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.

night-tampon-01-1521830652

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!

Shabbat-Kodesh_art

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. 

sermon · story · theology · torah

How can you condone slavery?

Around this time last year, I overheard a conversation.

Two women met each other early in the morning on a frosty hill overlooking the city. One had arrived slightly earlier than the other, draped in a long, white scarf. She was old but full of life in a way that made her impossible to place. The other joined her not long after. Her blue velvet dress and jewellery would have looked gaudy on somebody else, but somehow on her they were elegant. They sat down on a bench, facing downhill.

At first, they sat in silence, watching the sun rise higher in the sky. Then the lady in blue velvet turned to her friend and said: “You know, I believe in slavery.”

Her friend let out an exhausted sigh. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her roll her eyes. “Yes,” she said, “you’ve told me before.”

“Not cruel slavery,” she insisted. “I’d put limits on it. Seven years. Seven years is enough and then the slave goes free. And the masters have to take care of them properly.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

“I know you do, but I’m old. I’m set in my ways and I can’t change.”

“I’m not asking you to change. I just wish you’d realise that times have moved on. You can’t say things like that anymore.”

“Why not? If I thought it once, why should I be forced to change my mind?”

“Because you’re respected. People care what you have to say. They want you to say loving, hopeful things. If you tell everyone you believe in slavery, people will think that it’s OK.”

“But most of the time I do say nice things. And I’m coming from a good place. I want slaves to be treated well. I want them to have good lives.”

“But you still believe in slavery.”

“Yes, I still believe in slavery.”

“You know,” her friend nudged her, “I want to reinterpret what you’re saying. I want to think you’re speaking in a spiritual sense. I want to hear what you’re saying as that we should all be slaves to God. After all, God is our creator and provides for all our needs, and in turn we do God’s work on earth.”

The old lady laughed. “I like that, I like that a lot,” she chuckled… “But, you know, that’s not what I said.”

“No, it’s not what you said.”

“And you can interpret me any way you like, and I’ll accept what you’ve got to say, but nothing I say can depart from its original meaning.”

“Even now?” Her friend was exasperated. “Centuries after the abolition of slavery? Centuries after my ancestors fled Egypt? Even now, knowing everything you do about human history and human dignity, you can’t change just a bit?”

“Sure, I change, in my own way. But the core of me is still there. Like it or not, you’re stuck with me.”

They sat in silence a while longer. I could feel them both seething. A flock of birds murmured in the winter sky. I felt almost rude for eavesdropping, but couldn’t pull myself away.

This time, it was the woman in velvet’s turn to get frustrated: “You knew I would say this. You knew that if you came here, on this morning, at this time, you would hear me say these words. I believe in slavery. I say them at exactly this time every year. If you don’t want to hear me say it, then why do you even come?”

“Because I love you, Torah!” She threw her arms up in the air.

“I love you too, Kehillah,” Torah whispered back.

At once, I realised that I was not listening to any ordinary conversation between two people but the endless dialogue between the Jews and Torah. Torah, on the one hand, was fixed. She had been inscribed centuries ago and would continue to speak the words she always had. The Jews, on the other hand, had grown with history. Their thoughts had developed as God had revealed to them new insights about how to treat people.

They were locked in dialogue. One would always change and the other would always stay the same. But neither could leave each other. Sure, the Jews could get up and leave Torah at any time. Torah could even abandon the Jews. But if either of them walked away from the relationship, Torah would cease to be Torah and the Jews would cease to be Jews. Through their discussions, they drew out all of God’s contradictions: the contradiction between the past and present, between love and justice, between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.

I felt myself transfixed by their conversation. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to insist that, of course, slavery was wrong. I wanted to quote everything else back at Torah that she’d ever said to show how that one section in this week’s parashah was completely at odds with the rest of her message. But I realised that, even if I did, Torah would still say the same thing, and I would still have to wrestle with it. We, the Jewish people, would still have to wrestle with it.

Kehillah got ready to leave. Torah gently held her wrist. “You will come back and visit me, won’t you?” she asked. “I know I’m old and sometimes I say offensive things, but I still want to talk with you. You don’t have to do everything I say. Just sit with me and listen. I’m lonely without you.”

Kehillah sat back down. “Of course I will, Torah, I’ll be here every week. I love you and I need you. I’m lonely without you too. If I don’t come here and have these conversations with you, I’ll forget what my purpose is. I’ll forget that I have work on this earth to do. You ground me.”

“Thank you,” said Torah. “I’ll always be here.”

sunrisehampstead

I wrote this sermon for Parashat Mishpatim for the Leo Baeck College newsletter. I will deliver it on Shabbat for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community.

judaism · sermon · theology · torah

Who wrote the Torah?

I realise that, this week, people will have a great deal on their minds. We are living in uncertain times. If we knew each other well, this week’s events would very likely be the topic of this morning’s sermon. As it’s my first time here, however, I don’t want to risk offending anyone, or opening up uncomfortable conversations. So I think it best if I focus on talking about something far less contentious: the question of who wrote the Torah.

Once, in my early teens, I sat with my rabbi, helping her to organise some books. As I picked up a chumash, a question occurred to me. “Rabbi,” I asked “who wrote the Torah?”

“God,” she answered, without skipping a beat.

I thought that perhaps I had phrased the question wrong. “But… who published it?” I asked.

“Hmm… if you look in the inside cover of that one, it should tell you. I think that was Soncino.”

Her answer reflected a familiar and tradition of Torah authorship. As we raise the Torah for hagbah before reading it, we sing to each other: “this is the Torah that Moses put before the children of Israel – from the mouth of God, by the hand of Moses.”

It was an answer, but it wasn’t the answer I was looking for. The trouble was that I wasn’t sure what question I was trying to ask.

A few years ago, I sat in a university seminar and did get the answer I’d been seeking out as a teenager. The Torah, my lecturer explained, was written by four main schools over a period of several centuries. Each one represented a different theology and interest group. Their traditions were later redacted into a single document.

It was a revelation. A profoundly disappointing revelation. I felt a bit disillusioned. By explaining the Torah historically, my lecturer had robbed the text of something of its mystery. Part of me wanted to go back to the answer of my rabbi: the Torah was written by God, and that was that.

And yet the conclusions of the historical approach were very hard to ignore. In this week’s parasha, for example, we read the list of “the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites.”[1] Yet our text speaks to a time centuries before the Israelites got their first king. The idea of an Israelite kingdom is, seemingly, completely unknown to the Torah and doesn’t appear in Tanach until the book of Samuel. How could Moses know that there would one day be an Israelite king?

Asking questions like these is, indeed, the basis for the entire enterprise of working out the historical authorship of the Torah. The book of Deuteronomy, for example, legislates for the possibility of monarchy and sets out a series of reforms for the Israelites that match quite closely with the laws set down by King Josiah. As a result, early historians of the text suggested that the two likely came from the same era – the 6th Century BCE, several hundred years after the Torah was said to have been revealed at Mount Sinai.

When the theory that the Torah had multiple authors was first advanced by Protestants in 19th Century Germany, it was embraced by many of the early Reform Jews. Part of the impetus behind the Jewish reformation was a feeling that the tools of science and history were fundamentally challenging old beliefs about the nature of religious truth. Our Reform ancestors felt that they had to adapt to this new knowledge or lose their own integrity.

Understanding the Torah in its historical context can also help us today. There is no getting round the reality that some verses are quite objectionable to modern ears. In our parashah this week, too, we read about Jacob having two wives (Rachel and Leah) and two concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah). The idea that our founding prophet had two women as low-status mistresses in addition to his wives doesn’t do much to elevate his moral status in our eyes. Putting the Torah in its historical context doesn’t necessarily absolve him of our moral concerns, but it does help justify why we would never allow such practices today.

This week, I told a group of adult students who grew up secular and are connecting with their heritage that the question of who wrote the Torah is a denominational difference. One woman was really disappointed. Her reaction was the same as mine when I first heard about historical criticism: “how can you be Jewish and not think the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai?”

It’s understandable to be deflated by hearing that the Torah may not have come directly from God. If it doesn’t come from the Divine Author, what makes it holy? Why is it worth reading at all? Why do we come here each week to hear these words?

There are some good answers that help keep the holiness of the Torah intact. One of these is to challenge the assumptions of the historical critical method itself. How can anyone definitely assert that this text came from multiple authors? If you are willing to accept that an omniscient God is present in the text, there’s no reason why that God couldn’t foresee the future of Israelite kings or anticipate the needs of future societies. Any form of faith involves some suspension of judgement – why can’t we extend that to the authorship of the Torah?

Yet it is hard to deny that human hands were involved in the transmission of our text. In this very portion, there are already dots above certain words, which traditional Judaism teaches were put in by Ezra the Scribe over words he believed might be spelling errors. Even on the most Orthodox reading of the text, there is more going on here than simply God handing down a pristine document.

Perhaps we could say, as some do, that the texts were divinely inspired but written by human beings. God revealed different messages to different people for their own times, knowing that God would continue to work with humanity to help us better understand truth. Just as God spoke to the Israelites at  Sinai, God engages with us today, and helps us to find spiritual meaning for our times. Yet this answer has its own problem: isn’t there an arrogance in us claiming to know more about moral truth than our prophets like Moses did?

Personally, the answer I like best is that what makes the Torah holy isn’t its author but its readership. We, the  Jewish people, through centuries of transmission, questioning, storytelling and interpreting based on this book, have turned it into a holy book. When we engage with it today, God is not waiting in the text to be found, but is with us as an active participant in the conversations we have with Torah. God is in the space where two people pore over this ancient text.

The Torah, then, is not so much a destination for divine revelation, as a mode of transport for getting there. Difficult, challenging, confusing and strange. But it’s a wonderful ride. It’s a journey worth making. Let’s continue to join each other on this voyage of discovery, to uncover the deepest truths we can today.

sinai

[1] Gen 36:31

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vayishlach on Saturday 24th November at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

judaism · sermon · theology · torah

Go for yourself

Trying to get by with biblical Hebrew with modern Hebrew speakers is difficult. Among a group in Jerusalem this summer, I tried to coax out a dog, saying “Lech lecha, celev.” The Israelis around me burst out laughing. “What? What did I say?” I asked. “Nothing,” they said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

I had just repeated the first words of our parashah, when God instructs Abraham to get out of Haran and go to Canaan. Without context, the expression was bizarre. Phrases that were once meaningful in this language can lose their sense. But, for our commentators throughout history, this specific phrase has been perplexing. Without the vowels we might think it is emphatic – a repetition of the same verb, telling Abraham “go, go, get out.” But the Masoretic markings are quite clear. This is not “lech lech” but “lech lecha” – which could be read ‘go to yourself’, or ‘go for yourself’, or ‘go as yourself’… It is a strange construction.

Ramban suggests that it’s just an idiom of biblical Hebrew. He points to other examples in Jeremiah and Deuteronomy where similar constructions are used. But that answer feels disappointing. Why this idiom? And why here? Every idiom has a purpose, even if that purpose isn’t even entirely clear to the native speaker.

The answer I like best comes from Rashi. Rashi says “go for your own benefit, for your own advantage”. This puts the rest of the sentence into context: “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” Don’t go for their sake. Go for your own sake. But when you go for your own sake, when you go knowing that you are seeking out a blessing for yourself, then everyone will receive that blessing too.

It calls to mind the distinction between charity and solidarity. That idea was summarised by Lilla Watson, an Australian indigenous rights activist, in her address to the UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Watson herself has challenged the attribution, saying that it was thinking that had come out of collective work by indigenous women in Queensland over a long period of time.

Indeed, differentiating between charity and solidarity has long been a feature of thought for oppressed peoples. Charity, seeking to help people for their own sake without any regard for your own, is surely a noble feeling. But it leaves the person who gives it feeling better than the one who receives it. For the one who gives it, it leaves them feeling helpful, assuages their conscience, and contributes to a sense that they are doing the right thing. For the recipient, it can leave them feeling powerless, pitied, supported, and not treated as a full human being.

Charity is ultimately, too, not that helpful to the one giving it. It turns human interaction into a form of sacrifice, based on guilt, self-effacement and pity. It forces people to ignore their own lived realities and struggles, and put themselves at a position of distance from others.

While charity can address material needs in a positive way, it reminds everyone of the power relations that caused the need for charity in the first place. It reminds the donor of their power and the receiver of their lack. It can even reinforce those structures, as the impoverished turn to the donors as a source of wealth rather than looking to their own talents. The donor can impose restrictions on how the money is used or on how the receiver might conduct themselves in ways that ultimately secure the authority of the donor.

Solidarity asks us to “lech lecha” – to go for ourselves, to go as ourselves. It asks us to come to problems as full people with our own issues and concerns that we need to address. It asks us to treat everybody as if they, too, are going for themselves: full human beings who have a great deal in common with us and their own unique purposes.

Solidarity requires both parties to feel vulnerable together. It asks that the person motivated to give charity considers their own interests and what stake they have in changing the current circumstances. It also asks both parties to work together: they have a common interest and need to empower each other. Solidarity places people’s self-respect and cooperation at the centre of organising change.

Rambam picks up this theme in his eight levels of ‘tzedaka’. The word ‘tzedaka’ is often translated as ‘charity’, but it shares a common root with the word for ‘justice’. The concepts of charity and solidarity are held together by this same word, so Rambam needed to spell out the differences between different forms of giving. Like the indigenous activists of Australia, Rambam puts solidarity on a much higher level than charity. He considers “empowering others with meaningful employment” to be the highest level of tzedaka. Unlike giving into the hands of the poor, empowerment such as this ensures that everyone’s dignity is preserved, and everyone benefits from the work.

So it is that G-d says to Abraham: “Go for your own sake and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” When you go out considering your own self-respect first and foremost, it follows that everyone else can act from theirs. Abraham does not go out to save the world. He goes out to save himself. But by being prepared to take risks for his own soul, he sets an example and sets the wheels in motion that everybody can seek out G-d’s blessing.

That is how the nations became blessed through Abraham. As we approach the challenges of our day, we should seek to ask the same questions as he was forced to. What do I really need? What does G-d require of me? How can I see others as full human beings and respond to their needs? How can I go for myself, so as to be a blessing for others?

Go for yourself, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.

white horseman nahum gutman

I gave this sermon on the morning of Thursday 18th October at Leo Baeck College for Parashat Lech Lecha. 

judaism · sermon · torah

Adam, Eve, and binary gender

The story of creation is probably the most well-known and most misunderstood of our Torah. Full of powerful imagery, t he Talmud says that it is forbidden to study the text alone because it is too easy to misunderstand.[1] Because it is so close to the High Holy Days, many Jews miss this reading in our liturgical cycle, having been exhausted by the great process of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, all festivals crammed together into a very short period of time.

The danger of Jews not hearing these texts and of religious leaders not teaching them is that people go away believing that the version we pick up from our surrounding culture is the only version of events. The story of Adam and Eve, in particular, has such currency in that all of us have likely imbibed a version of their story. We have seen paintings in art galleries of European-looking men and women covered with fig leaves. We have heard the stories told in different ways through popular culture.

The story we are accustomed to is one of binary gender. God made a man on the seventh day of creation. God then made the first woman out of Adam’s rib. They are a model of the natural male-female binary in the world and an example of the heterosexual monogamy God has intended for all of us. I am not going to question whether that is a legitimate or authentic tradition. None of us can say we speak with divine authority, so we have to be able to live with different and contradictory interpretations. What I do want to do is offer up an alternative version of the story of Adam and Eve: a Jewish, rabbinic, midrashic version of the story.

I’m sure it goes without saying that, in the progressive Jewish tradition, these stories are considered metaphors. The question is, however, metaphors for what? The stories we tell are important. If we tell stories, even metaphorical ones, of gender as fundamentally binary, and the natural order as fundamentally patriarchal, then we give credence to that worldview. We betray our feminist values and exclude our congregants who don’t fit into that binary. The rabbinic version of the Bereishit story does not only go against the grain of that perspective, but fundamentally overturns it.

First of all, it is not clear from our story that Adam was the first man. The word “adam”, as it is used in Genesis 1, acts as a noun, not a name. It speaks about a person, a human being. The word shares a root with “adamah”, meaning earth or clay. Adam, therefore, might best be translated as “earthling”.

Nor is it clear that Eve was the first woman, or that she was created from Adam’s rib. The biblical telling of her creation is somewhat inconsistent. In the first version of the story, in Genesis 1, a man and a woman are created at the same time. In the second version, in Genesis 2, Eve is created from Adam’s rib. The rabbis picked up on this strange disjunction. They also noticed that in the second version, when Adam meets Eve, he says “this one at last is the bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh.” That word “at last”, in the Hebrew is “pa’am”[2], which could mean “this time around.” Our sages inferred therefore that the two stories tell of different relationships: the first of one between equals; the second of one with a dominant man and subordinate woman.

So, first, what was this relationship between equals? The rabbis suggest that man and woman were not just made at the same time. They were, in fact, the same person. The original human being, according to their midrash, had one body, two sets of genitalia and two faces.[3] Professor of Talmud, Daniel Boyarin, calls this person “the primordial androgyne.” Rather than binary gender being the model of original humanity, the first person is intersex.[4]

What then happened to this original intersex person? According to another midrash, they were split into two: Adam and Lilith. Notice that Lilith is not cut from Adam but that both are cut from each other: our original progenitors are equals.

The Ballad of Ben Sira, a medieval religious text that combines previous mythical traditions, tells the story this way:

“When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth. God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled.”[5]

What follows is a high-speed chase across the world involving angels and monsters. Ultimately, Lilith fights against Adam, the patriarchy and even God to become liberated. Undeniably, some tellings of this story are misogynistic, painting Lilith as a demon and a baby-killer, but the fact remains that a crucial part of the Jewish tradition is the story of an empowered woman who refuses to be subordinated. Our model of gendered relationships is a complicated mess of power struggles and queer subversion. It is, really, much closer to the relationships people really have.

The rabbinic tradition on creation tells us stories about intersex people, gender confusion, and resistance to patriarchy. Right now, the telling of those stories matters greatly. The government is debating an update to the Gender Recognition Act. When it was first passed in 2004, this act was a great sign of progress. It enabled trans people to legally change their gender on some certificates. As it stands, however, that process is highly medicalised and expensive. The new legislation would enable trans people to ensure that their gender is reflected on their birth certificates without having to jump through great hoops.[6]

This might seem like simply a bureaucratic change, but it has invoked great ire across the political spectrum. Underpinning much of the backlash is the idea that gender is both binary and innate. For the ideological opponents of the upgrade to the Gender Recognition Act, a gender cannot be changed. Much of their discourse has been quite hateful and aggressive. Transphobic abuse has become exceptionally loud, especially online.

What we can say in response to this is: in our religious tradition, binary gender is deeply disputed. In rabbinic Judaism, the first person was intersex, and transitioned from being one intersex person into two people: men and women. In our religious tradition, gender is complicated and malleable. Perhaps, armed with Jewish understandings of human nature, we may be able to push back against some of this hate.

Shabbat shalom.

androgyne-56a55f455f9b58b7d0dc900a

I gave this sermon on Saturday 6th October at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. A congregant helped correct some of my understanding of the GRA. If you would like to speak out in support of the GRA, you can respond to the consultation using Stonewall’s resources.

[1] Hagigah 11b

[2] Gen 2:23

[3] Leviticus Rabbah on Genesis 2

[4] Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel

[5] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/lilith-lady-flying-in-darkness/

[6] https://lgbt.foundation/gra