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.

sermon · torah

Children are a blessing

Children are a blessing.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be in a community with so many children. At Sukkot, it was a precious experience to gather round with the young people as they built the sukkah, then shook the lulav and etrog. Tomorrow, the cheder year will begin and I am so excited to start studying with our young people – from 5-year-olds who will be coming to their first ever class, through to 18-year-olds who have stayed on to offer support. This is the sign of a truly intergenerational community that values its members of all ages.

The Torah goes to great lengths to convey to us just how important children are. At the beginning and end of most of the parshiyot in Genesis, we read a list of descendants, telling us who begot whom from the first human being up until the next point in the story. It is a way of letting us know that Judaism is passed on as an inheritance from generation to generation over great spans of time.

In previous weeks, we read how difficult having children can be. We were confronted with Sarah’s dismay at her inability to have children in her old age.1 We learned about Hagar’s surrogacy, and the ensuing rivalry between Abraham’s two wives.2 The parallel haftarah to that week is of Hannah, who is so desperate to have children that, when she prays in the Temple, the Priest believes she is drunk. The Torah lets us know that children are not something that can be taken for granted. Fertility can be a precarious thing, and children are not always a guarantee.

The Torah communicates its message that children are a blessing. Yet, as this week’s parashah shows, children can be… a mixed blessing. Rebecca and Isaac want to have children, but once they arrive they are fraught with problems. Even in the womb, Rebecca can feel the foetuses kicking at each other and struggling together. It is as if God has only answered her prayer to punish her.3

When they are born, the reason for their strife becomes obvious. In character and demeanour, Jacob and Esau are polar opposites. Jacob was a meek, introverted boy who worshipped God and read books. Esau was a hunter who loved the outdoors.4 I am told by natal doctors that children really are born with personalities. Some come out curious; some terrified; some as if they’re already the life of the party. This tension between different personality types is what makes the Torah, and life itself, interesting.

Immediately, Isaac and Rebecca understand that these different children need different parental approaches. Isaac focuses on Esau; Rebecca on Jacob. They raise them according to their respective strengths. The children are treated as blessings for who they are in their own right, and grow up to blessed in their own ways.

Rabbinic literature takes this idea even further. The midrash teaches in the name of Rabbi Yehudah: “Come and see how beloved small children are by God. The rabbis were exiled [to Babylon], and God did not leave with them. The priests were exiled, and God did not leave with them. Only when the children were exiled did God leave with them.”5 It is as, if, for the rabbis, the very life of a community depends on the presence of children.

So, why all this talk about children? I am certainly not trying to say anything negative about those who cannot have them; still less about those who have chosen not to. Our community is made up of myriads of different households, including loving relationships in many different permutations. All of them are welcome and celebrated in this synagogue. But the issue of children has been forefront of my mind.

In part, this is a donkey story. In her incredible Ted Talk, Rabbi Benay Lappe coins the term “donkey story” to describe how people look into the Torah and see themselves. She begins by quoting her teacher, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, who said, “if donkeys could read Torah, all the donkeys would jump out at them. All the stories about donkeys, they’d see. All the stories that we completely skim over.” Rabbi Lappe says that, in reading Talmud, she saw her own donkey stories: as a woman, a queer person and a radical. Ever since hearing her explain it, I’ve realised that the Torah often reflects back to me my own anxieties and hopes.

Right now, I am about to move in with my best friend, who is expecting a baby. We are both gay, but made the decision some time ago to engage in queer Jewish co-parenting. Or, as most people would call it, parenting. The baby is due (please God) at the end of March. I am both filled with excitement and racked with anxiety. I am excited because the thought of waking up in the morning to put a baby in a sling and take it outside to pray shacharit with me fills me with a joy I can’t decribe. I am excited because I had for so long imagined that parenting was something restricted to straight people and that it would never be something I was allowed to do.

And I have all the anxieties that people normally do when expecting children, like being able to afford them, spend enough time with them, keep them healthy, pass on enough Jewish knowledge without too much Jewish trauma and create a loving home.

Yet there is an anxiety I have that I had not expected. Just as I see children everywhere in the Torah, I also see how unfriendly so many spaces are to children and parents. For the first time, I walk into familiar meeting rooms, classes, and buildings and wonder how welcome I would be in them with a child. I am realising how many spaces I have created where I thought about how the experience would be for almost everyone, except families.7

I now come to synagogue and ask the same questions. How are children being treated here? As a blessing, or as an inconvenience? As participants in services, or as distractions from them? Are all kinds of families welcomed fully, or are they merely tolerated?

And, of course, welcoming people of all ages is not easy. The haftarah this week has an obvious link to the parashah, in that it talks about Jacob and Esau, but there is a more subtle link at the end. Malachi’s last words, the last words of all prophecy, are that parents need to turn their hearts towards their children and children towards their parents.8 Both need to acknowledge each other for successful community.

There will always be conflicts between the needs of some and the needs of others. Some people come to synagogue wanting nothing but peace and quiet, while others – especially children – will want to make as much noise as possible. Building truly intergenerational community requires all of us to make compromises, and for everyone to adjust slightly.

I recently witnessed a good model for this at Westminster Synagogue, an independent shul that split from West London Reform Synagogue. At this very posh place in Kensington, congregants are immediately greeted with small cards on their seats that give small pointers on how to make young and old feel welcome in the space. The card encourages older people to show children where we are, tell them about what the service means, and point out to them the ritual objects, like tallits, ner tamid, aron kodesh and rimonim. At the same time, it encourages parents to make full use of the space, including taking children outside and into the lobbies if they need to.

As a community, I hope we might be able to have conversations and reach our own conclusions about what compromises everyone can make so that this synagogue is as welcoming to everyone as it should be. We are already doing very well. I have been to synagogues where there were no children at all. I have worked in synagogues where there are no older people at all. We are doing really well by the simple fact that people are already here. If we want to move to the next stage as a community, we need to discuss not just how we get people here, but how we make sure everyone feels at home here.

May everyone who comes to this community know that they are truly a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

kids and animals

I gave this sermon at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Toldot on 30th November 2019.

1 Gen 18:11-15

2 Gen 15:1-6

3 Gen 25:21-22

4 Gen 25:27-28

5 Eichah Rabbah, 1:33

7Two books have been especially helpful for thinking about this: “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” by China Martens and Victoria Law; and “Rad Dad,” by Tomas Muniz and Jeremy Adam Smith.

8Malachi 3:24

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

What does it take to destroy a city?

Sometimes a city must be destroyed.

Sodom was one of those cities. Sulphurous fire rained down from Heaven. The cities and the entire plain were laid waste.[1] Afterwards, all that was left of this once great city was hot smoke rising from its ashes.[2]

Abraham came the next day and saw the wreckage: hissing steam trailing upwards with little evidence that there had ever been a city there, let alone one teeming with human beings.

Had there been human beings there? Abraham had been told that the city must be destroyed. And he had negotiated with God. God, usually so terse with words, had permitted him lengthy bargaining.

“If I find fifty righteous people, will you destroy the innocent of this city with the wicked? … If I find forty-five righteous people, will you destroy this city…? If I find thirty, will you destroy…? If I find twenty… Ten…”[3]

Ten. Ten righteous people is all it would have taken to defend this place from destruction.

Abraham’s stomach churned as he imagined what later generations might say. Some would say it was a myth; that Sodom had never existed. Worse, some would argue that it was destroyed because they were gay. Small-minded people who wanted to shrink God tiny enough to fit inside people’s bedrooms. Bigoted people who wanted to justify their own bigotry.

They would have to understand that God did not take the death of humanity so lightly. This was not a place where consenting adults slept with each other. It was a rape culture, where sexual violence was normalised and celebrated.

In that city, the people saw two angels of the Holy One stay the night in one home and immediately went to hurt them. Within moments of their arrival at Abraham’s cousin, Lot’s, home, the whole city was out at the door clamouring to assault them. And Lot – his own family – had offered up his daughters instead, as if he had become so assimilated into this evil place that he thought raping girls would somehow be an improvement. Then they had threatened to do even worse to Lot.[4]

Sometimes a city must be destroyed. How can a city become so bad? The people of Sodom had been the wealthiest in the world. They had the fattest and best of the land. All of their needs could be met. Perhaps it was their avarice that made them so wealthy. Perhaps it was their wealth that had made them so greedy.[5]

But in the course of accumulating more than they could ever need, the people of Sodom had lost track of Who provided for their needs. They forgot God. They became so selfish that they even cut the branches off fruit trees so that the birds would not share in their bounty. They legislated against charity. They threatened anyone who attempted to strengthen the hand of the poor with burning by fire.[6]

They played with their victims. If a beggar came there, every resident gave him a coin, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each resident came and took back his coin. They turned starving the homeless into a game.[7]

They made good on their threats. Once, a young woman secreted bread in a pitcher to feed it to a poor man. When she got caught giving him the bread, the townspeople dragged her to the edge of the city. They smothered her in honey. Bees came. And ate her alive.[8]

Some would imagine these were just embellished stories from feverish rabbinic imaginations. They could not know the depths that humanity could sink to. They did not know what it took for a city to reach the point where it must be destroyed. Abraham knew.

Sometimes a city must be destroyed. Sometimes a city makes compassion illegal. Sometimes a city makes greed so mandatory that even the charitable do not stand a chance. Sometimes a city institutionalises violence so deeply that there is no way to protest.

In a city where everyone is compelled to do evil, there is no hope for improvement. All that is left to do is burn it to the ground and begin again. That’s what it takes to destroy a city.

Abraham knew this. And he wished he didn’t. Ten is all it would have taken. Ten righteous people. Not ten perfect people. Not ten blameless people. Just ten righteous people.

For those who wish to wilfully misunderstand the sin of Sodom, it is a thing that is done by different people in far-off places. For those who understand that the Torah speaks to every time and place, Sodom is a city close at hand.

Is the city that has made compassion illegal not already where we live? Is it not in the food banks where struggling people turn up and hear they’ve already had their rations? Is it not in the disability assessment offices where workers are rewarded for denying sick people benefits? Can we not already see Sodom here in Britain?

In Sodom, a great and wealthy city of thousands of people, all of whom knew what was happening, nobody objected.[9] Not one person was willing to stand up to the city and say that what it was doing was wrong. Abraham had haggled God down to ten. But he could not find one.

Ever since that time, Jews have gathered together in groups of ten. We call this group a minyan. From the root: מנה – count. A group that is able to be counted.

That is why Abraham sought the first minyan. To find ten people willing to stand up and be counted. To find, in a city, ten people willing to say that injustice is wrong, even if it threatened their own lives. Because ten people is enough to object and withstand institutionalised violence. Because ten people is enough to save a city from destruction.

In fact, Sodom is closer even than that. It is inside our own hearts. It is the part within us that wishes to be greedy rather than giving, violent rather than compassionate, cruel rather than kind. That version of Sodom exists within every person and in every system. And it must be destroyed.

As Jews, that is our calling. To be human where there is no humanity.[10] To be the ones who object. To be the reason that a city is saved.

Shabbat shalom.

burning city

I wrote this sermon for the Leo Baeck College newsletter.

[1] Gen 19:24-25

[2] Gen 19:27-28

[3] Gen 18:24-33

[4] Gen 19:3-9

[5] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 25

[6] Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 25

[7] Sanhedrin 109b

[8] Sanhedrin 109b

[9] Sforno on Gen 19

[10] Pirkei Avot 2:5

poem · torah

Lot’s Wife

There are some sadnesses so intense

That they stay in your lungs

And get caught there

So that every time you cry

You feel like you’re choking up the same sadnesses all over again

 

There are some angers so hot

That they sink into your muscles

And tighten up knots in your back and on your shoulders

So that you carry it around like chainmail

Weighing down your body without offering protection

 

There are some memories so painful

That the fact of looking back can turn you into a pillar of salt.

These things don’t happen to people who have names

Only to people who feel things so intensely

And have nobody to tell

lots-wife

I wrote this poem on the theme of Parashat Vayeira.

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