spirituality · story

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.

Shabbat shalom.


judaism · social justice · story

Welcome to the Queer Yeshiva

Hello and welcome to the Queer Yeshiva.

My name is Lev. I’m one of the teachers here, with Jo, Hava and Daniel.

A month ago, I was ordained as a rabbi. One of the things that most made me want to be a rabbi was bring gay. I wanted to be part of a religious life that made being queer feel as empowering and magical as it really is.

I love being queer. I love queer people. One of the things I love most about us is that no matter what life throws at us, we always rebuild.

I think about the lives of queer people. Everyone I know has had to struggle with who they are, face down violence, and out of adversity, rebuild themselves as someone stronger than anyone could have imagined.

When I was a kid, I was already too fabulous to be contained. All I wanted in life was to wear dresses and do Spice Girls dance routines. I knew I was different and I didn’t care.

But the rest of the world did. I grew up in a small town with few opportunities. For most of my teens, I was beaten up on a near daily basis. I was attacked at school, walking home, in the shops, and outside my front door. That was only the other kids. The adults were worse: at best they ignored it; at worst they encouraged it. At the school leavers’ assembly, the teachers gave me an award for “most likely to have a sex change.”

But I’m not bitter. I’m proud. I came out of all that knowing who I was and willing to fight for others. That’s why we have parades. That’s why we stand up celebrate our community, because we have withstood discrimination and violence and built out of it fantastic cultures. All that queer art, queer music, and queer innovation- that came out of queer struggle. We are who we are because of who we were.

And that’s not limited just to us here. That’s something queer people have to do in every generation. Think how many times we have been destroyed, and think how many times we have rebuilt.

Consider only the last century. At the beginning of the 1900s, our people were dealing with criminalisation, as many had been imprisoned. Against that backdrop, Magnus Hirschfield created the Institut for Sexualwissenschaft, pioneering the understanding of queer people.

His work was burned by the Nazis. Queers were turned into pariahs and murdered in te death camps. Even once the Second World War was over, many homosexuals were forced to stay in prison to complete their sentences.

In the aftermath, our ancestors picked themselves up again. They built the Gay Power movement. They formed the Lavender Menace. They created the ballroom scene in the nightclubs of New York.

Once again, they were decimated by the AIDS crisis. Government indifference and vengeful homophobia killed a generation of queers.

And still, we could not be destroyed. We came back stronger, demanding legislative changes and pushing for a transformed world. We recreated community to fight for our liberation.

In every generation, people have tried to destroy us. In every generation, they have failed. We will always rebuild. We will always imagine a greater future. We will always reappear.

We are indestructible.

In that sense, we are the heirs to the rabbinic tradition.

Judaism, as we know it, is the product of people who saw their world crash around them repeatedly and, every time, rebuilt it.

Our Judaism was born out of a time of fundamental crisis. At the start of the last millennium, the Jews were a nation. They had their country, the land of Israel. They had their capital, Jerusalem. They had their cultic centre, the Temple. They had their religious leadership, the priests. And they had their religious practices, sacrifices.

Then, they faced catastrophe. The Romans came and waged an aggressive war, killing off the leadership, and starving the people of Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple and abolished its customs.

Yesterday was the fast of Tish BAv. It was, for many religious Jews, a day of weeping and despair. We recalled the genocide, the disruption, the pain. We remembered the destruction of the Temple in the context of all the times that Jews have been destroyed.

But, in that act of ritualised remembering, we also remember that we have survived. Jews and Judaism have kept going, even two thousand years later.

Let us remember why.

Faced with annihilation, the Jews had three choices. One: they could dig their heels and pretend nothing happened. They could decide that they were going to carry on with the Temple and the priesthood, even though they were gone.

Two: they could abandon their old religion altogether. That was what normally happened to ancient peoples when they were conquered: they gave up their old traditions and gave in to colonisation.

Three, the third option: they could retell their story for the sake of their contemporary situation. They could look at everything they had been, and use their history to reimagine their future.

Our rabbis chose option three.

Put yourself in their position.

Imagine you were there, not just in the aftermath but right in the thick of it. Jerusalem is under seige. Your family are starving. Your people are fighting the Romans, but mostly they’re fighting each other. You can see your world on fire. You don’t even know if you will survive.

What would you do?

That’s how it was for Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai. He was alive then. That was what he saw.

He told his students to put him in a coffin, pretend he was dead, and smuggle him out of Jerusalem. Once out of the besieged city gates, he got out and demanded to speak to the Roman emperor, Vaspasian.

As it happened, Vaspasian was willing to compromise. He said: “OK, tell me you want.”

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai said: “Give me Yavne and students of Torah.”

What was Yavne? It was a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. It was filled with displaced people. Who were the students of Torah? Just a bunch of people who remembered what the old religion used to be like.

Why? Why would you ask for such a thing? If the commander of the imperial Roman army is willing to negotiate, why not find a way to get the troops to leave?

Because a people that knows who they are cannot be destroyed.

Sure, the colonisers might go, and the Jews might live, but Judaism could end. The only way for anyone to live on after facing near annihilation is to look at where they’ve been. They have to take a long look at their story and reimagine it for a new era.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai and his students learnt everything. They committed to memory their whole history so that they could recite it by heart.

Then, they revolutionised it. They said: we don’t need the land of Israel or Jerusalem any more. From now on, we’re going to be spread across the whole world. We’re going to make our religion portable so that it can be sustained in any nation.

They looked at their Temple and its sacrifices and said: we’re not going back to that. We’re going to reinvent our practices. We will replace them with prayer and study. As long as people keep our words alive, we won’t need for animals to die.

They looked at the priesthood and said: that’s done. From now on, we have no hierarchy.
From hereon out, we are equals. The measure of Jewishness won’t be who your father was but how imaginative you can be in reexamine your tradition.

They looked over their old systems of justice, and interrogated them. Who is included here, and who is left out? What is justice going to look like for us now? They were so radical that they tried to work out how they could turn the Torah against the Torah.

And that instantly transformed Judaism. Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples weren’t from the elites. They were blacksmiths and peasant farmers and outsiders. They saw, from that vantage point, how their people could creatively rebuild. And that is why we have our Judaism today.

And here’s the thing. Rabbi Yochanan had, maybe, ten students. There were fewer people in his beit midrash than there are in this room.

You only need a handful of visionaries to spark a revolution.

Be in no doubt, that is what could happen here this week.

We are, as always, facing catastrophe. Queer people are under attack once more. The planet is burning. Capitalism is in crisis. The old ways of doing Judaism are floundering.

Do you think that the future of Judaism is going to be secured by happy people in their comfortable homes? No way. They have nothing to lose from the current situation. They don’t have the imagination to see how things could be different.

The future of our people lies with those on its margins. Its the queers. It’s the weirdos. It’s the radicals. It’s you.

That’s why we’re here. We’re going to do what queers and Jews have always done. We’re going to rebuild while our world is on fire.

We’re going to learn everything we can, internalising the words of our ancestors so fully thar they will travel with us everywhere. We’re going to re-analyse them in light of our own circumstances, seeing how these traditions bear on our own lives and struggles. And, out of that, We’re going to completely retell our story.

This is where the future of Judaism starts again.

I love being queer. I love queer people. And I can’t wait to see what we achieve.

This talk was based on the Crash Talk by Rabbi Benay Lappe, used for Queer Yeshiva Summer Intensive 5782 in Essex

climate change · story · torah

Who built the ark

A boat is coming to carry people away from the flood.

You do not have a ticket.

You do not have the money to get a ticket. 

You cannot forge a ticket.

You fumble in your pocket anyway, despite knowing you will find nothing.

If you are wondering whether you know anyone who might be able to get you the money or the paperwork, you do not. You do not even know anyone who knows anyone.

The flood is coming. It has been coming for a while. It has reached others. You have heard reports. You have seen it yourself. You have met victims. 

You didn’t think it would come for you. At least, you didn’t think it would come for you to begin with. Now it is nearly here. 

So is the boat. But you are not allowed on the boat.

The boat is reserved for one man and his family. His name is Noah. He and his sons and their partners and their grandchildren will be rescued. You will not. You will not even be allowed on the ship even to serve them and clean up after them. You cannot stowaway.

Many said that floods were coming. They saw the weather signs. They felt the ground dry up. They knew the trees had stopped bearing leaves. They saw the black clouds and felt the stormy winds. 

You did not laugh at people who said the floods were coming. You did not join in with alarmist panic either. 

You did not commission people to make sure you would be insulated against environmental catastrophe because you didn’t have that kind of money. You knew you were powerless either way when the warnings came. 

You just kept working. What else could you do? You worked and raised your children and made sure you had shelter and a roof over your head. You had fun times with your friends and family. You tried to enjoy life. You tried not to think about it.

You got on with your job. 

And this is the kicker: your job is building boats. 

You are a skilled carpenter. You sand down wood and hammer nails and apply coats of varnish. You breathe in sawdust and work twelve hours a day and learn how to make the dimensions exactly right so that a ship of any size will float. 

You know the boat is coming because you are building it.

You were among the people commissioned to build the ark that is going to take that man and his family away.

You have never been able to afford to go on any of the boats you have made before. This will be no exception. 

Even with the floods already here and the rains rising all around you, you have no choice but to watch.

Noah will float away to safety on the boat that you are building, because he has the wealth to commission you. And the power to leave you behind. 

He has his wealth because his father, Lamech, had wealth. And his father before him had wealth; Methusaleh said he was so rich he could defy time. 

The family gained their wealth through placing indentured servants in long-term debt bondage. Their slaves would work the land without pay and Noah’s family would cream off the profits from their work. In that sense, Noah is no different from any other man who has wealth and power.

But he is different, because he will have a boat. People call him a visionary and a genius. People say he is a prophet because he knew that it was the right time to build a boat when he realised that floods were coming. Some of them stand on and watch in awe as you saw planks for him. 

In years to come, children will ask who built the ark. They will not say your name. They will chant back the name of the man who commissioned you to build it.

You are not building this boat alone. You are building it with hundreds of others. There are people who chop the wood, who transport it to you, who treat it, who clean it, who keep you fed, who watch the children, who make sure everyone is clothed, who design the ships, who furnish the insides, who create the infrastructure to make sure boats can be built. 

You are among many.

There would be enough room for all of you on this ark. Noah is taking his collection of exotic pets.

Nobody is impressed by your ability to make boats. They are impressed by Noah’s ability to commission you to make them. 

Many people do not share such reverence. They fight over the last scraps of food and clean water. They scramble to reach the highest perches, and push others out of them, even though it will ultimately be pointless because the floods will drown everyone. 

Everyone except the people on that ark.

They know that. People fight to reach the ship so that they can get a place on it. They will not get one.

Noah has hired the strongest people to prevent the others from fighting with each other. They form a solid ring to stop anyone reaching the boat. They control the food and water rations. The floods will drown them too.

The man they think is a genius because he has money will sail away on a boat you cannot afford to get on and leave the whole of humanity to drown.

Afterwards, he will tell the story from his perspective. He will say that everyone else was violent. He will say that you deserved to drown.

He will say that he was the only righteous person throughout the entirety of his generation. He will say that the flood was God’s will.

He will say that, if anything, he saved humanity. He will take the credit for the survival of the animals.

And you will be washed away.

So, why do you keep building?

Ark

I wrote this in response to unfolding environmental catastrophe. I will likely preach it in October for Parashat Noach.

israel · sermon · story

The holiness of Mount Meron

I want to talk about what it takes to make a space sacred. 

And I want to consider what it would take to desecrate a sacred space.

There is a cave on Mount Meron. It is not just any cave. It is a pilgrimage site whose reputation and mystery has grown over the centuries.

And this is the place where, on Thursday night, thousands were trampled in celebrations of Lag BaOmer. 

In this cave, two of Judaism’s greatest sages are said to be buried: Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai, abbreviated to Rashbi, a tanna in 2nd Century Yavne, and his son, Elazar ben Shimeon. 

Rashbi was a rebel against Rome. He criticised the imperial regime to his fellow rabbis. His colleague, Rabbi Yehudah, went straight to the Roman authorities and snitched on him. The Romans immediately promoted Yehudah and put out a bounty to kill Rashbi.

And that was how Rashbi and his son first wound up in a cave. The Talmud, written around five centuries later, says that this was a site of great miracles. There, in that grotto, a carob tree sprouted so that the two would always be able to eat. A well of water sprung out from the ground so they would always be able to drink. 

Every hour of the day, Rashbi and his son sat in the sand, buried up to their necks, hiding and studying Torah. They prayed and learned their traditions. After twelve years, the prophet Elijah, known for visiting pious sages, came to the cavern’s entrance and told the rabbis that the emperor had died and they were free. 

But during those twelve years of religious study, Rashbi had acquired knowledge and power far beyond what he previously knew. He went out into the world and looked upon it. 

Everywhere he went, he saw sin. Wherever he laid his eyes, Rashbi shot fiery lasers that destroyed everything in sight. God called out from the Heavens that he had better get back inside the cave. He stayed again for another twelve years. 

Finally, he came out from the cave and was able to participate in the world. 

Many years later, Rashbi died on Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day between Pesach and Shavuot. He was buried in a cave on Mount Meron. 

That was the beginning of the sanctification of the cave. 

No sources say that the cave where Rashbi and his son experienced miracles was the same as the one where they were laid to rest. It takes imagination to make the connection.

Such imaginative storytelling spurred on the legend of the cave. In 13th Century Guadalajara, in northern Spain, a mystic named Rabbi Moshe de Leon published and sold a mysterious new book. He claimed it contained the secrets of the universe itself. This book was called the Zohar. 

The text, said de Leon, had been written by Rashbi, a thousand years previously. He promoted a story: during Rashbi’s legendary time in that cave, he was not just a witness to miracles. He received a divine revelation. 

God disclosed to him hidden meanings of the Torah. These teachings, encapsulated in the Zohar, were the foundation of an esoteric practice that we now call Kabbalah.

Over the course of centuries, such Jewish mysticism would gain ever greater traction. Disciples of Kabbalah spread, and so did the myth of the cave. As the story grew, the cave became even more holy and potent. 

Three hundred years later, Kabbalah had become a movement. In the Galilee region of northern Eretz Yisrael, students of Yitzhak Luria and other great mystics assembled to learn these special teachings. They developed their own liturgy and renewed Jewish theology. They also initiated pilgrimages to sacred sites, including the tomb in the cave on Mount Meron.

In the subsequent centuries, the movement of Chassidism in Eastern Europe came to preach the importance of kabbalah. They popularised folk stories, promoted ecstatic singing and taught that there were certain special rebbes – charismatic leaders that pious Jews should follow. 

They called these legendary leaders ‘tzaddikim’ – righteous ones, and considered Rashbi a prime example. They believed that praying by the tomb of a tzaddik would make God more likely to hear them.  So, even in the 18th Century, when travel was difficult, Chassidim voyaged across Europe to visit Rashbi’s shrine.

Now, for more than 200 years, this cave has been a prime site for Orthodox Jews to attend and worship. In particular, on Lag BaOmer, Rashbi’s yahrzeit, the place fills up with people. In the preceding days, people camp across the mountain. 

On Lag BaOmer itself, fires are lit, songs are sung and people come to celebrate from all around the world. The stories that have made the cave sacred are retold.

That was what it took to turn this cave into a sacred place. Miracles. Legends. Imagination. Revelation. Pilgrimages spanning centuries. Millennia of development of Jewish tradition. 

Mostly, the cave has been sanctified by storytelling. 

For the purposes of storytelling, it does not matter whether Rashbi was really granted miracles. It is of no importance whether the caves were the same. 

It is even less significant whether Moshe de Leon inherited the Zohar from that ancient sage or made the whole thing up himself. What matters is the story. The Jews have turned this into a holy space by how engaging with it.

But that engagement has not been entirely for good and not every story is positive. Now comes the story of the disaster.

In 1911, just over a century ago, a catastrophe struck the cave. The roof above Rashbi’s shrine collapsed, killing 11 people and injuring many more. At the time, campaigners called for health and safety regulations to be implemented so that no such catastrophe could occur again. Their warnings were not heeded.

Rabbi Mark Solomon, one of our senior teachers at Leo Baeck College, recalls attending the pilgrimage in 1983. Even then, he said, “the crowd was so intense that I was sure I was going to be crushed to death. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.” 

In the years since, the number of attendees has only grown. But, despite appeals to the government, no health and safety measures have been added. This year, with so little planning due to Covid, there were even fewer arrangements to keep people safe.

And so, on Thursday night, catastrophe struck. People were trapped in a tight space with no crowd control. They panicked. A crush ensued. People threw themselves over each other. Hundreds are in hospital or seriously injured. 44 people were killed, among them little children.

Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, immediately spoke out. Like thousands of Jews, he had to check that members of his own family were not numbered among the dead. 

“We could have prevented this,” he said. He insisted this was not a natural event like plague or fire, but something in which human beings had colluded. He has called for an immediate inquiry.

And that, I believe, is where the question of whether a site can be made from holy to profane begins. It begins with what story we tell next.

Mount Meron is a sacred site because it is imbued with spiritual stories. We cannot allow those stories to be replaced with memories of whitewash and cover-up. People must take responsibility and there must be changes so that nothing like this happens again. 

We know from experience in Britain that the only way to heal from a tragedy is through honesty, transparency and change. We learnt this far too late from the Hillsborough Disaster and still have not seen those lessons learnt with Grenfell. When officials refuse to accept liability and instigate changes, all that remains on the sites where disaster happens is the trauma of failure.

If a site can take centuries to make sacred, it can be desecrated in an instant. 

Let us pray, then, that the government, officials and religious leaders engage in serious introspection. Let us pray that real changes are made to prevent repetitions of such disasters. Above all, let us pray for recovery for the injured and the memories of the dead. May their memories be for a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

story · torah

A rock-eating worm built the Temple

This is the story of how the Temple was built.

This story comes to us from the Talmud. It was copied from the Mishnah. It belongs to the folk legends of King Solomon that may have predated it by some centuries. This is an old story. I sincerely doubt whether any of it ever happened, but I assure you it’s all true.

This is the story of how the Temple was built by a rock-destroying worm. When King Solomon decided to build the Temple, he brought up entire stones from the quarry. He wanted to carve those stones without swords. He knew there was only one way.

Somewhere in his kingdom there was a rock-destroying worm called Shamir. This monster was created at the very beginning of time, during the six days of creation in which light and darkness were separated and the first trees were planted. 

Some say the Shamir ate stones for breakfast; chewed through the hardest granite, making passageways like the holes in Swiss cheese. Some say it could cut through the rocks with only its gaze: a laser-like stare that sliced solid metal. Whatever were its methods, Solomon knew he had to have it.

In fact, the only way to catch this creature was to find something really soft. You had to wrap it up in cotton wool and barley bran. These materials would be too gentle and the Shamir would have no way of chewing through them.

Yes, this is all in the Talmud. This is our tradition. And if you feel like this rock-gobbling worm is far-fetched, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that Solomon captured this creature by tricking the King of the Demons.

Solomon knew that Ashmedai, the world’s greatest demon, lived in the bottom of a pit on the top of the world’s tallest mountain. And the pit was filled up with gallons of rainwater that the demon swallowed whole every day, then waited for it to refill. 

Solomon sent his servant up that mountain and into that pit. The servant drained the pit of its rainwater and filled it again with fortified wine.

You might think that the King of the Demons would not fall for such a simple trick, and you’d be right. Ashmedai scoffed at the wine-filled pit and refused to drink from it. But days passed and the monster missed his gallons of water. Oh, he became so parched. Eventually, he gave in and took several enormous mouthfuls of the wine. 

Within moments, he fell fast asleep. Solomon’s servants tied him up and carried him back to Jerusalem. When Ashmedai woke up on the Palace floor, he roared at Solomon: “is it not enough that you have conquered the whole world, but now you must imprison me too?”

“I promise you,” said Solomon. “All I want is one creature. The shamir. The worm that eats through stone. I need it to build my Temple for God.”

Ashmedai sighed, and he replied: “I do not own the shamir. It belongs to the ministering angel of the sea, who has entrusted it to the wild rooster. Together they hide in the uninhabitable hills, where the rooster guards his eggs.” 

I’m quoting to you from the Talmud directly here, so you know that what I’m telling you is true. 

When Solomon knew where to find the wild rooster, he covered its nest with transparent glass. Seeing that it couldn’t get in, the rooster brought over the shamir to bore through the rocks. As soon as he’d seen the monster, Solomon knocked the chicken off of the nest and ran to collect his prize.

According to our tradition, that is how the First Temple was built. Overseen by Solomon, the King of the world, accompanied by Ashmedai, the King of the Demons, a stone-chewing worm carved out every brick. It snaked through all the pillars and ate at every rock. After years of winding through the granite, Solomon’s Temple was complete.

So, why did the Talmud come up with such a tall tale? Can it be that our rabbis really believed the Temple was built in such a fantastical manner? Somehow I doubt it. But nevertheless, I am adamant that this story is true. At least, I think it tells us something important we need to know.

Our rabbis were answering a textual problem. The Bible told us that King David was not allowed to build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. He had fought too many wars, subjugated too many peoples and built too much of his empire on the labour of others.

Only Solomon, whose name in Hebrew is cognate with peace, was able to overcome the violent tendencies of his father and build a Temple that would truly be fitting for God. How could he build such an edifice without getting blood on his hands?

When our rabbis imagine the construction of the Temple, they picture it as it ought to have been. No wars are fought to secure land. No natural resources are exploited to gain the raw materials. No workers are hurt in the making of the building. All that happens is a natural process, where a worm that would eat rocks anyway works its way through the stones to build God’s home.

The only people vaguely harmed are a demon who got drunk and a rooster that was knocked off its perch. This is the dream of how the Temple should have been made. It was created in complete peace and harmony with nature. 

By encouraging us to inhabit this fantasy, the Talmud draws our attention to the harshness of reality. Even the greatest and most noble civilisations are built on violence. Cities, skyscrapers and the highest cultures are all products of real graft. Human beings do interfere with nature. We do exploit workers. We do plunder natural resources and we do secure territories through war.

When we imagine a world where rock-destroying worms can carve out our accomplishments for us, we know that we are imagining something impossible. But the nature of Talmud is to challenge us to do impossible things.

The Talmud asks us to picture a different relationship between human beings, nature, and civilisation. In a world where the climate is being damaged in unspeakable ways, such imagination is required of us again. Humanity is at a juncture when we must completely rethink how to use resources and what kinds of civilisations we build.

That is what makes it true and that is why it still speaks to us today. The Temple was built by a rock-eating worm. Perhaps one day, we will build the world that way again.

I gave this sermon for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Terumah, on 20th February 2021. For the sources, look at Sotah 48b and the sugya beginning in Gittin 67b

story · theology

The morality machine

Once, in a plausible past, a scientist built a machine. It was so powerful it could handle complex reasoning. It could calculate absolutely anything.

The scientist programmed the machine so that it could work out the optimal outcome for any decision. If she asked it whether to eat porridge or cornflakes, this contraption would measure up the nutritional value of each cereal against her personal health, exercise and needs.

It would even factor in how happy each breakfast choice could make her, short term and long-term. This machine would crunch those numbers until it spurted out the best possible result. Porridge this morning. Almond milk. No salt or sugar.

This scientist discovered she could put her instrument to use with every daily task. Before long, she had completely optimised her life. She went to sleep and woke up at exactly the right time. She did the perfect amount of exercise. She worked a job that maximised her fulfilment, income and skill set. 

She used it to work out where to do her charitable giving: finding the cause that would save the most human lives for the least amount of money. The machine told her which purchasing choices would have the least impact on the environment for the fairest price to consumer, labourer and business owner.

Such a fine apparatus! Of course, it was only a matter of time before she realised this could have implications far beyond her own life. She brought her machine to the capital city and presented it before the benevolent president.

“Ma’am,” she intoned as she bowed, “this machine will help you make the perfect decision at all times.”

“Let me try,” said the president. She lifted herself from her seat and walked over to the metal block. “For the longest time, I have wondered if I need more advisers to increase the wisdom in my country. Perhaps this machine can tell me how many more I should hire, and what sort of person I need?” 

The scientist typed in the numbers, and you have already worked out what happened next. The answer was so obvious! The machine told the president that she did not need any advisors, because all her decisions could be rationally calculated by the computer. Immediately the president dismissed all her advisors.

Now the real work could begin. The computer informed the president of all the best crops that could be grown in the best soil for the best results. It told her what land to capture and which pastures to disregard. It explained which industries would be most cost-effective. Within a matter of months, the country was transformed.

Then the computer updated the president with which workers were most efficient, and which ones consumed more than they produced. The machine enumerated which people were most likely to disrupt social order. It showed how the population would be healthier and happier if it were smaller and more homogenous. The president gleefully implemented its dictats.

The machine calculated who to imprison. Who to promote. Who to ignore. Who to starve. Who  to execute. 

Because a machine can count absolutely anything. Except the value of a life.

No. The worth of a human being cannot be accounted for by any mathematical system. Life comes from something that is infinite and belongs to that Infinity. As such, it is indivisible, indefinable, immeasurable. No machine can capture God. No machine can understand those inviolable precepts that  we call ‘human rights’.

The idea that there is such a thing as human rights is, fundamentally, a religious ideal. It can only be understood by reference to something holy. The rights of human beings are inviolable because they are given by God. Philosophy’s great atheists – Bentham, Marx, Singer – also explicitly rejected the discourse of human rights. 

Conversely, Tom Paine grounded his rights of man in the biblical account of God having created us equal in Eden. When Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence, he explained that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” When the colonised and enslaved people of the Americas answered back that they, too, had such rights, they appealed to the same Divine Source. When Wollstonecraft vindicated the rights of women, she insisted that “God brought into existence creatures above the brutes so that they would have incalculable gifts.” 

In this week’s haftarah, God tells the prophet Zechariah: “not by might, nor by power, but only by My spirit” can the Jewish people truly live. All the force and wealth in the world cannot compare to the sacred truth of God’s infinity. We are nothing if we abandon God’s message.

More than a religious value, human rights are a Jewish value. Hanukkah is underway. It is a festival that celebrates an oppressed minority’s achievement of religious freedom in the face of colonial oppression. It remembers how the Seleucids once tried to violate Jews’ every right, but were ultimately defeated. Above all, we are told, it was God who safeguarded their rights.

A testimony to the Jewishness of human rights comes from the author of their Declaration. This week is Human Rights Shabbat, commemorating 72 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among its composers was a French-Jewish jurist named Rene Cassin. Cassin was keen to ensure that there was some legal framework for guaranteeing people were protected, no matter where they were from; what minorities they belonged to; or what they believed. 

In particular, in the shadow of a genocide perpetrated against Jews, the Declaration of Human Rights sought to ensure that never again would a group be systematically eradicated. Human rights were supposed to be a counterpoint against genocide.

Genocide, like the choices described in the story of the morality machine, is the result of mechanical thinking. It is something that can only be justified when human beings are reduced to statistics and social consequences only measured in terms of order or prosperity. 

You see, the machine that could calculate anything except the value of a life did not exist only in fiction. It is already a part of our daily reality. 

Before genocide can be carried out in camps, it is developed on spreadsheets and planned on computers. 

Before people can commit atrocities, they have to switch off the part of themselves that connects with their infinite source and plug in only to the finite equations of capitalist mentality. If we are not careful, we can become the machine. We become the automatons that punch out numbers and make calculations and rationally process every evil. 

Our media asks us how many people should be permitted into Britain, and we churn back answers into the polls. We are challenged to decide how many people should die of Coronavirus, and how many should be imprisoned to stop their deaths. We are told to weigh up which tools of warfare our country should have to capture the greatest resources for the least sacrifice. 

We are asked the most unconscionable questions and, barely processing the implications, return answers like amoral computers. If we permit ourselves to think like robots when we weigh up the values of other people’s lives, we truly do destroy the humanity in ourselves. 

We will only break free from such finite thinking when we put it into the perspective of Infinity. It is the infiniteness within someone that makes them holy. It is their Infinite source that makes their purpose sacred.

For the sake of humanity, we embrace human rights.

I wrote this sermon for the Leo Baeck College newsletter and will deliver it to Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Shabbat Vayeshev, 12th December 2020.

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