judaism · sermon · theology

Abraham and the Paradox of Jewish Evangelism

A priest, a monk and a rabbi are debating which of their religions is the correct one. They decide to settle it with a contest to convert a bear to their religion.

The rabbi tries first. Two days later, the priest and the monk end up visiting him in the hospital.

The rabbi says: “OK, maybe I shouldn’t have begun with circumcision.”

Let’s set aside the foreskin jokes, because I don’t think the rabbi would have had much better luck with a lady bear. Isn’t it a strange fact of our religion that we almost never set out to proselytise?

We, of course, welcome all sincere converts, and this synagogue is happy to encourage anyone on their spiritual journey. But you won’t find us outside Asda, handing out flyers with words from the Mishnah. And you certainly won’t turn on your TV to see a rabbinic televangelist warning you about the perils of pork.

But if you think you have stumbled upon spiritual knowledge, don’t you want to share it with the world? Who are we to zealously guard the secrets of the universe?

Even if you take a more humble approach to Judaism’s teachings, and think they’re just as good as any other people’s, there must be something particularly worthwhile about Judaism for you to log in to this morning’s service rather than watching Bargain Hunt. (Wait, don’t go, I promise this is going somewhere!)

That strange paradox of Judaism – that we have a universal truth but don’t seek to spread it – is encapsulated in the story of Abraham.

This week, God tells Abraham: “Go out by yourself. I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.”[1]

Then, in the next two verses, as if a parallel to the first, God says: “All the families of the earth shall be blessed by you.” Then Abraham goes out with Lot and Sarah.[2]

So… does Abraham go out to bless himself or does he go out to bless others? Which is it?

This is the great tension in Judaism. Do we exist only for Jews? If so, why are we trying to change the world? Or do we exist for humanity? In which case, why aren’t we trying to make everyone Jews?

Our midrash plays with this tension. Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic explorations of Genesis, contains an unusual parable. In it, Rabbi Berekhyah compares Abraham to a tightly sealed bottle of perfume. The bottle was left in the corner and nobody smelt it. As soon as it was moved, its fragrance was emitted. This, says our midrash, is what it was like when God told Abraham to go out from place to place and make his name great in the world.[3]

Makes perfect sense, right? No? Fine, let’s unpack it.

Abraham is a tightly closed bottle of perfume when he starts out in Haran. At this stage, Abraham has encountered God. Abraham has realised that the idols amount to nothing and the Creator of the Universe is a singular and invisible presence. He is somehow pure and untouched. The Pagans have not affected his beliefs, and he has not affected theirs. He is hermetically sealed.

Then God tells him to lech lecha – to go out. Abraham moves around out from Haran and down to Shchem and Be’ersheva in the land of Canaan. As he moves between these places, others get to smell him. They encounter the truth that Abraham has learned about ethical monotheism. God is one and just! Now everywhere he goes people can get a whiff of this knowledge.

Only there’s another problem. Bottles of perfume don’t emit their scent because you move them. They only work when you open them. In this analogy, the balsamic bottle that is Abraham still remains sealed. How is he spreading his fragrances everywhere if he hasn’t even opened up?

I don’t think the editors of our midrash have made some mistake. I think they are telling us something profound about the Jewish paradox. We have a truth that we want others to know and yet we don’t want to convert anyone. Our role as a light unto the nations is that we go from place to place, showing others who we are, but not changing anything about who they are. We are still Abraham, that sealed bottle, going out from Haran, somehow expecting others to smell our perfumes but not opening up wide to spread our scent.

The very word “evangelism” is a Greek one, meaning good news, referring to the Christian Gospels. The early Church actively went out on recruitment drives, telling people about Jesus and his message. We have no such good news to share. What would we say to people? “Rejoice! God has commanded you to pursue justice and only eat unleavened bread in the springtime!” Jewish evangelism seems somehow a contradiction in terms.

And yet we do go out and share our beliefs. We are happy to expound our Torah to anyone. We expect to transform the societies we are in. When we speak out for justice wherever we live, we are very much hoping that others will take note of our concern for the stranger and adjust their actions accordingly. How can we reconcile this desire to change others with our lack of desire to convert them?

Perhaps the problem isn’t perfume metaphors and paradoxes. Maybe the issue is how we understand Judaism’s mission. Abraham wasn’t sent out to turn others into Jews. Abraham was sent out to be a Jew.

Abraham had to go out and be different, to hold a truth that no one else held. Even when he passes it on to his children, they each hold a different truth. Isaac becomes the founder of our Judaism. Ishmael becomes the founder of Islam. They go out holding different truths, both contradictory and complementary. Abraham’s revelation of God’s unity is a realisation that this universal God can never be captured by one person in a single truth.

Abraham’s mission wasn’t to make everyone Jews. It was to enable everyone to be themselves. It was that all these other nations could celebrate their differences, just as Abraham loved his own.

That is our task today. We don’t say to the nations: “we want you all to be Jews.” We say: “we want you all to be you.”

We are models of difference in a society where we are not a majority and in a world where we are not dominant. Our role is to show how to conduct that uniqueness in a way that demonstrates dignity.

This is our evangelism. That is the truth we hold and that we want to share. That difference is a wonderful and treasured thing. From our differences, we are blessed. And in our differences, we bless each other.

So go out from Haran and share that sacred truth. And don’t worry – you don’t need to go circumcising bears.

This sermon is for Parashat Lech Lecha. I will give this sermon on Saturday morning 31st October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue, and a shortened version the night before for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.


[1] Gen 12:1-2

[2] Gen 12:3-5

[3] Ber Rab 39:2

judaism · theology

We are not our past mistakes.

We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir was the greatest rabbi of his generation. He learnt from both the great masters of Mishnah, Akiva and Eliezer. He was ordained a rabbi by his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, younger than any of his contemporaries and gave more rulings than any of them.[1]

Meir was a great rabbi, but his wife, Beruriah, was even greater. She once learnt 300 rulings from 300 different sages in one day.[2] She was the only woman to be credited with making religious decisions. Sometimes she even overruled her husband. 

One day, Beruriah came in on her husband and heard him praying. He had been harassed by local hooligans. Rabbi Meir cried out in supplication to God: “Sovereign of All Worlds, I wish You would kill those bandits!”

Beruriah was shocked. “What are you thinking?!” she demanded. Meir looked surprised: “I am only asking for what it already says in the Psalms – let sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more.”[3]

“That’s not what the verse says,” retorted Beruriah. “It says: let sins disappear from the earth, not sinners. The wicked won’t just disappear because someone wishes them away. They will only disappear because they will repent and give up their sins. The wicked do not disappear because God takes vengeance on them, but because God has mercy on them.”

From then on, Rabbi Meir changed his prayer. Instead, he said: “May God have mercy on them and may they change their ways.”[4]

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes only that they will turn from their evil ways and live.[5]

That is the message at the heart of this season. This is the last Shabbat in Elul, opening the last week of this month of repentance. Tonight, in Ashkenazi custom, we begin the practice of Selichot – reciting penitential prayers in the evenings. They are intended to help us acknowledge where we are going wrong so that we can correct our ways. 

As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the end of the Torah. We have been on a journey through the wilderness, and God has journeyed with us. 

When our story began, God wanted to destroy humanity. At the start, God flooded the world in anger at our violence. At Babel, God struck down the nations for our defiance. At Sodom, too, God destroyed a city for failing in its moral obligations. 

Now, at the end of the narrative, God no longer wishes to destroy us, but instead promises to rescue us. We are told that if we try to return, God will bring us back in love. No matter how far we think we have gone, God can find us and return us. No matter how much of an outcast you imagine yourself to be, God will be in your corner.[6]

That is the essence of teshuvah. Although often translated as repentance, it really means returning. It is the practice of becoming who you already are. At core, you are good, honest and faithful. If you do wrong, you are departing from your natural state. 

Contrary to the Christian doctrine that preaches we are born in a state of original sin, Judaism teaches that we are constantly reborn in a state of moral purity. Each morning, God sends us back our soul, renewed and ready to do good.

God has already given you the greatest gift you could need to face up to your flaws: you have another day. You have the chance to get up this morning and correct what you did wrong. You have the opportunity to be better than you were. You can revert to your initial state of holiness.

Teshuvah is the process we undergo to turn away from doing wrong. We look inside ourselves. We acknowledge where we have gone wrong. We announce that we will not make the same mistakes again. We make amends for what we did. And then, faced with the same situation again, we do not repeat our old errors.[7]

At this time of year, we are forced to face up to our mistakes. The more we look at them, the more we realise how many there are. Faced with our own inadequacies, we might despair. We might think that our lives our not worth living or that we are better off destroyed. This week’s parashah teaches us: it is not too late. We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir only truly learnt this much later in life. His teacher, Elisha ben Abuya, had given up on Judaism entirely. He had stopped believing and stopped pretending to believe. He was acting immorally. Meir came to find him. He said to him: “Come back, rabbi, make teshuvah.”

But Elisha replied: “I cannot. Because I have heard the divine voice reverberating: “Return, O backsliding children,”[8] except for Elisha ben Abyuah, who knew My strength and yet rebelled against Me.” Meir’s teacher, Elisha, believed he was beyond redemption. He believed he had gone too far for God to still love him.

At the end of Elisha’s life, he fell ill, and Rabbi Meir went to visit him. He said: “Return!” Elisha asked: “Having gone so far, will I be accepted?” Rabbi Meir replied: “The Torah teaches: “God will allow a person to return, up to their being crushed,”[9] even up to the time that life is being crushed out of them.” In that instant, Elisha ben Abuyah began to weep, and then he died. Rabbi Meir rejoiced, saying: “My master departed in a state of repentance!”

But the story doesn’t end there. After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven to burn his grave. The other rabbis came and told Meir: “The grave of your master is on fire!” Rabbi Meir went out, spread his cloak over the grave, and prayed that God would redeem Elisha. “But if God is not willing to redeem you, then I, Meir, will redeem you.” Then the fire went out.[10]

When he was young, Meir learned that he should pray for sins to be destroyed, not sinners. And when he was old, Rabbi Meir learned that he should pray for people to make teshuvah, even when he believed it was too late.

And his prayer for others, that God have mercy on them and they change their ways, reverberated and affected his teacher in his tomb. God’s mercy extended beyond the grave.

Yes, God can bring us back even in our dying moments. God can help us make teshuvah even after death.

Our mistakes do not define us.

We are not our past mistakes.

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 12th September 2020, Parashat Nitzavim, for Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 14a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 62b

[3] Psalms 104:35

[4] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a

[5] Ezekiel 3:11

[6] Deuteronomy 30

[7] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:2

[8] Jeremiah 3:14

[9] Psalms 90:3

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiga 77b

psalms · theology

Sore lungs sing out of sync

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and there we wept as we remembered Zion. 

Why did we weep by those waterways? Some times are harder than others to find songs inside your lungs. Faced with a strange land and held captive by a power you do not understand, it is hard to find the music within.

Some say that we could not sing because we could not stop crying. Every time we imagined we had run out of tears, new wailing broke out of our chests. Panting, we could not hold a note.

Midrash teaches that the rivers of Babylon were the industrial canals of the imperial capital. Where once we had drunk from freshwater springs, we now sat by sewage works and polluted channels. Our choleric lungs heaved and choked the psalms we wished to sing.

There on willow branches we hung up our violins.

Stringed instruments hung on stringed trees. If we cannot make music, maybe these old branches will play our lyres on our behalf. 

Maybe we will sing again, so we won’t lay our tools on the ground, but gently tie them up in knotted bark. We will return to you, violins. 

Maybe we hoped that the long leaves of willows drooping in layers would provide cover so that nobody would know we once used to play such melodies in our religious buildings. Maybe if they don’t know how joyous we once were, they won’t expect us to be joyous again. Pray they don’t ask us to sing.

For the wicked carried us away to captivity, and required of us a song. 

We are in a strange land of captivity. We live in times that people keep calling unprecedented. Six months ago, few of us would have imagined we would be in the midst of a response to a global pandemic. None of us have lived through mass government responses to a pandemic in Britain. It is unusual to realise we do not have the freedoms we once knew.

Even though governments around the world have announced easing of restrictions, we cannot yet return to activities we once knew. We have to be careful, because the captor, Covid, still exists. We have to make choices about how we respond.

The Israelites lasted 70 years in Babylon. We could endure 3 months in our homes.

But in some ways, those 70 years were easier than the ones that followed. In captivity, Jeremiah told us to make the most of where we were because we would not be coming out any time soon. But when Jerusalem reopened, we did not know whether to stay or leave, and every option seemed like it would be the wrong choice.

In some ways, lockdown was easier. We knew what the parameters were and how to operate within them. Now, we are confused about what is the right thing to do is, as the conflicting needs of our mental health, our physical security and our economic livelihoods clash. 

And somehow we are supposed to sing.

How can we sing the song of God in a strange land?

No, we cannot sing. It is one of the highest risk activities. The virus is airborne and transmitted when people dig deep in their lungs and project droplets from their diaphragms into someone else’s mouth. The collective singing involved in synagogue services, music concerts and sports matches is the greatest threat to overcoming the pandemic.

We enter a strange land where, for the first time in many decades, most progressive synagogues will be closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Once, Zoom felt like alien soil, although we have come to comfortably inhabit it for our Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Maybe it won’t feel like such a strange land by the time we arrive.

But how can we sing? Didn’t we try collective singing over Zoom? Everyone goes at a different tempo, completely out of synch, creating disharmony and awkward clangs. The first time we tried to sing together in disunity I felt like I had to go back and patch over all the cracks in our voices.

But in captivity, the Israelites learnt that even in the unprecedented land of Babylon, they had to find a way to sing. The Psalms are testament that even when we felt we could not make music, we still composed new material. 

For centuries, the Hassids have rejoiced in singing out of sync. The nign, a wordless song intended to elevate the spirit, finds its strength in discordance and repetition. These mystics sing the same note sequence repeatedly, without aiming for harmony. They trust that, however it is arranged, the tune will reach God. 

Perhaps we, too, can learn to enjoy singing out of sync.

That challenge feels even more pertinent now in a country whose rhythms have fallen out of sync. Some worry about losing their jobs. Some worry about losing their health. Some worry about losing their minds. And, with these concerns, everyone is making different decisions based on their comfort levels.

It is hard to feel like we are not singing in time with our neighbours. Some wish that everyone would just stay inside until we find a cure. Some wish that everyone would relax and go out. We look at each other with confusion, and struggle to find acceptable social norms.

Like the Israelites in Babylon, we have to find ways for sore lungs to sing out of sync. Anyone in the community who does not feel ready to go out yet should be supported to stay home. Anyone who feels they need to see their loved ones should be encouraged. And people who just need to get their hair cut or buy a coffee from a cafe should feel empowered to do so responsibly.

There is nothing wrong with feeling unease. The terrain we stand on is unfamiliar and there is much we do not know. But of all the things we can sacrifice, trust in the other members of our community should not be one of them. 

The reason the Israelites survived their exile was because they knew they could depend on each other. They had different experiences and different aspirations, but knew they were created by the same God.

As we sit by these rivers in a strange land, let us trust each other to sing out of synch, and know that one day, we will return home, and sing together in harmony once again.

nora-kronstein-rosen-moire-removed.height-588

I gave this sermon on Friday 10th July 2020 for Three Counties Liberal Judaism. I thank my housemate, Joanna Phillips, for her support with the audio recording.

 

festivals · sermon · theology

Falling in Love is a Choice

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about falling in love. Maybe it’s the spring heat of May. Maybe it’s the newborn baby delighting me with his first smiles. Maybe it’s my boyfriend moving down from Manchester. Or, perhaps, it’s because it’s Shavuot.

The model of a loving relationship in Tanach is of Ruth and Naomi. It may sound strange to think that two women could be such an example even in Orthodox Judaism, but Ruth’s words are used in wedding liturgies to this day, as well as recited by proselytes upon their conversion to Judaism. Why is it that this text connects falling in love, joining a faith and receiving the Torah at Shavuot?

After Ruth’s husband dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, begs her to leave. But Ruth responds:

Entreat me not to leave you, nor to turn back from following you. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May God do so to me, and more, if anything but death parts you from me.

When Ruth tells Naomi she will never leave her, Naomi puts up every possible objection. It would leave her without a husband or income. Her sister has gone. Anybody would leave her. Be sensible. Go. 

But Ruth refuses to see sense. Her choice to stay with Naomi is irrational. She could never explain it in a way that makes sense to anyone else. Something more powerful than reason must have gripped Ruth’s heart. Surely it was love. Messy, confusing, irrational love.

Is that not how falling in love really feels? For anyone who has felt it, is love not completely illogical and nonsensical? Nobody could reason it. It runs not just contrary to reason but is almost its opposite.

And yet, somehow, love is also a choice. Ruth stayed with Naomi because she wanted to. She could have stopped up her heart, grieved and left her mother-in-law. But she stayed. Because love is nothing if it isn’t freely given.

At first it feels like the lapping of an emotion at your insides. And then the waves of longing seem to get bigger as they ask to be allowed to grow. And then you make a choice. If you are not ready to fall in love, you can walk away from its shores. But if it feels right, you will dive in and let its waters subsume you. 

Whether with a first partner or a best friend or a newborn baby or a brother or a mother or a spouse to whom you have been married for years. Love, when it comes, is a choice. But it is a choice we cannot help but make.

I think the same is true of faith. It is not something that can be reasoned or explained, but only felt. Religious belief starts as a nagging feeling of suspicion that there might be something greater than what our senses perceive. After that, we have to make a choice. As Einstein put it, either everything is a miracle or nothing is. 

And so, faced with a latent sense of wonder, the faithful make a choice about how to see the world. For those who believe, God is manifest in everything that exists. Every facet of nature is a revelation of God’s truth and a calling to accept it.

This, to me, was the true miracle of Sinai. It is that, like those who fall in love, the Israelites made an irrational choice that changed their lives and stuck with it. Shavuot is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is the renewal of our wedding vows with God. Whereas anniversaries between human beings celebrate the date of falling in love, Shavuot is the anniversary of our falling in faith.

We are told so much about the fanfare that greeted the Israelites when Moses received the Torah. Thousands of people gathered round and all witnessed exactly the same thing. Thunder and lightning. A giant cloud descended over the mountain. A horn blast sounded loudly from the air. The whole mountain became cloaked in smoke and shook on its foundations.

But a cynic could have looked at all this and said: these are just natural phenomena. Thunder and lightning on the desert are rare, but they happen. It wasn’t really a shofar blasting from the sky, but the sound of sonic shock waves from the lightning. The mountain didn’t really move, it just felt like it from all the noise.

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites were not interested in reason. They were falling in faith.

When Moses came down the mountain, his face was radiant and shining out beams from his cheeks. He carried with him two tablets, inscribed with the laws that would govern the nation for generations. The Ten Commandments. 

Some say that, as he descended, the desert mountain erupted in blossoming flowers. Some say the Commandments were written in black fire on white fire. Some say the mountain was upended and suspended over the Israelites’ heads.

And, of course, any sceptic could have said: this is trickery. God did not write those laws, but Moses made them himself while he was hiding up that mountain. These flowers and fires are just sleight of hand by an adept magician. 

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites had made a choice to accept faith over reason. Thousands of them, huddled together in a strange place, made the decision to accept a beautiful belief over a plausible one. And nobody objected. Out of the many hordes assembled, nobody suggested that it was all a lie or a collective delusion. They let faith dictate to them.

And what did that faith say? That God is personally interested in the lives of people, even in those of refugees and runaway slaves! That the moral fate of the universe rested in the hands of a persecuted people, who were singled out to be light unto the nations. That love, truth and justice mattered more than could be calculated.

As Liberal Jews, we place a great deal of emphasis on reason, and rightly so. Reason keeps us from blind submission to antiquated and offensive ideas. It helps us keep Judaism alive in our own time. But we must also celebrate faith. Sometimes we hold beliefs that cannot be pinned down by logic, but can only be felt. Sometimes our irrational choices are so compelling that we live our lives by them.

Like having faith. Like seeing beauty. Like believing in miracles. Like falling in love.

Chag Shavuot sameach. Shabbat shalom.

love in the mountains

I gave this sermon for Shavuot on 29th May 2020 over Zoom for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.

 

 

judaism · theology

You call that an Apocalypse?

I have recently taken to doing my one hour of government-mandated exercise in a balaclava and heels, because I feel like if the world is ending, I should at least have a decent uniform. I’m hoping the trend will catch on because so far this apocalypse’s aesthetic is rather dry.

The unfolding events are not nearly as exciting as any of the hellscapes I’ve seen portrayed in the media. Where is Tina Turner running a motorbike death club in the desert, like in Mad Max 2: Beyond Thunderdome? Where are the human beings who magically evolved gills to live under the sea, like in Waterworld?

Apparently I am not the only one having such thoughts. Book retailers are struggling to keep up with skyrocketing demand for end-of-the-world disaster literature. The boredom of helplessly enduring a plague from our bedrooms has obviously made us all hungry for a more dramatic news cycle.

But when it comes to cataclysms, I’m a hipster. Stephen King and Justin Cronin won’t do it for me. I need the oldschool disasters. And I’m not talking about the Christians’ Revelation of St John. That’s far too normie and mainstream.

No. Jews were coming up with catastrophic visions for the end of days before they were cool. If you want to get a taste of the original disaster fiction, it doesn’t get much more vintage apocalypse than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some time around the 2nd Century BCE, a group of pious sectarians1 gathered together in caves where they had very little contact with the outside world. They obsessed over cleanliness and physical purity, ensuring that they were fully washed before undertaking any activity.2 They physically distanced themselves even from each other and lived a life of regimented, hierarchical discipline.3 The World Health Organisation would have loved them.

While in these caves, they wrote, preserved and protected ancient scrolls. Some of them are familiar to us, because they appear in the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha. But they also composed some works that were wholly their own. Most significantly, these guys kickstarted apocalyptic fantasy as a genre. They wrote reams of prophetic texts imagining the final unravelling of history.

These scrolls were lost to us for nearly 2000 years. They would have remained so, were it not for a chance happening in 1946. Three Bedouin shepherds were grazing their goats in the Jordanian desert. One fell into a cave and stumbled upon clay jars containing some of the texts. The Arab Legion then followed up by searching the whole area, discovering multiple caves, each containing manuscripts.

And among those manuscripts were some of the most imaginative descriptions of the end of the world. Their works gave rise to the original meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’. Every other attempt at eschatology in theWestern traditions was riffing off this bass line.

Take this as an example:

They know not the mystery to come, nor do they understand the things of the past. They know not that which shall befall them, nor do they save their soul from the mystery to come. And this shall be the sign for you that these things shall come to pass.

When the breed of iniquity is shut up, wickedness shall then be banished by righteousness as darkness is banished by the light. As smoke clears and is no more, so shall wickedness perish for ever and righteousness be revealed like a sun governing the world. All who cleave to the mysteries of sin shall be no more; knowledge shall fill the world and folly shall exist no longer. This word shall surely come to pass; this prophecy is true. And by this may it be known to you that it shall not be taken back.4

But hang on a second. This apocalypse doesn’t contain any zombies or plagues or destruction either. If anything, it sounds like quite a good thing. The end of wickedness and sin. The triumph of goodness and knowledge. There’s hardly any of the misery and gore I was looking for here.

There must be another, more awful story that I can refer to. Let me just rummage around in these pots. One of these caves must have some gorgons and dragons. Oh, here we go. Here’s a fragment from a text that the scholars have named ‘The Messianic Apocalypse’. This should be a good one:

Seekers of the Eternal One, strengthen yourselves in God’s service! All you hopeful in your hearts, will you not find the Eternal One in this? For the Eternal One will consider the loving and call the righteous by name. Over the poor will God’s spirit will hover and renew the faithful with strength […] The One who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the bent, forever will I cleave to the hopeful and to God’s mercy.5

But this isn’t devastation and destruction either. This is… optimistic.

Even in the places where they talk about death and war, the focus is on the ultimate triumph of the good guys: 

Oppression will come to the earth and a great massacre in the provinces. Like the sparks of the vision, so will be their kingdom. They will reign for years on the earth and they will trample all. People will trample people and one province another province until the people of God will arise and all will rest from the sword. The people of God’s kingdom will be an eternal kingdom and all their paths will be in truth. They will judge the earth in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease from the earth, and all the provinces will pay homage to them. The Great God is their helper, who will wage war for them. Their dominion will be an eternal dominion.6

The people who hid out in caves in the Jordanian desert over 2000 years ago really did write the first ever apocalypses. But they look nothing like what we imagine by the genre today. The word ‘apocalypse’ is a Greek translation of the Aramaic ‘gilayon’, literally meaning ‘revelation’. It is an expression of how God’s will for the world is revealed. So it’s up to us to decide how we understand that. If we think humanity is on the brink of a major change, we have a choice about how to interpret it.

Sci-fi, storytelling and religious myths can tell us different narratives about the world. We can use them to say that everything is going to be terrible or we can use them to say that everything will be wonderful. We can use them to talk about the end of the world or we can use them to talk about the beginning of a new one. An apocalypse, as imagined by the genre’s originators, can be a cause for hope and liberation.

Maybe it’s time I stopped complaining this isn’t the apocalypse I want, and started turning it into the one the world needs. Either way, I’ll be doing it in heels.

Chag Pesach kasher vsameach. Happy Passover everyone.

mad-max-thunderdome-01

I wrote this sermon for Pesach 5780.

1Probably. We don’t really know.

24Q274

34Q256:5

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54Q521:2

64Q246:2

judaism · sermon · theology

How will we know when this crisis is over?

How will we know when this crisis is over?

Because this crisis will end. Every catastrophe there ever was has been brought to closure at some point.

Wars have begun with shots fired on foreign shores and ended with neighbours kissing outside their front doors.

Our scientists have conquered tuberculosis, leprosy, HIV and polio. It may take months and it may take years, but they will find a cure and people will recover.

Humanity has survived ice ages, famines and nuclear meltdowns. And it will survive this. This crisis will, one day, be over.

And when it is… how will we know?

The ancient world had rituals for bringing every ordeal to a close. When the sick returned from their quarantine, they were ritually bathed seven times, given new clothes, and shaved from head to toe.1

We, too, will wash ourselves anew. We will look at water and soap differently. We will cry in the shower to produce as much water as possible, knowing that those cleansing droplets are the secret to life itself.

And we still won’t know whether the crisis is over.

The priests of the bible would perform ceremonies to indicate that closure had occurred. On recovery from sickness, they would give offerings of unleavened cakes, fine flour, oil and animal blood.1 They would thank God for their health with their sacrifices.2 They would wave their hands in the air, bringing the ingredients together, embodying their wholeness.3

We, too, will make offerings. We will return to reopened pubs and put our glasses in the air and celebrate our survival with pints of cider and drams of whiskey and we will say ‘l’chaim’ like we never knew what it meant to say ‘to life’ before.

We will be grateful. We will thank God that we were among those who survived. We will thank God that even those who did not survive would be proud to see the continuity of the world they built. We will realise that a day when you can drink surrounded by friends and family should never be taken for granted. We will truly understand that life is a gift.

And still we will not know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark transitions with words. When good things happened for the first time in a long time, they instituted that we should say “blessed are you, Eternal One our God, Creator of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and allowed us to reach this season.”4

We will do old things for the first time. We will play in parks with our children again. And they will meet new children for the first time. And we will leave our houses without a purpose just to knock on old friends’ doors and see their faces for the first time. And we will hug. And we will kiss. And we will go to cinemas and nightclubs and gyms and synagogues. Yes! we will most certainly pack out our synagogues again. And we will treasure those moments and thank God that we lived to see them.

And we won’t know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark the bad with the good. They knew that not every transition was a recovery. They knew that sometimes people died and it felt like the whole world had been destroyed. They knew how to mark it. They told us to rip our clothes and let our hair grow long.5 They knew that sometimes so many loved ones would die that we would have to shred our whole wardrobes.6

We will grieve. We do not yet know how many we will grieve. It may be only the thousands who have already died. We will learn not to call thousands of deaths ‘only’. We may lose a person whom we love. We may lose many people whom we love. We will grieve for all of them.

We will cry in the streets in funeral processions for all those who never had the chance to mourn properly on lockdown. We will wail without abandon for every life taken too soon. Every life that will be taken will have gone too soon. We will huddle together in houses and let out all our sadness and anger.

We will feel guilty. Because, after all, feeling guilty is a part of grieving and surviving isn’t always such a cause for celebration. And although we will not believe it at first, we will recover. And we will move on.

And we still will not know whether the crisis is over.

Because the crisis will not yet be over.

If we leave our houses and go back to our old jobs to pay rent and mortgages in the same houses to barely survive in the same cities, Coronavirus will not have been defeated. We will only have signed an armistice with sickness, knowing that another plague will face us again. This will not be the last virus. Any effort to return to normality will only exacerbate the problems that have gone before.

Never again will we fight each other for dried pasta and toilet roll and sanitary pads and formula milk. Never again will we stare into our cupboards and wonder how long our tinned food will last us. We cannot ever return to the days of scarcity.

Before we can begin to move on, we have to be assured that all of humanity’s basic needs will be met unconditionally. Healthcare, food, water and clean energy will be considered human rights. When we struggle for them, we will struggle for everyone to have them. We will insist on it the way that world leaders pledge at the end of wars never to pick up weapons again, only this time we will mean it.

And still that will not be enough for us to say that the crisis is over.

Never again will people carry on working when they are sick because dying of starvation sounds worse than dying of disease. Never again will people live one pay cheque away from homelessness. Never again will family homes be foreclosed. Never again will people worry how they are going to self-isolate when they have nowhere to live. Housing will be provided universally on the basis of need, so that these crises can never be repeated.

And that won’t be enough for us to say it’s over.

Because there are today vulnerable, elderly and disabled people who are saying that self-isolation was already their standard practice, and that they did not choose it voluntarily. Because there are sick people who already feel like they are a burden to society when their lives are a gift from God. Because there are families torn about by borders and there is escalating racism that makes people feel even more afraid and we know that loneliness and bigotry and fear make life unbearable. We will judge our society not by the strength of its economy but by the strength of its weakest members. Only when we are assured that the value of human life is unquantifiable will be able to draw a line under the past.

And that day will come. This crisis will end. Ever crisis that ever was has come to an end.

And we will mark it. Every human being who is alive will sign a new international constitution, swearing allegiance only to each other and to God. And we will swear to protect everything that lives and the precious planet that sustains it. And on that document we will enshrine rights we never thought possible. And it will be the benchmark for everything that comes afterwards.

And everyone, all around the world, will subscribe to it.

We will not know the crisis is over because everything goes back to being the same. We will know the crisis is over when we are certain that everything has changed.

Then we will know beyond all doubt that this crisis is over.

salah taher peace treaty

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College, Parashat Tzav. I then decided to publish it early because I have too much free time. 

1Lev 14:1-10

2Lev 7:1-15

3Plaut 787

4Berachot 54a

5Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 7

6Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 8

festivals · sermon · social justice · theology

Those who attack the weak

Purim is such a strange time. It is a time when everything is turned upside down. In our story, the oppressed become the oppressors; the ones who wanted to slaughter become the slaughtered; Jews become Persians; Persians become Jews.

We act out the topsy-turviness of it all by dressing up in costumes, getting drunk, and generally living as we normally wouldn’t. Somehow this grand inversion festival is one of my favourites, but I’m never really sure what it was about until it’s over. In fact, every year for the last year, I’ve preached about Purim after it happened, rather than before. I suppose that fits with the overall back-to-front-ness of the whole celebration.

This year, what struck me most was the connection between the Torah portion and the Megillah reading.1 In our Megillah, the story of Esther, the enemy is the evil Haman. Haman sets himself up as a god, demanding that people bow down to him, and when they do not, he seeks to wipe out the Jews. The Jews, in this antique Persian context, are already the most vulnerable people. They are the smallest minority, unarmed, and completely powerless. Haman decides to wipe them out.

In the Torah reading, taken from Deuteronomy, the enemy is Amalek. We are enjoined to remember him and what he did to the Israelites in the wilderness.2 The Amalekites had attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest, dehydrated and suffering without water.3 According to our commentators, Amalek attacked from behind, killing the weakest first.4

The Megillah tells us that Haman was a descendant of Amalek, via their king, Agag.5 We do not necessarily need to believe that Haman had any genetic connection to Amalek. What they had in common they showed through their actions. Both attacked the weak. Both went for the most vulnerable first. They are not only symbols of antisemitism, but of all tyrants. This is how the cruel operate: by doing first to the weak what they would like to do to the strong.

It is deeply distressing to see in our times that the ideas of Amalek still prevail. At this moment, the world is closely watching the Coronavirus. My rabbinic colleagues in Italy are on complete lockdown. Many services have been cancelled. I am giving this sermon, for the first time, over the internet, rather than in person with my regular congregation.

That there is a pandemic should not be too alarming. There are often diseases going around the world – some are more contagious and more deadly than others. This one, it seems, is much less deadly than bird flu, but is more contagious than regular flu, and we do not yet have immunity to it.

In these times, maintaining calm and supporting each other is of the utmost importance. We should all, I am sure you already know, be meticulous about following NHS advice to wash our hands regularly, avoid touching our faces and not get too close to each other. If you exhibit symptoms, like a dry cough, shortness of breath, or fever, you should stay home for 7 days. Don’t go to the hospital or the GP.6

Yet there are those who have not helped maintain calm, but who have almost revelled in the potential death toll. Jeremy Warner, a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote in his column that the death of the weak from Coronavirus could be good for the economy. He said:

Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.7

With this one sentence, the Telegraph reminded me that Amalek’s ideology never ceases. It is in the idea that the weak are disposable, that the strongest survive, and that the strength of the economy or the nation matters more than the lives of the vulnerable.

The idea espoused by Warner might be called ‘social Darwinism’. It is a theory of evolution that sees all species as rugged individuals, fighting over resources. Sickness and death are nature’s way of weeding out those who are unnecessary. If people survive, it is because they deserved to. This was the logic that allowed the weak to be killed by the Nazis. It is the theory that underpinned government inaction to HIV as it killed off gay and black people.

It must be opposed. No idea could be more antithetical to the Jewish mind. We affirm that every human being is created in the image of God, and every life has intrinsic value. The disabled, the elderly and the immuno-compromised are not valuable because of how much they can contribute, but because God has placed them on this Earth. The Creator’s purpose for humanity far exceeds what any stock market has in mind.

We must oppose it not only because it contradicts religious truth, but also because it contradicts scientific truth. In 1902, the biologist and Russian Prince, Piotr Kropotkin, wrote his major work, ‘Mutual Aid’.8 In it, he argues that the survival of the species is due as much to cooperation as it is to competition. In the animal realm and throughout history, the major reason for life’s continuity has been its ability to work together.

Different species depend on each other and selflessly help each other. Most of all, human survival is intrinsically linked up with our social nature. Our skill lies in our ability to communicate complex ideas with each other. We are, by nature, dedicated to the preservation of our young, our elderly and our neighbours.

That is the message we must take away today in this time of sickness. We must support one another. For some, this means staying home so that they do not infect others. For some, this means checking in on our neighbours to see how they are and what they need. For others still, it means making donations to charities and mutual support organisations.

Purim was a time of inversion, when old habits were reversed. Let us shake off the old traditions of individualism and greed, to replace them with the Torah values of love and support.

In the face of those who attack the weak, we will be the ones to make them strong.

Shabbat shalom.

mutual aid animals

1 Mishnah Megillah 3:6

2 Deut 27:17-19

3 Ex 17:8-16

4 Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael 17

5 Esther 3:1

 

I donated to Queercare, who are doing work for at-risk LGBT people. I encourage you to give to the charity of your choice.

judaism · sermon · theology

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven. The Tabernacle was built according to the dimensions of the world. And the world was built according to the dimensions of Heaven.[1] This is what the Zohar, our mystical text tells us.[2] What does this mean?

This week’s parashah describes the raw materials of the Tent of Meeting: blue, purple, and crimson yarns; the ephod made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; sheets of gold and cut threads to be worked into designs.[3] The Torah tells us precise measurements for precious metals: 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold; 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver.[4]

In the kabbalistic system of the Zohar, these are not only the dimensions of our Tabernacle, but a blueprint for the universe and a mirror of Heaven. Is this, then, the makeup of the universe? Does it, too, have crimson yarn and twisted linen and talents of silver?

No. That is not the nature of this text. The Zohar is not an Ikea assemblage manual, but a work of Jewish mysticism. Its concern isn’t with the physical arrangement of the world, but with the esoteric secrets underpinning it.

The Zohar was compiled as a commentary on the Torah in 13th Century Spain by Rabbi Moses de Leon and has circle.[5] This text became the central canonical text of Jewish mystical theology, known commonly as kabbalah.

Only within the terms of the text itself can we understand how the Tabernacle had the dimensions of the world and the world had the dimensions of Heaven. First of all, please understand that, by Heaven, it does not mean the cartoon of clouds in the sky where baby-angels play on harps. Nor is it talking about the afterlife. In this context, Heaven is the ‘Upper World’: the place beyond our understanding where God lives. It is not so much a physical space as it is a ‘divine realm’.

The dimensions of Heaven, then, were not physical, but were divine qualities. The Zohar notices a connection between the qualities with which the Tabernacle’s architect was endowed and the qualities God employed to create the world. God appoints a man named Bezalel ben Uri to oversee the creation of the Tabernacle. God tells Moses: “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge.”[6] Elsewhere, in the book of Proverbs, we learn: “The Holy One founded the earth by wisdom; God established the heavens by understanding; through God’s knowledge the depths burst apart, and the skies distilled dew.”[7]

These, then, are the dimensions that the world and the Tabernacle held in common: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The qualities needed to create the world were the same as those needed to create the Tabernacle.

In the context of the Zohar, however, these terms take on an even deeper significance. In this world of mysticism, wisdom, understanding and knowledge are not simply creative faculties, but are part of a divine reality beyond what we can see.[8]

In this view of the world, there is an aspect of God called the ‘ein sof’ – that which is without end; the part of God that is limitless and incomprehensible. From this Infinite Unknowability flow ten sefirot, attributes of God’s self. They filter down into the knowable universe, to the level of the Shechinah – God’s dwelling-place in the human realm.[9]

At the highest levels are three sefirotketer – literally meaning ‘crown’, but fundamentally associated with God’s infinite knowledge; chochmah, meaning ‘wisdom’, which holds the archetypes of all things that must come into being; and binah – ‘understanding’ – in which is held the undifferentiated model of creation.[10] Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding: these are the highest rungs of the emanations of God’s presence. These are the qualities with which Proverbs tell us God created the world. These are the qualities with which Exodus tells us Bezalel ben Uri was endowed when he came to create the Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle, then, was not a physical blueprint of the universe, but a spiritual one. It was comprised of the same mystical dimensions that also went into creating the world. Each of these was some part of God’s creative power. Through these, God’s creative power is manifest in Heaven, the world and the Tabernacle. They are acting as a form of creative power, transcending space and yet utterly active in it. Through this analogy, we understand that the world, Heaven and the Tabernacle are not just created, but are constantly creating, and being created.

That may all sound very difficult to understand, but it has significant implications for us. If the Tabernacle, the world and Heaven share a common creative blueprint, then what was done in the Tabernacle was replicated in Heaven. Thus, the Zohar tells us: “The Temple [the successor to the Tabernacle] was an abode of peace for the worlds […] so that the actions below could be united on the model of the world above.”[11] What they made true in the Temple, God made true in Heaven.

From this, the Zohar makes an even more audacious claim. It tells us that, in Heaven, God studies new interpretations of the sacrifices in the name of Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai. It tells us that, even though God does not need to eat or drink, out of love for the Jewish people, God eats and drinks with us in Heaven.[12] Because of the deep connection between this world and the world above, God is able even to suspend the laws of the universe to replicate what we do on Earth.

What does this mean then for us, modern Jews, for whom the synagogue has permanently replaced the Temple? I would like to think that, just as the Temple was once a mirror of Heaven, our houses of meeting are today, too. When we gather together in community, some profound unity is recreated in Heaven. When we sing in unison on Shabbat mornings, new blessings and prayers are created in the World Above. When we read about the dimensions of the Tabernacle in this week’s Torah portion, those creative faculties that once created the world are the Temple are put into action once more and, through them, entire new worlds are made possible.

Sometimes it is easy to feel like our actions have no impact. The Zohar gives me hope. If what we do on Earth is replicated in Heaven, our actions cannot fail to be meaningful. When, here, we strive for a better world, that same campaign ignites in the upper echelons of the universe. When, here, we celebrate love, birthdays and the lives of our congregants, the Heavenly hosts are brought closer together in solidarity with us. Our kindness, our optimism, our compassion in this world are mirrored on a cosmic level.

The teachings of the Zohar may be complex, but their result is simple: We live in a world that shares its dimensions with Heaven. We are tasked with the spiritual health of the entire universe.

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven. So let us strive to create Heaven on Earth.

Shabbat shalom.

Kabbalah_Art_-_Diamond_Painting_Kit_grande
Kabbalistic art

I first wrote this sermon as an essay for a class at Leo Baeck College on Kabbalah. I adapted it for use and delivered it at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue on 7th March 2020.

[1] Zohar II, 220b-221a

[2] I have relied for translations and interpretation on Tishby, Isaiah. The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts (Vol III), trans. David Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 909-930

[3] Ex 39:1-3

[4] Ex 38:27-28

[5] Scholem, Gershom G. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Shocken Books, 1946), pp. 156-159

[6] Ex 31:2-3

[7] Prov 3:19-20

[8] Laenen, J. H. Jewish Mysticism: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 46

[9] Laenen, pp. 46-48

[10] Laenen, pp. 48-49

[11] Zohar II 241a

[12] Zohar III, 241b

article · theology

A Tale of Two Gods

In the time of the First Temple, in the world of the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Israelites brought sacrifices to the cultic centre in Jerusalem. One of these was the korban o’la – an offering of burnt animal fat. Every part of the sacrificed animal was burnt on the altar, except for its skin. The Hebrew word o’la, meaning rising up, referred to the pungent smoke released twice daily when the sacrifice was made.

Many centuries after the destruction of the First Temple, in the time of the Second, a group of pious believers came to translate the text into Greek. This early translation of the Bible became known as the Septuagint. Greek had no direct translation for the term o’la, so the editors chose a word meaning ‘completely burnt’ – holo kauston. Holocaust.

That is the word that has come to represent the ritual slaughter of 17 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish, in the middle of the 20th century. Like the animals of many millennia before, the people in the concentration camps were burnt throughout the day so that nothing remained of them.

It is perhaps for this reason that many of the victims were reluctant to use the term Holocaust. Jews called it by the Hebrew word shoah, meaning ‘disaster’ or churban – ‘destruction’. Roma people called it Porajmos – ‘the devouring’. For historians it was simply called by its Latin name ‘genocide’ – the killing of a people.

Something sinister lurks behind the very word ‘Holocaust’. The Jews, forever seen as relics of the Christian Old Testament, were murdered in the manner described by their book as a tool for expiating sin.

The word calls us to ask: to whom were these Jews sacrificed? On whose behalf? For what sin were they intended to atone? And was the God that received these offerings satisfied?

In the time of the First Temple, minor transgressions were deemed to pollute the land. The o’la served as a way to ritually cleanse ancient Israel of its impurities. Priests appealed to the national god for mercy and knew their petitions had been answered by the arrival of regular rainfall.

In the world of the Third Reich, ethnic impurities and social deviations polluted Europe. Germany and its empire was in breach of its duty to be thoroughly white, Christian, patriarchal and heterosexual. Isolating the minorities was not enough to recompense for their transgressions. The minorities had to be destroyed in their entirety. Devout Nazis played their part to remove and destroy every blemish in their land.

Of course, such blemishes can never be fully removed. The sin of non-whiteness is too volatile and its terms too expansive. The god of nationalism is thoroughly empty, so no amount of flesh will ever fill him. He is insatiable. Modern fascists remind us that the nationalist god is still hungry for blood.

The God of the ancient Temple, by contrast, no longer requires burnt meat. That Temple was destroyed and its people forced into exile. God fled with the refugees and, with them, became transnational. Prayers replaced sacrifices. The God of Israel became the God of the Jews, who wanted good deeds, social justice and piety. It mutated into the God of Love and could be found on every continent.

The god of nationalism, paradoxically, is now no less international. He permeated borders through colonialism and found a home on every soil. In every country, he can be seen represented by each flag. His priests can be found adorned in military uniforms of every stripe. His followers proclaim his word from pulpits the old preachers could never have imagined, reaching millions.

And he still requires blood. His altars are the lynch ropes for Muslims in India. His followers ritually parade through Charlottesville, Belfast, Rangoon, London and Sao Paulo. And, yes, the god of nationalism is worshipped in Israel too. The very land that birthed the universal God now hosts nationalism in its gates. In every place, his offerings are returned in coffins. And, no matter how many die, it will never be enough.

As the god to whom fascists make their sacrifices ascends, the universal God of the Jews withers. In Auschwitz, our God stood trial. The pious Jews who prayed in the camps convened a court and charged God with breach of covenant. God had abandoned them. Or forgotten them. Our rabbis had no choice but to pronounce: God is guilty. And when they knew that divine help was not coming, they did the only thing they could. They prayed.

After the camps were liberated, the remnant survivors had to face a new reality. They wondered whether their God was dead. A bitter irony. For centuries, the Jews had been accused of deicide against Jesus. Now they witnessed their own God burned in the flames of fascism’s altars. Only later did the quiet Christian witnesses realise that their God had been the same one, and was dying too. Their doctrine of goodwill and universal love was no less weakened. And only then did they realise they had killed the wrong God.

Is it too late? Can the old religion of truth and humanity be revived? Certainly, its followers are rebuilding. Synagogues are emerging anew in places where sceptics imagined that God was buried: in Córdoba, Warsaw and York. True believers congregate in mosques, chapels, gurdwaras and living rooms. Those who hold the greatest hope are unafraid to protest in God’s name against violence. They refuse to sacrifice to the new gods. They are the source of my faith.

As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we must remember not only the millions of human sacrifices, but the deity for whom they were killed. We must rededicate ourselves to destroying its idols and exposing them for the false gods that they are. In memory of the murdered, we must destroy fascism today.

Yet just because we oppose one god does not mean we must give up the One God. The Force of hope, solidarity and justice cannot be abandoned, even if we feel as if it has abandoned us. So, in memory of all those who were martyred professing a faith in that religion, I ask you to do something normally unthinkable in a radical publication like Novara Media – and pray.

burning smoke columns

I wrote this article for Novara Media for Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday 27 January 2020.

sermon · theology

A chosen people

You are a chosen people.

Singled out from every other people on the planet and selected by the one true God to have a unique and special relationship spanning generations into the past and future. You are among the chosen people, because you are a Jew. And you, particularly, have been chosen. As a Jew.

How do you feel?

Well, bloody uncomfortable, I expect. The very concept of chosenness is quite toe-curling. It has so many airs of superiority. It sounds smug at best and racist at worst. It feels incompatible with everything else we think about ourselves and about God. 

But it’s there. It’s there in this week’s parashah. God calls out to Moses and tells him:

I am the Eternal One. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my ineffable name I did not make myself fully known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. And now I have heard the wailing of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.

This is the holy relationship between us and God. It was laid down to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was repeated to Moses, where it grew stronger. It was on the basis of this special relationship that God drew us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand so that we would be a holy people and God would be our God. God, universal and everlasting, would be a God to us, personal and special. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

In the mouth of God, it certainly does. It sounds like a real and loving relationship that we can sustain together. In the mouth of another Jew, it sounds slightly narcissistic. The idea of being a ‘chosen people’ is something rarely discussed among Jews. It features little in our understanding of ourselves. Which means we hear it most commonly in the mouth of antisemites. In their mouths, it sounds like either an accusation or a taunt. 

As an accusation, it is recriminating. How can you believe you are so special? Does this status give you the right to do whatever you want? What must it mean for the rest of us, we whom you have decided are unchosen? How can you hold by such an insulting theology? As a taunt, it is a reminder of our weakness. Is this God’s chosen people? Is this dispersed and tiny group supposed to be somehow special? Is this deeply flawed group, so easy to criticise for our conduct, supposed to be exemplary?

Many of us would have a hard time agreeing with the idea of chosenness when it is framed in this way. Some have sought to downplay or erase the idea. When the Enlightenment came and we moved out from the ghettos, many Jews began to resist the idea of chosenness, saying that we were not chosen at all. But this seems to turn external hatred into self-hatred. Yes, it is hard to maintain an idea of chosenness when you have to explain it to others. But in doing so it may feel like we are also giving up some of the richness of Judaism.

An alternative approach has been to neutralise the claim. In our liturgy, Liberals will often say “על ישראל ועל כל בני אדם” – for all the Jewish people and for all of humanity. We universalise this theology – affirming that we have a special relationship with God and asserting that others can do so too. This was summarised by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks when he was going through his postmodernist phase. He said

God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims . . . God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.

These words were met at the time with anger and ridicule. Rabbi Sacks was forced by the Conservative wing of Orthodoxy to rewrite the book. In the second edit, Sacks suggested that with the coming of the messiah, eventually everyone would be Jewish. At the time, most progressives came to his defence on the matter, and understandably so. He was vilified for holding a position that most believers in a universal God would say was intuitively true. Yet, with hindsight, it is also right to probe this position. What does chosenness even mean if everyone is chosen? The word loses any of its value.

So we have three positions, none of which feel particularly palatable. We can either dig our heels in and insist that we are, in fact, the chosen people, and that everyone else is not. Alternatively, we can scrap the whole business and say that we are not chosen and neither is anyone else. Or we can insist that we are chosen and so is everyone else. All of them are valid. All of them are somehow disappointing.

I want to propose another way of thinking about chosenness. Let us return to the text and ask instead: why were the Jews chosen? God says: “I have heard the wailing of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving.” In this narrative, we were not chosen because we were great. We were not chosen because we had any special skills or qualities. We were chosen because we were oppressed. 

This carries a different meaning entirely. It suggests that God stands with those who suffer. And that God continues to stand with us in memory of our suffering. Being chosen, in this context, does not mean having priviliges, but being heard. We are recognised by our Creator for our suffering. And when we remember that suffering, we experience the chosenness again as we realise the moral consequences of the cries of others. God, the voice of morality in every generation, stands by the side of the victims of injustice, even when they do not experience miraculous interventions. 

We are approaching Holocaust Memorial Day. This somber time is a reminder to us of the divine help that never came for the 6 million Jews and 3 million others who died in the Nazi genocide. In the face of such tragedy, it is hard to sustain a theology that says that God protects us. But we must nevertheless affirm the belief that God stood by our side. Through the horrors of Auschwitz no less than slavery in Egypt, God heard the cries of the oppressed.

If being chosen means anything, it should mean being obligated to hear those cries. We should hear the wailing of those who went before as reminders to us of who we are. We should hear the oppression of all those who still cry, and whose oppression goes on, often in the face of indifference. 

Marek Edelman, a fighter in the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis said: “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.” May we, like God, always count ourselves among those who stand by the oppressed.

Shabbat shalom.

 

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vaera on Saturday 25th January 2020 at 3 Counties Liberal Judaism