As human beings, we are constantly carrying stories with us of who we are, what we have done, and how we should be in the world. On top of those stories, we build edifices: whole structures and personalities to serve those narratives. But, when those structures are forced to face up to reality, they can come crumbling down completely. And then we are left with only our stories, and we have to reconsider whether they were ever true.
That is what happened to the Israelites when they built the Golden Calf.
Moses went up Mount Sinai and spent time with God. There, on the precipice, God’s finger inscribed in stone the two tablets of the Law, as Moses watched in awe.
Meanwhile, down below, the Israelites grew restless. They didn’t know where Moses was or when he would be back. Under Aaron’s instruction, they built for themselves a Golden Calf, which would serve as their God. Now they could have something to worship.
When Moses returned, he found the people prostrating themselves before the calf, singing praise to the idol that it had brought them out of Egypt. Immediately, in a fit of rage, Moses threw the tablets on the ground and shattered them.
Those stone slabs were not the only thing destroyed that day. Moses also took the calf the people had made and burned it in fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
This is perhaps one of the strangest things that happens in the whole Torah. Two questions have really animated commentators on this passage. The first is: how is this possible? Can gold really be ground to dust and consumed with water? What sort of process would enable Moses to break the idol down so fine and feed it to the Israelites? Is such a thing actually potable? Wouldn’t it injure or kill the Israelites to drink it?
The second question is why? Why would Moses do such a thing? What is the value?
Rashi, following the Talmud, suggests that this was similar to the Sotah ritual. Elsewhere in Torah, we read of a custom for wives suspected of being unfaithful to their husbands. They are required to drink soot mixed with water. If they are guilty, they will miscarry. If not, they will survive.
There are obvious parallels in terms of procedure: both involve drinking water mixed with soot. It is also true that, in much of biblical theology, the Israelites are understood to be God’s faithless wife. Whenever the Israelites worship other gods, they are described as philanderers who have rejected their loyal husband. Here, then, the ritual would be testing the adulterous people to see whether they had broken their marriage vows. Based on this, says Rashi, God would determine what punishments were appropriate for their misconduct.
While I like the elegance of the solution, it doesn’t quite sit right. It’s not just because of the obviously misogynistic undertones. It’s also because it doesn’t make sense. The Sotah ritual is for wives suspected of adultery. A Sotah ritual might find its victim guilty, but, more likely, it would clear them of wrongdoing. Here, there is no doubt. They have been caught in the act. You don’t need to check whether something has happened if you saw it happening and talked about it.
Nachmanides was obviously also perturbed by this explanation. He offers an alternative suggestion: Moses was trying to humiliate the Israelites. He was turning their god into something loathsome and disgusting, that they would be forced to excrete. Once the Golden Calf had come out of them as dung, they would surely recognise that it wasn’t really God.
This is actually an argument that Nachmanides had used in the infamous Barcelona Disputation. Nachmanides was brought to the Spanish palace and ordered to defend Judaism against the Christian official, Friar Pablo Christiani. He said that the eucharist, the bread given at Catholic masses as a body of Jesus, could not possibly be God, because the Christians disgraced it by excreting it. Nachmanides’ interpretation, then, seems more motivated by his theological proofs against Christianity than by the matter of the text itself.
But Nachmanides has a point. The Israelites really needed to understand that the Golden Calf was not God. It was not enough for them to know that idolatry is a sin. They had to really feel, emotionally and physically, that what they had been worshipping amounted to nought.
Thus, the question of how the Israelites could drink the calcined Golden Calf is intimately bound up with why. Sure, it is possible to reduce and grind up gold, but there is no way of consuming it without getting sick. No matter how diluted, oxidised metal is a dangerous concoction.
Moses is saying to the Israelites: if you really think this is God, see how it tastes. Drink it. Is it alive? Is it helping you? Can it really do anything for you?
As the Israelites drank their mixture, they were forced to reckon with the reality that they had built themselves a structure that did not serve them.
They had told themselves a story. We need a God we can see to worship. We need physical things to feel secure. If we make something magnificent, we can tell ourselves that this is what saves us. When those stories were confronted by the hard truth of fire and water, it was evident they weren’t true.
So, they had to rebuild, this time with new stories. The Golden Calf could not be recreated, and nor could their narrative that idols would serve them.
The only thing left to do was to return up the mountain and rebuild the other thing that was broken: the Two Tablets of the Law. They had to tell a new story: of an invisible God, whose proof was in deliverance. They had to build a new structure: the moral laws that would build a harmonious society.
I feel like this is part of the human condition. So often, I have caught myself telling internal stories that keep me on guard and afraid. If I allow such narratives to take hold, I will build up edifices that I imagine will defend me, like anger, resentment, and a victim mindset. I will build up walls so others cannot get in.
But, like the Golden Calf, are serving these structures more than they are serving us. When the walls we build are tested by the fire and water of real life, they amount to nothing. They are just toxic substances that will destroy us. And, when they crumble, all we can do is go back and rebuild the structures that are actually secure: the moral laws that bind us to each other in obligation.
So, this is the challenge. When you find yourself building up a defensive story, pause and ask yourself how it tastes. If you were to drink what you are telling yourself, would it taste like the freshwater of a living God, or would you be imbibing the toxins of an idol?
The stories we tell ourselves are no different to anything else we allow in our bodies. They can either keep us alive, or they can destroy us.
Choose life. Shabbat shalom.
God is sharing her location on WhatsApp
The king is in the field.
Last weekend, a new moon hung in the sky, marking the new month of Elul. This season, is a time dedicated to reflection on who we are and who we can become. It is a time when we turn back to God and aim at healing our relationships.
At this time, you may hear Chabadniks greet each other, saying “the king is on the field.” It comes from a story taught by the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who was the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitcher dynasty in the 18th Century. He used to explain the month of Elul using the parable of a king coming out in a field.
According to the analogy, the king’s usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of secretaries and ministers. He must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. His presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.
However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace.
The king described by the Alter Rebbe in this metaphor is God. In his analogy, God is the ruler of all, but is hard to access except by an elite few. During Elul, the heavenly king comes out from his palace and makes himself accessible to all. In this month leading up to the High Holy Days, everyone has the chance to approach God, seeking favour and forgiveness.
It’s a beautiful analogy. But metaphors also have their problems, and we need to check them to see if they really work for us.
First of all, is God really a man? Well, of course not. God is too great and infinite to be held by anything as small as a body or a gender. Some Jews have therefore chosen only to use gender-neutral language to describe God, deploying words like “Holy One” and “Source of Life.” Alternatively, some Jews have chosen to reclaim divine feminine language, emphasising God’s femininity.
As Reform Jews, our belief in gender equality is essential to us, and that is bound to come through in how we think about God. To be honest, I’m happy addressing God by any pronouns because none of them capture what God really is. You can really insert whatever gender you like.
The much bigger question is what kind of personality this anthropomorphic God has. In the Lubavitcher parable, God is a king. There is plenty of precedent in Jewish tradition for such a reading: God is “adon olam,” the Lord of the universe; God’s throne is eternal and His sceptre stands upright; God is described as the king over all kings, and we are called upon to build God’s kingdom on earth.
I really don’t like this imagery at all. True, it tells us something about how powerful God is, but the image of a benevolent ruler isn’t very helpful to self-improvement. If a king tells you to change your ways, you’ll do it out of fear of violence or retribution. A king, to me, conjures up images of unearned power, and I want to deliberately rebel against it.
I prefer the idea of God as a loved one. When I approach Elul, I want to improve so that I can be the best possible version of myself. The people that make me aspire to that are my partner, best friends, and close family members. They remind me that I’m loved, and inspire me to do better by others.
This idea is also very present in Jewish interpretations of Elul. Some rabbis have noticed thar the letters of Elul could be an acronym for the beautiful love poetry of the Song of Solomon: ani ledodi vedodi li; “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” In this allegory, God and Israel are lovers working together. I much prefer this idea of equality and mutual partnership.
This idea of equality really doesn’t fit with how Chassids imagine God or social relationships. As they explain in the Alter Rebbe’s fable, God is only accessible to elite people most of the time. That is a core ideological belief for many Chassids. They see their rebbes not only as teachers but as holy men, who have a special connection to God. They advocate dveikus: cleaving to special people so that we, through them, can get closer to God.
They don’t hold this belief because they are somehow traditional and we are not. At the time when Chassidism was birthed, roughly contemporary with Reform Judaism, many of its greatest opponents within Orthodoxy criticised them for creating hierarchies and dynasties within Judaism. God, they said, had no intermediaries, and Judaism did not have hereditary hierarchies.
The story of the king in the field is quite beautiful, but when subjected to scrutiny, it looks much less appealing. It speaks to a worldview in which everything is divided up on a power ladder. Men above women; special Jews above ordinary people; and God as a king on top of it all.
That doesn’t mean we should completely abandon this teaching about Elul. The idea of coming back to God is helpful, and I adore the image of meeting God in the open country.
I want us to imagine an alternative. I want us to imagine what this theology would look like if all of humanity were equals. What would we say if our relationship to God was not a vertical one of subject to king but a horizontal one between lovers?
So, I submit to you, an alternative telling of the analogy of the king in the field, updated for modern times and modern beliefs.
God has turned on location sharing.
You receive a WhatsApp message. She is letting you know she’s on her way.
You haven’t seen her all year, so your heart immediately flutters with excitement. You can’t wait to see her again.
You love her. When she’s around, you feel like the best version of yourself. You laugh more. You give more of yourself. You feel more compassionate and honest. You want to bottle up the love you feel when you’re with her so that you can share it with others the rest of the year.
The little location sharing pin says she is inching closer towards you.
Only inching. She appears to be walking through fields. You calculate how long it might take him to reach you. Weeks, perhaps.
Still, seeing her is worth the wait. You wonder if you could meet her sooner.
You text back: “Can I meet you somewhere along the way?”
She answers instantly: “Yes.”
Your heart beats a little faster as you get dressed, tie your walking boots and head out. She walks faster than you. You will be reunited soon.
It is Elul. God is coming closer to you, and you are getting closer to God. As we trudge through the muddy fields of this month, let us relish the chance to draw nearer to our loving God.
Wrap your body in prayers
Most of the time, when I’m experiencing something emotional, I feel it in my body before I can even process it.
I’ll feel a sinking in my stomach and know I’m dealing with dread. I’ll wake up grinding my teeth and realise I must be anxious. I go to bed feeling full of life and visceral feel my joy.
Every emotion is a physical experience. It is not just something we can rationally understand.
In Biblical Hebrew, if you want to say that you are angry, you say that your nose flares. If you are compassionate, you are womb-ful. If you are sad, you rip your hair. If you are lustful, you are big-balled. If you feel respect and awe, that’s in your liver.
In the biblical imagination, the body is a map of all the emotions we might feel. Each limb and organ corresponds to the full range of affective experience.
We must bear this in mind when we come to read this week’s parashah and its resultant commandments:
Put these words that I command you today on your heart… Wrap them as signs on your arms. Bind them in front of your eyes.
The words are recited daily by the most observant Jews. They form part of the first paragraph of the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer.
The Shema begins with an instruction to listen; to pay attention. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God. The Eternal God is One.
It then tells us the embodied experiences we must have to make sense of what we are hearing. Heart. Arms. Eyes.
Of course, these carry metaphorical meanings. For the ancient Israelites, the heart was the seat of thinking, much in the same way as we consider the brain in the modern West. When Torah tells us to keep it on our hearts, it means that it should be part of our whole intellectual being.
The arm is the site of action. It is synonymous with power. The arm is what gives to charity and shields the vulnerable. It is also the body part that raises swords and strikes stones. With an outstretched arm, God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt. The instruction to keep God’s word on our arms is a call to use our power for God.
Eyes, for the Hebrews, are for desiring. Your eyes can wander after foreign gods. They can delight at the wonders of nature. They can covet things that aren’t yours. They can favour children. The Eternal’s eye is always on those who have hope and mercy. If the commandments are frontlets before your eyes, enacting them as all you want to do. You are singularly focused on doing good deeds.
Over time, our ancestors came to see these words as more than just symbols. Rabbi Akiva, the Mishnah’s great thinker on metaphor and interpretation, is credited with codifying the rules for tefillin.
Tefillin are compartmentalised boxes affixed to leather straps. You can see people wear them wrapped around their heads and arms in weekday morning prayers.
These prayer aides were invented so that observant Jews could literally enact the commandment of binding the words on the body. Inside the boxes are the words of the Shema. Cheder children tell me they look like Go-Pros.
Carefully, we tie them to our arms, close by our heart. We wrap the leather straps around our arms, seven times. We place them as a crown around our heads, settled between our eyes. We finish up by plotting the straps around our fingers and palms in a set pattern.
If ever you come to Leo Baeck College’s shacharit services, you will see a bunch of students and teachers adorned in them.
If the founders of the College and its movements could see us, they would be aghast. For many of the originators of our movement, such embodied practices were strange and arcane.
Progressive Judaism was a response to the Enlightenment. Across Europe, people heralded the triumph of science and reason. Ideas, not feelings, were paramount. Rational thought, not embodied emotion, would be what guided humanity to greatness.
Reforming rabbis of the past called the practice of bending knees in prayer “bowing and scraping.” They saw their Orthodox contemporaries’ kissing the scroll as a form of idolatry. Above all, they certainly never wore tefillin.
When, in my early 20s, I asked my dad for a tefillin set for an upcoming birthday, he raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that an Orthodox thing?” he asked. We didn’t talk much about the theology, but I told him I liked the idea of it, and he got me a beautiful pair.
In a way, he was right. Tefillin were an Orthodox thing. But, over time, progressive Jews have reclaimed them and made them our own.
Reason is still deeply important. We still hold to the importance of modern scientific inquiry and rational debate. It’s just that we can no longer isolate what goes on in our bodies from what goes on in our brains.
Living with chronic pain, I see daily how intertwined are my spine and my spirit. Every part of my mental and physical health is connected. I would struggle to draw a line between my body and my ‘self,’ and can’t really comprehend their separateness.
This is just as true in prayer. So I wrap tefillin. I feel my religious inclinations before I can process them.
I’ll stick a box on my left bicep and know that my body is part of the miracle of creation. I wrap it around my arms and I am bound by God, submitting to the commandments. I set the straps over my head and feel the weight of responsibility. I rest the box before my eyes and see what I have to do. I tangle the knots around my fingers as if I am being married and I am overwhelmed by the loving gift of a new day.
I wrap my body in prayers. I can work out what they mean later.
I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s newsletter, Parashat Vaetchanan
In defence of large groups of people
The great sage of the Mishnah, Ben Zoma, once exclaimed:
How hard must the first ever human being have worked before he had bread to eat! He plowed, sowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated the grain from the chaff, ground the grain into flour, sifted, kneaded, and baked… and only then did he get the chance to eat. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.
How hard must the first human being have worked before he had clothes to wear. He sheared, laundered, combed, spun and wove… and only then could he put on a shirt. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.
And, of course, he is right. How many hands must have touched everything we enjoy. Ben Zoma knew this was true 2,000 years ago. How much more true is it now that we live in a globalised world with food, clothes and technology Ben Zoma could not even have fathomed. Anything that anyone in this world does is because many people have worked together to make it happen.
But Ben Zoma also says something ridiculous. He imagines that Adam, the first human being, did all this alone. We know that is patently false. First of all, at the very minimum, Adam was accompanied by Eve in Eden. And, if we follow the biblical story, God provided that first couple with everything they needed. They could pick fruit off the trees without trouble and never bothered with bread. They didn’t even need clothes until they had left their paradise garden.
When Adam and Eve did leave Eden, they immediately found wives for their male children. The Torah doesn’t explain how they got there, but any other explanation for how humanity came about would be very troubling. The Torah knew that it was impossible for human beings to ever achieve something on their own.
And, in fact, the Talmud, where this saying from Ben Zoma is quoted, knew this too. This imaginary world where individuals only do things for themselves comes as part of a sugya that speaks in celebration of groups of large people. The Talmud marvels at the diversity of human beings, where every face and mind is completely different. It speaks in praise of migration, hospitality, crowded marketplaces and huge throngs flocking to the same place.
Human beings are social animals. From the off, we have done everything in groups. Before civilisation, we hunted and gathered in packs. When we first set up farmsteads and villages, we did so together, in groups. The modern world was built by people sharing technology, innovation, resources, and working together to develop them. The only evolutionary advantage that human beings really have is that we can organise in ways that no other animal can.
For the last year, some forms of collectivity have been permitted, and some have been forbidden. People have been allowed to meet each other in warehouses, factories, and takeaways, where they make and distribute things to those who can afford them.
People have not been allowed to encounter each other in parks, or houses, or community centres, or gyms. They have rarely been able to accompany the sick at their bedsides, or celebrate births and marriages, or share ideas in public forums.
Now, as things ease, people are permitted to gather, but only if they are spending money. We can meet in shops, pubs, and restaurants, and even sit indoors without masks on. But very few of the community activities for children have returned. Older people in hospitals and hospices are still rarely seeing their families.
Certainly, almost every form of protest or public demonstration remains criminalised, and it may stay so for a very long time. Like last summer, even with a nearly completed vaccination programme, the government is keen to rush people back to work, but reluctant to allow people time to just be together and heal.
Still fearing the virus, despite minimal risk of transmission to the vulnerable, many people have given up on public transport. There is more regular car use in the UK now than at any previous point in history. I see people avoiding each other, avoiding making real contact, even though the option is there.
I look at this so-called ‘recovery’ from Coronavirus and wonder if anybody has considered what actually makes life worth living. We are not automatons, created to work like robots. The best part of being human is other human beings. We are social creatures, whose purpose is derived from what we can do together.
And there is a place where people are supposed to be able to meet for just that purpose. Its name in Greek is ‘synagogue,’ which means ‘shared path.’ In Hebrew it is called a ‘beit knesset: ‘a house of meeting.’ In Yiddish, we call it ‘shul,’ which just means ‘school.’ This. This is it. This thing where we come together to sing in unison and study communally and hear how people are really doing, this is what life is supposed to be about.
This. This place where babies are blessed, bnei mitzvah celebrated, weddings solemnised, healing recognised and deaths memorialised. This is how people recognise the humanity in others, and in themselves.
This is my last service with you. I have absolutely adored working with you. I have got to know so many of you in such depth, without even leaving my home. I have heard about your families, your fears, your hopes, your dreams, and your life stories. I cannot wait to do that with you in person again.
We have weathered an entire year together through a pandemic. That much is remarkable. I have been so impressed by the ways you have continued to pastorally support each other online, and to provide essential services to the vulnerable.
The next stage is going to be hard. It means meeting people face to face again. It means taking risks, being brave, and trusting each other. It means accepting compromises and imperfections. But above all, it means truly building a community that is loving and generative.
I look forward to returning to Newcastle to see you all again in the building, in person, shaking hands, embracing, and catching up on the things that matter. I sincerely hope it will not be long before this community sings in harmony once more and natters over homemade foods at kiddush.
At no point in our history has anyone managed to go it alone. The future sees us together.
A Letter to God
I hope you don’t mind me calling you Judy. I know Lionel Blue used to call you Fred. I remember reading about it in one of those compilations of Thought for the Day segments he put out. He said we should talk to you like an old friend, with the same degree of familiarity. He called you Fred and addressed you like you were his conscience; a kind voice coaxing him to do better. I picture something approximate to Jiminy Cricket.
So I’ll address you as a friend and call you Judy. I want to call you Judy because I don’t know anyone who goes by that name, so I can invent an image from scratch without knowingly projecting my ideas of others onto you. I want to talk to you as a woman, maybe because I’m just sick of having religion dictated to me by older men. I imagine you queer, because Judy only you truly know how much I need my God to be non-conforming.
So I’ll picture you, if I may. Pixie dyke haircut and hooped earrings. Comfortable trainers. A flowing blouse. Sitting on one of the chairs in my back garden, any back garden I’ve ever had. And you smoke a rolled-up cigarette, or maybe it’s a joint, and you don’t offer it to me because you know I quit smoking a long time back. But you are immortal and immutable, so you don’t need to worry about what impact all that tar will have on your health.
Judy, I hope you don’t mind that I say “you” and not “You.” If I were writing high liturgy or biblical translations, I think I would have to capitalise you. But I’m following a theology that Rabbi Blue picked up from Martin Buber, who adopted it from German Protestants. I’m supposed to speak to you unguarded and as my full self, without illusions of grandeur, neither yours nor my own.
I have to ask forgiveness just for talking to you this way, because I know it is heretical. Even imagining you is an affront to who you really are. Maimonides long ago instructed us that you had no physical form nor anything resembling one. Like the Rambam, I admire the austere iconoclasm of philosophical Islam. It pushes us to realise that you are incomparable to a human being. You are more akin to a force, like gravity or entropy. You are like the moral vibrations of the universe. We only can say what you are by saying what you are not.
But I can’t talk to a vibration or an equation. I can’t make friends with an abstraction. The truth is, Judy, I need you, and I need you to be a relatable human being, because I depend on your guidance for change. I need to picture someone who believes in me and my capacity for goodness, especially on days when I feel like I have nothing to give. I try hard to be someone better than I am, I honestly do, and imagining a slightly stoned lesbian can help with that.
I’m writing this because I want to connect to you, truly and faithfully. I want to reflect on what you mean to me. I want to try and develop morally and spiritually. So I talk to you like you’re here.
I don’t need you to say anything back. I don’t have any illusions about what role you play in the universe. I just need to feel that somehow you are there; listening to me; encouraging me. I just imagine a warm smile and a gentle hand on my shoulder. Jonah’s God. Shechinah. Someone intimate and loving.
If I have to accept that you are beyond comprehension, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you. I would feel like I’m shouting into a silent void. Elijah’s God. The God who isn’t there.
And there are few things I find more frightening than silence. Part of what prompted this letter was a series of exercises where I had to keep quiet for long periods because it was supposed to be spiritually enriching. I get that it is supposed to be enlightening. That’s the popular image of Orientalist postcards showing gurus meditating on the Ganges and fully-robed Buddhist monks sat for hours in silence. It is a significant part of the imagination of Westerners who can’t connect with their own traditions.
That’s not fair. That’s not (the only reason) why it makes me so uncomfortable. It’s also part of English religious history. There is so much I admire about the Quakers. I normally find myself chiming with their politics; impressed by the way they turn anti-militarist protest into acts of religious service. I admire that. I have felt deeply connected to you when in their presence. In your queerness and hunger for justice, I imagine that you blockade arms fairs too.
But I don’t feel your presence when in their silences. I feel anguished and frustrated when I’m forced to contend with silence. I once walked into a retreat happening in the home where I lived. The people weren’t talking or engaging with each other. It reminded me of hospices and retirement homes I had visited where the patients were so drugged up or afflicted by dementia that they had no idea what was going on. I left instantly.
Later, I returned to sleep. While the more enlightened sat in the living room experiencing their quiet contemplations, I washed the dishes with a friend. She talked about her own discomfort, that these practices were stripped from their original contexts of social justice movements and anti-colonial practices, then re-packaged into the medicalised language of “wellness” or the neoliberal politics of “self-improvement.” I had not considered that such a practice could be radical, because I understood silence to be entirely isolating and alienating.
That comes from my own experiences. So much of being gay has, for me, been about deciding what to share and when. In nearly new spaces I wonder whether I can be camp, or if it will put people off. I wonder if I can tell the stories of who I am and who I love and the small queer family I am building, or whether it will invoke new anger from people. In most circumstances, I have to kill part of myself in order to fit in. Coming out isn’t a one-time event, and nor is being in the closet. It is a constant process of ascertaining whether somewhere is safe, and how much. That is why being coerced into silence affects me so much. It’s why I need to be able to talk to a God like you, Judy; someone who is an outsider too.
When I construct my own gay deity, I don’t feel like my queerness is the problem. I feel like it’s part of the solution. Growing up in a world made by other people to suit their own hierarchies has made me empathetic to the struggles of others. I don’t claim to understand what it is like for black men in Chicago or Palestinian children in Sheikh Jarrah or women working in Bangladeshi sweatshops. But I care about it because I know how I have felt when faced with injustice. And that burning rage against oppression feels holy.
It doesn’t just feel like endless anger when I’m with you, Judy. It feels like it means something so much bigger. It is not just politically expedient solidarity or, worse, bleeding heart liberalism. The combined grief and anger of all persecuted people feels like it is deeply spiritually meaningful. It is the foundation for divine justice. It is proof that all of humanity is connected by something bigger than ourselves: a sense of righteousness in resisting iniquity. I think that is what the Latin American liberation theologians are getting at. I feel like they have sat in the back garden with you too.
Judy, it matters greatly that you are there at those barricades and back gardens. Without you, as a real and personal presence, all my fears about the world and desires to change it are misplaced. There is no right and wrong. Oppression is just something that happens. We are alone on a burning planet in an empty universe. There is nothing we can do to change that and, even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. I have to believe you are real. And that you are really real, not just as a story that I have chosen to believe, like existentialists who are nihilists with self-deception. I have to believe that moral statements mean something and a greater tomorrow can come. I have to believe you are real or life will not be worth living.
There are so many who want to treat you like you don’t exist. Some of them claim the Holocaust as a reason to deny you. God abandoned them at Auschwitz, so they will abandon God in turn. Or: if God were real, God would have intervened. I was asked this last year by Shoah survivors at a Tu Bishvat seder. I just listened. I told them they did not have to believe anything. Because my instinctive reaction is to say: what did you think would happen? Did you imagine God would strike Hitler down with a thunderbolt from the sky? Did you think God should just swallow up the camps into pits before they piled the Jews into the gas chambers? How would that work? But, faced with living survivors, I had nothing to say. Albert Friedlander taught that any theology had to be able to be repeated in front of a million murdered Jewish children. Faced with them, I had no answer.
I think that’s why I have to imagine you silent, just listening, and refusing to intervene. If I thought you could respond or intervene, I would be so angry at you. So I imagine you calmly reflecting, nudging me on, reminding me with your eyes that you did not kill all those people, Nazis did. You remind me with your smile that human beings are responsible for our own actions. Above all – that I am responsible for mine.
Because of that, I do look upon some atheism with cynicism. There are people whom it suits very well to deny that there is a God or that morality has any meaning. The world created by Thatcher and Reagan is one where everyone is an individual atom, compressed to its smallest form, seeking nothing but the maximisation of its own wealth and happiness. If there were some great force holding us all together, their entire project would be at an end. If there were such a thing as love or justice or retribution, they would have nowhere to turn. So they pretend not to know you. When they sit down and feel your presence beside them, they shut off the part of them that knows what it means. They are no different to those who thank you for their success, as if you would ever hand out rewards like cookies to children.
I think I heard you once. I was in intense pain and struggling with life, around seven years ago. I was standing on top of a roof, smoking a cigarette. (I wasn’t looking to kill myself instantly, just slowly with tobacco.) I looked up at these overpowering grey clouds and I asked what I should do. And I heard this voice saying “forgive yourself.” It said “forgive yourself” over and over again, quietly at first, and then louder and louder. At that time, I felt like I had always been hearing those words; I’d only just paid attention to them for the first time. I felt like you were there with me, and that was your message for me. And once I’d heard it, truly heard on it, I no longer heard it, because I no longer needed it. Suddenly, I felt ten stone lighter and like I had a message for the whole world.
Judy, you might be imaginary. I might have had a moment of insanity. We might be alone in a meaningless universe. There are so many scientific explanations, and I’m sure there could be so much wonder in the world even without faith. Maybe justice doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Maybe. Maybe all kinds of things. But I’ve chosen a story that makes sense so I can live a life that feels right.
I have to believe. So I talk to you and write to you and call you Judy. I only ask one thing of you, Judy. Please don’t answer. Please don’t tell me what you think or what I need to do. The only thing worse than silence would be to hear your voice. I couldn’t bear your judgement, or your love. Either would be too much. Let me remain in doubt, that’s all I ask.
You take the last drags on your roll-up. You stub out the fag end on the ground. You put a hand on my shoulder and use my body to lift yourself upright. And you leave me again, for a while.
Thanks for listening, Judy.
Thanks for being here.
I love you.
It was midsummer in a basin in the Welsh valleys. I found myself completely naked with a friend in a lukewarm tub of rainwater. We were supposed to wait for it to properly heat up over the log fire, but I was in a hurry to go from teaching Torah there to preaching in north-west London. The sunshine compensated for us.
All around there were huge green trees, rolling hills, a babbling brook. Hippies not far away chanted in Hebrew while banging on drums.
“OK,” I said. “Now what do I do?”
“So I’m going to tell you my practice,” she said, “but you can come up with your own.”
Her practice, I later discovered, was the same one as you would find Orthodox Jews performing on Friday afternoons, as sanctioned by rabbis and law books. She had a way of making every tradition feel New Age.
She dunked fully underwater three times, twice emerging to recite a prayer.
Al hatvilah – thank you, God, for making me holy by commanding me in immersion.
Shehechiyanu- thank you, God, for keeping me alive to see this day.
On the third dip, she came up, smiled and said: “That’s all there is to it.”
I copied her every move. And that was it: my first mikveh.
I had previously associated this ritual with Orthodox women washing off the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic.
The only other people I knew of who did it were converts, undergoing a form of Jewish baptism to initiate them into the religion. I had thought, cynically, that these new Jews were washing off the goy.
But here was my teacher, Yael Tischler, far more radical than I was in terms of religious innovation and transgressive liturgy; a witchy feminist affiliated to the Kohenet movement in America – a bohemian collective for women-centred spirituality.
With her, the act of immersion didn’t feel problematic. It felt like my whole body was wrapped up in Jewish history. It felt connected to the earthy, fleshy customs of long-gone ancestors.
This was strange, because I know that none of my recent ancestors would have done such a thing. Liberal Jews were, by and large, decidedly opposed to many embodied rituals.
Like their reforming Christian counterparts, many of the early Progressive Jews felt that religion should be a matter of intellectual faith. It should be stripped down to its essential meanings, devoid of excessive piety or symbols.
In the great platforms decreed from Germany and the USA, Reform Jews repudiated circumcision, abandoned kashrut and denounced tallits. They ridiculed shockeling, the Eastern Ashkenazi prayer movements, as “bowing and scraping.” One British Liberal rabbi called kippot “the eccentric trappings of the Orient.”
As you can imagine, mikvaot did not get much of a look-in. For decades, ritual immersion was not a requisite part of conversion at the Reform beit din. Today, very few progressive Jews will attend the mikveh before their wedding. It is almost unheard of that a progressive Jew will have a regular toiveling practice as the Orthodox do.
This week’s parashah probably provides a good explanation as to why progressives are so uncomfortable with it. This week, we read Tazria-Metzora, a portion dedicated to defiling skin diseases, leprous houses, sexual infections and menstrual impurity.
To escape the uncleanness that falls upon people by contact with these things, ancient Israelites would ritually immerse in a mikveh. The Torah describes mayyim chayyim – running water – in which people would wash themselves. We know that in the period after the Great Exile, the mikveh was likely an enormous bath at the entrance to the Second Temple.
In the biblical world, the mikveh does seem troubling. It exists for a people obsessed by physical purity, who want to remove their blemishes before they enter sacred spaces. I would not feel comfortable advocating immersion to congregants on the grounds that their bodies are unclean and carry associations of sin.
But my teacher, Rabbi Debbie Young Somers, argues that our rabbis fundamentally transformed what mikveh meant. She did her rabbinic thesis on mikvaot and has taught about their virtues in numerous study sessions. When I asked her for sources for this sermon, she immediately sent me detailed source sheets and tweeted her glee that the subject matter was being discussed in our synagogue.
Impurity, Rabbi Debbie argues, is not the same as defilement for the rabbis. It is what happens when you come close to something holy. Touching religious texts, having sex, giving birth and changing to a more holy status, are acts that require immersion. Faeces, urine and vomit, which are more obviously disgusting, do not require any religious ritual. When we wash ourselves, we are not scrubbing away sinful dirt, but acknowledging sacred contagion.
In a post-Temple world, nobody can be clean or unclean. The mechanisms for such processes are gone and the need to do so – so that one might perform an animal sacrifice in the correct state – thankfully no longer exists.
The Talmud records that, nevertheless, Jewish women took the obligation of ritual immersion upon themselves. It was a choice that antique ancestresses made as part of their covenant with God. When they did, the rabbis largely trusted women to self-regulate and organise their own mikvaot. It might well be that they already had very little authority over this aspect of life.
Today, feminists are returning to these practices. Led mostly by religious women, efforts to reclaim the mikveh are popping up all over the world. Scholars and lay people are extolling the virtues of immersion for both men and women.
People take these ritual baths before life-changing events, like trying for a baby, getting married, starting a new job and completing a course of study. They also use the mikveh to process life’s trials, like miscarriage, recovery from illness, divorce and redundancy.
That was how I ended up, a few summers ago, doing sacred skinny dipping in the countryside. I am now convinced that it is a deeply moving spiritual practice, and I commend it to anyone who is interested.
The Sternberg Centre in North London has a functioning mikveh. There is also a programme underway called the Wellspring Project, which hopes to soon create a mikveh-oriented wellbeing centre. In Manchester, the new building for Jackson’s Row is planned to have a mikveh.
And the wonderful thing about mikveh is that you don’t have to travel far to do it. You can toivel in any naturally occurring water, like seas, lakes and rivers. Just turn up, jump in, and dip your head underwater.
And thank God for the commandments.
And thank God for your body.
And thank God you’re alive.
And thank God that we can take these ancient practices and make them our own.
I gave this sermon on Shabbat 17 April 2021 for Parashat Tazria-Metzora at Newcastle Reform Synagogue
It’s time to start spring cleaning already.
It’s time to start spring cleaning already.
Around this time of year, I start to notice the mess that has built up. The crumbs in the toaster. The oven I haven’t cleaned in such a long time. The floorboards and high surfaces- how did they get so dusty?
It’s Shabbat Parah. Purim has passed and this week’s extra reading from Numbers reminds us that the next festival to come is Pesach. Yes, it’s really only a month away, and it’s snuck up on us so quickly this year.
In our additional parashah, the priests undergo a strange cleansing ritual. They sacrifice an unblemished red cow and use its ashes like a soap, sprinkling it over themselves and their surroundings. Of course, it makes no sense to us, and even our medieval commentators admit to being a bit baffled.
But that’s the way cleansing rituals are. You can’t explain them. You just do them. The meaning is implicit. Or, rather, we feel it on an emotional level, rather than being able to rationally think it.
A couple of years ago, Marie Kondo impressed Western audiences by bringing Shinto spirituality to house clearances. Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, encouraged people to rethink their relationship to their things. She asked people to look at the items in their houses and ask: “does this spark joy?” Her philosophy was that something should only be kept in your home if it was useful or beautiful.
At the time, the trend passed me by, and I didn’t realise how profound it was. How we organise space has a profound impact on how we see ourselves. My boyfriend jokes that he can tell the state of my mind by the state of my room.
This period, from Shabbat Parah until Pesach, is our period for clearing out clutter. It is a spiritual time for tidying up. Tradition says we should be hunting out chametz – bits of leavened bread – and getting ready to remove them from the house.
But it’s so much more than that. It’s a chance to clear our houses and our heads. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate what things we need and what we don’t.
So let’s take to it – slowly and gently, finding our own meanings in the clutter. Spring cleaning is here. Let’s do it.
This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Shabbat Parah, on Friday 5th March.