high holy days · judaism · liturgy · sermon · story · theology

The old man and the goat

Back in the village, when myths were true, an old man used to come round with a goat. In the autumn, when the leaves were turning crispy and the days were getting shorter, he’d walk through the shtetl streets, dressed in rags and a flat cap.

Clopping along behind him came a goat on a rope leash. Although scruffy and somewhat unkempt, the goat was well-behaved. She didn’t eat the villagers’ laundry off their lines or stop and refuse to move, the way goats would normally do. She just casually pattered along behind the old man.

And as they walked along the winding, cobbled pavements, the old man would call out: “Sins! Sins! Bring your sins! Sin collection! Bring your sins!”

And they did. One by one, people came out of their houses, bringing their sins with them. A man with a cane came out, rested his hands on the goat’s head, and whispered in her ear: “I get angry too often. I need to stop losing my rag. I keep boiling over when I don’t mean to.” The goat nodded sagely, and the man hobbled back into his home.

A young girl leaned out of her wooden shuttered windows, rested her hands on the goat’s head, and whispered in her ear: “I make a mess and blame my sister. I tell my mum it was her. I know I shouldn’t lie. I don’t want to lie anymore.” The goat nodded sagely, and the little girl popped back through the windows and into her home.

The old man and the goat walked all through the streets of the village, as people patiently clamoured out from shops and houses to whisper their sins. As each person leaned down to place their hands on the goat’s head and confess their sins, the old man would hold the goat’s rope leash and stare off, wistfully, until they were finished. Then he’d move on and return to his call: “Sins! Sins! Bring your sins! Come see the goat and tell her your sins!”

They winded up and out through the town, into the farmland and countryside. As the houses grew further apart, the villagers came out in drips and drabs. A farmer walked out through the barley fields and stepped over the style to his pastures. He put his hands on the goat’s head and whispered in her ears: “I gossip. I ask other people’s business and I repeat it. I tell everyone private stuff. I know I need to find better ways to talk to people. I need to find better ways to talk about people.” The goat’s eyes glistened and the man returned to farming.

Off they went, the old man and the goat, up a winding road, leading up a mountain, to the castle that overlooked the village. Nobody ever talked about the old man or the goat or what they told them. Nobody gave too much thought to the castle or where the sins went. They just knew that, once the day was over, they felt as if they had been forgiven. Somehow this ritual alleviated their guilt and helped them to change.

Every year, at the same time, on this day, the old man and the goat came round and the people gave their sins. That was how they maintained peace in the village. It was their collective form of self-help.

One year, that changed. One little boy became a little too curious. As the old man came round, shouting “sins! Sins!” he wondered where all those sins went. He wondered why a goat had need of such sins, or whether such a method was really effective at getting rid of guilt. He decided to subtly follow the old man and the goat.

He crept along behind them, keeping his distance, all the way through the village and the farmland and the countryside; all the way up the winding mountain path to the castle, until the old man and the goat arrived at the enormous front door and walked in.

The little boy stood at a distance and watched through a window. Inside a giant hall was a beautiful queen sat on a towering throne. The queen accepted the old man and the goat into her presence. “What sins do you have for me?” she asked.

The goat opened her mouth and replied: “The baker has been holding back bread to drive up the price.”

The queen nodded. “And will he do it again?”

“No,” said the goat. “The baker wants to change.”

“Then this is forgiven,” said the queen. And a white cloud came out of the goat’s mouth and disappeared off into the air.

“Tell me another,” said the queen.

“A teenager in the town keeps staying out late and lying to her parents,” the goat proclaimed.

“And does she want to change?”

“Yes. She wants to be honest.”

“Then this is forgiven,” said the queen. And a white cloud came out of the goat’s mouth and disappeared off into the air.

So that’s where the sins go! The little boy was shocked. All this time it was not the goat that had removed the sins but the queen.

“Tell me another,” said the queen.

“The milkman deals unfairly in business. He dilutes the milk with water and gives people the wrong change. He overcharges to get more for himself.”

“And does he want to change?”

“Not really,” the goat shook her head. “He is weighing out unjust measures as we speak. He will send the same sins next year.”

“Then this will not be forgiven,” she said. A black cloud came out of the goat’s mouth, and floated back down towards the town. The little boy watched as it descended down the mountainside and into one of the farmhouses.

He had seen enough. He fled from the castle and ran back towards the town. He pelted towards home, but just as he was approaching the edge of the village, he heard wailing and sobbing. It was coming from the cow shed, where the black cloud had gone.

“He’s dead! He’s dead!” cried a woman from the farmhouse. She sobbed as she lugged out her brother’s body.

Suddenly the boy understood. What the queen did not forgive she avenged with death and punishment. The boy wanted no part in it. He ran into the village and told everyone what he saw.

“The goat decides if we live or die! The goat is judging us and telling all our secrets to the queen in the castle!”

The villagers were furious. They crowded around the town hall in their outrage. When the old man and the goat next came around, they chased them out of town. The man and the goat ran away into the wilderness and were never seen again.

Then, having calmed down, the villagers realised what they had done. Their whole system for penitence and improvement was gone. They turned to each other once more and asked what they should do.

The mayor held her head in her hands and told them there was only one option. They must go to the castle and visit the queen. She would tell them what to do.

Every single villager in the town huddled together and marched solemnly to the top of the hill where the castle was. They gathered at the drawbridge and walked into the throne room, where the queen was sitting.

She looked up as the entire town flooded into her hall.

“This is most unusual,” she told them, wryly.

The mayor stepped forward: “We’re very sorry, Your Majesty, only we don’t know what to do. We chased away the old man and the goat and now we have no way to process what we’ve done wrong. We have lost our path to repentance.”

The queen sighed. “Once, you used to send me your sins through an old man and a goat. Now, you will need to tell them to me in person. Come into my palace, all of you, and confess together.”

At that moment, every villager began frantically shouting out their sins. Every voice drowned out every other as they clamoured to be heard. From her throne, all that the queen could hear was a roaring, indiscriminate din. She patiently gazed out over the assembled hoard.

It did not take the villagers long to realise that their method was proving ineffective. To make sure they were understood over the din, some villagers began to gather together to confess to having committed similar trespasses.

Ashamnu. We have done wrong. Bagadnu. We have betrayed. Gazalnu. We have robbed.”

Soon some of them had developed a chant to confess everything together: “Dibarnu dofi. We have told lies. Heevinu. We have been perverse. V’hirshanu. We have done wrong.”

Soon, all the hundreds of attendees had joined in and were chanting in unison: “Chamasnu. We have been violent. Tafalnu sheker. We have told lies. Yaatznu ra. We have given evil advice.”

The queen assured them: “When you had your goat, I knew who to judge and how. But now that nobody can tell me who is sincere and who is not, I will judge you together with mercy. If you come together in sincerity, I will accept your petitions. But if you stay home or ignore this new ritual, I will judge you all unfavourably together.”

And every year, the villagers came back and recited the same chants as the queen watched from her throne, going through the entire alphabet of their transgressions. They built up more elaborate rituals, abstaining from food, beating their chests, dressing in white, reciting their prayers from sundown to sundown. Together, they announced their iniquity and took responsibility for each other.

We are their descendants. We, the Jewish people, are the inheritors of the traditions of those people who once whispered to goats. There was a time when our community lived in a small place, and had a Temple, and intermediary priests performed strange rituals with goats to expiate our sins. Perhaps, if we believe the myths we will hear in the Yom Kippur parashah, we once lived in a time when God individually judged our sins and immediately exacted punishment and reward.

We are no longer those people. No longer do we sacrifice animals in a Temple. No longer do we require men to intercede on our behalf. No longer do we believe in immediate divine retribution. But we are their heirs. We have maintained their values. We still feel that, together, we can process our guilt through words and songs. We continue to believe that we can improve as individuals and as a collective. We still come together in the autumn, when the leaves turn crispy and the days grow short, to pray that we may be forgiven.

In the absence of miracles or curses, we, like our ancestors in the village, are called upon to take responsibility for ourselves and each other. We atone with our words and hold each other in this space, as we hope that we can find a path to repentance. Together, let us pray.

goat painting

I delivered this sermon for Kol Nidrei at Lincoln Synagogue on October 8th 2019

judaism · sermon · story

Blot out the name of Amalek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3492937-NQWAHNIO-8.jpg

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

[1] Deut 25:19

[2] Esther 9

[3] Berakhot 28a

[4] Rabbeinu Bahya on Deut 25:19

sermon · story · theology · torah

How can you condone slavery?

Around this time last year, I overheard a conversation.

Two women met each other early in the morning on a frosty hill overlooking the city. One had arrived slightly earlier than the other, draped in a long, white scarf. She was old but full of life in a way that made her impossible to place. The other joined her not long after. Her blue velvet dress and jewellery would have looked gaudy on somebody else, but somehow on her they were elegant. They sat down on a bench, facing downhill.

At first, they sat in silence, watching the sun rise higher in the sky. Then the lady in blue velvet turned to her friend and said: “You know, I believe in slavery.”

Her friend let out an exhausted sigh. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her roll her eyes. “Yes,” she said, “you’ve told me before.”

“Not cruel slavery,” she insisted. “I’d put limits on it. Seven years. Seven years is enough and then the slave goes free. And the masters have to take care of them properly.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“I know you do, but I’m old. I’m set in my ways and I can’t change.”

“I’m not asking you to change. I just wish you’d realise that times have moved on. You can’t say things like that anymore.”

“Why not? If I thought it once, why should I be forced to change my mind?”

“Because you’re respected. People care what you have to say. They want you to say loving, hopeful things. If you tell everyone you believe in slavery, people will think that it’s OK.”

“But most of the time I do say nice things. And I’m coming from a good place. I want slaves to be treated well. I want them to have good lives.”

“But you still believe in slavery.”

“Yes, I still believe in slavery.”

“You know,” her friend nudged her, “I want to reinterpret what you’re saying. I want to think you’re speaking in a spiritual sense. I want to hear what you’re saying as that we should all be slaves to God. After all, God is our creator and provides for all our needs, and in turn we do God’s work on earth.”

The old lady laughed. “I like that, I like that a lot,” she chuckled… “But, you know, that’s not what I said.”

“No, it’s not what you said.”

“And you can interpret me any way you like, and I’ll accept what you’ve got to say, but nothing I say can depart from its original meaning.”

“Even now?” Her friend was exasperated. “Centuries after the abolition of slavery? Centuries after my ancestors fled Egypt? Even now, knowing everything you do about human history and human dignity, you can’t change just a bit?”

“Sure, I change, in my own way. But the core of me is still there. Like it or not, you’re stuck with me.”

They sat in silence a while longer. I could feel them both seething. A flock of birds murmured in the winter sky. I felt almost rude for eavesdropping, but couldn’t pull myself away.

This time, it was the woman in velvet’s turn to get frustrated: “You knew I would say this. You knew that if you came here, on this morning, at this time, you would hear me say these words. I believe in slavery. I say them at exactly this time every year. If you don’t want to hear me say it, then why do you even come?”

“Because I love you, Torah!” She threw her arms up in the air.

“I love you too, Kehillah,” Torah whispered back.

At once, I realised that I was not listening to any ordinary conversation between two people but the endless dialogue between the Jews and Torah. Torah, on the one hand, was fixed. She had been inscribed centuries ago and would continue to speak the words she always had. The Jews, on the other hand, had grown with history. Their thoughts had developed as God had revealed to them new insights about how to treat people.

They were locked in dialogue. One would always change and the other would always stay the same. But neither could leave each other. Sure, the Jews could get up and leave Torah at any time. Torah could even abandon the Jews. But if either of them walked away from the relationship, Torah would cease to be Torah and the Jews would cease to be Jews. Through their discussions, they drew out all of God’s contradictions: the contradiction between the past and present, between love and justice, between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.

I felt myself transfixed by their conversation. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to insist that, of course, slavery was wrong. I wanted to quote everything else back at Torah that she’d ever said to show how that one section in this week’s parashah was completely at odds with the rest of her message. But I realised that, even if I did, Torah would still say the same thing, and I would still have to wrestle with it. We, the Jewish people, would still have to wrestle with it.

Kehillah got ready to leave. Torah gently held her wrist. “You will come back and visit me, won’t you?” she asked. “I know I’m old and sometimes I say offensive things, but I still want to talk with you. You don’t have to do everything I say. Just sit with me and listen. I’m lonely without you.”

Kehillah sat back down. “Of course I will, Torah, I’ll be here every week. I love you and I need you. I’m lonely without you too. If I don’t come here and have these conversations with you, I’ll forget what my purpose is. I’ll forget that I have work on this earth to do. You ground me.”

“Thank you,” said Torah. “I’ll always be here.”

sunrisehampstead

I wrote this sermon for Parashat Mishpatim for the Leo Baeck College newsletter. I will deliver it on Shabbat for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community.

high holy days · sermon · story · theology · torah

The Torah was given to all of us

The Reform liturgy for Yom Kippur takes on a tour through the progression of Judaism. The reading choices are different to in Orthodoxy. Whereas in Orthodox synagogues, you would hear the story of the High Priest’s atonement rituals with the two goats in the morning and the rules of illicit sexual relations in the afternoon, the editors of the Reform machzor felt these texts did not reflect their values and substituted them. In the morning, in our community, we read Nitzavim, Moses’s final address to the people. For the haftarah, we read Isaiah’s denunciations of exploitation. Then, in the mussaf service, we read the stories of the martyrdoms of our sages with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Through this history, we see the values of progressive Judaism elucidated at each stage: freedom, personal responsibility, decentralisation and anti-authoritianism. For my Yom Kippur sermon this year, I retold those stories to show how those values emerged.

“You are all standing here today,” said Moses.

He looked out over the vast plains of Moab. He gazed at his assembled audience, stretching far back into steamed blurry visions in the distant desert. He saw their weariness and felt his own. At 120, his physical strength had not weakened. His eyes still saw clearly and his teeth worked perfectly. Although he carried a stick, he did not depend on it. Physically, he was fine. But, mentally, he was drained.

For forty years, Moses had presided over the people. Gradually, he had tried to cede power. He had appointed judges and officials who would help resolve disputes. He had tried to teach people as far as possible all the laws that he had received from God on that great mountain in the Egyptian desert. More than ever, he felt ready to go. But the question was: were the people ready to be without him? What could he tell them in this last speech to prepare them for a society where they would have to lead themselves?

“You are all standing here today,” Moses repeated. “All of you.”

“But, really, all of you. Women and men. Children and the elderly. All of you are here. All of you were present at Sinai. I need you to know that it wasn’t just me and Aaron who did all this. You emancipated yourselves. Nobody forced you to leave Egypt. You got up and went because you knew you deserved better. You could have turned back to Egypt any time, but you didn’t, because you had faith. Hold on to that feeling now.”

Perhaps, Moses thought, he had not been specific enough. “Yes, the strangers too. All the foreigners who have joined us on the way. And the wood-choppers and the water-drawers. The people who do the most menial work among you. The most neglected among you. I want to mention you especially. I want you to know that you were at Sinai. Nobody can take that away from you. You experienced the full might of God and you choose to be God’s people. Never let any priests or princes tell you this was all their work. It was yours.”

“This,” said Moses. “This covenant that God made stands for all time. It speaks to all future generations to come. The soul of every Jew is here with me. All of you are witnesses. All of you have had the responsibilities of this religion entrusted to you. Even if you are scattered to the ends of the Earth, God will find you there. This religion stands firm in every time and place.”

The Israelites stared back at Moses in a calm silence. Only the sounds of gentle winds and crickets interrupted Moses’s speech. These followers had long known that this speech was coming. They had had plenty of time to prepare for it, and yet felt completely at a loss.

“What I’m saying,” said Moses, “is that the Torah is yours. God didn’t give it to me or to the scholars. God gave it to you, to read it and learn it and interpret it in the way that works for you. These commandments that I put before you today are not too incredible for you, nor are they too far from you. They are not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the Heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No. It is right with you. It has been with you all along. You are in charge of your lives. You are responsible for your destinies.”

That was the message Moses left with the Israelites and through them with us, the Jewish people. It has a stronger bearing on us now than we may realise. It demands of us way more than we might be prepared to accept. When Moses died, he did not place power in the hands of priests and kings. He handed it over to everybody. There would not be anyone to frighten the masses into following orders or to offer up commands. The rules were all already there. The people had been entrusted to follow them for themselves.

With time, certain leaders did try to control Judaism. With the rise of the Temple, a centralised cult in Jerusalem set out the rules. The priests insisted that penance could only be paid with animal sacrifices and ritual fires. They tithed the people and brought them under authoritarian rule. Outside the centre of the city, the prophets chastised the priests. Among the urban poor and the rural peasants, the prophets cried out that God had given the Torah of justice to everybody, that God abhorred inequality and would never give religious power to the elites.

That is why, today, we read also the haftarah of Isaiah. Isaiah looked upon the centralised cult and was revolted by it. He saw a nation rife with exploitation and hypocrisy. He chastised the wealthy: “On the days when you fast, you exploit the workers! You fast and you strike with a wicked fist.” Such fasts, said Isaiah, meant nothing to the Almighty. God would not listen to the pleas of the wicked. Instead, insisted the prophet, God sought for every oppressed person to be free, for every chain to be broken, for every mouth to be fed and every soul to be remembered. This religion, said Isaiah, was never given to the exploiting class. It is the blessing of the oppressed. It is the hope of freed slaves and menial workers. It is a promise of redemption for people who could never quite believe their lives had meaning. We are the heirs to their Judaism: to the Judaism of the prophets.

When the Temple was destroyed, a group of visionary rabbis realised that the time had finally come to take back control from the priests and hand it over to the people. Chief among them was Rabbi Akiva Rabbi Akiva had been a peasant farmer. He did not even learn to read until he was 40. He came from the poorest class and knew their struggles. He saw the Priesthood trying to control our religion in their own interests and vowed to resist them.

Akiva insisted that the Torah was not a dead letter, but the word of a living God. Everyone could read it and find something in it. Every letter could be analysed. Whole worlds lay hidden in subtle sentences in our holy text. Akiva and his disciples replaced Temple sacrifices with prayers, good deeds and study. These were acts of piety available to everyone, no matter what their wealth our status. He created a Judaism of the people, by the people, for the people.

Our parashah today says “the Torah is your life and the length of your days.” Akiva agreed. He said that Torah was to the Jews what water was to the fish.[1] Akiva truly understood what it meant for everyone to receive the Torah. All of us were there for it. Everyone in this room. So all of us know something unique about the words of the living God. All of us have something important to contribute.

Akiva handed us over freedom. He took Judaism out of the hands of invested leaders and put it into the lives of the Jewish people. Read it, he said. You will find your life’s meaning in it. You will see that these are the words of a loving God. You will realise that you were created in a Divine image and that everyone else was too. You will understand the need to pursue justice.

Moses, Isaiah, Akiva. The progenitors of our Judaism. All of them with a simple message: this is your Judaism. You are free to follow it as you wish. With that freedom, they gave us the greatest gift they could. They gave us responsibility. Pharaohs would not govern our lives. Nor would bearded men in big gowns. We would govern our lives. We would have to choose for ourselves between right and wrong. We would have to live according to the justice demanded on High, with nobody to judge us but the still, small voice of conscience God had planted within us.

Take this day of Yom Kippur and realise that your life is in your own hands. Whether the world is just or unjust is up to you. Whether you are kind or unkind is up to you. Whether the oppressed remain oppressed or go free – that is up to you.

Let us resolve this day to take the true meanings of our religion to heart and to pursue justice in every quarter.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

isaiah chagall

I gave this sermon on Yom Kippur morning at Kehillat Kernow, the Reform Jewish community in Cornwall. If ever you are in the area, I highly recommend going to this warm, welcoming spiritual community.

[1] Berakhot 61b

judaism · sermon · social justice · story · torah

Pinchas joins us on the Pride march

In the time of Moses, love across boundaries was common. Israelites fell in love with people no matter what boundaries were set down by their priests, and openly entered relationships with people of every background. Intermarriage with the Midianites – a tribe from the Arabian Peninsula – was quite common. This incensed the priests.

Pinchas, the son of a leading priest, saw an Israelite man going home with a Midianite woman. He took a sword and killed them both. One cut straight through the belly. According to the Torah, this stopped a plague that had killed 24 thousand people.[1] That is our week’s parasha: a zealot stabs people in the stomach because he doesn’t like their relationship.

The rabbis showered Pinchas in glory. He was, in their minds, the guardian of Jewish tradition.[2] The Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, an early Aramaic translation of our text, holds Pinchas in such high esteem that it says he was made immortal. He has God make him an angel of the covenant, living forever, so that he could announce Redemption at the end of days.[3]

This is how our tradition treats a violent zealot. In 2015, Yishai Schlissel, a Haredi man in Jerusalem, went out to the city’s Pride parade and stabbed the LGBT people who were celebrating there. One young woman, Shira Banki, died from the wounds. She was 16. Schlissel had done the same thing ten years earlier, and had just been released from prison.[4] In his defence, Schlissel claimed he was inspired by Pinchas. Like Pinchas, he was protesting sexual immorality. Like Pinchas, he was a zealot taking direct action. Like Pinchas, he stabbed them in the belly.[5] On the streets of Meah Shaarim, an Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, posters went up celebrating Schlissel’s violence by quoting this week’s parasha: ‘and the plague was lifted.’[6]

This text’s history is painful. The tradition is so horrible that it makes me wonder why we study these texts at all. What can we possibly gain from them? How can this story form part of our Torah of love and justice? There is a part of me that would prefer to pretend Pinchas never existed, and to hope that Yishai Schlissel will simply rot in a jail cell somewhere and never have his name mentioned again. But we cannot gloss over it and pretend that Jews who hold these violent views do not exist. We have to engage with it.

What can we say to it? If you sat face-to-face with Pinchas, what could you tell this biblical figure about morality? How can we speak back to this troubling text?

I want to propose an alternative reading of the story of Pinchas. The Targum only tells us that Pinchas lived forever, but not what happened to him afterwards. I want us to imagine together that Pinchas was kept alive, not as a reward, but so that he could learn the error of his ways. Pinchas, as an immortal angel, has had to follow the progress of the Jewish community and see the accomplishments of the queer liberation movement.

He stayed alive to see the unbridled love between Ruth and Naomi. Ruth, a Moabite woman, devoted herself utterly to her mother-in-law, followed her everywhere she went and accepted all the ways of the Jewish people.[7] She became the ancestor of King David.[8] As Pinchas followed them on their harsh wanderings through the desert, Pinchas wondered what he had been so afraid of. Were foreign women really such a threat to Jewish existence?

In the time of the rabbis, Pinchas sat on the banks of the Galilee and saw Rabbi Johanan fall in love with Resh Lakish. Johanan stunned Resh Lakish with his long flowing hair and androgynous good looks. Resh Lakish, a gladiator, turned away from violence just so he could spend his life studying halachah with Johanan.[9] They never touched each other, because the times would not allow it, but gazed at each other fondly as they pored over pages of the Torah together. They learned to control an uncontrollable love.[10] Pinchas watched them and wondered: “Could this be so bad?”

In the Middle Ages, Pinchas was transported to Spain. He sat in the courtyards of Arabic-speaking rabbis who drank wine and unabashedly serenaded each other with love songs. He saw the great Jewish poets of the generation ring out praises for same-sex love in the sun of Al-Andalus.[11] Pinchas sat at their feet and thought about what he had thought sexual impropriety was. Was this it? Were these loving sages, so dedicated their Judaism, the thing he had so much feared?

Pinchas saw the rise of the queer liberation movement. He saw modern gay, bi, lesbian and trans people gather together in Magnus Hirschfield’s flat in Berlin. He saw how, at the turn of the 20th Century, European Jews led the charge for freedom to live and love.[12] He witnessed them insist that this was the articulation of their Jewish values: that to live unabashed and unafraid was a far greater representation of the prophetic message of Judaism than the narrow nationalism others espoused. Pinchas asked himself: “Are they talking about me?” Pinchas saw the Nazis destroy everything Magnus created.[13]

I hope that Pinchas came to England too. I hope he saw Rabbi Lionel Blue (z”l) give hope and heart to all those who worried that they could never be gay and Jewish. I hope Pinchas saw Lionel proudly come out and preach the words of a loving G?d to an audience of millions.[14] I want to imagine that Pinchas sat in the beit midrash with Rabbi Sheila Shulman (z”l), and heard her expound radical lesbian Jewish theology.[15]

Pinchas was there on that Pride Parade in Jerusalem in 2015. Pinchas saw a 16-year-old girl murdered in his name. Pinchas saw the people who celebrated it. Pinchas buried his head in his hands and wondered: “Is this my Judaism? Is this my Judaism?”

No, Pinchas, this is not your Judaism. We have come a long way from the tribal zealotry of the past. Across the entire Jewish community, people are waking up to the joys of love. It will win.[16] There are others who are slow to accept us, but they will, with time. Like you, Pinchas, people are learning through the struggles of queer people that progress is nothing to fear.

So, Pinchas, come join us at Manchester Pride Parade this year. The season is just starting. There will be an entire marching bloc of Jews from all the best synagogues in this great city. Come and turn your zealotry to the cause of progressive Judaism – its inclusion of every Jew and its promise of a relationship with a loving God. March with us, and fulfil the role that God set out for you – that you should be an angel of the covenant and a harbinger of Redemption.

Shabbat shalom.

shira-banki
Her name was Shira Banki.

I gave this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on 7th July 2018 (Pinchas 5778) on the day when the Pride season kicked off in London. Manchester Pride march will be on August 25th. To join the Jewish bloc on the demonstration, get in touch with Jacksons Row Synagogue, who are coordinating it.

[1] Numbers 25:7-8

[2] BT Sanhedrin 82a-b

[3] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Numbers 25:12

[4] https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-pride-parade-stabber-to-undergo-psychiatric-evaluation-1.5383572

[5] https://www.jewishideas.org/article/zealotry-and-its-consequences-case-yishai-schlissel

[6] https://www.timesofisrael.com/praise-for-gay-pride-parade-attack-posted-in-jerusalem/

[7] https://www.jewdas.org/ruth-and-naomi/

[8] Ruth 4

[9] Bava Metzia 84a

[10] Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct, 1997

[11] Norman Roth, Deal Gently with that Young Man, 1982

[12] https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1868-the-einstein-of-sex-is-born-and-dies-1.5361786

[13] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/lgbtq-institute-in-germany-was-burned-down-by-nazis

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/19/rabbi-lionel-blue-gay-liberal-thought-for-day-star-dies-86

[15] http://www.rainbowjews.com/rabbi-sheila-shulman-a-true-pioneer/

[16] https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-london-rabbi-preaches-inclusivity-toward-gays-sets-off-uproar-1.5482362

judaism · liturgy · sermon · story · Uncategorized

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob

Balaam was nervous. He rode his donkey to the steppes of Moab. The donkey trotted slowly in the desert heat, weighed down by Balaam’s travelling bags. Balaam looked this way and that, up and down at the craggy mountains, and back to the land he’d left behind. He fiddled with the donkey’s harness, twitching at the leather straps.

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me,” King Balak had told him. “Come now, put a curse on them for me, for there are too many of them for me. Maybe, with your help, I can defeat them and drive them out of the land. I know that whoever you bless is blessed indeed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”[1]

It was true. Since childhood, Balaam had known he had a gift. Whatever he said came true. The right words just came out of his mouth and took meaning. As an adult, Balaam had become something of a blessing mercenary – offering prayers for kings across the world in exchange for payment.[2] Normally, he turned up, said the words, and left with enough money to feed his family for a few more weeks.

But this time was different. Before being asked to curse the Jews, Balaam had never heard of them.[3] Then, the second he’d been asked to curse them, their God appeared before him. God told him: “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.”[4] Initially, he’d refused, but King Balak had been insistent. Mercenaries cannot say no to kings. So he agreed.

Balaam sidled up to the edge of the valley where the Jews were camped. He looked out over all their tents, pitched in the desert. He saw the speckled silhouettes of people wandering about between the marquees. He opened his mouth to curse them. But the words to curse weren’t coming. Every time he tried to curse them, his tongue dried up and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He felt a heavy marble in his gullet, choking up all his words. Then, from somewhere outside of him and deep within, a voice came out of his own mouth:

“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”[5]

To this day, those are the first words Jews say on entering a synagogue. We Progressives sing them together when we begin our services. Orthodox Ashkenazim recite them as they approach a community’s door, or even idly walking past a shul.[6] Why is it that the words we say when we come to a synagogue are the words of a non-Jew, who knew nothing of the Jews, but was somehow overwhelmed by the Divine Spirit? What has made us decide to use this blessing in such a way?

I suspect part of the answer is that, when we go into a synagogue, all of us feel like non-Jews. Whether we attend shul weekly, or only turn up for Yom Kippur, something about the space can make anyone feel not quite Jewish enough. We can all feel like we are saying somebody else’s words, tentatively mouthing out sounds that don’t quite feel right.

I rarely meet Jews who feel completely comfortable in their own Jewishness. Everybody feels excluded in some way: not quite learned enough, not quite spiritual enough. A stranger recently told me he was just not quite brave enough. Being a people who don’t belong is hard enough without worrying who belongs to that people. Many people have come up with their own definitions for what makes a Jew Jewish, but my favourite is: a Jew is somebody who worries they are not quite Jewish enough.

This prayer goes some way to honouring that feeling. All of us, no matter how observant or learned, recite the words of a non-Jew who has been bowled over by the Jewish God. The prayer reassures us: you may feel like you don’t belong, but you are home.

I used to wonder if I would ever reach a point where I felt like I knew enough. As a teenager, I stumbled over Hebrew words as the people around me seemed to recite them so confidently. I thought that perhaps when my Hebrew was good enough I would feel secure in my Jewishness. Then, having learnt Hebrew, I realised how little of the Torah I knew. I thought that if I could only master the Scriptures, I wouldn’t worry if I belonged.

Last week, I finished my examinations for my first year at rabbinical school. Our teachers assessed us on sections of Talmud, Hebrew grammar, Aramaic language, leyning the Torah, philosophy and biblical criticism. As I came to the end of them, I realised how much I still did not know. The rabbinical course gives us the tools we need to be able to explore every part of Judaism, but it cannot fill us up with everything. Our religion’s traditions are too diverse; our interpretations too vast.

I have come to embrace that feeling. Judaism is a bit like star-gazing. You lie on your back and set your eyes above you. You realise there is no way you could ever count all the stars you see. After a few moments, your eyes adjust, and you realise that there is another layer of stars behind the ones you couldn’t count. Suddenly, you’re humbled as you realise you’re facing upwards to infinity, beyond an entire galaxy with no end in sight.

This is our Judaism: layers of complexity reaching out to infinity. All we can do is stare at it in awe, flummoxed by our God, and say: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”[7]

stars moab

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College‘s weekly parasha blog.

[1] Numbers 22:5

[2] Midrash Tanhuma Balak 4

[3] Rashi on Numbers 24:14

[4] Numbers 22:12

[5] Numbers 24:5

[6] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mah-tovu

[7] Numbers 24:5

judaism · sermon · story · Uncategorized

Nadav and Abihu are dead

Nadav and Abihu are dead. Consumed in fire. Burned alive. And nobody knows why.

They were two of Aaron’s four sons, Temple priests. They went into the Sanctuary to offer a sacrifice, but something went wrong. The fire came out strange somehow and blazed everywhere. They died instantly.

Moses, their uncle, told Aaron that it was God’s intention. “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” Aaron was silent.[1]

For centuries, commentators would speculate what they’d done wrong to deserve death. Perhaps they’d been over-zealous and churned out too much fire. Maybe they hadn’t followed the commandments to the letter. They might have been drunk.

But nobody questioned that it was their own fault. God is just. The world is reasonable. And if a bad thing happens, the people who suffer must be to blame. All we can do is silently accept it.

Under any scrutiny, it’s an indefensible theological position. In a world so full of inexplicable suffering, it is not possible to tell people who are hurting that God intended for them to feel that way. Death cannot be explained away. We cannot justify people burned alive. We cannot silently accept it.

But what if we have been interpreting this parasha all wrong? What if this text isn’t encouraging us into silent acceptance, but to question injustice? What if this isn’t about blaming victims but about challenging oppression?

There is a suggestion in the way the story is laid out that there may be more to this story than meets the eye. Our narrative does not begin with the death of Nadav and Abihu, but with sacrifices. Burnt sacrifices of animals. Moses and Aaron go about slaughtering goats, rams and oxen and offering them up to God in fire and incense.

In the next section, Nadav and Abihu die. Already these two events seem connected. The burnt sacrifices of animals may well have some correlation to the burning of Aaron’s sons. In case the parallel is not clear enough, the aliyot are divided up so that the two stories run into each other. The third aliyah of Shmini begins:

Fire went out from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.[2]

The language used to describe Nadav’s and Abihu’s death mirrors this too closely to be coincidental:

Fire went out from before God and consumed them; and they died at the instance of God.[3]

The Torah is urging is to see some similarity between the burnt sacrifices of the animals and the death by fire of Aaron’s sons. The people shouting and falling on their faces stands in direct contrast to Aaron’s silence.

Other commentaries have begun from the premise that Aaron’s sons’ deaths were justified. Other commentaries have assumed that animal sacrifice and human death were logically separate. Both, they assume, form part of a cosmological worldview that sees God as just, explicable, and hungry for death.

Yet the whole narrative might make more sense if we assume that the reverse is the case. Nadav and Abihu did not deserve to die. Their deaths were senseless and unjust. They died without explanation and their father was expected to cope with it. Their sudden and dramatic death arrests all talk of animal sacrifice. It interrupts our assumptions that there are correct ways to kill creatures and that sins can be expiated with blood. In the moment that Nadav and Abihu die, Aaron gets an insight into what sacrifice is like for the animals. When his own kids are slaughtered, he doesn’t shout and fall on his face, but retreats into stunned silence.

This interpretation makes sense of Moses’ cryptic comment to Aaron: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.”[4] The word for ‘draw near’ – קרב – is the same as the word for ‘sacrifice’. The line may be interpreted as saying that God is made holy through sacrifices. If animal sacrifice is holy, why not human? If animal sacrifice makes God appear glorious, why not human?

Instead of trying to justify human death, this parasha may be calling us to question animal death. Although this interpretation may seem modern, there is precedent for it. According to 13th Century Spanish philosopher Nachmanides, “Living creatures possess a moving soul and a certain spiritual superiority which in this respect make them similar to those who possess intellect (people) and they have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.”[5]

Scholars including Maimonides, Albo and Rav Kook all argued that, ideally, people should be vegetarian. They saw animals as possessing reason and emotions like people.[6] Today, their ideas have new relevance. We live in an era when animals are bred in captivity, kept in cages and killed without thought. When the rules governing kashrut were constructed, they put a firm limit on what violence could be done to animals. Compared to neighbouring cultures where animals could be torn apart limb by limb while they were still alive, the requirement that they should be kept in good conditions and killed as quickly as possible was remarkably humane.

Yet, today, as Progressive Jews, we might rightly question whether those rules go far enough. If we accept that senseless death is unjust and that the Torah is more concerned with calling us to action than silent passivity, it may be time for us, as a movement, to consider adopting vegetarianism.

I do not want to moralise to people or be accused of hypocrisy. I am not a vegetarian and I’ve struggled to reduce my own use of animal products.  But I want to try. One of the biggest barriers is that it’s expensive and time-consuming. That’s because our society is built around meat and using animal products. That should not, however, stop us from trying. As a religious movement, we could lead the way by changing our own relationship to food and encouraging others to do the same.

nadav and avihu

I originally wrote this for Leo Baeck College’s newsletter on Parashat Shmini.

[1] Lev 10:3

[2] Lev 9:24

[3] Lev 10:2

[4] Lev 10:3

[5] Nachmanides, commentary on Genesis 1:29, quoted in https://www.jewishveg.org/schwartz/view-torah.html

[6] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rabbinic-teachings-on-vegetarianism#4

festivals · social justice · story

Hanukkah is a celebration of resistance

Instead of doing a sermon for the Hanukkah service at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community, I put together a play that drew out the themes of the festival.

NARRATOR 1:

Hanukkah is a festival of resistance. It is a time to celebrate struggle.

The Jews in Palestine are living under occupation. It’s the 1st Century BCE and the Seleucid emperor Antiochus has brought the country under military lockdown. He’s a tyrant. He has banned all the central components of Jewish life: circumcision, Shabbat, kashrut and reading Torah.

His is a mighty army that tortures all dissenters. He ransacks the Temple, then the centre of Jewish life, and sacrifices pigs on the altars to make the whole place unclean.

In an incredible act, a tiny of army of militants manage to drive out the Greeks. They return to their Temple and rededicate it to God. They burn their oil lamps and practise their religion again. This is the miracle of Hanukkah.

NARRATOR 2:

One of the best stories of Hanukkah is of Hannah and her seven children. They are zealots who refuse to bow down to Antiochus. One by one, the children are martyred to defend their religion.

It is a beautiful story of courage and religious conviction that many children grow up with. But there is a problem with it. The Maccabees were religious fundamentalists. They were nationalist extremists. As a resistance army, they used tactics that would make ISIS blush. Once in power, they set up a theocratic dictatorship.

Theirs is a Hanukkah story, but it is not the only Hanukkah story. As a Liberal Jewish community, our stories of resistance are not stories of religious fundamentalism and nationalism, but often of fighting against it. Our stories are of fighting for Disabled access, queer liberation, anti-racism, women’s rights and social justice. At Hanukkah, we need to celebrate stories of struggle, liberation and perseverance that resonate with us. So tonight, we retell the story of Hannah and her seven children from those perspectives. We use the words of people who inspire us.

ANTIOCHUS:

I am King Antiochus and I demand that everybody worship me. There will be no more Jews or religious freedom. Nobody will be free to rest. Nobody will be free to organise. Nobody can have their own opinions. And I will kill anyone who disagrees.

HANNAH:

We have to resist this man. We cannot let him decide our lives. Everybody who cares about freedom must stand up and be counted. Will any of my children resist him?

SOPHIE:

I will.

ANTIOCHUS:

Who dares to defy me?

SOPHIE:

I do. Somebody has to make a start. I will stand up for what I believe in, even if I am standing alone. How can we expect a righteous cause to prevail if nobody is willing to give themselves up for it? I may be the only one to resist you, Antiochus, but there are many others who feel the way I do.[1]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed her. But Hannah had another daughter, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

ROSA:

I will not let you win, Antiochus. Those who do not move do not notice their chains. But my sister has started a movement and now the chains are beginning to break. Being human means throwing your whole life on the scales of destiny when need be, all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.[2]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed her. But Hannah had a son, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

ABRAHAM:

I have a faith in God that is not the clinging to a shrine but the endless pilgrimage of the heart. When I protest, my feet are praying. Prayer is nothing if it is not subversive, and it is time I prayed against you.[3]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed him. But Hannah had another child, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

TANIA:

Perhaps my name will be forgotten and my struggle too. But the cause I fight for, the cause of justice, will continue long after your reign has ended, Antiochus.[4]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed him. But Hannah had a son, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

LARRY:

I am bound to have enemies, but I will not be my own. We will go down if we don’t stand up for ourselves. All of us should have the power and the pride to benefit from what is rightfully ours.[5]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed him. But Hannah had another son, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

JOE:

Antiochus, you cannot kill all of us. Our tactic of standing up to you is bearing fruit. That process has started and is now irreversible.[6]

NARRATOR 2:

By this time, Antiochus was exhausted. He knew he was losing. Hannah had only one child left, her youngest child of all. Antiochus tossed his ring on the floor.

ANTIOCHUS:

I don’t even want to kill you. If you bow down to me just by picking up this ring, I will let you live. Hannah, convince your child to pick up this ring.

HANNAH:

I carried you in my womb for nine months and I have raised you. I urge you, my child, to look at the sky and the earth. Consider everything you see there, and realize that God made it all from nothing, just as God made all of humanity. Your life is a miracle and your religion is a celebration of it. Do not be afraid of this butcher.[7]

NETTA:

You do not need to convince me, mother. Antiochus, may God forgive you for what you are doing.[8]

NARRATOR 2:

Antiochus killed the last of Hannah’s children, and Hannah herself. But although he killed the people he could not kill their dreams. Ultimately, the small army won and Antiochus’s reign came to an end.

NARRATOR 1:

The words we have used tonight all come from people who struggled for justice in the last century: from Sophie Scholl, anti-Nazi activist; from Rosa Luxemburg, socialist and anti-war campaigner; from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, civil rights activist; from Tamara Bunke, Latin American revolutionary; from Larry Kramer, gay liberation and AIDS campaigner; from Joe Slovo of the South African anti-apartheid movement; and Netta Franklin, British Jewish suffragette. They are all now dead but their dreams live on. Their dreams, our dreams, of a just, more inclusive, kinder world, continue.

At Hanukkah, we remember the resistance of brave people and join our struggles to theirs. The struggle to be Jewish of a thousand years ago becomes part of our stories of trying to build a better world.

At Hanukkah, we commemorate the destruction of the Temple and look forward to the great Temple that is to come – the Messianic age when there will be no more need for Temples because all will know that God is one and everybody will live in peace. As Liberal Jews, we know that we cannot wait for that day to come, but that we have to build it. Over this festival period, let us take inspiration from the pioneers of the past and take steps towards achieving those dreams.

tamara bunke
Tamara ‘Tania’ Bunke, Jewish-Argentinian revolutionary

 

This play was an interesting experiment in alternative ways of doing sermons. I wanted to deal with the reality of Hanukkah with all its violence. Most Jews know that the story of Hanukkah has some horrible undertones, but don’t deal with the reality that stories of violence, struggle and martyrdom in Jewish history are not just a blip from the Second Temple Period. Stories of martyrdom are certainly problematic, but I want to have conversations that deal with those tensions, rather than glossing over them.

[1] Based on the words of Sophie Scholl, 21-year-old leader of the anti-Nazi non-violent resistance in Germany

[2] Based on the words of Rosa Luxemburg, German socialist and anti-war activist

[3] Based on the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, civil rights activist in 1960s USA

[4] Based on the words of Tamara Bunke, Latin American revolutionary

[5] Based on the words of Larry Kramer, USA AIDS and gay rights activist

[6] Based on the words of Joe Slovo, South African anti-apartheid activist

[7] Based on 2 Maccabbees 7

[8] Based on the words of Netta Franklin, British Jewish suffragette

high holy days · judaism · story · theology · torah

Jonah is a story about suicide

We know that life is sacred. I have mentioned it a few times over these Holy Days and we hear it all the time in our religion. Yet there is one question on which it seems almost silent. It is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year. Throughout the Tanakh, suicide is not mentioned. No tractates are written against it, no stories are written about it. Where could I turn to provide an answer? It seemed like a glaring oversight, and one that needed an answer more than ever for a generation where issues of anxiety and depression have never been so pronounced. And then, as I turned to the Yom Kippur readings, I realised that the answer had been staring me in the face.

The story of Jonah ends on an anti-climax. After hauling Jonah out of his home, sending him miles away into the heart of empire, drowning him, having a giant sea-monster swallow him, made him chastise his foreign enemy to give up on evil and actually convinced them to do so, God tells Jonah: “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes for a moment. All that, that whole mission, only to tell him that he cared about ignorant people and cattle. All that, when Jonah had thought he’d watch a city, ten times bigger than Manchester, burn to the ground, only to be told that God likes the animals in the city just like Jonah cares for a plant. What a disappointment.

It’s the kind of ending that leaves you scrambling back over everything you’ve read, wondering what the point of it all was. Did I miss something?

And here’s the real kicker: when God tells Jonah that he’s not going to destroy Niniveh, he’s also telling him that he’s not a prophet. In Deuteronomy we learn: “When a prophet speaks in the name of God, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that God has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”[1]

Jonah has prophesied and he’s gone big. He’s told everyone in the capital city of the biggest empire on earth that they’re all doomed to die because they’re sinners. It’s a bit like getting on a boat from Southport, journeying to New York, pitching up in Time Square and announcing to everyone there that they’re about to die. In fact, it’s worse than that, because in this scenario, Jonah’s people and the Americans are sworn enemies. He’s gone through all of that, only to find that his prophesy did not come true. He was wrong. He was not a prophet.

But what was it that God actually told Jonah to prophesy? Was he told that Niniveh was going to be overthrown in forty days? No. At the very beginning, God says: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”[2] Not tell them they’re going to be destroyed. Not tell them they’re all going to die. Not tell them to fast and weep. Just – tell them they’re going wrong.

Here’s what I want to suggest. That anti-climactic ending is much more profound than we might initially realise. The message given to Jonah was so much bigger than that. That prophecy was not about the wrongdoing of a city – it was about suicide. The story of Jonah is a story about a man contemplating suicide, rebutted over and over again by God’s message: choose life.

Today’s Torah portion announces that message. Moses stands on the edge of the Promised Land, knowing he will not be allowed to enter it, and gives the Israelites his final words: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”[3] This message is so profound. Life, it says, is not an accident. It is a choice, and it is a choice we must make. We must decide whether to truly participate in this world.

The prophet Ezekiel says: “Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”[4] This is God’s message to Jonah: choose life, for why would you die? Let’s read the story again, this time assuming the prophecy is different. We’ll realise that the story was not about whether the people of Niniveh should die, but about whether Jonah should live.

Several times throughout the story, Jonah threatens suicide. Sometimes those threats were so imperceptible you might not notice them. At the very beginning, when Jonah flees from Jaffa to Tarshish, he pays the fare before he gets on the boat. That might seem a reasonable enough thing to do now. But in the Ancient Near East, you didn’t pay your fare before travelling, you paid it afterwards. You paid it afterwards because otherwise you’d be at the mercy of sailors, who’d already have everything they needed from you, and could chuck you overboard so they wouldn’t have another mouth to feed. Paying your fare upfront is tantamount to a death-wish.

It doesn’t stop there. Once on the ship, God sends a mighty storm over the seas. Jonah could pray to have his life saved, but instead he curls up in the bowls of the ship, falls asleep and waits for the end. God has other plans, and Jonah will not die yet.

The captain of the ship and the rest of the sailors find him, realise that he’s the cause of the storm and ask him what they should do. Jonah could say: “take me to Niniveh so that I can do what God asked me.” He could say: “help me convince evil-doers to repent from what they’re doing.” Instead he says: “Heave me overboard!”[5] That’s right. Once again, Jonah tries to die. The sailors, who already have his money, who have never met Jonah before, who have a different religion and tribe to Jonah, beg God that they won’t have to kill Jonah. Jonah is insistent.

So the sailors heave Jonah overboard and it’ll take all but a miracle for him not to die. Thankfully, God is in the business of providing such things. God sends a giant fish, which swallows Jonah whole, leaving him able to survive. Jonah sits in the belly of the fish and sings: “I sank to the base of the mountains; The bars of the earth closed upon me forever. Yet You brought my life up from the pit, Eternal One, my God! When my life was ebbing away, I called God to mind; And my prayer came before You.”[6] Finally, it seems like Jonah’s getting it. Finally, brought to the very brink of death, it seems like Jonah is ready to choose life. God commands the fish to spit out Jonah on the land.

This time, Jonah does what God tells him. He heads out to Niniveh, that great city, to prophesy against them. Are his enemies, the overlords of the world’s biggest empire, rife with sin and iniquity, angry at him? Do they try and kill him? No, they’re horrified. It’s as if they’d never even considered what they were doing was immoral. They throw on sackcloth and ashes and prepare themselves for death. They even put sackcloth on the animals, so ready they are for utter annihilation. But God’s intention is not for them to die. As Ezekiel reminds us, God takes no pleasure in the death of them that die, but that they turn from their ways and live.[7]

Jonah is disappointed. He scolds God: “Please, Eternal One, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”[8] Has Jonah learned nothing? Close to death in the belly of the big fish, it seemed like Jonah was finally getting it that all God wanted was for him to live. Yet here he is again, begging to be allowed to die, threatening suicide once more.

God tries a different tactic. Instead of heavy-handed miracles and big displays in Niniveh, God tries out a gentle parable. God allows a gourd to grow over Jonah’s head, then allows it to die. Perhaps this will teach Jonah the precious, fragile sanctity of life. Quite the opposite. Jonah begs for death, saying: “I would rather die than live.” God asks Jonah: “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.”[9]

Finally, we get to the prophecy that had been meant for Jonah all along. God says: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”[10]

That’s why the story finishes by telling us about all the animals. God is saying: “Don’t you realise how much I care about you? I care even about the cattle in this city. I care even about a single plant in the desert. I love even your enemies, who are persecuting you, who do not worship me, who don’t follow my laws. How much do you think I care about you? Can’t you see how important you are? Choose life, Jonah. I’m begging you, stop with these thoughts of suicide. Give up on all that anger and hate you’ve been bottling up. Choose life, Jonah, why would you choose death?”

That’s what this whole story has been about. It was never about sin and death and punishment. It was so much simpler than that. It was about life. “Look Jonah,” says God. “I know you don’t think your life is worth living, but I do. To me, your life has meaning. To me, you are worth everything. Yes, even you. You with your stubbornness, your bitterness, your rage. You with all your unhappiness, your imperfections and mistakes. You mean so much to me that I will perform miracles. I will turn the world on its head to keep you alive. I will send you to the ends of the earth just to tell you I love you. Choose life, Jonah.”

That’s what this whole day has been about. Sometimes in prayer, especially deep in the fast of Yom Kippur, we can get so caught up in recounting our sins and holding onto our guilt, that we forget the whole point of the day. This day is not for wallowing in misery, it is to be thankful for life. We have been called here because our lives have meaning. By dint of being human, we are not just special, we are holy. To be a Jew means to affirm that life matters. It means to be willing to live a life that shows the best of what humanity can achieve. Of course, we may not succeed, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to try? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to choose life?

On the question of suicide, I think that Judaism has an answer. Judaism has only one answer, in fact, to every question, which is that life is holy. We are here to manifest the sacredness of life in everything we do. So today, let’s ask ourselves: are we doing that? Are we holding on to sadness and rage or are we thankful for another day? Are we dwelling on all that we’ve done wrong, or will we embrace the chance to get it right? Won’t we remember today that God wants for us to live?

Today God has put before you two choices: blessing and curse, life and death. Choose life, for why would you choose death?

jonah whale

This sermon was originally delivered on Yom Kippur 5778 at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community.

[1] Deut 18:22

[2] Jonah 1:2

[3] Deut 30:19

[4] Ezek 33:11

[5] Jonah 1:12

[6] Jonah 2:7-8

[7] Ezek 33:11

[8] Jonah 4:3

[9] Jonah 4:8-9

[10] Jonah 4:10-11

high holy days · judaism · sermon · story · torah

The binding of Isaac… and Ishmael

Life is sacred. It is not just meaningful, though it is that. Nor is it simply beautiful, although it can be. Life is sacred. Given by God, uniquely to everyone in existence, with a specific purpose. Our lives – the lives of everyone in this room, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t – are loving gifts from our Creator. With them, we can either repair or destroy the world.

I hope that we’ll be able to come out of this Holy Day season more aware of the sanctity of our own lives and of everyone else’s. spiritual ideals to the fore. But whose lives are sacred? Whose lives do we truly value, and whose lives do we treat as disposable? It can be harder to see the sanctity in some lives than it is in others. It is harder – perhaps hardest – to see sanctity in the lives of people we don’t know. There are people we forget and erase before we’ve even had the chance to see God’s spirit in them.

The Torah portion for this week, the Aqedah, is an example of such a problem. One line sticks out for me in this parashah. In this story of the patriarch Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son on the altar, it is perhaps the most troubling. It seems innocuous at first. But I keep coming back to it, and the more I come back to it, the more it bothers me. The text says:

Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah.[1]

Take your son, your only one… The text says that same phrase three times. When the angel intervenes and speaks to Abraham, we hear:

Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For I now know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.[2]

Your only son…

After Abraham sacrifices a ram in the place of Isaac, the angel speaks again:

Since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…[3]

Again and again, ‘your only son.’ But that’s impossible! Abraham does not have only one son. Isaac is the younger of two children. Abraham has an older son, Ishmael. In only the immediately preceding parashah, Abraham sent away Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Has he forgotten them already?

This problem has bothered rabbinic commentators too. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, offers up a story:

“But I have two sons,” Abraham said.

“Your only one,” was the reply.

“But each is the only one of his mother!”

“Whom you love,” he was told.

“But I love both!”

“Even Isaac.”[4]

The conversation he puts in Abraham’s mouth is really the conversation of the reader with the text: doesn’t Abraham have another son whom he loves? How can Ishmael be erased so flippantly and insensitively from the text? Rashi suggests a number of solutions:

Perhaps lest Abraham’s mind reeled under the sudden shock. Further, to make his command more precious to him. And finally, that he might receive a reward for every word spoken.[5]

Yes, God is speaking like this to calm Abraham down. If he just blurted out: “Go and kill Isaac!”, Abraham might not have had the strength to do it. So God breaks the commandment down, gently feeding him each bit. But Rashi’s answer doesn’t tell us the most important detail: what on earth has happened to Ishmael?

Some rabbinic commentators have tried other approaches. Some suggest that we could translate יְחִֽידְךָ֤ not as your only one, but as your favourite one.[6] But the root of the word יְחִֽידְךָ֤ is אחד – one, and it doesn’t mean favourite in any other context. We can only really translate it that way if that’s what we want it to mean. And is that what we want it to mean? Do we want to think of Abraham, the father of all nations, as choosing a favourite between the children that will create Judaism and Islam? Does it actually make the text that much better?

Not only is God asking Abraham to kill Isaac, but God has already erased Ishmael. Can that really be true? Is that the God we believe in and worship?

It bothered me so much I went for lunch with a Muslim friend to ask him what he made of it. How did his tradition, that holds Ishmael in such high regard, deal with this troubling passage? I asked: “what does your tradition say about the binding of Isaac?”

“You mean Ishmael?” he said.

“No, no,” I said, “Isaac, who Abraham takes up Mount Moriah to sacrifice.”

“Ishmael,” he countered, “who Abraham takes up Al-Haram…” He grinned at me. “I know your tradition says something different…”

It was so funny. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the Islamic story might be different. We took out a Quran and read the story as it appears:

Abraham said, “Indeed, I will go to where I am ordered by my God; Who will guide me. My God, grant me a child from among the righteous.”

So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached the age of exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.”

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, And We left for him favourable mention among later generations: “Peace upon Abraham.”[7]

It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it? But there’s a new problem: this text doesn’t mention Ishmael either. It doesn’t mention Isaac, but it doesn’t mention Ishmael. In fact, it turns out that in the early days of Islamic jurisprudence, the interpreters were undecided. 135 authoritative readings said it was Isaac; 113 said it was Ishmael. But gradually the weight shifted, and by the 10th Century, everyone agreed that it was Ishmael.[8]

So here we have two contradictory traditions: a Jewish tradition that erases Ishmael and an Islamic one that erases Isaac. What do we do with this? How can we reconcile these stories?

I think the Tosefta, that first text of rabbinic commentary, offers a compelling answer. The sages were dealing with a problem of two contradictory schools of thought – the House of Shammai said that a room was unclean and the House of Hillel said a room was clean. The Tosefta reaches this conclusion:

Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.[9]

David Hartman, a rabbi from the Bronx in New York, suggests this means we need to be able to hold multiple contradictory ideas at once. Whereas Western philosophy tries to drive everyone to one conclusion at the expense of all others, Jewish thought teaches that all words about God are words of God. Judaism teaches us to sustain and embrace contradiction.[10] We learn to build a heart big enough that it can include all voices, especially the voices that we might want to drown out.

So perhaps that’s an answer to my problem. We need to reconcile these two contradictory stories: Isaac was offered up as a sacrifice, and so was Ishmael. Isaac was Abraham’s favourite son, and so was Ishmael. Both a source of blessing, both blessed, both their lives sacred, both our traditions sacred, all stemming from one God.

The Torah says that Isaac was Abraham’s only son because, in a way, there only ever was one son. That one son was both Isaac and Ishmael. Some Christians say that the sacrifice of Isaac prefigured the crucifixion of Jesus, or represented it.[11] Yes, let us include that truth too. Rather than try to erase difference, let’s embrace the tension of contradiction and recognise what is sacred in every story. The message is the same in all of them: a rejection of violence, opposition to the sacrifice of human life, reverence for the God who created us all.

I think this religious analysis has some important political implications. Two years ago, the former Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, published a book called ‘Not in God’s Name’. The theology of it was subtle and beautiful. He used stories like those of Isaac and Ishmael to suggest that all people were meant for their own blessings. He extrapolated this to thinking about religion: that nobody should make an exclusive claim to truth – that Jews, Muslims and Christians should all be able to respect one another.[12]

But from this solid foundation, Jonathan Sacks went in a troubling direction. He said that people should not try to make exclusive claims to truth, and then focused most of his book on criticising Muslim terrorists for doing that. Of course, I agree with his opposition to such terrorism. But given that his book was inevitably going to be read almost entirely by Jews, shouldn’t he have said more to challenge his own community? In the way he set it out, it felt very much like he was accusing everyone else of carrying out violence, without acknowledging that we, too, are imperfect. Such rhetoric only encourages division and continues the cycle of hate.

It turns out that Jonathan Sacks did not just make a rhetorical error. Earlier in the year, he recorded a film for Mizrachi Olami, a far-right religious nationalist party in Israel, where he encouraged Jews all over the world to join the organisation on a march through Jerusalem.[13] This is an annual march, drawing thousands of people, who run through the Palestinian part of the city in the east, intimidating residents and shouting racist slogans. On this day, shops close and streets clear as people prepare for violence.[14] Under pressure, Jonathan Sacks eventually agreed that he would not actually march with the group, but continued to produce promotional material for them.[15] I have to seriously question what this does to suggest that different religions can be blessed, or that all lives deserve respect.

I think that if we are going to build a heart of many rooms, it must at least be big enough to accommodate the grievances and frustrations of Palestinians. We must be able to see how we can be oppressors, as well as victims. We must confront all the contradictions that living in this modern world involves.

I spent August studying Hebrew in Jerusalem. It is a place that really confronts you to deal with contradictory truths. I spent my days in a university where I learnt so much and met so many exciting people. On my breaks, I’d stare out over the garden. That university overlooks a refugee camp, full of high-rise buildings, crowded with people who have been stateless since the War of 1948, and surrounded by a concrete separation wall.

I found myself feeling safer wearing a kippah than ever before, and at the same time so much more uncomfortable. I quite like wearing the kippah in England, where it feels like a symbol of difference, personal piety and a reminder to live up to the best expectations of others. In Jerusalem, where the religious-right are in power and wield religious symbols to trample on the rights of various people, my clothes took on a new meaning I didn’t like. I know of one rosh yeshiva, a rabbi heading up a study-house in Jerusalem, who wore only half a kippah, to reflect the conflicted place he felt, torn between the religious and secular worlds, externalising his inner turmoil.

I want to be able to live with these tensions, but it is not an easy feeling. Maybe that’s necessary. Dealing with contradictions means being uncomfortable. There is something frightening about truly believing that life is sacred. It means knowing that we are special, unique and placed here by God. But it also means acknowledging that this is true of everyone, including of people whose stories might contradict ours.

This year, may we build hearts large enough to include those stories, and all stories of struggle. May we learn to see the sanctity in all lives and, above all, may we find a way to peace.

Shana tovah.

ram

[1] Gen 22:2

[2] Gen 22:12

[3] Gen 22:16-17

[4] Soncino 108

[5] Soncino 108

[6] Sefaria; JPS

[7] Qur’an Surah As-Saffat 37:99-111

[8] Reuven Firestone, ‘Journeys in Holy Lands’, pp. 153-151

[9] Tosefta Sotah 7:7

[10] David Hartman, ‘A Heart of Many Rooms’

[11] e.g. Jung, ‘Answer to Job’

[12] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZr_lsT6vkE

[14] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.791549

[15] http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.789728