article · high holy days · judaism · sermon · social justice · torah

Living up to our ethical calling

If a woman steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving family, has she really done anything wrong?

This moral question is familiar. We have heard it before. We hear the question and all of us intuitively answer “no.” Nobody would hold her guilty.

And I don’t dispute that gut reaction. When it comes to matters of morality, the answer our conscience automatically gives is usually the right one. But what does this answer tell us? What does it mean about ethics?

The question is, in fact, first asked and answered in the Book of Proverbs: “Nobody hates a thief who steals to satisfy hunger.” (6:30) It is the Bible itself, where we also read “thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) that tells us that, of course, we would not hold it against a starving person to steal.

Perhaps, we might conclude, there are limits to the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we should see the sixth dictum not to steal as a guideline rather than a rule. We might even conclude that there is no absolute morality, because there will always be exceptions and extenuating circumstances to mitigate against our moral judgements.

For me, that answer doesn’t feel right. It is not that no sin has been committed, but that a far greater one is hiding in the fact that the very question has been asked. What we should really ask is: how is it possible that this woman’s family is starving? Who has permitted poverty to even exist? That is the moral question facing us.

In these days of awe and religious introspection, most of us focus on our own conduct throughout the year. We wonder how much we have exhibited kindness and generosity since we last stood in synagogue and pledged to do better. But the sound of the shofar calls us to a far greater reckoning than just the state of our own souls. The High Holy Days call on us not only to take responsibility for our own actions, but for the state of our society.

The prophet Isaiah, whose haftarah we read on Yom Kippur, called us to exactly this accountability. He pours scorn on the Israelites’ prayers: “Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness.” (58:4) He tells them in no uncertain terms what is required of them: “Loose the fetters of wickedness. Break the yoke. Give bread to the hungry and homes to the poor.” (58:6-7)

The early Jewish reformers treated this text as the springboard for their theology. Scripture, they argued, was not primarily interested in the minutiae of ritual observances like kashrut and keeping shabbat. God’s direction to the Jews was to perfect the world through the pursuit of social justice.

That demand remains just as relevant today. Our prayers may be beautiful. Our services may be meaningful. We might read the Torah with feeling and precision. But all of that is utterly worthless if it doesn’t direct us towards an ethical life.

But Isaiah is also doing something far more radical. He is transforming morality from an individualistic concern with one person’s behaviour into a collective expectation of equity. Isaiah’s insistence on food for the hungry and houses for the homeless only makes sense if it is directed at society as a whole. Nobody in the peasant smallholder society of ancient Israel would have the power to do that on their own. Isaiah’s is a fundamentally political prophecy.

The moral task of the Jew, then, is not the relatively easy requirement that the comfortable should not steal, but an urgent calling to dismantle poverty entirely.

Never before in my lifetime has that felt so important in Britain. Today, there are well over 2,000 food banks in our country. Academics warn that they are becoming so institutionalised that we may well soon accept these symbols of poverty as normal. They were created to fill the gap left by savage cuts to the welfare to which people were once entitled. Some experts warn that they may soon replace benefits altogether.

When critics call our state today Dickensian, they are not exaggerating. The diseases of poverty-stricken Victorian England are back on the rise. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever and malnutrition are making a very unwelcome comeback. None of us can deny having noticed more rough sleeping, cramped housing or slum-like living conditions.

We cannot blame this increase in poverty on personal failings when there are such clear structural causes. Joblessness and housing shortages; austerity and recession; political policies. These are the causes of inequality in Britain, the world’s fifth richest nation. Individual action alone will never come close to remedying these ills.

Poverty in Britain today is both a political choice and a moral disgrace. As we pray in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we must pay attention not only to our own conduct but to our whole country’s. We must be prepared to live up to the true ethical calling advanced by our tradition. The responsibility rests on us to make sure that poverty is completely eliminated forever.

Nobody should ever have to steal to feed a starving family. Nobody should ever have a starving family.

dickens england

I wrote this sermon for Liberal Judaism’s Days of Awe series

high holy days · judaism · sermon · social justice · theology · torah

On this day, you were created

On this day, you were created.

Although your body was born into this world at a different place and time, today is the day that you were created. This is the day that the part of you that makes you more than a body was born.

On this day, your soul was created. Our Creator had already formed light and darkness, separated water from land, built mountains and rivers, and introduced every living thing from the fruit fly to the tiger onto our planet. Then, on the sixth day, God created you. Today is the anniversary of the day when God crowned the completion of the world by making humanity.

You are already familiar with the story of the first human beings. They were created out of red mud and holy fire. Perhaps you do not yet know that, on this day, God also created every soul that would ever live.[1]

Back then, at the very beginning of our history, God took all the souls of everyone who would ever live around the Garden of Eden. Your soul saw how perfect the world could be, and your Creator instructed you.[2]

“This is the moral truth that I have established for all time,” God said to these souls. “You shall not kill. You shall not hurt animals. You shall pursue justice. You shall create a haven of love and honour.” And you, the part of you that absorbs truths that can’t be understood only with limbs and eyes and senses, took in those teachings.

When you were born, you may have forgotten what the Garden looked like. You may not remember the sound of the voice of your Creator. But ever since birth, your soul has clung to your body, reminding you of right and wrong.

That is, of course, just a story. Few Liberal Jews would say that it was an authoritative account of history. But this aggadic midrash, which appears in many rabbinic traditions, points to something that, to me, feels intuitively true. Our moral claims are real. When we say that murder is wrong or that love is right, we are not simply offering opinions about our personal preferences. We are describing transcendental facts about the universe.

There was a time when few people questioned that morality was real. While Greek philosophers and biblical prophets may have understood the origins of morality differently, or disagreed about their ethical applications, everyone agreed on a fundamental truth. Morality was meaningful.

Centuries of thought have sought to undermine that claim. Sociologists have argued that, instead, morality is simply a set of rules that human beings have developed to function in civilisations. Psychologists have shown that our brains are just machines responding to positive and negative stimuli. Many of the advancements in the name of science have reduced us to amoral automatons.

In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is an affirmation of a fundamental religious truth. This world was given to us as an act of love by the Source of all righteousness. We were born imprinted with an innate sense of how we can bring this world closer to Heaven, or to turn it into a living Hell. This ancient ritual embodies our tradition that humanity was created in the image of God, endowed by our Creator with a profound sense of right and wrong. That belief may not be provable, or even rational. It speaks to something that goes beyond reason.

When we blow the shofar, it is not supposed to sound pretty or musical. It is supposed to sound like an anguished cry. It is the wailing of all creation, calling on the soul to attention. It is a reminder of the truths we learnt in the Garden of Eden, long before our bodies were born.

I believe, I have to believe, that all people do have consciences. Against all evidence to the contrary, I want to believe that people do know good from evil, and do strive to choose good. I know that we don’t always. Most of the time, when we err, it’s because we have been too hurried or caught up in our own struggles to see that a more righteous path is possible. Sometimes we can all make mistakes from callousness or indifference.

But there is a type of evil that people can only do if they wilfully ignore their own consciences. There are evil acts that are cruel and calculated. Such acts can only be performed out of sheer moral nihilism.

It is with that in mind that I read news coming in from the USA. Across the Mexican border, the American president has built holding centres, where migrants seeking a better life are incarcerated. So terrifying are these spaces that some have dubbed them ‘concentration camps’.

We have seen videos emerge of dehydrated women crying out from glass boxes, yelling to journalists: “ayudame! Ayudame!” Help me. Help me. We know that the children in these camps have been denied beds. They are kept awake all hours, never granted the respite of darkness to sleep. Trump’s attorney general has denied that these children need toothbrushes or soap. They do not have adequate food. They have no access to lawyers.

One month ago, Trump’s administration announced that all these practices were legal. They did not even try to claim that these camps were moral. They simply stated that the people living in these camps deserved their suffering, because they were illegal. They crossed the border. They broke the law. These are the consequences for people who are no longer perceived to be human.

How can we talk about these actions as anything other than immoral? If we reject the spiritual truth of moral realism, we leave these camps as a matter of opinion. Whether people should be held in these conditions becomes simply a matter of personal preference. Worse still, we can reduce it to clinical policy choices, with cost-benefit analyses of how worthwhile it is to give prisoners toothpaste.

It is not out of malice that I say I believe those running these camps know they are wrong. Quite to the contrary: it is an affirmation of their humanity. Any one of us can commit acts of evil. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there is another way.

A Jewish group called Never Again Action have taken up that role. They are carrying out direct action to disrupt the functioning of the camps.On Tish b’Av, thousands  of them marched for change. As Jews, they perform our people’s sacred task of being the moral voice to all humanity.

These Jewish activists rightly invoke the memory of Auschwitz with their slogan: “never again”. Our communal history teaches the dangers of holding people deemed “illegal” by dint of their existence in camps.

But these activists may also invoke the memory of Eden. As Jews, they may remember a time, on this day, when God brought their souls into the Garden, and taught them the difference between right and wrong. They can call on our centuries of tradition to remind world leaders of their moral obligations.

Many of their supporters have intoned that history will not judge Mr Trump kindly. But who is history, and why should we care what it thinks? Should the leaders of America only care that one day someone will write in a textbook that what they did was wrong?

I believe these appeals to “history” are really secularised versions of a truth that was once well-known: a moral force outside of time is judging us. God is judging us. God takes note of our deeds.

Even the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest military will have to answer. No matter how powerful anyone is, the moral arc of the universe stands higher. The immutable force that teaches us the difference between right and wrong still takes note. And that force, our God, loves us enough to allow us to change.

Despite everything, I believe we all still want to do good. Even for those whose actions are hurting people today, there is still the chance to turn back. Everyone has it in them to turn away from evil and return to the natural state their souls knew when they were first placed in the Garden at the beginning of time.

This new year, may we commit ourselves to remembering what we learnt in Eden. May the sound of the shofar awaken all of our souls.

Shanah tovah. Happy new year.

GardenOfEden

I delivered this sermon at Lincoln Synagogue for Rosh Hashannah on Monday 30th September 2019.

[1] Pesikta deRav Kahana, Piska 23

[2] BT Niddah 30b

judaism · sermon · theology · torah

Does it have to end this way?

“Does it have to end this way?” asks Moses.

“Please, God, I beg you, let me cross the Jordan.”[1]

Forty years of struggle. Forty years of exile. Forty years of wandering. And here Moses stands, on the brink of realising the end of all his labours, only to be denied access.

“God,” says Moses, “you are so strong, so great and so incomparable. Please give me a taste of the Promised Land. Please let me see Lebanon.”

“No,” answers God. “This is enough for you. Don’t speak to me any more on this matter. It’s over.”

How can we feel anything but pity for this great leader, reduced to grovelling as he is faced with death and disappointment?

All that is left in the Torah narrative now, taking us through these last parshiyot of Deuteronomy, is Moses’s final speech and death. Here, in the height of summer, just after Tish b’Av, in the slow climb to Rosh Hashanah, all that is left is to wrap up the story. We join Moses at this juncture, looking back over the wandering in the desert, to the miraculous revelation at Sinai, over slavery in Egypt, back through our ancestors Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, back all the way to God’s creation of the universe. And what do we feel? For all our hope and joy, this part of the story invites mostly longing and despair as we ourselves wonder if the story had to end this way.

The rabbis who devised our lectionary cycle asked the same question. At one time, scholars argue, the Torah was not a Pentateuch – a collection of five books – but a Hexateach – a collection of six. Whereas the Torah we know begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy, a previous version of the Scroll continued into the sixth book of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Joshua.[2]

In Joshua, the Hebrews move into the Land of Israel, conquer it, colonise it and either drive out or subjugate the tribes living there. Some of the stories from this are famous: Joshua’s success in the battle of Jericho, where he tore down the city walls with the sound of the shofar is among the most popular stories we teach in cheder.[3]

For Progressive Jews, it is probably a mercy that we don’t have to regularly read such violent texts today. But from a literary point of view, concluding with Joshua makes far more sense. Concluding here, as we do, with Moses’s demise in Deuteronomy leaves us on a cliff-hanger. Quite literally, as Moses stands on a mountain overlooking the Jordan. We do not know what becomes of the Israelites.

If we ended with Joshua, everything would be wrapped up. The leader dies but the nation is born. The journey is long but the land was reached. If we wanted to make a comfortable, Disney version of the Torah, Joshua would be its climax.

So, why do we today end with Deuteronomy? Do we have to end it this way? Some scholars guess that the answer is yes. In exile, they argue, the trauma of losing the land of Israel was too great. Our rabbis could not stand the great hardship of being removed from their holy land, so they cut off the story early and relegated Joshua to the prophetic texts.

This explanation is highly unsatisfying, and unlikely to be true. The lectionary we have was not devised in the immediate aftermath of exile, when the trauma of dispersion was raw, but in Babylon some time between the 2nd and 6th centuries. During this period, Jews were not outside of the Land of Israel because they were trapped, but because they didn’t particularly want to return. Our rabbis went back and forth between Palestine and Babylon, sharing the teachings of the two communities with each other. Some migrated, but migration out of Eretz Israel to the more prosperous Babylon was more common than the other way around.

The rabbis of the Talmud developed theological positions about their relationship with this country. Some said they were forbidden to move to the Land of Israel. Some said it was only forbidden if they attempted to move en masse. Others said they were entitled. Others still felt it was mandatory.[4]

The reason for such vast divergence in opinion was not simply a tension between their religious text centred on Israel and their economic life in Babylon. It was that Israel, to them, was not simply a location between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, but a symbol of Messianic hope.

Prophets like Haggai[5] and Malachi[6] had assured their ancestors that return to Jerusalem would herald the end of days and the coming of the Messianic age. As a result, the land was more a metaphor for emancipation than a location where they could live.

Israel, Jerusalem, Zion – these words signified something far greater than physical space. They pointed to a time of complete liberation. Arriving there was not reaching a destination but reaching the climax of history – when justice would reign supreme. I believe, then, that the Torah had to end with Deuteronomy not because the Jews were distanced from the land of Israel, but because they were so removed from the vision of social justice that this word symbolised.

In Progressive Judaism especially, that is what this national language signifies. On a theological level, it does not speak to us about aspirations for migration or statehood, but about our sacred task on earth to perfect the world. The Reformers who founded our movement taught that the task of every Jew was to heal what was broken in humanity and advance all of us towards a messianic age of truth and righteousness..

The language of our liturgy reflects this interpretation. In the weekday amidah, we recite that God will build Jerusalem and bring forth a sprouting of justice.[7] Our prayers are structured to give Jerusalem a deep meaning no matter where we live, as a locus for reflection on our hope of living in a world of justice. Jerusalem can stand as a meaningful word to everyone regardless of their political opinions about Zionism and the State of Israel because it does not refer to an earthly city but to a Heavenly kingdom

It was, undoubtedly, this interpretation of the Promised Land that Martin Luther King had in mind when he gave his last speech. Preaching in Memphis, at the height of the black civil rights struggle, that great Christian minister concluded his sermon to his congregation:

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[8]

The next day, he was assassinated. King’s Zion – an America where Black people would live with equality, dignity and safety, was not realised in his lifetime. Nor has it yet been realised in ours. But we can have no doubt that he took the world closer on its journey to that destination.

The story of Moses ended with Deuteronomy. Martin Luther King’s ended in 1968. And what about us? Must our story end this way too? Must we finish our lives glimpsing at the world of social justice to come from the other side of the river, or may we yet cross the Jordan into a world where the whole of humanity is emancipated?

We cannot know what the products of our efforts will be. All we can do is try. Together, without Moses, we the Jewish people must continue to march. And although we can see our endpoint only faintly, we must walk towards it with the certainty that it exists. We must try to perfect the world, hopeful that for somebody, someday, it will not have to end this way.

Shabbat shalom.

cornwall shore
By Malcolm Ludvigsen

I gave this sermon on Saturday 17th August 2019 at Kehillat Kernow, in Cornwall.

[1] Deut 3:25

[2] cf Wellhausen

[3] Joshua 6

[4] Ketubot 111a-111b

[5] Haggai 2:9

[6] Malachi 3:1-4

[7] Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 81

[8] https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

The Fragility of Progress

When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.

The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.

I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”

“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”

She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.

She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.

A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.

Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.

It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.

This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.

Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.

What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.

Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.

History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.

How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?

The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.

The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.

Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”

The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.

But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.

Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.

hopeful sunrise

I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019

sermon · theology · torah

It is not your fault

This week I was sick.

Normally I’d think it self-indulgent to talk about that, but here in Manchester, where Disability and sickness play such a key part in so many congregants’ lives, I think it’s important to discuss it. For those of us with chronic illness and disability, sickness isn’t just something that happens, but something that has multi-layered meanings.

It was just flu. Normally, it wouldn’t be worthy of remark. But I have a spine disease for which I take injections of immunosuppressants, so the flu knocked me out cold. I slept pretty much non-stop for three days. I just ate bread.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, the spine disease I have is made better by exercise and aggravated by inactivity. So after just a day of doing nothing, my joints started to fuse and swell. My back, neck and jaw were in pain.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, sickness is mind-numbingly boring. I feel like a healthy person in my head, and like my body is just getting in the way of all the things I want to do. I looked at my to-do-list, and wondered how a previous me ever imagined I’d have the energy for all of it.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my fault.

No matter how progressive I am, or how far removed those kinds of ideas are from my own theology, I couldn’t escape believing, at some level, that this sickness was a punishment.

It’s not hard to see why. That is a major lesson from this week’s parashah. It concerns צָרָ֑עַת – commonly translated as ‘leprosy’, although it would be better understood as ‘fungal skin disease’.[1] From the sounds of the text, this was quite a common infection that afflicted people. It appeared as white blotches, then disappeared after a few days.

When suspected of having this infection, a person is required to bring themselves before the priest who, after examining it, would declare them impure.[2] The person with this impurity is then completely ostracised. They rent their garments and pull their hair as if in mourning. They go through the streets shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” They are prohibited from living with the others and remain in isolation until all signs of the disease have disappeared.[3] If the infection disappears, the priest performs a sacrificial sin-offering on their behalf to purify them.[4]

What is clear throughout this text is that, if somebody has this kind of sickness, they are morally dangerous. It is not just that their medical state might be infectious; it is that the guilt from the sin they’ve committed might be spread too. By the very fact of being sick, the person with fungal skin disease poses a risk to the entire community.

Their danger comes from the fact that they have done wrong. The Torah makes this even clearer later in the book of Numbers. There, Miriam criticises Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. As punishment, God afflicts her with this very fungal skin disease. She is forced to exclude herself and ritually immerse to cleanse herself of guilt.[5] Clearly, wrongdoing can be punished by sickness in the world of Torah.

In the world of the rabbis, the very fact of becoming sick is evidence of having sinned.[6] The Talmud tells us: “The Sages taught: One who became ill and tended toward death, they say to him: Confess, as all those executed by the courts confess.”[7] More than that, according to Rav Oshaya, just thinking about committing a sin can be enough to bring on skin diseases. This comes as part of an overall sugya that spells out how sins are punished by stillbirth, infant mortality, spousal death, exile and war.[8]

These ideas are, I hope, troubling to the modern mind. We might want to apologise for our forebearers by saying that they couldn’t have known. They didn’t have access to the medical knowledge we do today. They didn’t know where diseases came from or why they spread.

But that doesn’t answer the question: why, knowing all that we do, do these ideas persist? For all our scientific advancements, there is still so much stigma and blame attached to sickness. I began by apologising for even talking on the matter, because just mentioning sickness can feel like a burden. Moreover, despite medical diagnosis and a better understanding of biology than the rabbis, I cannot shake from myself the feeling that my illness is somehow a result of personal failings.

True enough, some aspects of bad health are down to my own actions. Every time I light up a cigarette, I am conscious that I’m endangering my health and making my condition worse. But it’s also interesting how quick people are to ascribe blame when they encounter somebody who is ill. Any sickness of any kind is often attributed to smoking, lifestyle, weight or, failing any of those, just a bad attitude.

It should be unsurprising then, that some of this feeling of blame carries over into our theology. In a culture that seeks to attribute responsibility for sickness onto sick people, it makes sense that people would also imagine that divine retribution plays a role.

I think all these different explanations for sickness – whether in the Torah, the Talmud, or our own society – come out of people’s own fear of lacking control. Ultimately, there is no telling who will get sick, or when, or why. The healthy want to imagine it could never happen to them. The sick want to find some meaning in it all. So we grasp for explanations. We invent reasons and rituals that explain away our fears. In our very human need for order, we imagine that God has some great plan that is being enacted on us.

Part of me wants to leave it there, and say that ultimately the truth about why people get sick is unknowable. Our rabbis did entertain this theory of divine retribution, but they left open others, never arrogant enough to claim they had a hold on absolute truth. As with so many things, questions of suffering are left to the Great Mystery that lies beyond our understanding.

But if we leave the question open, we leave room for an answer that is unconscionable. We leave open the possibility that the God we worship makes children disabled as punishment for the sins of their parents or their own past lives. We allow for the possibility that God exacts vengeance on people’s bodies through cancers and strokes. When we say we don’t know, we run the risk of allowing this dominant discourse of blame to have some strength.

In so doing, we may inadvertently legitimate the punitive measures implemented by governments to assess and control Disabled people. We may feed into sick people’s own narratives of self-hate and despair.

No. There are many things we cannot say with certainty. Faced with suffering, silence is often the best response. But there is one thing we must repeat, over and over again until it is believed: it is not your fault.

It is not your fault.

blame

I gave this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Parashat Tazria, Saturday 6th April 2019.


[1] cf Jacob Neusner, The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism

[2] Lev 13:3-7

[3] Lev 13:45-46

[4] Lev 14:7

[5] Num 12

[6] cf Solomon Shechter, Studies in Judaism

[7] Shabbat 32a

[8] Shabbat 32b-33b

judaism · sermon · social justice · torah

Can we talk about menstruation?

This week’s portion is about menstruation. Listener’s discretion is advised.

When Nathan asked me to sermonise on this parasha, the first thing I said was: “Are you sure? Is this… is this definitely in the lectionary?” I was surprised to even think that it was a topic to discuss.

Yes, it’s there, and there’s no getting round it. I did even try. I looked through the rest of the parasha. The section immediately before it dealt with the defiling force of semen; the one just before with scaly skin diseases. Whatever I did I was going to have to talk about bodily functions, and the one portion for today looks at menstrual blood.

Nathan said: “It’s OK. You don’t have to do it on exactly the topic in the parasha.” Why was it that this topic made us both so uncomfortable? What is it about this very normal and natural process, integral to human reproduction and a big part of many congregants’ lives, that should set it outside of discussion in synagogue?

I know of a senior Liberal rabbi who was so affronted to hear a Bat Mitzvah student speaking on the topic of menstruation that he literally heckled during her sermon. He was embarrassed. So was everybody.

It can’t be that menstruation isn’t a suitable topic for discussion in synagogues per se, because it is right here in the text of the Torah. All over the world, people in different communities will be studying this passage today. It can’t be that this topic is out of place in a Liberal synagogue. If anything, our track record of feminist thought and openness to ideas should make us more willing to talk about difficult topics.

Here’s the reason: menstruation is taboo. It’s taboo for me. It was taboo for that senior Liberal rabbi. It’s so taboo that, at least in the male and mixed spaces I move in, it almost never gets talked about, and when it does, it’s spoken about in euphemisms and hushed tones. It’s that time of the month. I can’t help but feel that the best way to deal with a taboo is to face it head on. If we feel uncomfortable about it, I think, perhaps, the best thing for us to do, is to feel uncomfortable together.

Presumably menstruation also made the redactors of the Torah uncomfortable. As it’s worded in the Torah: when blood comes out of a woman’s body, she is unclean. Not just her, but anything she touches is unclean. The bed she slept on, the chair she sat on. Even if she licks a thread to stitch a garment, that whole garment becomes unclean. Anyone who touches her becomes unclean by association. According to Rashi, if anyone touches her accidentally, they’re unclean for seven days. If they do it deliberately, they can be cast out of the community altogether. It is a very negative reaction.

But more than that – it is punishing. We learn elsewhere in the Torah that if somebody is unclean they have to stay outside the camp. They are to be isolated away from everybody else. They can’t see their family. They can’t participate in Temple rituals. They can’t earn a living or gain social status. Something about menstruation made the authors of this text so uncomfortable that they wanted to exclude women who were bleeding. That was their way of dealing with taboo: to get it out of sight and out of mind.

The first thing anybody will notice is how gendered this is. Unlike other parts of the Bible, which may well include songs and stories by women, the books of Leviticus and Numbers are unambiguously written by men. These are the works of male Temple priests, most likely living in Jerusalem, just before the great Babylonian exile.

These rabbis make a clear connection between women, menstruation and dirt. The Torah text makes that clear, speaking about it in very gendered language. We can compare this to how men are treated for secreting semen. A man would be unclean and kept outside the camp for one day. A woman for seven days. Moreover, the chances of a man having a nocturnal emission are pretty rare. For most adult, pre-menopausal women, menstruating is a monthly event. This means that women would spend most of their lives excluded from society. This is, then, powerful men, telling women who make them uncomfortable that they don’t belong in society.

In the Talmud, restrictions only became worse. The rabbis ruled that a woman couldn’t be considered clean until seven days after her period had finished, whereas the implication of the biblical passage is that it ends seven days after the start. They purposefully narrowed the amount of time women could spend in public space and have sex.

This attitude must, of course, have no place in the modern world. And yet. And yet. Right now, in most Orthodox and many Masorti communities, menstruating women are regulated by the rules of niddah – the Talmudic codification of what women can and can’t do while bleeding. This involves sleeping in separate quarters, not able to see their husbands. It involves ritual immersions to “cleanse” themselves of the “pollutant” of menstruation. It forms a big part of life for many religious Jews.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from it. Many women talk about the joy of the mikveh, the ritual cleansing bath, and the relief of not having to see men when they’re at their most vulnerable. People have made these rules into sources of strength and empowerment. As much as we might acknowledge that, however, this is a practice rooted in patriarchal stigma against women’s bodies.

Even in secular society, the menstrual taboo continues as a major force for controlling women’s lives. The amazing Jewish feminist, Gloria Steinem, writes: “what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could notClearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event. Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day. To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”

She’s joking, of course, and things have come on a long way since the 1980s when she wrote it. But it speaks to an important point: women really are demonised for menstruating. They really are ignored by doctors for it. They really are excluded from power for it, as happened in the rhetoric used against Hillary Clinton when she was running for President. Women’s exclusion for menstruation may not be codified in law today as it was in ancient Israel, but it is still a major barrier to participation in public life.

This has become a key topic for women’s rights campaigners. The result of the taboo on menstruation is that teenage girls are skipping school when they’re menstruating because they fear the risk of bleeding in public, and the shame and stigma attached to that. This is as much a problem in the UK as it is anywhere else in the world.

Over the course of a lifetime, the average woman will spend £18,450 on products for dealing with menstrual blood and pain. On top of all this, thanks to a bizarre policy, sanitary products for menstruation are taxed at 5%. And here’s where the problem goes from tragedy to farce: according to research by the Guardian from the beginning of this month, the money levied by the tampon tax is being used to fund – wait for it – anti-abortionists. The government had pledged to scrap the tax but, in the last budget, decided to instead keep it and distribute some of the money to women’s health charities. Perhaps a noble endeavour, but one of those charities is called Life, which describes abortions as “death penalties” for foetuses, calls aborted foetuses “corpses” and warns young women against terminating their pregnancies. This is not the policy of a backwater fundamentalist country, but something that is happening in Britain right now. Women are paying an unavoidable tax, only to have that money spent on restricting their rights. No wonder feminists are up in arms to end this tax on tampons.

I began by saying this topic made me uncomfortable, and perhaps it made you uncomfortable too. Menstruation may well be a taboo, but what does that taboo do? It stops women accessing public life. It stops girls being able to access school. It costs inordinate amounts of money. There are, unfortunately, girls who still don’t know what periods are until they get their first one and think it is a sign of impending death.

Our silence can be dangerous. Menstruation might make us uncomfortable to talk about, but if we stay silent on it, we could be letting down loads of women and girls. So although it may be difficult, perhaps it’s time to break that taboo.

Shabbat shalom.

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I gave this sermon at South London Liberal Synagogue on 29th April 2017, before I had begun at rabbinical school. When I delivered it, I looked out at the congregation and near panicked. I was especially worried that I would upset the sensibilities of older members. After the service, many of these same older members came up to express their agreement and chime in their concerns about period poverty. It was a real moment of realising how open I could be with a community I knew well. I think, if I were to give the sermon today, I would be far less apologetic.

judaism · sermon · torah

Rest is resistance

“Take a break,” Moses said to the Israelites. “I’ve spoken to God, and we’re both very keen on this: you need to take Saturdays off.”

“Yes, we know, we’ve heard this before,” said the Israelites. “You told us when we were around that mountain. You told us when we were building the mishkan. You said these exact same words only a few weeks ago in another parashah. You don’t need to keep going on about it.”

“I do, though,” said Moses. “It’s really important. I’m telling you now so you get it. 24 hours of rest. 25 if you want to be extra about it. But definitely no less. You need to take a break.”

The Israelites sighed. “We get it. Tell us something new.”

“OK,” said Moses. “Take a break. Or I’ll kill you. I’m serious now. Not resting on Shabbat is punishable by death. If I catch any of you picking up sticks or lighting fires on Saturdays, that’s it. Dead.”

“But why?  Why does this matter so much to you?”

“Because,” said Moses. “For generations, we were slaves. Our whole lives we worked. When our masters had their days off, we still worked, serving them. We broke our backs. We lost touch with what mattered. We forgot how to think. We forgot how to enjoy life. We have a chance here that we’ve never had before. We can build an entirely new society, where the measure of life isn’t how well we work, but how well we rest. If we instill this day of rest with holiness and make it the cornerstone of our society, we can build a community that resists the tyranny of work and the oppression of masters.”

And that was that. Shabbat became enshrined as the hallmark of Jewishness. No more would people exploit each other on their holy days. No more would we be defined by our productivity. Instead, the marker of Jewish observance was how holy we could make this day by refraining from work.

Generations later, our rabbis were faced with a new question. If work was forbidden, what actually was work? Perhaps in the peasant and smallholder society of ancient Israel, it was obvious. But in the new reality of urban living across a wide Diaspora, it was no longer so clear. They needed to know how to make the day holy.

So they looked to this week’s parashah. Here, in this section of Torah, the commandment to honour the Sabbath bookends descriptions of how to build God’s dwelling place. They looked at all the work that must have been involved in creating this momentous desert structure. Lighting fires. Tanning leather. Dying cloth. Joining wood. Polishing stones. Spinning wool. Carrying. Pushing. Lifting. Choosing. Separating. Drawing. Planning.

If this was the work that was required to build God’s dwelling place in ancient times, they reasoned, then abstention would be the way to build God’s dwelling place today. Just as the performance of work was a holy act in the Torah, not doing the same things could be a holy act in our world. Through their interpretation of this text, our rabbis gave new life to the holiness of Shabbat and the value in not working.

This idea has so much relevance to us today. In recent months, an article has been circulating entitled ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.’ It argues that the generation of people now in our twenties and thirties live in a permanent state of overwork and exhaustion. It gives good material reasons why this should be the case. We were born into post-Soviet Thatcherite Britain. The dominant idea was that anyone could work hard enough to become rich, and we were educated in a system that reinforced this. By the time we entered the job market, the country was in recession, wages permanently stagnated, housing became completely unaffordable and job security became a rare luxury. As a result, we are primed with a need to work hard, but the rewards for this seem completely unattainable.

I think the reason this article was so widely shared was because it spoke to many of my peers’ lived experiences. I doubt, however, that the issue is generational. I look at the teenagers I am tutoring for bar mitzvah, and I am overwhelmed by how much pressure is on them. They seem to be constantly examined, overburdened with extra-curricular activities, and pushed to constantly improve their CVs, even from the youngest age.

At the same time, I see friends in their fifties and sixties who are permanently exhausted. I recently asked an older friend how he was doing. He answered that he wasn’t sure if he was tired from sickness or just living out the regular fatigue that comes from working. We are, as an entire society, exhausted and struggling to keep our heads above water.

This systemic problem may feel insurmountable. The people sitting in this room cannot, on our own, redesign society, push wages up, make housing affordable, or transform the labour market. (Much as I my try to push the line that we can.) Yet there is one thing we can do. We can do what our ancestors did when they left slavery and decided to institute their own rules. We can do what our rabbis did when they were confronted with urban living and needed to re-imagine work. That is: we can shift our focus.

Against a culture that sees work as the end of human existence, we can prioritise rest. In a world that demands us to be constantly online, we can switch off. In a society that tells us we are isolated competitors, we can build meaningful community. We can insist that we do not live to work, but we work to live. Our lives do not have meaning because of how productive we are, but because of how much compassion we can put into this world.

Against the crushing pressure of modern capitalism, Judaism continues to issue forth a two-word rallying cry of protest: Shabbat shalom!

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I gave an earlier version of this sermon at Kehillah North London in 2013 for Parashat Vayakahel. I reworked it and delivered it at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Saturday 2nd March 2019.