theology · torah

Stop doubting. Start doing.

Job was a man of complete integrity. According to his eponymous book of the Tanach, no matter what happened, Job was the epitome of Jewish righteousness. Then hardship fell, and Job began to doubt God’s justice.

This was hardly surprising. God had stripped him of everything, ridden him with disease, killed his children and destroyed his livelihood to test whether or not Job would remain faithful.[1]

As it turned out, Job could only endure so much. His friends comforted him with explanations of how God must be righteous after all, but they were insufficient. Finally, Job began to snap. What if God was not just?

Just then, God burst out through the clouds. “Who are you to question Me?” demanded God.[2]

After a lengthy excursus from Job’s inadequate interlocutors, we might expect a more thorough explanation. God has arrived and will explain the nature of justice.

Instead, God goes off on one about mythical beings. God talks about the Behemoth, an enormous bull-like monster that can rampage fields. God describes Livyathan, a fire-breathing dragon that cannot be killed.[3]

And this, apparently, satisfies Job.[4] Well, I’m not satisfied. I don’t know about you, but if I’m having doubts about my faith, “have you heard about the monsters God tamed?” won’t really cut it for me. You can’t respond to rational concerns by piling on ever more improbable legends. Now I’m filled with even more doubts.

But perhaps that’s the point. The author of Job, arguably the most philosophically complex text in our Tanakh, probably knew that these myths weren’t really an answer to the question posed.

The real answer, hidden within these poetic arguments, is that we don’t know. Whatever God is, it is beyond our comprehension.[5] Whatever justice is, we cannot fully reason it enough to grasp it. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ is what God is really saying.

Similarly, our parashah this week concerns Moses’s doubts. We have come to the book of Exodus, and Moses has already run away into the wilderness. Out of a flaming thicket, God summons Moses to rescue the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.[6]

Just as God answered Job from the clouds, so too does God answer Moses. But the answer Moses receives is no more comforting. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ says God, ‘you need to get going.’

“What if I’m not good enough?” asks Moses. “You will be,” says God.[7]

“Who even are you?” asks Moses. “I will be whatever I will be,” God roars back. “Tell the Israelites ‘I will be’ sent you.”[8]

“What if nobody believes me?” asks Moses. “They will,” says God.[9]

“But what if I can’t find the words?” asks Moses. At this point, God loses patience. “I gave you your mouth, I will give you the words! Now get yourself down to Egypt and set those slaves free!”[10]

Miracles might be convincing to some. Logic and reason might work some of the time. But, ultimately, you have to act. When faced with injustice, there is little time to contemplate the nature of sin and perfection and God’s role in it. You have to get out and do.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Conservative theologian and civil rights activist, famously pictured alongside Martin Luther King Jr at the march on Selma. He said that Judaism does not require a leap of faith, but a leap of action. We are called upon, first and foremost, to act. Whatever we think about it can come later.

This might sound strange to us, educated in a Western thought system that teaches us to calculate and reason before making choices. But it was not strange to the Israelites. When God called on them at Mount Sinai, they replied “we will do and we will hear.”[11]

According to the Talmud, a heretic accused Rava using this verse. Rava was sitting, so engrossed in study, that he didn’t notice he had trapped his finger in a chair leg and it was spurting blood everywhere. “You impulsive people!” the heretic said. “You still bear your impulsiveness of acting before you think. Listen first, work out what you can do, then act.”[12]

Rava responded with the verse from Proverbs:[13] “The integrity of the upright will guide them.”[14] We trust in our integrity. We trust in our conscience. We can be moved by our faith that we know right from wrong.

I think, over the last few years, progressives have done a great deal of doubting. We have been introspective and thoughtful. We have wondered, internally and out loud, whether we are right after all. Perhaps, as nationalist ideas return and religious conservatism gains strength, we might be able to make compromises on our ideals and find a middle-ground with others.

This week, fascists marched on the White House. They carried Confederate flags into Congress. A Nazi showed up among the rioters wearing a shirt that said: “Camp Auschwitz” on the front, and “staff” on the back, as if taking credit for the mass murder of Jews. They proudly displayed nooses, the symbol of anti-Black lynchings. Every brand of far-right conspiracy theorist and white supremacist descended on Washington, and video evidence shows that the police not only tolerated them but let them in.

Where has all our doubt and consideration left us? In our desire to find common ground and engage in reasoned discourse, we now come across as morally ambiguous and uncertain in our principles. We have left an ethical vacuum, and fascists have stormed into it. Intellectual curiosity is little use against the blunt force of white supremacists seeking to violently cease power.

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield has pointed out that our uncertainty is what differentiates us from fascists. Fascists are, by definition, absolutists. They do not interrogate their views or consider other perspectives. Our advantage over fascists comes from the fact that we give arguments due consideration and approach our own convictions with humility.

He may be right. Doubt might separate us intellectually from fascists. But it is action that separates fascists politically from power. There is no joy to be had in feeling superior if white supremacists gain power in government.

This week’s events may have been a terrifying climax to Trump’s presidency. But it is equally likely that they are a prelude to worse events. American white nationalists are emboldened and convinced that they can seize power through either ballots or bullets, depending on whichever method suits them. The situation in Britain is scarcely different, where racists have not felt so confident in decades.

Whether Trump now recedes into the background or his racist ideas come to dominate the world will depend on how we act. It will not depend on what we think, but on what we do. Events are calling us to action. If we want to eradicate fascism, we must be willing to fight it.

By all means, have doubts. Moses doubted. Moses was unsure. But God said to him, ‘go anyway. Get down to Egypt and free those people.’

We must be willing to face the Pharaohs of our time with the same vigour. We must be able to say: “I have come to act because God sent me. I am standing for justice because I know it to be right and true. I am standing against racism because I know it to be wrong. I will free these people. I will uproot tyrants. I will defend democracy and advance the cause of the oppressed.”

The integrity of the upright will guide us.

Although we may not fully understand these monsters before us, we will slay them.

And we will vanquish fascism for good.

Shabbat shalom.


I am giving this sermon on 9th January 2021 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Shmot.

[1] Job 1

[2] Job 40

[3] Job 41

[4] Job 42

[5] Job 11

[6] Ex 3

[7] Ex 3:11-12

[8] Ex 3:14

[9] Ex 4:1-9

[10] Ex 4:11-12

[11] Ex 24:7

[12] BT Shabbat 88a

[13] Prov 11:3

[14] BT Shabbat 88b

sermon · torah

Breaking the Cycle of Trauma

Trauma. No matter what we do, it seems contagious. If we talk about it, we’re passing it on. If we ignore it, we’re leaving an elephant in the room. If we follow everything the psychologists say and talk about it in exactly the right way, apparently it can still show up in our children’s genes. As if the trauma itself wasn’t worrying enough, we now have to be concerned that it might be inescapably hereditary.

As I and my peers embark on parenting journeys, or make the conscious choice not to, many of us keep circling back to the question of what we do with Jewish neurosis. If we have children, when do we tell them about the Holocaust, or the pogroms, or our fears? Should we tell them? If we do not have children, what role do we play in shaping the communities in which young people are raised? 

These are intensely sensitive questions. I do not want to dictate to anyone how they should feel about them, nor to project my own concerns onto other people’s families. But this week marked the anniversary of the Kindertransporters arriving in Britain, and a magazine asked me to comment on my family’s experience. It would be for a non-Jewish audience. I realised that I have spoken more about the existential issues around the Shoah to non-Jews than I have within the community, and feel that a conversation is overdue. 

Often, I feel like these discussions only take place in private conversations. Few of us are willing to publicly acknowledge how intergenerational anxieties shape our communal responses to everything from government policy to synagogue membership statistics. 

In particular, while the previous generation of Jewish leaders had people who felt comfortable sharing their own experiences and reflections on our collective traumas, as generations are increasingly separated from the events that caused the anxiety, we have become less willing to discuss them. It seems we have decided to move on without explicitly saying how we intend to do so or where we plan to go.

If we want to look forward to a Jewish future, we must first acknowledge its past. That begins, of course, with the Torah. Genesis can be seen as an exploration of overcoming intergenerational trauma. The story of the human family begins with Adam and Eve, who are cast out of paradise and subjected to the first experiences of suffering and pain.

Their children are Cain and Abel. In the first parashah, one jealous brother murders another. The survivor, Cain, carries a scar that he will pass on to his descendants as a remembrance of that violence.

Generations pass, but that cycle of sibling rivalry continues. Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, keep up that conflict, spurred on by competitive parents. Ishmael is banished into the wilderness with his mother. Isaac is almost sacrificed on an altar. Isaac does not speak to Abraham again. He and Ishmael are only reunited at the point when Abraham dies, when they come together to bury him.

Isaac’s children fare no better. From the first moment, Jacob grabs Esau’s heel on the way out of the womb. Isaac and Rebecca seemingly pit their sons against each other. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright. Laban tries to kill Jacob. 

Now, at the point when this week’s parashah begins, we expect the violence to be heightened. Jacob is trepidant, fully expectant that Esau will also try to kill him. He sends envoys of gifts, goodwill and messages of peace. Esau comes out with four hundred men, and it looks like the two parties will have to prepare for all-out war. Instead, Jacob bows seven times before his brother. Esau runs up to Jacob, throws his arms around him, kisses him, and cries. At the final moments of this parashah, Jacob and Esau bury Isaac together.

Healing takes time. It can take centuries. The span from Cain and Able to Jacob and Esau is 20 generations. That was how long it took for those brothers to make the first steps towards acknowledging the trauma they had inherited and trying to reconcile. 

Healing can happen in an instant. All it took was for Jacob to show humility and Esau to show compassion. Tears, heartache, and honesty can do in a few minutes what years of failed initiatives cannot. It requires a decision not to be defined by the tumult of the past. 

This brings us to the present. The behaviours of the patriarchs might be likened to the trauma responses of some of our own community members in facing the tragedies of the past. Some chose Isaac’s path of silence. Some, like Jacob, could not bear to tell the truth. Some even took up Cain’s route and engaged in violence. And yes, some, like Esau, made the decision to leave the past behind them and find new meanings.

I am not casting judgement on how any individual has responded to their suffering. I think, most likely, each of us has adopted all of these postures at some point. But what concerns me is how, communally, the British Jewish community has decided to interpret the Holocaust. It seems that, in our communal press and many of our institutions, there has been a tacit, possibly even unconscious, decision, not to move on from the past. 

Instead, we are constantly re-traumatised, reminded that another genocide could await us at any moment if we are not completely vigilant to even the slightest threat, however real or imagined. During the build-up to the General Election a year ago, I had to patiently counsel many terrified older people that there was no existential threat to Jewish life, and they could still sleep safely in their homes. We should never have reached the point where they felt so scared. 

I look at some of our discourse and despair at raising a child in the Jewish community. What values are we communicating when almost every response is an anxious trigger, rather than a measured engagement with reality? I think there are some who believe that constantly teaching our children about Jewish suffering will convince them into remaining Jewish. Even if they are right, at what cost does their Judaism continue? If they are only affiliated out of guilt or paranoia, what quality of Jewish engagement do they really have?

This is why making the conscious choice of Esau is so important. About ten years ago, I followed my dad to the site of Saraspils concentration camp in Latvia. At that time, we believed that this had been the site where his grandparents were killed. We now know it was Auschwitz. But I am glad we believed it was Saraspils, because that was a good place to pay respects. Little remained of the camp or the technology of genocide. The area had grown over with trees and plants and grass. Life had ended there, but life had also continued. 

We said kaddish, remembered their names, and talked about our hopes for the future. Then, as we walked back, we talked about what we could do for those facing similar violence today. It was a recognition of the past, an opportunity to grieve, and a chance to translate that suffering into meaning. I felt like I had my moment of reconciliation, if only brief, and I think the rest of my family felt the same way.

In 1982, Rabbi David Hartman (zichrono livracha) warned Israeli civil society that they faced a choice between being defined by Auschwitz or by Sinai. At Auschwitz, we learnt the wickedness of which people were capable. At Sinai, we learnt the wonders of what God could do. The Israelis could either define themselves by the trauma of the gas chambers or by the miraculous moral message of revelation. 

That essay has been cited many times, but I don’t think the British Jewish community has yet accepted that it might have lessons for us too. We are also faced with the choice of structuring our lives as if they are a moral calling from God or as if they are a cause to be constantly afraid of the rest of humanity. Only once we realise that we have taken the wrong path will we stand a chance of facing up to our trauma, and beginning to heal.

Shabbat shalom.

Saraspils concentration camp memorial

I gave this sermon to Glasgow Reform Synagogue for Parashat Vayishlach on Shabbat 5th December 2020

interfaith · sermon · torah

Who gets to be Jacob?

I am told that, as a toddler, whenever it came to game-playing, I had to be Postman Pat. No matter what the game was, I insisted on playing that friendly gentleman with a black and white cat. As I grew up, I had to compete with other children for different parts in our roleplay. We couldn’t all be the robbers, somebody would have to be the cops. Not everyone can be the Yellow Power Ranger and we can’t all be Ginger Spice.

Those were, at least, the parts we competed for in the 1990s. It was fairly low stakes, but it seemed quite important at the time.

But it’s nothing compared to the fight for roles that went on in the 5th Century CE. This big broigus was not just between two individuals, but between two whole religious groups: the Jews and the Christians. That battle was played out in two foundational texts of our traditions: a sermon by St Augustine of Hippo on the Christian side and the midrash, Bereishit Rabbah, for the Jews. Both were determined that they were Jacob, and the other side was Esau.

Which one would get to be Jacob?

At stake in this question is an ancient prophecy, told to Rebecca while she was pregnant: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your body. One shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”

When Rebecca gave birth to Jacob and Esau, she was not just birthing twins, but rival nations. A strong one and a weak one. An older one that would serve the younger.

We have Esau: the hairy, ruddy hunter. We have Jacob: the smart, younger upstart.

The contest over Isaac’s blessing and birthright laid out in our parashah was more than a competition between siblings. It was a war between peoples.

So which one is the Jews? And which one is the Christians?

As far as the Jewish texts are considered, Jacob must be the Jewish nation. Meak and smart? That’s us. Gentle but witty? Sounds Jewish. He even changed his name to Israel. Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel, klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, daat Yisrael, the laws of the Jews. Surely Jacob must be us!

And meanwhile Esau… well, he’s Rome. He changed his name to Edom, which, granted, is on the other side of the River Jordan in Mount Seir, but was the birthplace of Rome’s most wicked emperor and Temple-destroyer, Hadrian. And look at those Romans. They’re the hairy, barbarous, fighting ones. They’ve got their swords and their empires, just as Esau had his bow and his field.

Bereishit Rabbah, our classical midrash on Genesis, spells it out for us.

Two proud nations are in your womb, one is proud of his world and one is proud of his kingdom. Two prides of their nations are in your womb – Hadrian amongst the gentiles and Solomon amongst the Israelites.

We’re Jacob. We’re the one that God has chosen. We are the descendants of Solomon, proud of the world of Torah and obligation. They’re Esau. They’re the other brother. They’re the descendants of Hadrian, proud of their ill-gotten Empire.

Except, of course, for one obvious problem. Jacob is supposed to be the younger brother. Aren’t we, the Jews, clearly the older sibling? Our revelation is much older than the Christian one and the kingdom of David long predates the Caesarian Empire.

This fact was not missed by our Christian interlocutors.

Foremost among these Christians was St Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was a Father of the Christian Church, a theologian living in North Africa. His ideas were definitive in Christianity for many centuries, and people of all religious stripes still reverentially refer back to his writings. As far as Augustine was concerned, Jacob had to be Christendom. Israel, God’s treasured child, was the Church.

True, says Augustine, the Jewish nation sprang from Jacob, but since then, they have gone on to become Esau. They’re the elder people whom God has rejected. Esau was born shaggy and hairy, which means full of sins. Just look at the Jews – that’s clearly them!

Augustine continues: the prophecy promised that the elder would serve the younger, but that never happens in the biblical text. Esau goes on to become very rich and both wind up blessed in their lifetimes. Clearly, this refers to events that had not yet transpired: that the real Jacob would go on to have the upper hand. Now look at the world of Augustine, where the Christian Empire spans the globe and the Jews are a fractured diaspora in their lands. Surely this is the proof that the Jews are now Esau, serving their younger brother, the Christian Jacob.[1]

This battle of biblical exegesis probably sounds quite twee today. After all, why should it matter which of our religions gets to be Jacob? But this battle for religious identity and purpose shaped interfaith relations in medieval Europe.

If the Jews were Esau, then the Christians had replaced them as Jacob. Judaism was superseded, no longer necessary, and its practitioners were hairy remnants of an outdated doctrine. As Esau, the Jews were a savage menace who needed to be tamed by the genteel, pious Christians in their role as Jacob. This Christian doctrine was the theological basis for Jewish subjugation in Europe.

Faced with such hostility and oppression, it was only natural that medieval Jews felt the need to double down and insist that they were still Jacob. They imagined that Christian dominion would only last so long but that the Jews would ultimately triumph. They could still be Israel, despite what was said about them.

The modern era has seen reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Over time, theologians and historians on both sides have come to emphasise their kinship over rivalry. Perhaps, in the conflict over who got to be Jacob, these twin religions forgot that they were, in fact, siblings. Perhaps, still stuck in childhood contests, our communities had ignored the way the story ends.

By the time of the story’s completion, Jacob and Esau are no longer warring for the same birthright. They have both struggled, and lost, and achieved their own blessing. In maturity, Jacob and Esau meet again and wrap their arms around each other. They weep as they realise that God’s blessing is not finite. They never needed to fight over it.

After 2000 years of struggle, perhaps we Jews and Christians can reach the same intellectual adulthood. The campaign for who is the favourite brother can be put aside as we realise that we are on twin paths. We are both children of the same Divine Parent.

Perhaps we cannot all be Postman Pat, or Ginger Spice, or the same Power Ranger. But everyone can be Jacob.

I will give this sermon at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue on Shabbat 21st November 2020 for Parashat Toldot.


[1] ‘Sermon on Jacob and Esau’, Jacob Rader Marcus and Marc Saperstein, The Jews in Christian Europe, pp. 33-34

judaism · sermon · torah

Matchmaker, matchmaker

“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. Find me a find, catch me a catch…”

Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava joyously sing these words in their iconic scene from Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a classic musical film set in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century, when huge upheavals are taking place throughout the Jewish world. People are moving, traditional ways of living are changing, and new ideas are coming to the fore. 

Nowhere is this difference clearer than in the confusing world of romantic relationships. According to shtetl customs, the girls would expect to be matched with their perfect partners by a shadchan, or matchmaker, and they would settle down to a quiet life of conventional piety in the kitchens while their husbands worked on making a living and reading the Talmud. So, at the start of the story, each of the girls calls upon the matchmaker – called Yenta – to find them their dream husband. They wish for someone wealthy, learned, and acceptable to their parents.

But this is a world where conventions are being upended, and fate has other plans for the lovebirds. Tzeitel, the eldest, turns down her match with the old, ugly and wealthy butcher, refusing the match made for her by the shadchan. Instead, she marries the poor and humble, but decent, tailor. Her father agonises with the betrayal of tradition, but ultimately acquiesces.

Next up is Hodel. A Torah scholar would have been lovely for a foregone era, but at the turn of the 20th Century, a Marxist radical and heretic was exactly what she craved. She falls in love with a Jewish social revolutionary, much to her father’s dismay. A communist! Of all things. Once again, he agonises over the break with tradition, but ultimately accepts it as inevitable.

Finally, the youngest daughter finds someone completely unacceptable. A Russian Orthodox man from outside the village. Her father cannot even bear to permit a marriage to a non-Jew, so they wed in secret. The scandal it must have caused. 

What a far cry this all was from the idealised matchmaking process envisaged in this week’s parashah. The story of Rebecca and Isaac falling in love is like a classic romantic comedy from a bygone era. The star of our scene is Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who is set by his master a major task. Isaac cannot marry a Canaanite, but must marry someone from his own tribe. She must be strong and wealthy and beautiful and kind and willing to marry Isaac of her own accord. 

Eliezer prays to God and says that the ideal woman will help him feed his camels. Well, Rebecca does far more than that. She comes down herself, despite being a noblewoman, and offers Eliezer a drink. She chastises the other women at the well for not having done the same. She calls up the water from the well effortlessly and carries gallons of that to feed Eliezer’s entire caravan of camels. Oh, this Rebecca is strong and wealthy and beautiful and kind! She is exactly what Eliezer had sought after. He immediately pulls out a wedding ring for Rebecca to wear through her nose…

But was she willing? After all, Isaac has been pretty much a non-entity in this story so far. He hasn’t even talked since Abraham tried killing him as part of a wild game of chicken with God, and seems to spend most of his time wandering about in fields looking contemplative. Yes! She puts on the ring instantly and agrees to marry him, then gets consent from her own family. 

Just a few days later they meet each other for the first time and fall in love. 

Now, isn’t that how relationships are supposed to be? It might seem strange to modern ears, but those were the expectations of our ancestors. A matchmaker, like Eliezer in the Torah, or Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof, would set up a couple. They would come from similar backgrounds in terms of class, status and religion. They would often even be cousins. Their parents arranged the relationship and, once they were together, they built a home and learned to love each other. 

That world was upended with the modern era, when emancipation, urbanisation, and progressive ideals started to change people’s expectations of relationships. In this new reality, people had choices. 

They could leave their village, practise their religion differently, decide not to practise it at all, and marry non-Jews. Women could even have opinions. Fiddler on the Roof speaks to the concerns emerging from that new reality of relationships a century ago. Today, many of those tensions still exist.

Progressive Judaism was, in part, a response to those worries. Jews could have rejected modernity and held tight to the old ways of doing things in the time of Rebecca and Isaac. Jews could have rejected Judaism and embraced modernity, leaving behind all the traditions and texts in the past. 

Or we could find a middle way, our way, that embraced modern relationships and traditional Judaism under one chuppah. This is what we have done. We have come to celebrate interfaith partnerships, second marriages, non-conformists and unusual relationships. Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava would all be able to find a home in our synagogue. 

We  are finding new ways to embrace the realities of modern relationships and families. Our synagogues today are becoming welcoming places for single parents, people who have chosen not to have children, couples who have no intention of marrying, blended step-families and a whole host of other options. It should be a point of pride that we accept people as they come, in all their diversity.

Yet something is making a comeback that would have surprised the cast of Fiddler, and even a previous generation of Progressive Jews. Matchmaking is on the way into fashion. Yes, the matchmaker, matchmaker is back. The majority of people meet their partners because they are introduced by friends or coworkers, like Yelta and Eliezer of the past. The role of families in matchmaking may have declined, but the practice itself continues.

Personally, I’m thrilled about this development. I love matchmaking. There is an old superstition that someone who matches three couples will merit a place in the World to Come, and I boast that I can sin as much as I like now.

When the first national lockdown began, I worked with my housemate to put together a ‘Love is Blind’ matchmaking experiment, where we paired people up based purely on personality, without them getting to see each other. Nearly a year later, one of our matches is still a couple going strong. As the new national lockdown begins, we’re doing the same enterprise again; this time introducing people for dates via Zoom.

It’s just a bit of fun to help our friends pass the time, but it tells us something important about relationships in the 21st Century. Of course, modern matchmaking has to celebrate relationships in all their diversity. The old model of putting together a man and a woman to make babies doesn’t fit anymore. One of the reasons matchmaking fell out of fashion was that that style of connecting people was coercive and stifling.

But we can still connect people, if we do away with the prejudices of the past. Modern matchmaking takes a proudly pro-LGBT stance, reveling in our community’s gender and sexual diversity. Equally, the people we match often don’t expect to find the right person on their first date, and are just as interested in finding friends or casual flings. The idea of a bashert – a single partner who will fulfill someone’s needs for life – is no longer so significant to people. 

Society has already adapted to that change. I’m sure that Progressive Judaism will find ways of doing the same. Ultimately, what we most want to retain is that people can be loved and accepted, no matter how they choose to live. With that in mind, let us continue to find new ways to celebrate people and the relationships they have. That is the true Jewish tradition.

I gave this sermon on 14 November 2020 for Parashat Chayyei Sarah at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

sermon · social justice · torah

The soul of a stranger

 

1998 is imprinted in my mind as a critical turning point in Jewish history. 

Those who remember it are already nodding sagely in recollection of this key moment of reconciliation between Jews and others. It opened up the Jewish community to being more accepting of difference and showed that Jews had been visibly and publicly embraced.

It was, of course, the year Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest. Like many families across Europe, mine stayed up late watching the results come in. They were as expected – Dana had stormed the public vote. 

Dana. Jewish. Yemeni. Israeli. Glamorous. Melodious. Trans. 

Dana was a trans woman who had already made her name in the underground gay clubs of the Mediterannean and the Middle East. In some places, her albums had been sold illegally and discreetly. 

At that time, trans people had no legal protections in any country. In popular media, they were exclusively the butt of jokes or objects of fear. There were very few public pundits who were trans or even willing to advance their cause. 

But now, all of a sudden, she burst onto television screens to accolades, as if the world might finally be ready for latent queer liberation. Her victory wasn’t just a win for a pop star; it was a statement about what could be. 

For me, it was mostly a watershed moment in Jewish history because it transformed the communal discussion about LGBT acceptance. British Jews celebrated Dana’s win as a win for Jews and a sign of our integration in Europe. At Purim that year, aged 10, I dressed up as Dana and danced around on the bimah.

This snapshot in LGBT Jewish history stands in sharp contrast to this week’s Torah portion. Here, we read: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Eternal One your God detests anyone who does this.” This has become known as one of the ‘clobber verses’ – words from Torah quoted at lesbian, gay, bi and trans people to oppress them. 

In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov warns that men will dress up as women in order to sneak into their private women-only spaces. This is precisely the argument used today to exclude trans women, presenting them as sexual predators and imposters. 

If anything, today’s discourse is far worse, since the Gemara ultimately rejects this argument, but such bigotry is often allowed to stand unchallenged in our newspapers, radio call-ins and TV debates. In fact, in the last few weeks, Members of Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Piers Morgan, JK Rowling and a number of other high profile figures have banded together to criticise what they term ‘transgender ideology.’

Defendants of trans women have spoken up to insist that they are not ‘men masquerading as women,’ but simply people seeking to live their own authentic lives. 

I think, however, this defence is too constricting. There is nothing wrong with men dressing as women or women dressing as men. One of the strongest messages of the trans movement has been that gender need not be a prison. I personally have built on my childhood success imitating Dana by dressing up as Amy Winehouse and Lily Montagu for the last two Purims. 

Trans people belong to a broad spectrum of people who don’t feel like their gender identity matches with what society assigned them at birth. They have diverse ideas about who they are, but shared experiences of people trying to force them to conform to a mould they do not fit.

I hope that by promoting those who do not fit the mould we can reconsider the mould altogether. There are so many ways to be a man, to be a woman, and to sit in the spaces in between.

Our communities should be strong enough to include everyone, regardless of gender presentation and identity. We should be able to accept and celebrate the myriad of gender variance today, as we did for Dana twenty years ago.

It is disappointing that what, in the late nineties, seemed like the inevitable advancement of trans rights, is now being pushed back by a toxic alliance. While other parts of society can have their own arguments, I feel it is important that Progressive Jews position ourselves firmly on the side of inclusion. 

Thankfully, I am not alone. Last month, Reform Judaism’s outgoing senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, wrote alongside a leading Anglican bishop: “We believe that trans people, like every other person, have every right to be cherished, and protected by society and in the gender in which they choose to live. Our faith compels us to speak up for those on the margins, those whom others would seek to silence or misrepresent.”

This, you must understand, is not simply a matter of our liberalism trumping our Judaism, but is deeply rooted in our understanding of what Judaism requires of us. We do not believe that the Torah is God’s infallible word, but that it is a text, written by men, aiming to understand how best to live an ethical life. As a human work, it contains human biases, including sexism and what we would today term ‘transphobia.’

Instead of living by the letter of ancient words, we use them as the basis to interpret, through our own limited human experience, what morality requires of us today. Joy Ladin, a trans woman and Jewish biblical scholar, argues that while the verses criticising gender non-conformity are sparse, the commandment to know the soul of a stranger is repeated throughout Tanach.

She writes: “The commandment to know the soul of the stranger is more than a summons to social justice or a reminder not to do to others the evil that others have done to us. Knowing the soul of the stranger is part of the spiritual discipline required for a community to make a place for God. […] God commands the Israelites to hitgayer, to identify with the experience of being strangers so that they will know the soul of the stranger – the stranger who dwells among them, the strangers they are, the stranger who is God.”

It is on this deeply Jewish basis that we seek trans inclusion in our Jewish communities. We are commanded to know the soul of the stranger. We are called upon to make our synagogues not just places where words of Torah are heard, but where they are lived, so that our buildings are homes for people of all genders. 

May we all know the soul of a stranger, and may all strangers know that our hearts are with them.

Shabbat shalom. 

dana-international.jpg.750x400_q85_box-0,35,431,265_crop_detail

I will give this sermon on Saturday 29th August for Parashat Ki Teitzei at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

 

 

high holy days · judaism · torah

Not everything must be forgiven

Not everything must be forgiven.

Earlier in the year, I went to a Holocaust Survivors Centre to deliver a service. After we had sung songs, discussed Torah and celebrated the day, I went to join some of the survivors to eat.

We sat and chatted. They were all elderly, but brimmed with life. These refugees, mostly women, who had survived camps and treacherous journeys to get here, seemed to possess a vitality I rarely saw in people my own age.

They talked about their grandchildren, their local community and their synagogues. But they wasted no time getting to the really gritty questions. “Why should I believe in God after what happened to us?” “Did God let that happen to us?” “Do you believe in an afterlife?” I bashfully tried to answer their questions, often replying that I did not know.

But then one of them asked a question to which I did know the answer. To which I was in no doubt. She asked me: “Do I have to forgive the Nazis?”

“No,” I said. “No you do not have to forgive the Nazis.”

I did not cite a Torah verse or a scholar or a halachah. I just said no. There are things that are unforgivable, and I was taken aback at even the suggestion that a survivor could forgive the Nazis for what they did.

Not everything must be forgiven. Not everything should be forgiven. Not everything can be forgiven.

We have reached Elul. The new month has begun and we have entered the last lunar cycle of the year, taking us through to Rosh Hashanah. This is our season of contemplation and reflection; of apology and of forgiveness. In this time, it is natural that we want to unburden ourselves of the guilt we have clung to.

Forgiveness is supposed to be the release of resentment and vengeance when we feel we have been wronged. With it ought to come a feeling of relief and a sense of restitution in the world.

Yet, so far, I have encountered far more people struggling because they cannot forgive than because they cannot apologise. I think it is important to stress: you do not have to forgive everything and you cannot be expected to forgive everyone.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah taught: “for transgressions between a human being and God, Yom Kippur atones, but for transgressions between human beings, Yom Kippur does not atone, unless the wronged party forgives.”[1] Judaism has no absolution. Our religion teaches that you must work to earn forgiveness, and guilt cannot be magically removed by prayer.

Even then, there are sins that can never be forgiven. For the most heinous crimes, like murder, even God does not forgive.[2]

We must assume that God does not forgive such an act because no human being could. Murder is irreversible in a way that other acts or not. The murdered person is not alive to forgive; no family member could forgive on their behalf. Even if they could, nobody could reasonably ask the family member of a murdered person to provide forgiveness, because it would take a super-human level of magnanimity.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Moses creates cities of refuge throughout Canaan.[3] In ancient Israelite culture, the relatives of murdered people were not only not asked to forgive. They were expected to kill the killer as a matter of honour. Such a person was called a “blood redeemer.” They were required to avenge their family member’s killer, even in a case of accidental manslaughter.[4]

Moses established the cities of refuge so that the accidental manslaughterer would have somewhere to run. The killer could live there and escape being killed. Although they would need to start a new life, they would not be executed by the blood-redeemer, nor punished by the courts.

What is noteworthy about this system is how compassionate it is. There are times when people commit crimes and there is nobody at fault. Deuteronomy gives the example of a wood-chopper’s axe that backfires and kills a co-worker.[5] In this case, it would be improper to try the killer as a murderer, because there was no malice.

Yet, more importantly, it is compassionate to the victims. It does not ask the victim’s family to abandon their anger, but builds in an assumption that there would be raw feelings that would never be resolved within the court system. Rather than tell them to forgive, Moses establishes systems that mitigate their anger and prevent a cycle of violence.

Moses knew that not everything could be forgiven. That principle follows us through to this day. During the Second World War, Simon Wiesenthal, who was interred in the concentration camps, met an SS officer, who begged his forgiveness. The Nazi, on his death bed, admitted to having killed over 300 Jews by burning down their house and shooting at those who escaped. He said that he needed a Jew to forgive him. Wiesenthal did not.

Over the years, Wiesenthal contemplated whether he should have forgiven the Nazi after all. He wrote to thinkers across the world, including rabbis, philosophers, judges, priests and historians, asking for their view. He collected all their letters back into a volume called ‘The Sunflower’.[6] Of the respondents, not one Jew said he should forgive.

Most of those who said he should forgive replied as Christians, and said they would do as ambassadors for Jesus. Yet there is a more compelling answer offered by Jose Hobday,[7] who was a Catholic priest of Native American descent. He wrote of his experiences as an indigenous person in North America, experiencing genocide and persecution. He explains how those experiences and indigenous spirituality had taught him to forgive, not for the sake of his oppressors, but for the sake of himself. That forgiveness helped him transcend the wrongs that were done to him and his people. That if he did not forgive, it would only make him feel worse.

Yes, if forgiving will make you feel better, then you can do so for your own sake. But believing that you have to forgive when you cannot will only make you feel worse. Sometimes it is necessary for hurt people to hold on to their hurt and not relinquish it through forgiveness.

So, for your own sake, go into this Elul knowing that you do not need to forgive everything. You do not need to forgive those who have not made amends and you do not need to forgive what is beyond your capacity.

Judaism is not about creating perfect people, absolved of blemishes and able to exercise the infinite mercy we expect of God. It is about accepting we are real people, who make real mistakes, learn from them and try to improve. It is about accepting that we are vulnerable people, who are capable of hurting and being hurt, and who might not find resolution in this lifetime.

Work on what you can change in yourself. Apologise for what you have done wrong. Forgive where you can forgive.

But know that not everything must be forgiven. Not everything should be. Not everything can.

Shabbat shalom.

sunflowers

I will give this sermon on Saturday 22nd August at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1]Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[2]Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a

[3]Deuteronomy 19:1-3

[4]Deuteronomy 19:6

[5]Deuteronomy 19:5

[6]Schocken Books, 1970

[7]Chapter 23

judaism · sermon · torah

Why only one God?

Why only one God?

A Jewish scientist finds herself at a conference, presenting a paper. A colleague asks her: “what’s your religion?” Nervous of prejudice, she says: “I’m an atheist.” Her colleague answers: “Yes, but is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?”

As everyone knows, the best jokes are the ones you have to explain. And the very best jokes are the ones you spend a whole sermon unpacking, so strap yourselves in, because we’re going to look at the archaeological and scriptural evidence for why that introduction was, in fact, really funny.

It is a basic assumption of religion in the West that there is one God. Even for those who do not believe, they assume that it is one God in whom they have disbelief. Yet our society is filled with different religions and practices. When we encounter Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Hindus, we assume that underlying the diversity of our doctrines and rituals, there is an underlying unity of belief in a single and universal Being.

But it was not always that way. In fact, the idea of monotheism was novel and contentious throughout the entire development of the Hebrew Bible. The insistence on one God is Judaism’s great innovation, and we have built our monotheism up into an obsession. Knowing God’s oneness is the first commandment.[1] Not worshipping other gods is the second.[2] Worshipping other gods can incur capital punishment.[3] It is treated as an unforgivable crime, on par with murder, and a Jew should choose death rather than worshipping another god.[4] The Deuteronomic insistence on one God has become the centrepoint of Hebrew prayer: “hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God; the Eternal God is One.”[5]

In this week’s portion, Moses exhorts the Israelites: “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”[6]

But why? Why is it so important that there be one God? And why is it so important that the ancient Israelites worship no other? What was so bad about the other nations’ religious practices?

Archaeological excavations help us answer that question.[7] Scientists have dug up altars, shrines, coins and amulets to help us make sense of pre-monotheistic religion. The Canaanites, who preceded the Israelites, had a family of gods: Baal the storm god; Asherah, the fertility goddess; Mot the lord of death; Yam, the judge of the sea; and Moloch, the child-eating fire deity.

This is referenced in Scripture: “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Eternal One hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”[8]

In that case, the issue with polytheism is the unethical behaviour it engenders! The old gods of Canaan required evil practices as part of their worship, like ritual human slaughter. But then why not simply abolish those gods, and leave the others? Or just legislate against those practices but keep the rest of the religion intact? In the mind of the ancient Israelites, there must have been something that directly connected any worship of multiple gods with murder.

Here, archaeology can help us further. Digs from different times show us that polytheism wasn’t suddenly abolished, but fell out of favour when the Israelite religion took off. The Canaanite pantheon reduced down to just a few gods. We can find statuettes representing them at most ancient Israelite Temple sites.

This is backed up by text: Jeremiah condemns the Israelites for baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven and making offerings to Baal.[9] Jeremiah explicitly condemns this because these are the ways of the Egyptians, who held them in slavery. Idol worship, says Jeremiah, means keeping up the practices of theft, murder and lying.[10] It is not just that the old gods require ritual murder, but that their whole religion is based on an Empire that was built on it. Idols are the symbols of captivity.

This point was finally hammered home when Jerusalem was destroyed and Nebuchadnezzar took the Israelites hostage in Babylon. After Ezra led the return to the Land of Israel, we can find no more evidence of idols or their shrines. The people abandoned them altogether.

What could have been more convincing that idols were the work of murderous empires than exile in Babylon? The Israelites saw first-hand how looting, murder, war, conscription and sieges were built into imperial expansion. We know that the Babylonians used their pantheon as a way to legitimise their colonisation, as they brought the local gods of conquered people into their own cult and placed them in inferior positions. We know that the emperors turned themselves into gods and made people throughout their lands worship them.[11]

All those gods in Israelite minds became death-gods. The only way to truly abandon the ways of the oppressors in Babylon and Egypt would be to uproot the idolatrous shrines and eliminate the pagan pantheon altogether.

Monotheism was an act of resistance to these corrupt ways.

God’s unity was not a mathematical question but a moral one.

The One true God could not be co-opted into imperialism because it was universal: no one nation could control it. No ruler could declare himself to be that God because God had no flesh or form. And whereas the many gods constructed hierarchies and different customs for different places, with monotheism came ethical universality.

That is why one God was so important then, and why it remains so important now. God’s unity continues to represent the unity of human beings and the refusal of the faithful to be dominated. So, in answer to the question: “is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?” the atheist could happily answer “neither.” And I will gladly answer “both.” They are One.

Shabbat shalom.

Asherah-figurines
This is a photo of Asherah statuettes, which have been excavated at almost every ancient Israelite cultic site prior to Ezra’s Great Return

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s weekly newsletter, and will deliver it for Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Saturday 15th August 2020, Parashat Reeh.

[1] Deut 5:6

[2] Deut 5:7

[3] Ex 22:20

[4] Yoma 82a

[5] Deut 6:4

[6] Deut 12:2-3 NIV

[7] All references to archaeology in this sermon are derived from ‘The Bible Unearthed’ by Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman

[8] Deut 12:29-31 NIV

[9] Jer 7:5-19

[10] Jer 7:8-11

[11] cf Dan 2

climate change · judaism · social justice · torah

Pass on this Earth to your children

‘Tell your children that this land will be theirs to hold in custody,’ cried out Moses to the Israelites on the precipice of the Promised Land. [1] ‘Tell them to guard it and look after it because you could not. Tell them we brought them here that they would love and care for every plant and tree, but we were not allowed to enter because we were too accustomed to slave mentality. We were too mistrusting and selfish. But our children, we hope that they will have faith. We hope that they will be strong. We hope that they will look after this earth.’

‘Tell your children to tell their children,’ Joel wailed to the elders. ‘Tell them about the environmental destruction we witnessed. Tell them how we saw droughts and crop shortages. Tell them how we saw fertile land turn barren. Tell them how we saw everything devoured and nothing remain. Tell them how we saw famine lead to war and war lead to plagues. Tell them that we knew it was our fault.’[2]

‘Tell your children,’ the prophets said, ‘not to make our mistakes. Tell them to treat every part of the earth as if it is sacred. Tell them to care for the planet because if they destroy it, nobody will come to repair it after them.[3] Tell them that there is only one world and it is precious and it must be sustained. Tell them not to pillage it but to work in harmony with nature.’

And the elders wept. The religious leaders cried before their altars. Even the animals cried out for salvation from God. And the chieftains sulked in their tents and asked: ‘does this mean that God hates us? What have we done to deserve this?’[4]

Scripture records the words of the prophets and elders, but we do not learn how the children responded. What did they say when their elders told them these lessons? History rarely records the words of the young, even on issues of intergenerational justice. Especially on issues that affect the youth more greatly.

During the last uprising of Extinction Rebellion, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg preached to his congregation. He said: “in the synagogues, the elders are asking ‘where are the youth?’ But in the streets, the youth are asking ‘where are our elders?'”[5]

Young people are calling on us to take action for the environment. Their voices matter deeply, especially when the issue is the future of the planet. Climate change presents us with an unprecedented threat, and we are positioned as the elders scorned by the prophets.

I know that the people of my generation and older are not individually responsible for the climate crisis, but that it is a matter of systemic inequality and exploitation of natural resources.

Nevertheless I am increasingly conscious, as a parent, of what the next generation will inherit. Winona LaDuke, a Jewish-Native American activist from an indigenous reservation in Minnesota, urges us: “Be the ancestor your descendants would be proud of.”[6]

We cannot become such people if we don’t heed the call of the greatest call to intergenerational justice facing us. We cannot simply hide our faces in our homes like the elders confronted by Joel.

Of course, this congregation cannot take sole responsibility for ending economic reliance on oil or for replenishing the earth’s devastated ecosystems. But J and S have come to us with practical and necessary actions that we can take.

These students in our bar mitzvah programme have come to encourage us to take serious action. After only a year of teaching them, I have been so impressed by the intelligence, integrity and sensitivity of these young men. They will both become bnei mitzvah at Pesach time. As part of their studies, they have each taken on social action programmes.

J is asking you to recycle your plastic by making eco bricks. I hope that over this summer, every household in the Three Counties will return at least one eco brick to J in support of his project. J will also be appealing to the synagogue council, to ask them to make eco bricks part of the Mitzvah Day project this year.[7]

S is asking you to plant trees and sponsor his work with the Woodland Trust.[8] I encourage every member of the community to support S in some way, either by offering financial support or a place to plant. These projects are practical, necessary and helpful.

Joel tells us that the old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions.[9] In the future he prophesied, the generations were not adversaries in blame and despair, but companions in hope. The young people are offering us an opportunity to join them in healing our damaged planet. Let us take up their call.

Shabbat shalom.

introfigsm-m
This painting is by Winona LaDuke’s mother, Betty

I gave this sermon on Saturday 25th July at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Devarim. This was my last sermon for the community. The names of the children are redacted for obvious  reasons.

[1] Deut 1:39

[2] Joel 1

[3] Kohelet Rabbah 7:13

[4] Deut 1:27

[5] Heard at New North London Synagogue, summer 2019

[6] https://www.mtpr.org/post/winona-laduke-be-ancestor-your-descendants-would-be-proud

[7] https://www.ecobricks.org/

[8] https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/

[9] Joel 2:28

judaism · sermon · torah

Whose hearts will turn?

A scorpion asked a frog to carry it across the river on its back. The frog said: “Absolutely not. If I carry you, you will sting me.” The scorpion replied: “If I do that, we will both drown. It goes against my interests.” Reluctantly, the frog agreed and let the scorpion onto its back. They began swimming without a problem. Then, midway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog anyway. The dying frog asked the scorpion: “Why would you do that? Now we’re both going to die.” The scorpion replied: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

This famous animal fable, originally from 20th Century Russia, speaks to something both familiar and uncomfortable about the world. We know that people, no matter how much they want to change, often end up hurting others and themselves as if motivated by a fundamental nature.1 But the story is also problematic. It suggests that people have fundamental characters that cannot be overturned. Such a perspective is incompatible with religious Judaism, which teaches that everyone can change.

It is with this in mind that I read the opening of our parashah: “God hardened Pharoah’s heart. God hardened the hearts of everyone around him.”2 Literally, God made their hearts heavy, weighted, immovable.

In most places where we read this, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but here, God hardens it.3 This poses a fundamental question for us about free will. Could Pharoah not have repented? Could he not have turned around and told the Israelites they could leave?

The Torah tells us God did this “in order to show these signs among them”.4 Those signs included locusts that swallowed up all the crops, darkness that blinded everyone in Egypt and, ultimately, death to the firstborn. Were these signs, then, unavoidable? Did the ordinary people of Egypt have no choice but to endure these “miracles”?

Ibn Ezra, the great Spanish exegete, reverses the concern. He points out if somebody wants to do wrong, the opportunities will be available to them.5 In other words, God does not prevent people from doing good, but neither does God prevent them doing evil. On this reading, God did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, but simply allowed it to happen. That answer sits well with us theologically: free will must mean the freedom to do wrong. And, partly, this fits with our historical memory. In this week of Holocaust Memorial, we are painfully reminded that God’s gift of free will can be outrageously abused.

But that conclusion seems too ready to resolve discomfort. It glosses over something else we know about history: that when hearts are hard, they stay so. No dictator has ever willingly given up power; no slavemaster has ever freed their slaves without significant pressure.6 Indeed, the price of ending slavery in America was a civil war. In Britain, the slave-owners were paid heavy compensation for their loss of income after more than a century of struggle.

That is not simply because slave owners are evil or dictators are wicked. In truth, every one of them could turn away from their wrongdoing and choose the path of righteousness spelled out by God. But they do not. In Germany, not every Nazi believed in the racist ideology, but all became complicit in its atrocities.7 Like the scorpion who stung the frog even knowing they would both die, the wicked continue in their wickedness, even if they know it is ultimately destructive. And that is because, while they are free, they are fundamentally constrained.

If Pharaoh were to turn around and say that the Israelites were free, he would have every Egyptian landowner at his door demanding what had happened to their possessions. He would have to answer to the Egyptian poor who, despite having nothing, at least had their superiority over the Israelites. There would be immediate chaos and revolution. It is not only people that create immorality, but systems that engender them. Once a system is in place that enables slavery, it is very difficult for any individual to decide they no longer want to own slaves. Pharaoh’s heart is hard, then, not only by choice, but by necessity. It is in Pharaoh’s nature that he must uphold the oppression he has created.

Interestingly, we learn from the Torah portion that the contrary can also be true. As the slaves prepared to leave Egypt “God placed favour in the eyes of the Egyptians” towards the Israelites.8 The Egyptians, the Torah tells us, encouraged the people to leave, handing over to them food, money and clothes.9 While Pharaoh and his courtiers can do nothing but harden their hearts, the ordinary Egyptians are compelled to be supportive. If we remove the possibility that God literally interfered with their freedom, the lesson may well be that there are people who, by their very position in society, find themselves becoming allies in struggles against oppression.

This side of the Shoah is also true. Most places under Nazi occupation handed over their Jews willingly, sometimes enthusiastically, as in Poland. Where Bulgaria’s Jews survived it was not because of the goodwill of the government or their leaders’ unwillingness to participate in the slaughter. Much historical evidence suggests that the contrary was the case. It was because the ordinary people of Bulgaria, their non-Jewish neighbours, decided to show them compassion. These citizens worked against their government and occupying powers to stop the persecution and deportation of Jews.10

If we learn anything from this parashah, it is not that we do not have free will but that some hearts are easier to turn than others. Some people are more naturally our allies than others. Over the last few years, much of the Jewish community has engaged in its campaigning against antisemitism by focusing on the people at the top of the political pyramid, making enemies and allies. It is now becoming clear to most that some of those enemies were not as hostile as imagined, and some allies were not really so friendly.

It is a healthy reminder of the saying from the Mishnah: “Be careful with the powerful for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they will not stand by you in the hour of your distress.”11 This dictum may, unfortunately, reveal itself to be true.

But that should not cause us to despair. While the top of the pyramid may be unstable, we can count on the strength of its base. Our allies are the same people they have always been. They are our neighbours, our colleagues, the people who we see every day. They are the people who stand up to racism when they see it on public transport and on the street. They are the ordinary citizens of Britain, with whom we have built strong relationships over many years. Through our solidarity and interactions with them, we can build up the strength not only to overcome the prejudice against us, but against everyone. Together with Muslims, immigrants, foreigners, disabled people, LGBT people, Black people and all those who face discrimination, we can work together to defeat intolerance. And we will succeed. It’s in our nature.

pharoah prince of egypt

I gave this sermon for Parashat Bo on Saturday 1st February at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue

1 cf Lasine, Weighing Hearts

2 Ex 10:1

3 Rashbam to Ex 10:1

4 Ex 10:1

5 Ibn Ezra to Ex 10:20

6 cf Frederick Douglas: “power concedes nothing without a demand”

7 cf Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichman in Jerusalem’

8 Ex 11:3

9 Ex 12:33-36

10 cf Todorov, the Fragility of Goodness

11 Pirkei Avot 2:3

sermon · torah

Are we supposed to like Joseph?

Are we supposed to like Joseph? Are we supposed to find him endearing?

Are we supposed to cheer for him as the story progresses? Because, honestly, I find it hard.

He is the protagonist for more than half of the Book of Genesis. Other than Moses, nobody in the Torah gets as much airtime as Joseph. So you would think that the hero of our story would be a bit more, well, heroic. Instead, in this week’s parashah, Joseph comes across as pretty conceited.

It is one thing that his father made him a colourful coat to show Joseph that he was the favourite. He can’t help that. Such blatant favouritism is probably bad parenting on Jacob’s part. It’s not something that Joseph had any control over. But did he have to wear the coat? Did he have to wear it all the time?

The very first thing we hear about Joseph is that he snitches on his brothers to Jacob. He follows them around while they’re working and then runs back to their dad to tell on them. When we hear that Joseph’s brothers wouldn’t talk to him, we can hardly be surprised. What did he think would happen?

And then he has his dreams. He tells his brothers that they were harvesting wheat in the fields, when his sheath stood upright, and theirs all bowed down to his. ‘What could it possibly mean?’, he asks them? Perhaps, Joseph, it means some dreams are better kept inside your head.

Then he has another dream, where he is the shiniest star in the sky, and all the other stars, plus the sun and the moon, all bow down to him. Jacob wastes no time picking up the suggestion that not only are his brothers bowing down to him, but that his mother and father are prostrating themselves too.

Honestly, I know we know how the story ends, and yes it all turns out OK, but it really is hard to sympathise with him. I’m not saying he deserved to be sold into slavery. Nobody deserves that. It was definitely an overreaction on the part of his brothers. I’m just saying that he didn’t really make life easy for himself.

And does he even change? His brothers go on a sincere journey of self-discovery. They learn to feel remorse, to repent, and not to make the same mistakes again. That’s why, when Joseph sets up a test at the climax of the story to see whether his brothers will stand up for Benjamin, they do. Judah even volunteers himself as a slave to defend Benjamin. The brothers learned their lessons.

What does Joseph learn? He endures slavery, false accusations and imprisonment. But in the end he becomes vizier for all of Egypt. And, having reconciled with his brothers, he reassures them that this must have been God’s plan all along. Joseph started out the story believing that he was destined for greatness, and ended it by finding out he was right.

What is the moral lesson we are supposed to gain from Joseph, then? Or, rather, what could Joseph have done differently that I might give a more favourable sermon on him?

The answer, I think, comes from a man who was very similar to Joseph, and yet separated from him by many thousands of years: Oscar Wilde. Like Joseph, Wilde was a youngest brother. Like Joseph, he wrongly spent a long stint in prison. Wilde even had a multi-coloured coat. While other Victorian gentlemen wore drab black suits, Oscar Wilde pioneered the aesthetic movement with purple velvet outfits, colourful corsages and impressive top hats. Most importantly, like Joseph, Oscar Wilde was an individual. He was different, and he knew it.

What differentiated Wilde from Joseph was that Wilde had a much better analysis of his situation. Wilde knew that he was an individual, and he did not try to change that. But he also knew that the hostility to his individualism came from inequality.

In 1891, inspired by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde wrote his only major political work, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’. In it, he rails against the reality that individual expression, through art, poetry and philosophy, is only the preserve of a privileged few, while the poor are required to toil in repetitive drudgery. This inequality, he argues, means that most people never access their individualism, and so despise those who are privileged enough to be able. In a startling polemic, he calls for the abolition of private property altogether.

I think his analysis is really correct. We know that groups need individuals. But it is equally true that the individual needs the group. Human beings are pack animals, and we need to find some collective expression if we are to have any chance of standing out as individuals.

Perhaps, then, Joseph wasn’t so bad. He was a product of his circumstances. Had Jacob treated all the brothers with equal love and nurtured what was special in all of them, there might not have been such a need for bitterness and jealousy. Joseph may have been able to dream his dreams in a position of humility, and fulfil his destiny without infuriating everybody else. Granted, it wouldn’t have made such a good story, but I’m not aiming for good literary tension here.

And yet what we have really is a good story. Part of the reason why I find Joseph so objectionable is because I find him so relatable. I know I am prone to all the same behaviours for which I have criticised Joseph. I know that I can just as easily bluster my way through life and try to stand out. The Torah tells us this story because it is telling us something honest about ourselves.

And yet Oscar Wilde is also right. The problem is not that one person should want to express themselves, but that not everyone should feel able. As Liberal Jews, we prize the individual and we give great value to people’s personal expression. 

As a community, Harrow is now in the process of deciding who to recruit as your new rabbi. Like every community in a similar position, you are faced with an impossible task. You will want to find someone who is energetic, but experienced. Traditional but innovative. And, as in the protagonists of this story, individual but able to be part of a collective. 

Often conversations about this focus on who the individual should be and what they should do. The truth, as we learn from this story, is that it’s never just about one person. It’s about the culture we build as a community. It’s about how people work and grow together.

Let us not only ask that everyone feel able to live their own Jewish journey, but go further and ask how we collectively empower each other to journey together.

Shabbat shalom. 

Wilde

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vayeishev on Saturday 21st December at Harrow Mosaic Liberal.