judaism · sermon · story · Uncategorized

Nadav and Abihu are dead

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.

nadav and avihu

I originally wrote this for Leo Baeck College’s newsletter on Parashat Shmini.

[1] Lev 10:3

[2] Lev 9:24

[3] Lev 10:2

[4] Lev 10:3

[5] Nachmanides, commentary on Genesis 1:29, quoted in https://www.jewishveg.org/schwartz/view-torah.html

[6] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rabbinic-teachings-on-vegetarianism#4

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Dear Nancy: A letter to my maternal grandmother

Dear Nancy,

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.

Lev

easterhouse-housing-scheme-glasgow-regeneration-body-image-1478884440

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.

judaism · sermon · social justice · Uncategorized

We build the Temple when we learn its dimensions.

We begin to build the Temple when we learn its dimensions.

Midrash Tanchuma tells us that we begin to build the Temple when we learn its dimensions, and it is in this week’s parasha that we learn about the first Temple’s dimensions.

The Temple it describes sounds gorgeous: gold, silver and brass; blue, purple and scarlet; skins and threads and wood and onyx stones. The parasha lays out what the ark should look like, surrounded by cherubim. Even the smell – that deep rich smell of incense – it describes.

The Temple sounds beautiful, but it is not my Temple.

That Temple is for a world divided up into castes – where cohanim take precedence over Levites, Levites over Israelites, Israelites over low-caste Jews and low-caste Jews over foreigners. The Temple I want to build is one where all hierarchies of race and class are abolished.

That Temple is for a place where women are kept in their own quarters, separate from men and participation in services. My Temple is one where patriarchy is finished.

That Temple is one where countless animals are burnt on furnaces, day and night. In my Temple, humanity and nature work in harmony.

Their Temple is for a centralised cult in Jerusalem – mine is a decentralised, Diasporic, dispersed Temple where people can find God wherever they are.

Like the Sages, who took this parasha and inferred from it the laws of Shabbat, my Temple is not a place, but a time. It is a time for justice, peace and tranquillity.

That Temple is not our Temple, but this week we learn its dimensions. And when we learn the dimensions of the Temple we begin to build it. This idea, that you can create change just by imagining something different, has been central to many revolutionary movements. Last week, we celebrated 100 years since women got the vote, and it is worth reflecting that every major change for democracy was brought about people fighting to change their circumstances and every battle was brought about by a change in consciousness. Through that consciousness, through contemplating a world of women’s liberation, the earliest feminists began to create that world.

Abdullah Ocalan, also known as Apo, the incarcerated leader of the Kurdish resistance in Turkey, pledged in his Prison Writings that weapons should go silent and ideas speak. His idea – of democratic confederalism, where peoples were brought together by collectives that transcended boundaries – he hoped, could be brought about by persuasion rather than violence. He imagines that the Kurdish people might have national liberation without resorting to the authoritarianism and division of their own state, and has made it his task from prison to advocate for a different kind of society. The Kurdish liberation movement has been profoundly different to most other nationalist movements that preceded it, in that it has focused on building greater equality and community while fighting against persecution on all sides, rather than deferring this necessary work until ‘after the revolution’.

During my time in Turkey, I was lucky enough to see some of these ideas in action. In the year I lived in Istanbul, the Turkish government made a rare allowance for the Kurds to celebrate their spring welcoming festival, Newruz. A friend took me out to a giant field in the centre of town where people were selling garlands. Fires burned and people jumped through them. There were a few stages, on which folk musicians performed. The people around me took my pinkies in theirs and danced in a circle in a style similar to the hora.

What was perhaps most remarkable was how politicised this festival was. The very fact that it was taking place at all was a shock to the system. For decades, people had not dared to speak Kurdish openly on the streets. Journalists who reported on the persecution Kurds faced had been imprisoned. But here they were, in their tens of thousands, proudly celebrating their own traditions. After every few songs, a speaker came out. The speaker would spell out a vision for national liberation and international solidarity. I don’t speak Kurdish, but I’ve been to enough Marxist rallies to recognise “down with the capitalist system” when I hear it.

At the same time, a revolution was taking place within the Kurdish community. The national liberation struggle had empowered women, ethnic minorities and queer people to start campaigning for their own rights. HDP, the democratic wing of the resistance movement, had, by far, the most comprehensive policy for gendered liberation, including paid housework, gay adoption rights and closing the pay gap. The party’s candidate for mayor of Kadikoy, a fancy district of Istanbul, was a trans woman sex worker, Asya Elmas, who came close second on a platform of combatting exploitation.

Over the last few years, I have watched with great intensity as that movement for Kurdish freedom has unfolded. In a way, I have done so despairingly. The Syrian civil war has continued and escalated, causing devastation on unprecedented levels, and turning out more and more refugees. In that time, ISIS has spread across the Middle East, destroying Kurdish communities and threatening to destroy every remnant of hope with their own brand of reactionary, fundamentalist dogma.

But, as well as despairing, I’ve watched on with hope. The conflict has, unexpectedly, given Kurdish militants the opportunity to try out the least of their dreams. The Kurdish groups banded together in response to the war and, in 2012, they captured the cities of Efrin, Amuda and Kobani in the northern Syrian territory of Rojava. Having taken control, they tried to implement the ideas of Apo I described earlier. They governed by direct, grassroots democracy. They instituted a constitution that pledged religious, cultural and political freedoms, as well as a bill of human rights in line with the UN’s Declaration.

For the last few years, they have been one of the driving forces in pushing back ISIS. They have now almost completely defeated ISIS in all the areas neighbouring them, despite little support from the international community and active hostility from Turkey and Iran. Turkey, which has so far barely intervened in the Syrian conflict, even to support humanitarian efforts, has in recent weeks got involved only with the intention of destroying Rojava and, with it, Kurdish hopes for their own self-government.

I hope you will understand that I am not frivolously cheering on a side in a war whose outcome will not affect me, but I do believe that the struggle in Rojave is the Spanish Civil War of our generation. It is not a struggle over which ethnic group will govern, but over which ideas will be allowed to dominate. Rojava represents the possibility of a set of ideas that have otherwise been called unrealisable – of a borderless, classless world. They are defending more than a territory; they are defending a dream of a different kind of Middle East.

I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of the Kurdish resistance. There are big problems that have been widely acknowledged, including mistreatment of minorities like Yezidis and the egalitarian values I described are not uniformly shared. I also do not want to give off the impression of glamourising war. I only recognise that the need for violence has come out of necessity, and I find it hard to criticise anyone for using those methods when faced with such violent opponents on all sides.

It is worth knowing that those ideals – of liberty, equality and justice – are being fought for, right now. It is worth supporting the people who are fighting for them, however imperfectly.

Learning about their struggle for a just world, I realise that my Temple may not be as distant as I thought. Knowing that people are struggling against far worse conditions that I can imagine, I feel empowered to fight for the same ideals here.

You may not share my ideals, but I still want to hear yours. I want to have a real conversation about what kind of world we want to build.

We begin to build the Temple whenever we study its dimensions, so let’s look at each other’s blueprints. What is our Judaism really for? Are we just preserving a tradition; just using our religion to serve people’s individual needs now; or are we serious about building a Messianic Age?

We begin to build the Temple whenever we learn its dimensions. Let’s get building.

 

Newroz_Istanbul4

I delivered this sermon on 15th February 2018 for Parashat Terumah at Leo Baeck College.

judaism · sermon · Uncategorized

This burden is too heavy for you to bear alone

One of the things I love about our prophets is that they’re not perfect people. If they were perfect, what could we learn from them? Moses is a profoundly imperfect person. In Egypt, he gets so angry with a slaver that he murders him and runs away. In the desert, Moses gets angry again and smashes a rock to get water from it, rather than talking to it as God asked. Moses is somebody who gets angry, impatient and struggles with everything he has to do.

In this week’s parasha, Moses is no longer angry or impatient – he is just burnt out. His father-in-law, Yitro, comes to visit him in the desert. Yitro is a Midianite priest who gave Moses work when he was on the run after the killing the slaver. While Moses was there, Yitro’s daughter, Zipporah, fell in love with him and started a family with him.

As soon as Yitro arrives, Moses prostrates himself and offers him food. Yitro looks at him. Moses is growing old. When they left Egypt, Moses was already eighty. His body is aching. He’s had enough. But he’s persisting. From dawn until dusk, Moses sorts out people’s problems. He listens to their concerns and solves them.

Moses has been trying to deal with everything on his own. Rashbam, a medieval commentator, points out that Moses has been trying to do so much he’s been left doing nothing. Instead of empowering people to solve their own problems, he’s left them standing in the desert, waiting for his judgement. He is on the verge of burning out.

Yitro sees all this. Yitro puts a hand on his shoulder. He gently cajoles him: “What are you doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses tells him: “The people need me, I have to do this.”

“No, you don’t,” says Yitro. “This is not good for you. It’s too heavy for you.”

Moses, known for his anger and impatience, just gives in. “You’re right,” he says.

Yitro comes up with a plan for him to delegate tasks. He spreads out the work so that Moses just supports a few people, and in the smallest groups, Moses assigns responsibility so that people can look after themselves.

For me, this is a beautiful moment. Moses realises that he can no longer carry a burden – and he shares it. First, he shares it with Yitro, acknowledging that he’s vulnerable. Then, he shares it with the whole community, recognising that power and responsibility need to be shared with everyone.

In their groups of tens, the community will share their problems. They will talk about their worries and solve them together.

This has such a profound message for us. In our society, we are so often discouraged from sharing our problems. Chin up. Stay strong. Keep calm and carry on. We are conditioned to think that our emotions are better kept to ourselves; that being vulnerable means being weak.

The expectation that we should always be happy, or always be calm, and shoulder our burdens ourselves, is not reasonable or realistic. We’re real people, living in a broken world, who feel the full range of human emotions – of sadness, frustration, anger, ecstasy, bliss and joy. There is no reason why we shouldn’t sometimes need to unload.

Our society is beginning to initiate conversations about mental health. Those conversations are not easy. For decades, we have been taught that our mental wellbeing is something that needs to be dealt with privately. But how can it be? Human beings are social creatures. Our individual lives are deeply locked in to the lives of everyone else around us. How everyone else is feeling intimately affects how we are.

This is especially important here in the Jewish community. Many of our members have endured a great deal and need to be able to process that in a healthy and compassionate way. Often, there are few other places to go with our problems but our religious communities. Plenty of us would understandably struggle to open up about our feelings with regular friends. If we decide to seek out counselling, we might find NHS waiting lists inordinately long. Even if we do get counselling, it can only take us so far – it is not a substitute for a loving community where people talk to each other and support each other.

The synagogue is a place where we can talk about our feelings in a supportive environment on our own terms. Creating a supportive environment doesn’t mean wallowing in misery or forcing conversations that aren’t comfortable – it just means creating a space where people can be themselves and connect with their traditions.

In this community, we’re going to try and do much more of that. Andrew has very kindly agreed to hold services once a month, so that between us we will have regular shabbats every two weeks. These services and study sessions will give everyone opportunities to connect with their religion on their own terms.

Just as Moses delegated out responsibility, the engine of Manchester Liberal Jewish Community is in its members. We work together to take on the tasks that keep this community going, so that this inclusive and empowering Jewish community can exist in Manchester. Every one of us puts effort into ensuring that the community continues to run – whether that’s by cooking food, doing admin, advertising events on social media or just turning up.

Whether you’re a regular or a newcomer, this community is here for you and will welcome you. We need you to help us create a supportive, inclusive, Jewish space in Manchester, where everyone can participate and everyone can benefit.

Moses accepted that the burden he was carrying was too heavy to bear alone, so he shared it. Come share your burden. Come be part of a community. Come and find peace.

manchester dusk skyline

I gave a slimmed-down version of this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on 2nd February 2018. If you are Jewish and living in Manchester, do consider joining our community. If you are living elsewhere in the UK and want to find an inclusive Jewish community near you, look on these listings from Liberal Judaism and the Movement for Reform Judaism.

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I won’t let you go until you bless me

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

Bless me anyway.

Prior Walter is wrestling with an angel. He is dying. Many of his friends have died. It’s the 1980s, New York, and he’s living with HIV. This is the climax of my favourite play, Angels in America.

An angel has come and delivered a prophecy. He does not want it. The prophecy tells him that everybody needs to stop moving around so much and making so much noise. It tells him to stop modernity. He refuses. He tells the angel to take her prophecy back.

I won’t let you go until you bless me. Free me! Unfettter me! Bless me or whatever, but I will be let go.

The angel refuses.

Bless me anyway. I still want my blessing. Even sick. I want to be alive.

Eventually, the angel relinquishes and accepts back the prophecy.

This exchange sheds so much light for me on this week’s parasha. Jacob wrestles with an angel, and receives a new name: Israel, one who struggles with God. He prefigures a new people, a people who will struggle with God. A people who will not blindly follow God but will enter a two-way relationship, fraught with conflict. A people who will not slavishly enact rules of tradition, but who will fight over them and grapple with them.

Encapsulated in this story, I find the essence of Judaism: a process of struggle; with ourselves, with our society, with meaning itself. I like this in Judaism. I love the idea that Judaism is an approach to struggle. Whereas other religions talk about being saved from struggle or releasing the individual from the cycle of struggle, Judaism embraces it. Life is a struggle, it says, let’s get stuck into it. Let’s fight with ourselves, let’s fight with our society, let’s fight with God.

I like this version, because I’m good at fighting. I grew up in a very political house and spent most of my formative years involved in activism. I’m good at saying what’s wrong with the world and setting out to change it.

But this is not all of what that story is about. I’ve embraced the conclusion, but I’ve neglected what it took Jacob to get there. Yes, Jacob becomes one who struggles with God, but he gets there by telling the angel: I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me.

Jacob’s starting position is not conflict. Jacob’s starting position is that he wants to be blessed. He wants to get the best thing possible out of this situation. He has run away from his home and his brother Esau. Now, he has run away from his uncle Lot. Jacob has got into fights with everyone. Jacob is fighting with his own conscience.

But when he is fighting with the angel, he doesn’t set out to win. He can’t physically overpower an angel. He can’t intellectually overpower an angel. By definition, these creatures are stronger, more enlightened, closer to God than human beings. All Jacob can do is ask for a blessing. All Jacob can do is realise that he has to make the most out of the situation he is in. Only when he realises this, and discovers that it’s not about winning, does Jacob find release and receive his blessing.

Over the last few months, I’ve realised how important it is not just to struggle, but to know when you can’t win; not just to fight against the bad, but to bless it too. In our morning prayers, we thank God who creates the darkness and the light, the good and the bad. All of it comes from God. Sometimes all we can do is resign ourselves to it, and ask the bad to bless us anyway.

Last year on Lag B’Omer, my friend went into hospital with liver failure. My boyfriend has known him for years. We spent months waiting for him to receive a transplant and hosting his family while he recovered. It looked like he was on the mend, and he had started working again at his job in the library.

About five weeks ago, he was rushed to hospital again. His liver was failing and other organs were at risk too. He has been in hospital, in an induced coma, on life support, since then. A week ago, the doctors told us that if he did not receive a matching organ by Thursday – today – that it would be too late to perform a transplant.

These last few weeks have made our house a strange place. It’s been filled with friends and family coming to stay, hoping for his recovery. We’ve filled the place up with laughter and tears – and, of course, prayers.

That’s all anyone can do when faced with a problem that is impossible to fight against. All of us have been helpless to decide whether he can receive a transplant or not. Whether he lives or not has been in the hands of amazing NHS doctors and nurses, but mostly it’s depended on that Great Being way beyond anybody’s understanding or control.

So I’ve had to learn a new skill: to bless it anyway. Everyone in our house has found ways of praying, at home and in the hospital. We’ve prayed hard for a recovery, while accepting that what might happen is way out of our hands. Life is complicated, fragile and inexplicable. What exactly it is that keeps it going or ends it we’ll never quite know. I have had to try to find new ways to bless the Source of all the good and all the bad in the world. That’s easy when things are good, but harder when things are bad.

On Sunday morning, our friend went into surgery for an organ transplant. Twelve hours later, we heard that the operation had been successful. That doesn’t mean he’s fine yet. It will be another week before he wakes up. The road to recovery is long, and there is no telling what will come next. But we will bless it anyway. We will say to him, to God and to this shitty situation: bless me anyway. I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go until you bless me. I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I won’t let you go

angels in americaI gave this sermon at shacharit on Thursday for Leo Baeck College. At the time, I included more names and personal details, which I’ve edited out for this version. I wanted to share with my fellow students what had been happening over the past few weeks.

judaism · sermon · torah · Uncategorized

The most boring part of the Torah

Genesis 10 is the most boring part of the Torah. Gandhi said it sent him to sleep. Militant atheists hold it up as a paragon of inane irrelevances. Although it is very clearly part of this week’s section of the Torah, everybody skips over it. You won’t hear any Liberal or Reform synagogues read it out this weekend. Even Chabad’s lectionary, known for keeping in even the driest sections for the sake of tradition, skips over Genesis 10 as though it’s not there.

It’s the genealogies. The lists of all the people who begat other people from Noah to Jobab. All the sons of Shem, Ham and Japheth roll off the tongue and over the heads of the readers. We can see why people would want to cut it out. In the rest of this section of the Torah, God floods the planet, Noah builds an ark, saves Noah, along with his family and favourite animals, then dramatically hangs a rainbow in the sky to symbolise a promise never to destroy the world again. At the end, after we’ve skipped over Genesis 10, the people attempt to build a tower so tall it can reach Heaven, only to be struck down and separated into many nations with many languages. By comparison with everything else, Genesis 10 is boring.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it. The Torah is a carefully crafted text. Nothing gets in there by accident. The genealogies aren’t just a list of names that break up two well-known stories; they’re integral to the Genesis narrative. They tell us something deep about what kind of book the Torah is, who it’s for, and what makes it different from every other book that’s gone before. I find that in the boring bits, whether in a book or a relationship or a friendship, you find out the most important stuff. You find out who somebody really is.

It might help to put this text into the context of other Ancient Near Eastern prologues. It was common, in the civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean, to begin with a list of people. These were the kings and their years leading up to the present day. For people in these societies, years were marked by the reign of their rulers and stories were told in relation to kingdoms. The Torah begins differently. The ancient Israelites were suspicious of monarchy and authority. They only managed a brief spell under a united kingdom, preferring instead to unite by their loyalty to God rather than to a person. For them, authority comes not from might but from history and tradition. So their story does not begin with a list of kings. It begins with a seemingly innocuous list of ancestors.

On closer inspection, these ancestors are not really people at all. Look, for example, at the descendants of Ham: Cush, Mitzrayim, Put and Canaan. These names are familiar. We know Mitzrayim as Egypt, the place our ancestors left in the Exodus. We know Canaan as Palestine, the place they entered. Put, according to Josephus, was the founder of Libya. Cush is commonly identified with Sudan. These are the nations of north-east Africa.

We see too the names Babel (Babylon), Accad (Akkadia) and Ashur (Assyria). These are the names of nations in the Near East. Later, scholars will come to identify Ashkenaz with Germany and Tarshish with Spain. The point is clear: this is a universal text. It is a story not of one great empire and its kings but of everybody. In this, the most boring bit of Torah, we find its most essential message: universalism. We are, all of us, part of this planet, sharing in its fortunes. We are, all of us, the children of Noah, descended from one common ancestor, connected by a universal God.

It encourages us to value unity in diversity – we may all come from a common ancestor, but we have gone in many different directions, all of which are to be celebrated. I think that’s the reason why it’s sandwiched between the stories of Noah and Babel. In Noah, people are violent and angry, so God floods the whole world. We realise that if the world floods, we all drown together. Our fates are so deeply intertwined that whatever we do to the world will affect all of us. In Babel, everybody speaks the same language and tries to build a tower together. But they are so single-minded that they subject everybody to the same conditions. They have no respect for difference or the unique dignity of each other, so God must separate them and diversify their languages. They needed difference.

Genesis 10, the history of all the nations of the world, combines the two messages of universalism and diversity. Yes, we all come from Noah and yes, we are all different. Yes, we share in this world, and yes, we are all part of different and exciting nations. Yes, we are all the same. And, yes, we are all different. This is a message that we can all share in what’s good in the world if we can all see what’s good and different in each other.

The nations of the world will, inevitably, look different in a decade to how they look now. The UK will most likely leave the European Union. Catalonia may or not become independent. Perhaps our Scotland will hold another referendum; Ireland and Northern Ireland might re-examine their borders. We will probably see new movements to restructure states all over the world. New nations will unite, new nations will split.

Separating or uniting need not be inherently good or bad things. What matters is the spirit in which they are done. If people split based on malice and anger, as did the generation before the flood, they won’t succeed. If people join out of a desire to be homogenous and to force everyone to conform, as did the generation at Babel, they will fail. Only if they can respect difference, uniting in a spirit of diversity, will people succeed.

tower of babel

 

 

high holy days · liturgy · sermon · Uncategorized

Is the Kol Nidrei prayer angry enough?

There are two versions of the Kol Nidre prayer. One in Hebrew; one in Aramaic. One ancient; one more modern. One looking forward; one looking backwards.

The original, older prayer in Aramaic, has these words:

All vows, oaths and promises which we make to God from this Yom Kippur to the next and are not able to fulfil – may all such vows between ourselves and God be annulled. May they be void and of no effect. May we be absolved of them and released from them. May these vows no longer be considered vows, these oaths no longer be considered oaths, and these promises no longer be considered promises.

The reformers decided to substitute it for a Hebrew alternative, and you can probably see why. Before we have made any promises, we announce our intention to annul them. We cancel every vow in advance. This was deeply worrying to many rabbis throughout history. The prayer was used as fodder by antisemites to accuse Jews of being duplicitous and untrustworthy.

Many Jews worried that it gave off the wrong impression. More than that, they were worried for their own integrity. One of the most important principles for the earliest reformers was that they would not say with their mouths what they did not believe in their hearts. So they scrapped prayers that talked about their expectations for the Messiah or their desire to build a Temple. They got rid of prayers cursing their enemies or extolling the greatness of one nation over another.

It was inevitable, then, that they would have to remove the Aramaic Kol Nidre prayer. Not only did they not believe in it, the prayer was actually about not believing the words they were saying. So they substituted it for a new version in Hebrew: “Source of Our Being, accept the vows of the children that they will turn away from evil, and walk in the ways of your Law of righteousness and justice.” Our siddur includes a reading from the American Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner to drive home the point about keeping promises:

All vows, promises, and commitments made in Your presence –

May we be given the strength to keep them

[…]

We meant them when we made them,

But distractions were many, and our wills were weak.

This time may we be strong enough;

May our better selves prevail

I want to ask: what do we gain and what do we lose by changing the prayer in this way? I think it is evident what we do gain. These words are so much more comfortable to say. It is so much more credible that we want to keep our promises than that we want to annul them.

But perhaps this very gain is also our loss. I recently ran a retreat for Jewish activists, including some members of this congregation and many from elsewhere. One participant had grown up Orthodox but found she no longer had a home there. She had turned away from Judaism and was now, tentatively making her way back. At the end of a morning prayer service, she said to me: “The trouble is, you’re making Judaism too easy! Liberal Judaism cuts out all the anger and the edge.”

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Prayer should be comforting and uplifting, but if it is only those things it is incomplete. If our prayers are going to speak to real life, they need to speak to every emotion we experience. They should encapsulate our sadness, our anger and our frustrations, as well as our happiness and joy. This year, I realised how inadequate my prayers were when I looked up at the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower and realised that I did not have the words to mourn such callous loss of life. We need prayers that reflect our anger.

The original Aramaic prayer has something edgy about it. Tonight, we are told, God’s face comes closest to the earth. God’s presence is with us more than any other night. And what do we do, faced with our maker? We set out a list of demands: that every promise we make should be annulled and every vow irrelevant. Not the mistakes we’ve made with other people, but specifically we annul our promises to God. Worse than that, we say we want them all forgiven in advance. We haven’t made a single promise and already we want to annul it. That is a pretty audacious prayer.

The Hebrew alternative, though more honest to the best of what we mean, might be less honest to how we feel. Coming to synagogue on Kol Nidre can feel like a big deal. For many of the people who attend synagogues across the country this evening, this will be only the time they come all year. That’s great, because this prayer was written expressly so that people who had fallen out of participation could join in again. In Eastern Europe, it helped Jews who had fallen out with their friends and family to reconnect with the community. In medieval Spain, it helped Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to keep up a sense of commitment, even if they were too afraid the rest of the year. For those people coming, isn’t there something more honest, more empowering, about annulling vows and expressing that anger than about resolving to be a more faithful person? Don’t we all, no matter our piety, come to prayer with a little bit of frustration and anxiety, especially as we enter Yom Kippur?

As well as a difference in tone, I think there’s a difference in timing. I find the idea of time in the two prayers really interesting. In the Aramaic prayer, we annul the promises that we’re going to make in the future. In the Hebrew one, we repent for our sins and we resolve to be better in the present. But the language was changed to Hebrew by the reformers because they thought that the more ancient language was the more authentic. They reached deeper into the past in order to be better in the present. Between these two prayers, I feel like there is a conflict not just over what we want to say, but over where we are and in what direction we are going. On this most holy night, with God closest to us, where do we really stand in time? Who really are we?

These prayers seem to stand in conflict, but they don’t have to. There are good reasons for the Hebrew prayer and good reasons for the Aramaic one. Perhaps the answer is we need both. We need to be humble and we need to be angry. We need to be faithful and we need to be honest. We need to repent of the sins of the past and annul the vows of the future because, when we do so, we can stand in that Infinite Space where all sins are forgiven and all promises are forgotten. We can greet God with our whole selves, complete with all our emotions, ready to say: I’m sorry. I’ll do better again next year.

Gmar chatima tovah.

kol nidrei

This sermon was originally given for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Friday 29th September (Erev Yom Kippur 5778) and originally published by Leo Baeck College