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

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

On this day, you were created

On this day, you were created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shanah tovah. Happy new year.

GardenOfEden

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

[1] Pesikta deRav Kahana, Piska 23

[2] BT Niddah 30b