There is a joke that the Orthodox tell about us. They say, “at an Orthodox wedding, the mother of the bride is pregnant. At a Masorti wedding, the bride is pregnant. At a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant. At a Liberal wedding, the rabbi is pregnant, and so is her wife.”
I’ve always seen this joke as quite a compliment to our inclusivity, so respond: “only one wife? How very conservative. In this day and age, she could have another husband. And he could be pregnant too.”
Yes, it is true that we treat relationships very differently across the Jewish denominations. Although some strands of Judaism are beginning to catch up, there are also those who prefer to hold onto the biblical view of marriage.
In this week’s parashah, we get to see some of what that biblical view of marriage looked like. It begins by telling us what should happen if a wife has an affair and her husband doesn’t know about it. It is hard for a modern reader not to notice the lack of gender parity in this parashah. Only women can cheat. Men can marry as many women as they like (Solomon had 700 wives). They can have concubines (Gideon had more than he could count). They also had the right to sex with their wives’ servants (as Jacob did with Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah and Leah’s maidservant Zilpah.)
Then, even with all these different categories of kosher relationships a biblical man can have, there seem to be very few stipulations on what should happen if he has sex outside of these expansive confines. Women, on the other hand, are lumbered with the same man to whom their father sold them when they were 12. For the rest of their lives.
That is not even the most challenging part of this parashah. Naso then goes on to tell us what should happen if the husband is gripped by a fit of jealousy even if his wife has done nothing wrong. Now, I am an avid reader of glossy magazines and newspaper supplements, so this situation seems quite familiar. I tried to read the parashah as if it is a letter to an Agony Aunt.
A woman’s husband has flown into a fit of uncontrollable jealousy, despite her having remained faithful. With my Agony Aunt hat on, I think about how best to counsel this situation. Yes, jealousy is a natural emotion, and can even be a healthy one. You can talk through what has caused these feelings, and perhaps see a couples therapist, so that he can work through his issues.
The Torah takes a different approach. It instructs that the woman be taken before a priest to perform a magic ritual. Her husband will bring flour and the priest will bring mud from the Temple floor. They’ll then mix it up in water as the priest recites magic incantations over it. The woman will drink it. If she’s fine, she didn’t cheat. If her belly sags, she’s a cheater. The whole thing sounds like a medieval witch trial. The ritual ends with a postscript that really makes for the icing on the cake: whatever the man does, he is free from guilt. Only the woman can incur guilt.
It goes without saying that progressive Jews do not share the biblical view of marriage. In Liberal Judaism, especially, we are the only Jewish community in Britain that has complete gender equality when it comes to divorce. In Orthodox Judaism, divorce is one-directional. A man drops a document into the hand of his spouse, announcing their separation. In Liberal Judaism, thankfully, we have no such thing.
We strive for equality in marriage, too. Our ketubot – our documents of marriage – were rewritten decades ago so that the text would not just have a man taking a woman as a wife, but both partners take each other as equal man and wife. These documents carried over nicely when we began performing same-sex weddings. In the last couple of years, the beit din has updated the ketubot further so that we now have gender-neutral marriage certificates in Hebrew, reflecting the real relationships our congregants have.
Talking about this and contrasting it with other institutions’ approaches to relationships is what fills me with pride for my movement. Yet I wonder if we still have further to go. The discourse about monogamy, jealousy, shame and control in this parashah has made me think again about different models of relationships.
Marriage is a wonderful thing. I am so glad that we can share it with couples in committed relationships, regardless of their genders. At present, however, we restrict marriages to monogamous relationships. Of course, none of us want to return to a time where men could do as they pleased and women were confined, but I am learning from my peers that this is not the only way relationships are conducted. We do not have to choose simply between monogamy and oppressive male control.
Increasingly, I meet people who are in polyamorous relationships. They take the approach that they do not need to have just one partner for the rest of their lives, but that they can build multiple meaningful connections. Cheating, for them, is not about whether a partner has a relationship with somebody else, but about whether they are dishonest and secretive. Their approach takes the emphasis away from acts and onto attitudes. It makes the ideal relationship about how honest and open communication is. I can’t help but feel that if the couple in our parashah had this, rather than a priest performing magic, they might have had a healthier relationship.
I don’t think that style of relationship is for me, but it is for some people. Liberal Judaism should be able to deal with it. The future of marriage in our synagogues may well involve multiple-partner ceremonies. It may involve renewing discussions about what fidelity, jealousy and honesty look like in relationships. Such conversations could benefit all couples.
I would love to be able to turn to the Orthodox who make fun of our approach to relationships, and say without irony or humour, that we have a woman rabbi who has a wife and a husband and all of them are pregnant. And that we celebrate all their lives.
I delivered this sermon on Friday 7th June at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community for Parashat Naso.
When Keir Hardie set up the Labour Party, he broke with many of the radicals who had preceded him by trying to organise his efforts where working class people really were: in the trade unions and the low church. He reached out to people in both their chapels – the ones where they organised their workplaces, and the ones where they organised their communities.
Since that time, both the trade unions and religious organisations have greatly declined in British public life, and in both cases we’re worse for it. Those traditional ways for people to meet, share culture, build up solidarity and envision a better future have been completely eroded. We’ve been left open to the worst austerity, neoliberal privatisation and attacks on the rights of marginalised people that we’ve ever known. Our lack of organisation and community has meant we’ve been constantly on the back foot, struggling against forces much stronger than us.
On the left, everyone acknowledges the decline in trade unionism for what it has been: a massive setback for working-class organising, an onslaught that has left us weaker, more divided and more isolated. But, to listen to some on the left talk, you’d think that the decline of religion was somehow a victory for our side. Millions of Britons no longer know their neighbours, no longer have any idea about the births, deaths, illnesses, tragedies and joys that are going on in their communities. Young people grow up without any access to traditional songs, stories and culture that was central to previous generations and instead only get the official versions of history. They learn that Churchill and Thatcher were heroes, but they never hear about the religious movements that shaped the country they live in, like the Chartists, Levellers and Quakers. People have completely lost connection to their community, and we’re supposed to somehow celebrate that as an accomplishment.
Absolutely not. Religion isn’t the dark force that it’s been painted, but has been one of the greatest forces for progress and radical change. Keir Hardie recognised that. Socialists of previous generations were able to see the positive role religion could play because they were able to draw a necessary distinction. I say that Kier Hardie organised in the low church, because that’s where he was. He didn’t go out to the priests and the bishops and the high-ranking officials who’d latched on to state power. He was interested in the lay preachers. And that’s because there is a crucial difference between religion as it is imposed from above and religion created from below.
Like with all forms of culture, religion can go one of two ways: it can be a bourgeois, reactionary force that bolsters the forces of power, or it can be an emancipatory, proletarian force that empowers people to challenge systemic violence. I am not here to defend Iranian morality police, Bush’s crusader Christianity, the violent Islamophobia of India’s BJP, still less Kahanists in Israel. I do not want to defend religion’s connection to that kind of politics in any way.
But we need to be clear: the problem with connecting those politics to religion isn’t with religion itself, but with the politics we connect them to. I don’t want religion to play a role in the state – I want to abolish it. I don’t want religion to play a role in war – I want to abolish war. I don’t want religion to play a role in capital, the police, imperialism or the structures that uphold patriarchy, because in every case I want to abolish them.
The politics I’m interested in is politics from below – the struggles of working-class people, women, LGBT people, colonised, enslaved and massacred people to realise their own destinies and take control over the world. I think religion can play a very positive role there. It has done throughout the ages, and religion can continue to be a source of strength for all oppressed people.
When I talk about this religion for oppressed people, this isn’t an innovation. I’m not taking the message of religion and twisting it to meet my own ends. Quite to the contrary: combating oppression has been built into the meaning of religion since its inception. The earliest written religious texts, the Hindu Vadics, bring together a worldview that opposes all forms of systemic violence, from state warfare to animal consumption. The Torah is the story of rebel slaves turned refugees trying to build a just society. The prophet Amos denounced the ruling class of ancient Judea for stealing the spoils of the poor and hoarding them. The prophet Isaiah tells the rich that their prayers are worthless because they exploit people while they deliver them. Jesus comes to take direct action against money-lenders and the hypocrites that collaborate with a colonising army. The Talmud is a lengthy exegesis in how to bring anti-oppressive practices into every part of a person’s life. The Prophet Muhammad comes to affirm the unity and dignity of all of humanity, and to insist that people are treated as if they all contain the spark of the divine. Sikhism tries to break down all the barriers that differentiate religions, genders and ethnicities into one universalising faith. Religion, at its core, is anti-oppression. Don’t the politicians know that the God they claim to believe in despises them and their prayers?
Holy texts are brimming full of admonishments against the ruling class. Reactionaries leap on passing references to sexuality and gender difference, separate them from all context, and use them as a pretext to persecute people. They take what is a radical idea, focused on bringing about the kind of change socialists want to see, and they manipulate it to suit their own ends.
But everyone needs to see that the religious tradition of speaking truth to power is much better represented by our heroes than by our enemies. It’s represented by all the religious activists who worked to end slavery, the ones who fought for democracy and debt relief, the anti-colonial fighters and the indigenous revolutionaries. They represent that prophetic tradition.
Two key people from the Black civil rights movement come to mind here: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Malcolm X – a Muslim minister in the slums of Chicago and New York, Martin Luther King Jr, a Christian reverend in America’s deep south. Both of them built their organising around their religious institutions and the deep network of Black faith communities across the USA. They based their activism around their religious buildings, religious texts, and religious traditions. Are you going to tell me that they didn’t play a positive role in politics?
It’s not like they could have done what they did without their religions either. Certainly they couldn’t have turned to the unions. At that time, the white-run unions were mostly fighting against black inclusion in workplaces and were trying to uphold segregation in places. They could be racist, reactionary lobbies, and their record of beating up protesters against the Viet Nam war and siding with anti-miscegenation politicians shouldn’t be quickly forgotten. That’s the context in which they were organising, and it was the religions that gave them the strength as a group to fight for their rights.
More than that, the turning point in the struggle for civil rights was when the white religious leaders from across the country came down to join the Black protesters in Selma, Alabama and showed that the weight of public opinion and that the moral voice of the country was firmly on the side of those protesters. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was on the frontlines, alongside the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said “when I marched, I felt that my feet were praying.”
When religion is in the hands of the working-class, and when it is used as a fountain for oppressed people to draw strength from, it is a powerful and challenging force. But if you pour scorn on religion, and you say that it’s irredeemable, you hand over religion to the bigots. If you say you don’t want anything to do with it, then you’re leaving that source of power to be controlled by reactionaries. No wonder people wind up believing that God is a homophobic, misogynistic, capitalist demon if you completely disavow religion and leave it in the hands of the right.
Socialists who have engaged with religions have seen incredible success. When the Latin revolutionaries, the Sandinistas, started out with atheistic, anti-religious Marxist arguments, they remained an isolated minority who had no relationship at all to the people. The ultimate success of the Nicaraguan revolution only came about because of the rise in liberation theology and the willingness of socialists to engage with the church.
Vatican II of 1959 wanted to see the church more closely aligned with the poor and, as part of implementing this, Catholic activists set up “Christian base communities” rooted in poor favelas. These were the first platform from which poor communities could start organising against the capitalist authoritarian Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and it was not an accident. Church theologians of Latin America wrote explicitly about their need to bring their religious beliefs to a political mission. Liberation theology saw that the things most despised by Christianity: individualism, competition, materialism and greed were, in fact, integral to capitalism.
High-ranking bishops and the papacy were, of course, hostile to the work of these low-level bishops and sided with the regime. The upper echelons of the church had to come into direct conflict with their own members initially, but by 1977, the grassroots Catholic activists had been so successful in transforming the church that when Somoza’s newspaper Novedades asked the church to clarify its position, even the high-ranking officials were forced to side with the bishops against what they called institutionalised violence and inequality.
These are not just interesting facts from history – they have a strong bearing on the present day. In my own organising in the Jewish community, I’ve seen how religions can play such a powerful role in activism. Synagogues have preserved the memory of what it meant to be refugees, how Jews came to this country hidden in the bowels of boats and rushed out on the last trains from Germany. This memory has been preserved so well in our religious institutions that, when the migrant crisis came to public attention, the Jewish community was at the forefront of offering help and refuge. Every synagogue in the country had collection points for aid to refugees. Key shuls in every area now have drop-in centres that provide free help and legal aid to asylum seekers. Young congregants drove out to deliver these aid packages and came back embolded and enlightened. I attended a service at an Orthodox synagogue where one such member came back, agitating in her community to lobby for rights and safe passage for refugees. South London Synagogue has organised for over 200 child refugees to be brought over from Calais and housed here. The Jewish community is not alone here. Religious institutions have played a powerful role in demanding an end to poverty, quality council housing and opposing racism. This is the reality of what religions in Britain today do.
I’ll say it again because it needs stressing: I’m not here to defend the religion of the ruling class – whatever form it takes. I’m here for radical religion that stays true to the message of fighting for justice. There is no doubt that awful things can be carried out in the name of religion, but just a cursory glance at history tells us that people are perfectly capable of carrying out the same atrocious acts without religion.
Religion has been associated with violence when it’s been connected to state power and reactionary movements. There’s no doubt about that, but to suggest that it has some kind of connection to religious belief itself is completely ahistorical. Haven’t Stalinist gulags, Maoist terror and the genocides of Cambodia and Nazi Germany shown us that people are perfectly capable of committing the utmost evil without religion? The modern states of France and Turkey are perfect examples of how secularist ideology can be just as violent, colonialist and corrupt as any state that calls itself religious. The problem is capital. The problem is the state. The problem is the military. The problem is certainly not God.
The task of religions is to keep alive that moral, prophetic voice that insists on radical equality and seeks to transform the world. It would be a disaster to throw out all that religion has done to transform the political sphere for the better, solely because fundamentalists and puritans have hijacked it. Religion belongs to all those who practice it – and the faith of left-wing revolutionaries is far more sincere than that which connects itself to state power, capitalism and authoritarianism.
The central message of religion – of all religion – is a radical one that every socialist can support. It is that there is a force much greater than anything we can conceive; that though we are small in the grand scheme of the universe, our lives have meaning. Every one of us is indowed with a spark of the divine. The existence of God makes us all equal – in a profound and spiritual way. Religion challenges us to see that all of humanity is one, everyone deserving of dignity, and to bring that claim to life in the world. It is a call to action – to overthrow the Pharoahs of the world as Moses did; to cast out the demons of legions as Jesus did; to demand rights for widows, orphans and disabled people as Mohammed did; to resist sectarian violence as Guru Nanak did.
Faith can give us the courage to fight for a better world. Thank you.
I gave this as a speech at Ideas for Freedom, the annual conference of Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a Marxist-atheist sect, back in July 2016. There were two other panelists, arguing that religion could not play a positive role in politics. My speech was not well received.
I doubt I could get away with making the same speech today. My teachers would definitely chastise me for over-simplifying matters, making sweeping generalisations, going off on random tangents, and flattening out history. I stand by, however, the central idea, that religion has a radical core, rooted in resistance. I doubt any of my teachers would question that this was a legitimate and necessary expression of religion.
I was moved to upload it by my brother, with whom I spent a long time discussing this topic over the winter holidays. He asked that I write up some of my ideas, and I remembered that I already had. I will speak on a similar theme, albeit to a very different audience, when I preach this coming Shabbat in Newcastle.
A young Talmud scholar moves from Lithuania to London. Years later he returns home to visit his family.
His mother asks: “Yossele but where is your beard?”
“Oh, mama, in London, nobody wears a beard.”
“But do you at least keep Shabbat?”
“No, mama, in London people work all the time. We have to make money.”
“Oy vey. But do you still keep kosher?”
“Mum, I’m sorry, kosher food is expensive and hard to find.”
“Yossele…” she says. “Are you still circumcised?”
Coming home from rabbinical school for Rosh Hashanah, I feel like I have my parents asking the same questions in reverse. “Lev you’re laying tefillin now? You’re keeping shabbat now? You’re training to be a rabbi now?! Lev, are you still patrilineal?”
I can confirm with great pride that I am still not Jewish according to the Orthodox beit din. I still have no desire to leave a religious movement that embraces me for one that doesn’t.
Still, anxieties are understandable. I have to admit that I am more than a little daunted coming home for the High Holy Days this year. It is quite one thing to lead services for strangers in far-flung places like Cornwall and Newcastle. But giving a sermon to the community that raised me, in front of my cheder teachers and old friends, adds a whole new level of pressure. It turns out it’s easier to talk to strangers about God than it is to engage with your family. Perhaps Chabad are onto something after all.
Reading Liberal Jewish Community is now celebrating its 40th year. Everybody who attended the birthday celebrations in July fed back what a great time they had, and members of the community who I met at Liberal Judaism’s biennial told me how inspired they were to keep this community going and make it even stronger.
Rosh Hashanah is a good time to take stock of that. We are at the start of autumn and ten days before Yom Kippur. In the time of our ancestors, this was when the harvest season finished, and the Torah cycle came to its end. The days became darker and insecurity about rainfall set in. Farmers and nomads wondered what the new year would bring, whether they would have enough food to feed their families, and what new challenges they might face. So they set this period as a time for reflection on how their lives had gone and where they would go in the coming year.
Rosh Hashanah is a time when we return to the same place as we have always been and look at it again with fresh eyes. This is, then, a poignant moment for all of us, to reflect on where we as a community have been and where we will go. I think then that the best I can offer in this Rosh Hashanah sermon is not so much Torah learning but reflections on the amazing impact this community has had, both on my life and on the life of Judaism in Britain.
This synagogue really has pioneered a future for Liberal Judaism. For such a small community, it is remarkable how many of the children who were in cheder at the same time as I was have gone on to be engaged Jews. Graham has worked for various Jewish charities; Abs has led Limmud; Katherine attends services when she can fit them into her busy schedule as a doctor. (The list goes on, so if anybody has some naches they want to share, do feel free.) This is not, by any means, a coincidence. This synagogue created such an amazing intergenerational community for us. At cheder, we learnt not just the facts about Judaism but how to really engage with it, have opinions on it, and integrate it into our lives.
All that fostered strong relationships between people of all ages. My brother loved being able to go round to Susanna’s house and speak German with her. Across the board, people fostered really meaningful bonds. Today, the buzzword in Jewish circles is “relational Judaism” – the idea that Judaism is not a transaction where congregants purchase a service off a rabbi, but that Judaism is something we build through our relationships with each other. I think we can say with some pride, we were doing that long before it was cool.
Perhaps what made Reading’s community so special was Meir’s farm. When I tell people that this existed, often people barely believe me. One day, we will need to write down the history of this community, or in fifty years the idea that there was a religious community in Berkshire living out a kibbutznik’s dream on a crop farm in Berkshire will be just a strange myth. The experiences of Meir’s farm were unbelievably special. Harvesting rhubarb on Shavuot, building a Sukkah out of real twigs and greenery, seeing how the biblical year lined up with an agricultural cycle. One of my strongest childhood memories is of when we buried the old siddurim, Service of the Heart, at Tu B’Shvat, and planted on top of them a Burning Bush.
This all made such an impression on me that, when I moved to London, I wondered where they went to plant trees on Tu B’Shvat. I thought that perhaps the councils gave them permission to do something in the public parks or that they might link up with one of the city farms. I was shocked to realise that this practice of earth-based Judaism was something special and unique to Reading. I felt like Londoners were really missing out on a proper Jewish experience. How can you live Judaism properly in a big city like London? Apparently, some other people agreed with me, because in the last few years a group of young pioneers have set up Sadeh, a Jewish farm in rural Kent. That farm has become a magnet for young Jews across Europe and restored an important sense of community around agrarian Judaism. We at Reading anticipated that and I am sure there is much wisdom that established members can share with those people if they so choose.
What sticks out for me most, however, was how much this community embraced diversity. I have amazing memories of dressing up as Dana International for Purim here, and performing her Eurovision-winning hit ‘Diva’ on the bimah. This world is not an easy place to grow up LGBT, but this community made it so much easier and created a genuinely warm and accepting environment. As an adult, I have seen many of my friends struggle with their sexuality and gender and wonder if they have a place in this world. I am so incredibly grateful that I never had to doubt that I had a God and a religion that loved me exactly as I was.
Reflecting on all this, and on the wonderful Jewish upbringing I had in this community, what I really want to say is thank you. You enriched my life and have done for so many Jews who come through these doors. Keep going, stick with it, because you never know what great things you are achieving with small gestures. This synagogue is not just my home community, it is a home for everyone who needs it.
As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and a great 20th Century mystic, said: “Through returning home, all things are reunited with God– returning home is, in essence, an effort to return to one’s original status, to the source of life and higher being in their fullness; without limitation and diminution, in their highest spiritual character, as illumined by the simple, radiant divine light.”
I’m pretty sure he was talking about Berkshire.
At the grand age of 40, I say to this Jewish community: may you live to be 120! And then some.
Balaam was nervous. He rode his donkey to the steppes of Moab. The donkey trotted slowly in the desert heat, weighed down by Balaam’s travelling bags. Balaam looked this way and that, up and down at the craggy mountains, and back to the land he’d left behind. He fiddled with the donkey’s harness, twitching at the leather straps.
“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me,” King Balak had told him. “Come now, put a curse on them for me, for there are too many of them for me. Maybe, with your help, I can defeat them and drive them out of the land. I know that whoever you bless is blessed indeed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”
It was true. Since childhood, Balaam had known he had a gift. Whatever he said came true. The right words just came out of his mouth and took meaning. As an adult, Balaam had become something of a blessing mercenary – offering prayers for kings across the world in exchange for payment. Normally, he turned up, said the words, and left with enough money to feed his family for a few more weeks.
But this time was different. Before being asked to curse the Jews, Balaam had never heard of them. Then, the second he’d been asked to curse them, their God appeared before him. God told him: “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” Initially, he’d refused, but King Balak had been insistent. Mercenaries cannot say no to kings. So he agreed.
Balaam sidled up to the edge of the valley where the Jews were camped. He looked out over all their tents, pitched in the desert. He saw the speckled silhouettes of people wandering about between the marquees. He opened his mouth to curse them. But the words to curse weren’t coming. Every time he tried to curse them, his tongue dried up and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He felt a heavy marble in his gullet, choking up all his words. Then, from somewhere outside of him and deep within, a voice came out of his own mouth:
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”
To this day, those are the first words Jews say on entering a synagogue. We Progressives sing them together when we begin our services. Orthodox Ashkenazim recite them as they approach a community’s door, or even idly walking past a shul. Why is it that the words we say when we come to a synagogue are the words of a non-Jew, who knew nothing of the Jews, but was somehow overwhelmed by the Divine Spirit? What has made us decide to use this blessing in such a way?
I suspect part of the answer is that, when we go into a synagogue, all of us feel like non-Jews. Whether we attend shul weekly, or only turn up for Yom Kippur, something about the space can make anyone feel not quite Jewish enough. We can all feel like we are saying somebody else’s words, tentatively mouthing out sounds that don’t quite feel right.
I rarely meet Jews who feel completely comfortable in their own Jewishness. Everybody feels excluded in some way: not quite learned enough, not quite spiritual enough. A stranger recently told me he was just not quite brave enough. Being a people who don’t belong is hard enough without worrying who belongs to that people. Many people have come up with their own definitions for what makes a Jew Jewish, but my favourite is: a Jew is somebody who worries they are not quite Jewish enough.
This prayer goes some way to honouring that feeling. All of us, no matter how observant or learned, recite the words of a non-Jew who has been bowled over by the Jewish God. The prayer reassures us: you may feel like you don’t belong, but you are home.
I used to wonder if I would ever reach a point where I felt like I knew enough. As a teenager, I stumbled over Hebrew words as the people around me seemed to recite them so confidently. I thought that perhaps when my Hebrew was good enough I would feel secure in my Jewishness. Then, having learnt Hebrew, I realised how little of the Torah I knew. I thought that if I could only master the Scriptures, I wouldn’t worry if I belonged.
Last week, I finished my examinations for my first year at rabbinical school. Our teachers assessed us on sections of Talmud, Hebrew grammar, Aramaic language, leyning the Torah, philosophy and biblical criticism. As I came to the end of them, I realised how much I still did not know. The rabbinical course gives us the tools we need to be able to explore every part of Judaism, but it cannot fill us up with everything. Our religion’s traditions are too diverse; our interpretations too vast.
I have come to embrace that feeling. Judaism is a bit like star-gazing. You lie on your back and set your eyes above you. You realise there is no way you could ever count all the stars you see. After a few moments, your eyes adjust, and you realise that there is another layer of stars behind the ones you couldn’t count. Suddenly, you’re humbled as you realise you’re facing upwards to infinity, beyond an entire galaxy with no end in sight.
This is our Judaism: layers of complexity reaching out to infinity. All we can do is stare at it in awe, flummoxed by our God, and say: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”
Nadav and Abihu are dead. Consumed in fire. Burned alive. And nobody knows why.
They were two of Aaron’s four sons, Temple priests. They went into the Sanctuary to offer a sacrifice, but something went wrong. The fire came out strange somehow and blazed everywhere. They died instantly.
Moses, their uncle, told Aaron that it was God’s intention. “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” Aaron was silent.
For centuries, commentators would speculate what they’d done wrong to deserve death. Perhaps they’d been over-zealous and churned out too much fire. Maybe they hadn’t followed the commandments to the letter. They might have been drunk.
But nobody questioned that it was their own fault. God is just. The world is reasonable. And if a bad thing happens, the people who suffer must be to blame. All we can do is silently accept it.
Under any scrutiny, it’s an indefensible theological position. In a world so full of inexplicable suffering, it is not possible to tell people who are hurting that God intended for them to feel that way. Death cannot be explained away. We cannot justify people burned alive. We cannot silently accept it.
But what if we have been interpreting this parasha all wrong? What if this text isn’t encouraging us into silent acceptance, but to question injustice? What if this isn’t about blaming victims but about challenging oppression?
There is a suggestion in the way the story is laid out that there may be more to this story than meets the eye. Our narrative does not begin with the death of Nadav and Abihu, but with sacrifices. Burnt sacrifices of animals. Moses and Aaron go about slaughtering goats, rams and oxen and offering them up to God in fire and incense.
In the next section, Nadav and Abihu die. Already these two events seem connected. The burnt sacrifices of animals may well have some correlation to the burning of Aaron’s sons. In case the parallel is not clear enough, the aliyot are divided up so that the two stories run into each other. The third aliyah of Shmini begins:
Fire went out from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.
The language used to describe Nadav’s and Abihu’s death mirrors this too closely to be coincidental:
Fire went out from before God and consumed them; and they died at the instance of God.
The Torah is urging is to see some similarity between the burnt sacrifices of the animals and the death by fire of Aaron’s sons. The people shouting and falling on their faces stands in direct contrast to Aaron’s silence.
Other commentaries have begun from the premise that Aaron’s sons’ deaths were justified. Other commentaries have assumed that animal sacrifice and human death were logically separate. Both, they assume, form part of a cosmological worldview that sees God as just, explicable, and hungry for death.
Yet the whole narrative might make more sense if we assume that the reverse is the case. Nadav and Abihu did not deserve to die. Their deaths were senseless and unjust. They died without explanation and their father was expected to cope with it. Their sudden and dramatic death arrests all talk of animal sacrifice. It interrupts our assumptions that there are correct ways to kill creatures and that sins can be expiated with blood. In the moment that Nadav and Abihu die, Aaron gets an insight into what sacrifice is like for the animals. When his own kids are slaughtered, he doesn’t shout and fall on his face, but retreats into stunned silence.
This interpretation makes sense of Moses’ cryptic comment to Aaron: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” The word for ‘draw near’ – קרב – is the same as the word for ‘sacrifice’. The line may be interpreted as saying that God is made holy through sacrifices. If animal sacrifice is holy, why not human? If animal sacrifice makes God appear glorious, why not human?
Instead of trying to justify human death, this parasha may be calling us to question animal death. Although this interpretation may seem modern, there is precedent for it. According to 13th Century Spanish philosopher Nachmanides, “Living creatures possess a moving soul and a certain spiritual superiority which in this respect make them similar to those who possess intellect (people) and they have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.”
Scholars including Maimonides, Albo and Rav Kook all argued that, ideally, people should be vegetarian. They saw animals as possessing reason and emotions like people. Today, their ideas have new relevance. We live in an era when animals are bred in captivity, kept in cages and killed without thought. When the rules governing kashrut were constructed, they put a firm limit on what violence could be done to animals. Compared to neighbouring cultures where animals could be torn apart limb by limb while they were still alive, the requirement that they should be kept in good conditions and killed as quickly as possible was remarkably humane.
Yet, today, as Progressive Jews, we might rightly question whether those rules go far enough. If we accept that senseless death is unjust and that the Torah is more concerned with calling us to action than silent passivity, it may be time for us, as a movement, to consider adopting vegetarianism.
I do not want to moralise to people or be accused of hypocrisy. I am not a vegetarian and I’ve struggled to reduce my own use of animal products. But I want to try. One of the biggest barriers is that it’s expensive and time-consuming. That’s because our society is built around meat and using animal products. That should not, however, stop us from trying. As a religious movement, we could lead the way by changing our own relationship to food and encouraging others to do the same.
I hope you don’t mind me addressing you by your first name. I can’t remember what I called you when you were alive. Everyone else calls you Nancy. Wee Nancy.
I can’t remember much about you, except the sound you made when you laughed. You laughed grittily and wholeheartedly.
I have one very vivid memory of you. Darren took me across Easterhouse to your flat overlooking the park. We must have been so small because we slipped through the railings on the veranda. Darren went ahead of me: “Wait there.” He went into your living room and said: “I’ve got a surprise for you.” That was my cue. I was the surprise. I went in and you beamed and laughed and said: “Let me look at you, son!” You stretched out your arms and I was brought into a cuddle too big to remember. I just remember the way you said those words and the way you laughed.
Everything else I remember of you is from other people. We have a video of you singing karaoke. You were phenomenal. Glamorous and bassy. Everyone says that you were amazing at performing. I’ve heard stories about you too – about how you’d prise off your shoe to beat my mum when she’d been naughty, but it’d take so long and get so farcical that you’d just wind up laughing. That’s how I always picture you: laughing. Mum says you were wonderful.
This week I was asked by a teacher to write to my maternal grandmother and explain why I’m becoming a rabbi. He said I needed to give an account of myself from how your life has ended up with mine.
He said I should write about migration experiences, religious beliefs and family life. I think he had in mind that you’d be a shtetl Jew transported from a village in Eastern Europe to England with nothing but faith and a chicken soup recipe. I don’t think he imagined a Catholic cleaner on a sprawling council estate in Scotland. But the fact that your story is so different to the story of most grandmothers of rabbis, and that mine is so different to that of most rabbis, makes it even more worth telling. He’s right: I do owe you an explanation of how we got from your life to mine.
I’m sorry I haven’t written to you before. I’m sorry that I haven’t given you enough thought generally. My mum sometimes chastises me that I take all this interest in my Jewish roots but none in my Scottish roots. As I write this, I realise how right she is. I don’t know enough about where you came from. Peggy, my dad’s great aunt, is 101 and she has a family tree that includes mayors and bankers and businessmen. I don’t know what your parents did. Family trees and old age are things that privileged people have. I’m sorry you didn’t live longer to tell me your stories.
Thank you for everything you did for my mum. From what she’s said, her early years weren’t easy. Working in the job centre in one of this country’s worst recessions sounds like an all-too-familiar nightmare. Her experiences of inequality and injustice led her to join the Militant Tendency – then the revolutionary wing of the Labour Party – where she met my dad. She tells me that you used to vote Communist because the councillor was nice and tried to change things. I inherited from her that burning sense of rage against injustice and a deep-seated awareness of how broken our world is.
My dad came from a different world. He was raised by my granddad, a Liberal Jewish rabbi, and my granny, who was a secretary to a Labour MP and is still alive now. They, too, knew injustice. My granddad fled from the Nazis as a teenager. Every member of his family bar his sister was killed in their genocide. My granny used to get hate mail because she used her position in Parliament to try to help asylum seekers get into the country. She suspects the letters came from inside the House.
For a while, my dad, too, thought that he’d become a rabbi. Instead, he ended up becoming a Marxist and meeting my mum, your daughter. They were bound together by the causes they believed in, like getting the Tories out of power, overthrowing capitalism, abolishing bombs and anti-racism: you know, the normal things that parents spend their times doing. My earliest memories are all of protests. I remember placards and chants and disruption. I remember the excitement of seeing a woman chain herself to a fence. I remember my mum and dad rattling tins and trying to sell papers.
I think you must have played a big role in my mum’s desire to change the system. How you lived and thought and voted might have mattered, but above all I imagine that what motivated so many of those socialists was the belief that a janitor in Glasgow should not have so much less life than a businessman in London. That basic view is still at the core of everything I believe.
When I was born, the local rabbi wrote to my mum and dad to ask if they’d like to raise me Jewish. They responded that they wouldn’t. By the time I was 6 I was insistent that I did want a Jewish upbringing. I don’t know what had got in to me. I think I liked the prayers in school and I believed in God. Perhaps that was enough. In hindsight, I think any religion would have worked for me. If I’d been Catholic or Muslim or Buddhist, I would just have just ended up being in the radical wing of one of their sects, using their texts and rituals.
As it happened, I grew up in an amazing Jewish community. This group of dedicated people got together in Reading’s Friends Meeting House on Saturdays and festivals to celebrate and eat. We sang songs. We danced. We made things. We talked about what we thought about different issues. We children were treated like our opinions mattered. One of the community members had a farm and we’d head out there to plant trees on Tu B’Shevat in February; to harvest rhubarb at Shavuot in June; and to sleep under the stars for Sukkot in October. When the rabbi preached, she talked about social justice and healing the world. The congregants talked about feminism and gay rights and refugees. By the time I was a teenager, Judaism and socialism had melded together into one common religion in my head.
As a grew up, the need for both became increasingly clear. Along with many of my school friends, I got involved in the campaign against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I became aware of racism and inequality in my own small world. I realised that I was gay and that I didn’t fit in with what people expected of me. Although I did well at school, I hated it. I never felt like I fitted in.
When I went to synagogue, though, I felt like I was embraced with all my weirdness and queerness – even if I didn’t have those words for them then. Judaism reassured me that, despite my fears, every person was uniquely made in the image of God and deserved dignity. Socialism reassured me that a time would come when all inequalities would be erased, all wars would end, and everybody would treat each other with respect. Judaism told me that on that day God’s name would be one and would be known to be one.
After school, I went to university. When I got there, I encountered something I’d never imagined existed: right-wing Jews. They were homophobic and nationalistic. They had no interest in praying or planting trees or singing songs. They were deeply interested in waving a flag for a country I’d never visited and hadn’t heard great things about. It was a culture shock. But they were very clear that what they had was authentic Judaism and everybody else seemed to agree with them. That was the tail-end of the Blair years, when a form of multiculturalism was very fashionable that required religious minorities to perform their differences as visually as possible. So they looked like ‘real Jews’. And I was a hippy with a bit of Hebrew.
Only after university did I meet other Hebrew-speaking hippies. I kept going to synagogue for the High Holy Days in the meantime, but with something of a sadness at a Judaism that I thought was shared and loved was, for some people, and perceived by many, as just a posh kids club in North West London. I kept trying to find the God that I believed in and the religion that I’d grown up in.
Then, by chance, it found me. I moved to a nice part of East London with parks and cafes. I took up a job at a charity that worked on getting aid to people in war zones (“saving the whales or whoever”, auntie Hannah called it). I was living above a kebab shop with some amazing friends. And, right on the same street, was a small synagogue adjoined to a church, opposite a mosque, that doubled-up as a centre for migrants.
The first time I went, there was no rabbi. Everybody there took turns leading different bits – giving the sermon, singing the prayers, reading the Torah. It felt intimate and people-driven. I sat next to a retired lady who danced her way through the service and afterwards told me that she taught dance therapy, or something like that. Afterwards, people had cups of tea and chatted. I felt like I’d found my Jews again.
Later, the rabbi would take me out for a cup of tea and tell me that, as a community, they didn’t do very much social justice work because everyone was doing so much of that in their own lives. She was a lesbian and had a wife who played guitar at some of the services. I can’t tell you what it meant to me to see another gay person leading a synagogue, especially one that seemed to chime so deeply with my values.
At the same time, two people reached out to me from a group called ‘Jewdas’. They called themselves Jewish anarchists or communists or hipsters or something, I can’t quite remember. They’d heard I was a far-left Jew and wondered if I’d want to meet up. We went to an Irish pub near my flat. My housemate came for moral support. They were full of life and excitement – radical Jews who wanted to overthrow capitalism and end nationalism. I was finally finding my way in the world.
Not long after, Israel started bombing Gaza. That invasion drove a wedge in British society, and especially in Anglo-Jewry. I saw otherwise sensible Jews defending unconscionable actions. I saw people, even in the Liberal synagogues I’d loved, advocating to ‘kill Arabs’, or equivocating about how ‘complicated’ it all was. The group around Jewdas expanded ten-fold as Jews gathered together who wanted to explore their culture and religion but couldn’t abide the reactionary Zionism they found in their community. We shared ideas. We talked about the histories of other anti-capitalist and anti-Zionist Jews and integrated their stories into ours. We prayed and made Shabbat and said Kaddish for the murdered Palestinians.
I resolved that I had to dedicate myself to that Judaism: that Judaism of marginalised people speaking out against power; that Judaism that used Hebrew words to heal modern wounds; that Judaism of justice, folk traditions and music that could stand by people in their happiest and saddest moments. And I decided to learn everything I could so that I could become a rabbi.
When I applied to the rabbinic College, I was upfront about my politics and who I was. I wrote an application pledging my loyalty to ‘radical Judaism’ – “more like a manifesto than an application,” one of the rabbis interviewing me called it. They subjected me to a week of interviews where I answered hard questions about God and Israel and rules and my life story. At the end of it, I was convinced they’d never let me in and that I’d have to find some other way of creating the Judaism I believed in.
But they did let me in. So I’m here.
There are so many other stories I’d like to tell you, and so many other reasons I could give you, but I think the simplest answer to why I want to be a rabbi is that I want to make people’s lives better. And I think that can’t happen without systemic change and a loving God. My mum says you’d understand that. She says you had faith in God too. So I hope, with faith, you can understand who I am and what I’m trying to do.
I love you. I miss you.
I wrote this for a Philosophy class at Leo Baeck College. I sent it to my mum before uploading it, who commented that she had looked into her family history, but everyone had married pregnant and died young.