman indicates that 6 million Britons – a tenth of us – could now be deported by Priti Patel. 

This law may not have been intended for us, but it could easily be applied against us. There is plenty of historical precedent. When governments want to issue repressive measures, they begin by attacking foreigners. Anne Frank was a German until the Nazis decided she was a Jew. Moses was Egyptian until the slavers decided he was a Hebrew.

Our community should be deeply concerned by these draconian measures. Whether out of solidarity with those who have already been deported from this country, or for fear that we, too, could fall victim to these new powers, we must be willing to speak up against it.

But there is reason to be hopeful. Earlier this year, when a Home Office van came to remove two asylum seekers from their home in Glasgow, their neighbours fought back. Two hundred local people surrounded the van and refused to move until their friends were freed. The immigration authorities were forced to capitulate and let the refugees free.

Our parashah teaches that the Hebrews could not be contained by the Pharaoh’s repressive measures. “The more they oppressed them, the more they rebelled.” Like our ancestors, we must be willing to do the same. 

The more this government treats foreigners as enemies, we must be willing to accept them as friends. The more this government declares that people do not belong here, we must be willing to assert that they do. The more they say that people are illegal, we must be willing to loudly assert: nobody is.

No one is illegal. Everyone who is here belongs here. You cannot deport our neighbours and friends. You cannot take away our passports.

Shabbat shalom.

South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue; Parashat Shmot; Saturday 25th December 2021

social justice · talmud

Support our Queer Yeshiva

I am so excited to share this.

For years, I have harboured a dream of setting up a queer yeshiva. Now, we are launching a crowdfunder to get it started.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

The Talmud is the most beautiful work of Jewish thought. It was what inspired me to train as a rabbi and got me through some of my most challenging times. It has so much to offer queers. Can you help fund it?

Since launching less than a week ago, we have raised over £4,000. We need your help to bring us up to our total goal of £5,000. Whatever you can give will be immensely welcome.

I hope you will join me in supporting this cause and sharing it with anyone you know who might be interested.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

Our mission

We want to bring queer, radical Talmud learning to the UK. We are asking for your help to fund us. 

The Talmud is a beautiful and subversive text at the heart of traditional Judaism. 

Created by radicals who wanted to reinvent their religion, it teaches people how to think outside of binaries and assumptions. 

But for years, this sacred knowledge has been kept locked up by elite straight men. We want to break it open.

Our goal is to learn Talmud in a way that centres marginalised people. 

We are upending hierarchy and empowering queers with the tools and knowledge to bring these texts to life. We are here, we are queer, and we are ready for shiur.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

The project

In the summer of 2022, we hope to launch a ‘Queer Yeshiva’: Four days of intensive rigorous learning. 

Based in East London, this will be an empowering experience of accessing traditional Jewish wisdom.

We need to be in a fully accessible venue, meeting the learning needs of everyone. We need this space to be open to single parents, unemployed people, and Jews who have never studied before.

This is a big undertaking, and it costs money. That is why we are asking for your help.

Within a year, we hope to be fully self-funding and sustainable, but first we need a cash injection to get this project off the ground. 

Can you help?

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

Who we are

For seven years, Babel’s Blessing has been London’s leading grassroots language school. We teach Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and Sylheti so that Londoners can communicate with each other. We run a bnei mitzvah programme so that Jews can connect with their traditions on their own terms. We provide ESOL classes for migrants to the UK, including working as the only teachers of English as a foreign language in arrival centres.

Svara is a traditionally radical yeshiva in the United States. It teaches queer-centred Talmud pedagogy with methods designed to help oppressed people feel empowered within their tradition. Our educators have learnt from them and in their methods. 

Please donate and share now. We can’t do this without you.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

sermon · social justice · torah

After war

There is a particular kind of sadness that comes from remembering war. It is not only the needless loss of life, nor those who come home traumatised. There is something specific in the discomfort that comes after furious build-up, tragic participation, and ultimate reconciliation. 

In this week’s haftarah, Ovadiah promises a glorious war against Edom. The Edomites will be defeated and humiliated. Israel will be victorious and avenged. 

Ovadiah addresses Israel’s neighbouring nation of Edom: “For the violence against your brother Jacob, disgrace will surround you. You will be cut off for all eternity.”

He tells these nations: “The house of Jacob shall be fire, and the house of Esau shall be straw. They will set fire to it and consume it.”

In these bellicose proclamations, we get the feeling of the build-up to war. We realise, too, that Jacob and Esau are not just the names of characters in a story: they are representatives of nations.

Jacob is Israel. Esau is Edom. They are the respective countries on either side of the River Jordan. Their inhabitants imagine themselves as twin brothers, yet constantly in conflict.

This helps us make sense of the story in Torah this week. Jacob heads over to the river to make amends with Esau. He has been wrestling with his conscience and wants to make amends, but fears that if he puts forth an olive branch, Esau may kill him.

Jacob separates his clan into divisions to approach from different sides, like military battalions. He sends forward gifts and apologies with every single one. As he approaches his brother, he prostrated himself many times, bowing down in peaceful submission. Finally, they reach each other, hug, and cry. They are reconciled.

When we understand that these brothers are representatives of neighbouring nations, this is not just a story of family strife, or conflict between competing characters. It is the biblical redactors’ fantasy of what peace could mean. These countries could be united. Their bitter violence could be set aside. After years of fighting, people might once again embrace each other and cry with relief.

The special sadness of remembrance comes with contemplation after the war. What was it for? Whose interests did it serve? And how do we resolve to prevent it happening again?

After World War 1, poppies bloomed in Flanders Field, where some of the worst battles had been fought. Out of the trenches where so many had died, these scarlet flowers sprouted from the ground. They became a symbol. 

“Never again,” they said. 

Around 40 million people had died. Once it was over, many could no longer remember what they had been fighting for. The motivations of Empire and nationalism no longer seemed so compelling in the wreckage of war. Countries pledged to end the impetus to war with diplomacy, increased international cooperation and greater understanding between peoples.

After World War 2, the politicians once again pledged never again. Never again would fascism be able to rear its ugly head. They would combat, too, the root causes that had allowed Hitler to look appealing. No more would they allow such poverty and inequality to persist, giving way to racist scapegoats. 

The countries of Europe built social democracies, with universal healthcare systems and progressive welfare states. They said they would not repeat old mistakes. They formed alliances and international bodies that, they said, would prevent war.

For as long as I have been alive, Britain has been at war. Earlier this year, NATO troops finally withdrew from their twenty-year conflict in Afghanistan. It had begun when I was starting secondary school. Some of my friends enlisted to fight. 

At the time, we were told the war would avenge the World Trade Centre attacks; find Osama bin Laden; and defeat the Taliban. In the end, Osama bin Laden had never been Afghanistan and the Taliban emerged more powerful than ever. I doubt many of the victims of 9/11 feel much joy in seeing the war that has been carried out in their name.

When the war was declared, it was popular. Today, it is hard to find anyone who says they agreed with it.

Politicians declare war full of nationalist fervour and triumphant spirit, only to return defeated and bereft. Even the victors feel no glory once a war is won. They leave too much devastation in their wake.

Families are torn apart. Cities are destroyed. Lived are lost. Entire ways of life are destroyed. And, at the end of it all, the only thing to do is reflect on what went wrong. We promise once more to make peace.

The Torah’s narrative of Jacob and Esau offers us a glimpse of what peace might look like. It encourages us to look beyond the narrow excitement for violence proclaimed by Ovadiah and the promises of national glory. It reminds us to think of how much greater it would be to have peace.

Like the Prophets of old, we pray for the day when nation no longer lifts up sword against nation, and no more no peoples learn war.

May God grant us, and all the world, peace. 

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon for Remembrance Shabbat, Parashat Vayishlach on Saturday 20th November at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

halachah · sermon · social justice

My objections to euthanasia

I try not to broadcast disagreement with the rabbinate, especially when many colleagues are very senior, and I am still a student. It is even more cavalier, then, to express opposition to something advocated by the two Progressive movements, both Liberal and Reform Judaism. This issue, however, has been brewing for some time, and I feel compelled to speak out on it.

I do not agree with the current responsa coming from the movements on euthanasia. In fact, they make me deeply uncomfortable. I know that wading into such a morally complex discussion will undoubtedly upset people. Please know that my position is, almost certainly, a minority one. Please also understand that it is very sincerely and deeply held.

In June of this year, Liberal Judaism became a founding member of the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, a collection of multi-faith groups that campaigns for the rights of terminally ill people to determine how, when and where they die. 

This signaled the movement’s support for euthanasia, or assisted dying: when patients with incurable diseases are legally killed by their doctors. At the time, the decision caused some consternation in the Liberal rabbinate. Only a handful of people had made the decision with very little consultation. Dissidents objected that this was not a morally cut-and-dry decision, but one that needed much more careful thought than had been given. 

Nevertheless, the movement celebrated the media coverage they had received. They proudly displayed their reporting in The Sunday Times, Politics Home, and The Jewish News. Bold stances certainly grab headlines, and this was as bold as they could get.

This week, Reform Judaism took a more measured approach. After a great deal of consultation and discussion, the movement effectively arrived at the decision not to pick a side. Their responsum, published on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle this week, says we “will not campaign either in favour or against efforts to change the law on the issue.” 

Nevertheless, the decision garnered media attention because, for the first time, Reform Judaism promised it would provide pastoral care to patients who did choose to end their lives. In itself, that might not have been newsworthy. Since our founding, we have endeavoured to provide compassionate care to everyone who sought it, regardless of beliefs or life choices. 

It is uncontroversially the right choice that we should support individuals, regardless of our personal beliefs, and stay neutral on the law, when we are so patently divided. It would have been far more surprising if Reform Judaism had announced it was not going to provide pastoral care to terminally ill people. That would have resulted in much greater outrage.

Clearly, the “landmark” decision received the attention it did because it sent a subtle message of support for euthanasia. It suggested, while of course doing everything possible to argue to the contrary, that the movement endorsed such decisions. This responsum was consequently followed up by much media coverage, including an opinion leader in The Times.

The two movements are certainly leading a conversation in this country on assisted dying, but are they leading it in the right direction? I think not. 

This is not because I am in any way a conservative on this issue. In general, Jewish religious law up to this point has stood against the principle of assisted dying. The traditional Jewish response has been that life comes from God, belongs to God, and only God can take it away.

As such, the Mishnah rules that even closing the eyes of a dying person is tantamount to murder. The Shulchan Aruch says that a dying person must be given all the rights of a living one, and the Mapa adds that it is forbidden to do anything to hasten death.

These halachic rulings form the backbone of Orthodox objection to euthanasia. Most Progressive Jews share the Orthodox belief in the sanctity of life. Since at least the 1980s, however, we have had internal debates about what that means and how it should be implemented. Some have argued that, with necessary safeguards, relief of pain should be prioritised over unnecessary prolongation of life. 

As Progressive Jews, we are not bound by the decisions of the past, but seek to draw on them in conjunction with the best medical and moral reasoning of our age. We move with the times.

My objection is not to the abstract principle of euthanasia, but to the political context in which these decisions are being made. We never legislate in a vacuum, but have to consider what we advocate in the context of what is happening in the context of society at large. 

Yes, we can move with the times, but let’s look at where our times are heading. Right now, there is a wholesale assault on the rights and dignity of disabled people. Successive governments going back many decades have vilified disabled people as scroungers, leeching off the state, taking more from society than they give to it. 

With the introduction of fiscal austerity in Britain, the greatest burden fell on disabled people, who had their services, welfare, and jobs cut. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many ministers have made it clear that they see the lives of clinically vulnerable people as disposable. They have shown that they would prefer to prioritise the economy over the lives of people in hospitals and care homes. It is little wonder that some disabled people want to die, when they have been deprived of so much in life.

What message does it send out now if we say that we support assisted suicide? We may have been silent on the great attacks on disabled people’s lives, but, don’t worry, we are liberals, we will let you die. Just to show how caring we are, we’ll let you commit suicide, with support from the very state that has made your life so difficult.

If we are moving with the times, we are moving very much in the wrong direction. Coming out as pro-euthanasia now puts us on the side of those who are currently dehumanising the elderly and disabled. Publicly championing euthanasia is not defending the vulnerable, but attacking them.

Yes, as Progressive Jews, we do advocate choice and personal autonomy. But not all choices should have our enthusiastic support. The actor and disabled rights  activist, Liz Carr, has rightly said that, if someone is going to kill themselves, it is hard to stop them, but “that does not mean when a fellow human being – disabled or abled – expresses the wish to die because their life is shit, that we should agree with them.”

Some disabled people already feel that they are too great a burden on others. This is because we live in a system that reinforces that message: focusing on a person’s ability to be “economically productive” as their sole source of value, rather than loving them unconditionally for the fact of being alive.

That system, and the ideological apparatus around it, tells disabled people that their lives are not worth living. If we join in as cheerleaders for assisted dying, we are sharing the message that we agree with them. No wonder every disabled rights charity in the country opposes euthanasia liberalisation.

If we want to send out the right messages, I suggest we need to go in a different direction entirely. Rather than campaigning on people’s right to die, we should put the weight of our movements on campaigning for the right to live.

That means channelling our energy in campaigning for jobs for disabled people; proper welfare provision; decent and accessible social housing; the restructuring of our cities and public transport networks so that everyone can access them; investment in clubs and societies people can actually reach.

Yes, all of these things cost money. But the way we are going now costs lives.

I want you to know that, whatever you decide to do in life, I will absolutely support you and be there with you. But I will do that because I believe, on a fundamental religious level, that your life is precious and worth living. I believe in making that it is the duty of religious people, and of the government, to make people’s lives on earth as good and fulfilling as they can be.

We should absolutely support people at every stage of their lives, but the build up to someone wanting to die matters far more than enabling them to do it. We ought to assist people to live, not to die.

Shabbat shalom.

sermon · social justice

It could be you

A woman passes her baby over the fence to an American soldier. She does not know the soldier. She does not know if the baby will be safe. She does not know whether she will ever see the baby again. But she knows that she must give the baby to someone, anyone, so that he doesn’t grow up there.

A sixteen year old boy with a promising career as a footballer grabs on to the side of a plane. He begs. He hopes the plane will take him too. The plane takes off, flinging him to the ground. He dies instantly.

An elderly woman with nothing to her name takes off on a long journey across desert mountains by foot. If she is lucky, she will arrive in a squalid refugee camp and spend the rest of her days living in white tents managed by the UN. She probably will not be so lucky.

Today those people are Afghans. 

Only a few generations ago, they might have been you. 

Most of the people here have ancestors who fled just as these refugees do today.

The great migration of Jews into England came at the end of the 19th Century. They had been living in the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe for centuries. Under Tsarist persecution, Jews were confined only to certain parts of the Russian Empire. They worked as peasants and in menial jobs, building their own communities in the shtetls.

When the Tsar’s power was threatened and the Russian Empire began to crumble, his supporters blamed the Jews. For decades, state-backed mobs rampaged through the villages. They torched houses, massacred people, stole property and made life unbearable. We call these waves of antisemitic violence pogroms.

So, our forebearers fled. Most did not make it. Some arrived in England. When they did, they were met by hostility, racism, cramped housing and sweatshop jobs. 

Not long ago, the hordes of fleeing refugees were you. You know what it meant to be a stranger. Even if you do not remember. 

The Torah asks you to remember. According to our narrative, thousands of years ago, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were refugees from a famine in Canaan. We were wandering migrants with no home. We were enslaved and confined to one part of the Nile and worked hard labour building garrisons for the Pharaoh. We were mistreated and judged with prejudice. We are instructed by Scripture to remember how that felt.

This week’s parashah sets out the rights of migrants. Never abuse them. Do not exploit them. Pay them upfront. Don’t hold their property hostage. Give them dignity. Don’t mess them around. Make sure they have food and shelter. Look after them.

Why? Over and over again, Deuteronomy repeats: “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.”

You have to support strangers because they are you. When you look at migrants and refugees, you are not allowed to see them as different. You have to look at them as you. It is the most-repeated commandment in the whole of Torah: to know what it is like to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Remember what this means.

Not everyone remembers. 

Last week, Danny Finkelstein wrote in The Times praising border controls. He took his family story of fleeing as refugees from the Nazis to advocate for keeping some foreigners out.

He wrote, and I quote here: “strongly believe in immigration control. And I am not in the slightest bit put off by the suggestion that this would have prevented my grandfather from becoming a British citizen […] yes, I would deny immigration to some very deserving and worthy people I would be quite happy to live next door to. Even people I would be happy to be related to. Just because I favour immigration for someone, that doesn’t mean I favour it for everyone.”

Personally, I cannot share Mr. Finklestein’s flippant disregard for immigrants, or join him in championing border controls. Like his, my family also fled the Nazis. Most did not make it out. Only a few, who were children, or who could prove they would be useful as nurses, were permitted entry. Under the current system, I doubt they would have been allowed. If I were a refugee today, I would not fare so well as my grandfather did.

But the reason I object to Danny Finkelstein so strongly is not selfish pragmatism. It is religious. It is because I truly believe what the Torah teaches about the rights of strangers. Those refugees are my ancestors who fled persecution. They are my progenitors from millennia ago who were strangers in the land of Egypt. Those Afghans, gripping onto planes and handing their babies to soldiers and walking for miles in the sun… they are me.

And they could be me again.

The only thing that stands between a comfortable citizen today and a desperate refugee tomorrow is luck. 

We in this room do not have to think about what we would do if our corner of the world was faced with famine or war. We do not have to imagine where we would go when faced with our own version of the Taliban.

But if ever I did have to think about this, I would pray that somebody, somewhere, had taken to heart the message of the Torah. I would want somebody to say that no number is too many, that their homes were open, and that my life mattered, no matter what I could provide.

Thankfully, there are people in Britain today, making precisely this case. 

The Jewish Council for Race Equality has put together a Jewish community response to the Afghan refugee crisis. It sets out clear actions the government must undertake to meet its moral obligations.

It must scrap its anti-asylum seeker legislation. It must stop deporting Afghans back to certain danger. It must allow more refugees into this country. 

I urge you all to sign this petition in support of these very reasonable demands.

These are really the minimum standards we must meet. The Torah never even thinks to introduce border controls or to police citizenship. Our Scripture assumes that migration is natural and inevitable. God’s instruction is that, once strangers are with you, you give them all the rights and compassion you would show to someone you have known all your life.

Torah repeats itself so many times to drill home this message.

Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. That is why God enjoins you to observe this commandment.

Shabbat shalom. 

I delivered this sermon at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue on 21st August 2021 for Parashat Ki Teitzei.

judaism · sermon · social justice

How much should I give away?

In 2013, a survey revealed that Jews were the second biggest charitable donors in the UK. 

Muslims were first. 

Ever since, I’ve been trying to recruit Jews into competition so that next time a survey is run, we will win.

Coming second is fine, I guess. But if we’re going to be a light unto the nations and take moral responsibility for the world, we should be coming first no problem. 

They didn’t win because there are more of them than us. That wouldn’t be a fair comparison. Muslims outdid us on both how much each person gave on average, and how much they gave as a proportion of their income.

I’m not really advocating getting into a competition between the religions. There’s enough of that going on in the world.

But I do think there is something important we can learn from Muslims. One of the reasons they do so well on charitable giving is because of how seriously they take the messsage from this week’s parashah. 

Here, we read Reeh. This part of Torah introduces the concept of tithing. Tithing is an old English word, meaning ‘taking a tenth.’ And that is exactly what is prescribed here. Every Israelite must take a tenth of their produce and give it to the priests for redistribution. 

The priests then use some of it for upkeep of the community; some for orphans and widows; some for the poor; and some for supporting migrants passing through. 

This is the basis of Ancient Israelite society. The world of the Bible was very unequal, and living conditions were particularly harsh, so they truly saw the importance of a basic welfare system. 

In the Ancient Near East, almost everyone was a subsistence farmer. Each extended family had a small plot of land, which they would use for harvesting crops, rearing animals, and general living. One bad year on the farm could render an entire family destitute.

The Torah introduced social provision, so that everyone contributed and anyone who needed it could benefit. Richer people did pay additional levies on their crops, so that a tenth was the minimum, but some could give much more. The earliest tzedakah was probably much more like modern taxes for the welfare state than charity. 

But that should not excuse us taking seriously our obligation to give to charity. I’m sure we all agree that the welfare state is a wonderful thing, and that it is impressive that it has a biblical basis. I don’t need to tell you to pay your taxes. You don’t have much choice in that.

What you do have control over is your tzedakah. Your charitable giving. It is a mitzvah doraita, a commandment from Torah, that we are supposed to give 10% of our take-home income to charity. 

Now, who actually gives 10% of their income to charity? Anyone here? I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t. I have regular standing orders that go out to causes I care about, but when I look back on the year, I never actually make it to a tenth of my income.

I feel especially ashamed to admit this, because that tenth is supposed to be the bare minimum. Maimonides teaches that people should give more if they can, as long as they are not consequently rendering themselves in need of charity. 

But my motto is never to lead perfect be the enemy of good. All of us can start by taking charitable giving seriously as a spiritual practice and building it into our daily lives.

Muslims do this with what they call “zakat.” At the end of every week, they give at least 2.5% of their earnings to charity. They’re big donors because they make this a consistent practice and see it as a fundamental part of their religion.

It is also a fundamental part of Judaism. Charitable giving is supposed to be essential for us all. Some older members may remember that, not long ago, every home had a pushke, or tzedaka box, which would collect whatever spare change a person had. Giving has been heavily integrated into some people’s Jewish lives, and it should be again.

Elul is coming. It is the last month of the Jewish year. It is our time for reflection. We use this time to look inward and assess our deeds. 

In Hebrew, this process of introspection is called “cheshbon hanefesh” – auditing the soul. We weigh up our good deeds with our bad, and put our own morals on the scales of judgement. A part of this must surely mean re-examining our giving. A cheshbon is a bill, a record of how much you owe. We owe many things: deeds, love, kindness and study. But we also do literally owe money to those who need it more than we do. 

Now is the time to redouble our efforts at donating and to make sure we do fulfil our sacred requirements. The synagogue will be sending round its High Holy Day appeal soon, and I encourage you to give it a good look.

Giving to others is good for us. It strengthens our soul and sense of self-worth. It is good for others. It means people less fortunate get the support they need. It means great causes can continue to thrive.

And, of course, giving is good for the Jews. Especially if it might mean we win a competition. 

Shabbat shalom.

sermon · social justice · theology

What do we stand for?

Five years ago, I interviewed to start rabbinic training. Over four days, I went into different rooms, where rabbis, academics and lay leaders quizzed me about why I wanted to be a rabbi. 

It was intense. In one interview, one of the rabbis asked me: “what do you think you most want to learn while you are here?”

I said: “I’d like to learn what we stand for.” 

My interviewers scrunched up their faces. I imagined them thinking, “are you sure you’re in the right place?”

How could I not know what we believe? We are Progressive Jews; we stand for Progressive Judaism. Perplexed, she pushed me: “can you think of any principles of Progressive Judaism?” 

I thought, and said: “informed choice.” We do what we like, in conversation with Jewish tradition.

The rabbi sat back and took notes. I wasn’t sure whether I had given a correct answer, and she was confused how I could say I didn’t know what we stood for if I had that grounding, or if I’d missed something more important.

What I was trying to ask was: surely we don’t just choose whatever we like? A Progressive Jew can’t make the informed choice to commit murder. We don’t look at that central commandment and think: ‘ah, but it was for its time.’ We have a shared assumption that the prohibition on killing applies to every time. So how do we make these informed choices? What decides for us which choices are right and wrong?

Permissiveness is not really a value. It’s something you do out of indifference. There must be something stronger than that motivating our congregants to get out of bed and labour for the welfare of their community. 

Apparently, I am not alone. Throughout my time as a student, going to congregations across the country, people have asked me that very same question in different ways. 

What are the values of Reform Judaism? What does living by Progressive Jewish values actually mean?

After 4 years of study, well… I still don’t have the answer. But I feel much closer to it than I did when I started. And the answer begins with this week’s parashah.

At the end of Masei, we hear the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. They come forward before Moses and assert their rights to inheritance. Their father, they say, was a good man who had no sons. As it stands, his property will be passed on to nobody, and these women will be left destitute. They argue that they should be the ones to inherit his estate. Moses talks to God. God agrees.

This is a big deal in Torah terms. It shows that a law can change. Decisions are not fixed in stone but can adapt with the times. It fits exactly with the Progressive mindset. We look at the laws again, and work out if they are still relevant. Moses looked at inheritance law, saw that it wasn’t working, and decided it was time to set a new precedent.

This is at the heart of Progressive Judaism. We progress. We treat the Torah and our traditions as our basis, but we are always willing to review it, and find new ways that better suit our reality.

The case of the daughters of Tzelafchad is a great example. It fits with our intuitions about what is right and wrong. Of course these women should inherit.

But does that mean every time a law changes, it’s an improvement? In the course of the Torah, laws also change to take rights away from people. Laws can change that make people’s lives worse. 

The reason why we consider this legal change so praiseworthy is because it makes life better for people. In particular, because it makes life better for women. 

It fits with the feminist lesson we have learnt from history. Through the last century of the women’s liberation movement, our religion learned the importance of giving everyone their full rights and abilities to participate in Jewish life.

We have our own hashkafah: our own way of looking at the world. We see progress in terms of what gives people the most equality, dignity, and justice. 

Other strands of Judaism may give priority to tradition, nationalism, or conservatism. We say that what matters is equity. 

We did not decide to pursue this egalitarian cause because we thought it would make things easier. Quite on the contrary: it made things harder for many people. At the start of our movement, people were disowned by their families and ridiculed by the religious establishment because of their conviction that equality mattered. They took the more difficult course because it was the right one.

Since the early days of Reform Judaism, we have prioritised gender equality. This week, I met with one of the founder members of SWESRS, who said that in their very first days, the community discussed what they wanted from a synagogue. Even in the 1950s, they insisted that equality between men and women would be of the utmost importance.  

This synagogue has gone on to create a legendary legacy. The UK’s first woman rabbi, Jackie Tabick, was raised here. This is a place with a proud history of putting forward that great principle of Reform Judaism: that equality matters.

That is how we approach the question of whether and when to change a law. We are not beholden to tradition, forced to do everything today and tomorrow, just because we did it that way yesterday. Nor will we go along with every change, just because it feels fashionable or convenient. 

At every stage, the question we ask ourselves is: is this right? Is this just?

We seek to make changes that will make people more equal, more empowered, and more dignified. 

So, now, if I am asked what we stand for, I have a much clearer answer.

We stand for equality.

We stand for the emancipation of all of humanity.

We stand up for the oppressed and stand beside the marginalised.

We stand in the footsteps of Moses, who changed laws because he could see that justice mattered.

We stand before God, proud to inherit a tradition; and courageous enough to change that tradition for the better. 

That is where we stand.

Shabbat shalom. 

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, Parashat Matot-Masei, 10th July 2021

judaism · sermon · social justice

A world without walls

There was a time before there were fences and walls. 

At some point in the distant past, recorded only in our folktales, the world used to grow wild and free. Trees and plants sprouted wherever they wanted. Animals moved at their own will. There were no roads, no houses, no cars, and no banks. 

Back then, human beings were hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors lived in caves, chased down animals with spears, foraged for berries, and moved wherever the weather was best. 

Then, about 10,000 years ago, something changed. In a place that we now call the Middle East, a group of people realised that they did not just have to take whatever nature allowed them. 

They could change their environment to meet their needs. They could plant, sow, grow, cultivate, reap and nurture crops. They could turn entire fields into places where just one thing was grown, like olive groves, barley fields and orchards. 

This was the beginning of civilisation.

It was also the beginning of war. Armies grew. The spears that had been used to hunt cattle were now used to kill people. 

Fences were put up. At first, they were used to keep animal livestock in. Then, they were used to mark out who owned which fields. Then, they were used to keep people in their place.

The people who had control of the fields needed people to work them. The workers, often vanquished or nomadic people, needed a place to stay and a way to get fed when all the food was fenced in. 

So the workers became indebted to the owners. The landowners would feed and house the workers. The workers would labour over the land to make it profitable. The landowners gained more wealth and more land. The workers became increasingly in debt. 

Sometimes, people were born into slavery, and this would be passed down for generations. Their debt to the landowners could never be repaid. 

The owners, in turn, passed on the land to their children.

This presented a big problem. People could become infinitely indebted, with no hope of their descendants ever paying it off. People could become infinitely wealthy, as they conquered more land and made more people work for them. The owning people would have to use increasingly violent measures to make sure the working people did not rebel against them. 

That was the situation in the ancient world. Debt. Wealth. Slavery. Borders. Violence. Revolutions.

And, according to the 19th Century historian Moses Finley, every revolution had the same demand: cancel all the debts and redistribute all the land. 

When you understand this historical background, this week’s parashah, Behar, makes a lot more sense. This week, we read Leviticus 25. It is a remarkable chapter of the Bible in that, on its own, it comprises an entire sidra of the Torah, and all 50 verses deal with the same subject. This whole chapter is dedicated to how the ancient Israelites could break the cycle of debt, slavery and land acquisition. 

It begins with the shmita. Every seven years, you give the land a break. You cannot overwork it. It is like a shabbat for nature, free from human interference. 

Then you count seven lots of seven, seven shmitas, adding up to forty-nine years. In the fiftieth year, you have a Jubilee. Now all the land must be redistributed again. Noone can accumulate all the fields. It is a complete reset. Everyone goes home. Noone exploits anyone else. 

At this time, all the debts are annulled. Nobody can rack up infinite obligations to others.

There is no ancient version of Carol Vordeman advertising that you can consolidate all your debts into one monthly loan repayment.

This means that even slaves can be set free. The law forbids landowners from charging interest to their slaves. They can’t charge them extra for the food they eat or the place where they sleep. They might be in debt, but they have to have a way of getting out of it. 

Every seven years, slaves have the option to go free. Then, in the Jubilee year, all slaves are redeemed. Nobody can remain in slavery forever.

Repeatedly, Leviticus insists:

 לֹֽא־יִרְדֶּ֥נּֽוּ בְּפֶ֖רֶךְ

Do not grind them down. 

Don’t be ruthless.

Leviticus was written in a time of great inequality, when landowners took up huge amounts of land and charged huge amounts of interest. Workers accrued huge amounts of debt and passed on slavery to their great-grandchildren. Leviticus came to offer an alternative. The system of Jubilees means nobody can become too rich and nobody can become too poor.

This system works because there is someone to defend the poor and resist the rich. There is a force stronger than any spear and higher than any fence. There is a being who will advocate against even the wealthiest landowner and the mightiest army.

That being is God. 

Nobody can be a slave forever, because, ultimately, we all serve God. Nobody can own the land forever because, ultimately, the land belongs to God. In this religious system that our Torah creates, nobody can really claim to be better than anybody else.

God tells us something that no ledger sheet can. Whereas debtors can calculate the value of every loan and landowners can weigh up the worth of every harvest, faith tells us about the things we cannot count. 

You can’t put a value on human life. You can’t put a value on freedom. You can’t put a value on social harmony.

This is why the Torah makes such a special contribution to human history. In a world structured by violence, it tells us that people must be set free. In a world divided by inequality, it tells us that everyone has equal value. It calls on us to relieve all debts and free all slaves. 

Ours is a world of fences and walls. Ours is a world of great debt and great wealth. Ours is a world where some are too poor and some are too rich. 

But Leviticus challenges us to remember a world before this was the case. It instructs us to imagine a world where inequality is no longer the case. 

It teaches us to build a world without fences or walls. Let us heed that call.

Shabbat shalom. 

sermon · social justice · torah

A charter of Disabled people’s rights

Do not curse the deaf. 

Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.

Revere your God.

This week’s parashah is Kedoshim, the centre of the whole Torah. It is the centre in two senses: we are slap bang in the middle of our scroll. When the warden performs the hagbahh tomorrow, the Torah will look almost completely even on both sides.

It is also, I feel, the spiritual centre of our Scripture. This is the part of the Torah that tells us what the rest of it was for. All the stories and speeches that surround the rest of the text can be summarised in this portion. 

Many of the verses from elsewhere in Torah are repeated. Some of it might seem superfluous. Kedoshim reads a little bit like the Torah’s greatest hits, reminding us of some its most popular laws and aphorisms.

But the collection is not random. The smattering of commandments I recited at the beginning all have something important in common. They are about what rights and obligations people have in relation to each other.

This year has brought home to many of us that we cannot take our health for granted. Our bodies are fragile and the time on earth we have is precious.

If you were to become blind, or deaf, or sick, or old, what could you expect from society? What are the minimum standards that others owe you? And, if you are blessed with youth and good health, what must you do to honour others?

Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. You might think: of course! Who would do such a thing? Who would want to trip up the disabled? But cities are structured and buildings managed in ways that are full of stumbling blocks. Every staircase to access public transport; every meeting held miles away from places people can reach; every building without a wheelchair ramp; every space without accessible toilets; every show without subtitles; and every badly laid-out street. These are all stumbling blocks.

Do not curse the deaf. And again, you would say: who would do such a thing? Surely nobody would be so cruel as to insult people who cannot hear them! But this happens all the time. Every headline that calls disabled people scroungers; every job that refuses to make adjustments; every effort to make welfare harder to access; every time the price of medication is jacked up; every time a comedian makes fun of a disability… aren’t all these insults to the deaf?

These are all ways that disabled people are kicked while they’re down.

Instead, the Torah tells us we need to lift each other up.

May we be the ones to remove every stumbling block and replace every curse with a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Kedoshim, on 23rd April 2021