sermon · talmud

Can you purify this spider?



Spider season seems to have begun early this year.

It’s that time of the year when we start seeing spiders, climbing up walls, hanging out in sheds, and getting comically stuck in bathtubs. Of course, they live all year round, but in early autumn they are visible everywhere.

I love spiders. I think they’re quite cute. We don’t have any dangerous ones in this country, as far as I know, and they eat the ticks that we really don’t want in our houses.

But I get why other people are creeped out by them. They’ve got eight legs, which is far too many, and they scurry around like they’re up to no good. We’ve been fed media images of terrifying tarantulas and it’s understandable that people would associate them.

The Torah has a word for these beasties. Sheretz. It’s root is resh-vav-tzadi, to do with running around, so most translations render sheretz as ‘creepy-crawly,’ or ‘creeping thing.’ It applies, first and foremost, to mice and lizards, but extends to any scuttling insect or racing rodent. There are also the sheretz bamayim – the creepy-crawlies underwater, like jellyfish, octopus and lobster you might find scampering on ocean floors.

They were created by God on the fifth day. They are mentioned by name. For some reason, God decided that spiders were supposed to exist. God made room for them in the world and dedicated a verse of Torah to celebrating their creation. God made mosquitoes and shrews and chameleons and God saw that they were good. So, if you’re in the camp that loves spiders, you get a point.

God has also banned them. We are prohibited from eating them. They are described as disgusting and as abominations. On some level, we are supposed to revile them. So, if you’re in the camp of people who can’t stand spiders, you get a point too.

(I promise you, this is going somewhere.)

I’ve spent the last week thinking about the sheretz. From Monday to Thursday, this synagogue hosted the Queer Yeshiva. It was a momentous occasion. Never before in Progressive British history have so many people come together to study the Talmud in such an intense way. Everybody talked about how wonderful this synagogue is, and I want to thank you all for opening this space to a bunch of LGBT people to study Torah.

Over the week, we read a sugya of Talmud from Sanhedrin, a tractate that deals with capital crimes. It asks questions about who gets to condemn somebody for the death penalty, and on what grounds.

It contains a list of characteristics expected of Jewish high court judges: tall; wise; handsome; elderly; fluent in at least seventy languages; and, of course, familiar with sorcery.

So, who is eligible? Do we have any candidates for the Sanhedrin in this congregation? I won’t be putting my hat in the ring. It’s tricky to find someone, but I’m sure such people exist.

Then it adds another requirement. Anyone who wants to sit on a Sanhedrin has to find grounds for declaring clean the sheretz. You want to put somebody to death? You’ve got to be able to make lobsters kosher. You have to be able to purify a spider.

Who can make unclean things clean? Who can make what’s treif kosher? If anyone in this room can do it, you will be welcomed with open arms to the Jewish law courts of Babylonia.

But it seems unlikely that will fall within any of our skill sets. It sets an impossibly high standard.

Perhaps that’s the point. You have to be so good at thinking and reasoning that only the highest standards of scholars can join. You have to be of such excellent calibre that you know Torah inside out and can interpret it, even against itself.

Many have understood this edict that way. In fact, elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that there are as many as 150 ways to make shrimp kosher. There’s not just one secret method of purifying a sheretz – there are a whole bunch of them – and you should be able to work them out.

But the Talmud doesn’t give any convincing explanations as to how this is possible. Even where rabbis have a stab at it, they are soon shot down. Nice try, but no. That’s not how you make mice edible.

As a result, plenty of rabbis throughout the ages have tried to show that they can purify the sheretz. Great thinkers who knew the Torah inside out have tried to show that they are eligible for sitting on the Sanhedrin.

But here’s the thing. You can do all the reasoning you like. A spider will still be a spider. A lizard will still be a sheretz. And a sheretz will still be unclean. You can’t actually change what the Torah says.

So the rabbis have made sitting on the Sanhedrin impossible. It is so restricted that we will never find people capable of achieving it. De facto, the rabbis have abolished the death penalty.

This is a tremendous achievement. Subtly, and without saying so, they have done exactly what they say needs to be done: they have turned the Torah against itself. Except, instead of turning the Torah against itself so that they can kill people, they turn the Torah against itself so nobody can!

Suppose somebody were to come along and actually give convincing proof that spiders are really kosher. OK, then we would have a problem. My hunch is that the rabbis have already thought of this. Anybody who could do so would, by their nature, refuse to implement the death penalty.

A person who can see the kosher in a lobster can see the goodness in a convict.

A person who could cleanse the body of a mouse could cleanse the soul of a criminal.

You have to be able to see people, and creepy-crawlies, the way that God sees them: as good.

This is the rabbis’ genius way of telling us who is allowed to judge others. The only person we would permit the authority to judge others is the one who would judge them favourably.

The spiders are out and about in our houses. We might love them or hate them or greet them with indifference. But who gave any of us the right to kill them? God, for whatever reason, has determined that they have a place on this earth and it is not our job to decide they don’t.

The world is full of people we don’t like. Some of them do detestable things. And we might feel fear and hatred and anger towards them. And sometimes those feelings are justified.

But we don’t have the right to kill them.

We are not worthy to judge them.

Unless you can purify a spider, you have to live in this world with everyone else.

God has made enough room for them in this world and we have to make enough room in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · social justice · story

Welcome to the Queer Yeshiva

Hello and welcome to the Queer Yeshiva.

My name is Lev. I’m one of the teachers here, with Jo, Hava and Daniel.

A month ago, I was ordained as a rabbi. One of the things that most made me want to be a rabbi was bring gay. I wanted to be part of a religious life that made being queer feel as empowering and magical as it really is.

I love being queer. I love queer people. One of the things I love most about us is that no matter what life throws at us, we always rebuild.

I think about the lives of queer people. Everyone I know has had to struggle with who they are, face down violence, and out of adversity, rebuild themselves as someone stronger than anyone could have imagined.

When I was a kid, I was already too fabulous to be contained. All I wanted in life was to wear dresses and do Spice Girls dance routines. I knew I was different and I didn’t care.

But the rest of the world did. I grew up in a small town with few opportunities. For most of my teens, I was beaten up on a near daily basis. I was attacked at school, walking home, in the shops, and outside my front door. That was only the other kids. The adults were worse: at best they ignored it; at worst they encouraged it. At the school leavers’ assembly, the teachers gave me an award for “most likely to have a sex change.”

But I’m not bitter. I’m proud. I came out of all that knowing who I was and willing to fight for others. That’s why we have parades. That’s why we stand up celebrate our community, because we have withstood discrimination and violence and built out of it fantastic cultures. All that queer art, queer music, and queer innovation- that came out of queer struggle. We are who we are because of who we were.

And that’s not limited just to us here. That’s something queer people have to do in every generation. Think how many times we have been destroyed, and think how many times we have rebuilt.

Consider only the last century. At the beginning of the 1900s, our people were dealing with criminalisation, as many had been imprisoned. Against that backdrop, Magnus Hirschfield created the Institut for Sexualwissenschaft, pioneering the understanding of queer people.

His work was burned by the Nazis. Queers were turned into pariahs and murdered in te death camps. Even once the Second World War was over, many homosexuals were forced to stay in prison to complete their sentences.

In the aftermath, our ancestors picked themselves up again. They built the Gay Power movement. They formed the Lavender Menace. They created the ballroom scene in the nightclubs of New York.

Once again, they were decimated by the AIDS crisis. Government indifference and vengeful homophobia killed a generation of queers.

And still, we could not be destroyed. We came back stronger, demanding legislative changes and pushing for a transformed world. We recreated community to fight for our liberation.

In every generation, people have tried to destroy us. In every generation, they have failed. We will always rebuild. We will always imagine a greater future. We will always reappear.

We are indestructible.

In that sense, we are the heirs to the rabbinic tradition.

Judaism, as we know it, is the product of people who saw their world crash around them repeatedly and, every time, rebuilt it.

Our Judaism was born out of a time of fundamental crisis. At the start of the last millennium, the Jews were a nation. They had their country, the land of Israel. They had their capital, Jerusalem. They had their cultic centre, the Temple. They had their religious leadership, the priests. And they had their religious practices, sacrifices.

Then, they faced catastrophe. The Romans came and waged an aggressive war, killing off the leadership, and starving the people of Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple and abolished its customs.

Yesterday was the fast of Tish BAv. It was, for many religious Jews, a day of weeping and despair. We recalled the genocide, the disruption, the pain. We remembered the destruction of the Temple in the context of all the times that Jews have been destroyed.

But, in that act of ritualised remembering, we also remember that we have survived. Jews and Judaism have kept going, even two thousand years later.

Let us remember why.

Faced with annihilation, the Jews had three choices. One: they could dig their heels and pretend nothing happened. They could decide that they were going to carry on with the Temple and the priesthood, even though they were gone.

Two: they could abandon their old religion altogether. That was what normally happened to ancient peoples when they were conquered: they gave up their old traditions and gave in to colonisation.

Three, the third option: they could retell their story for the sake of their contemporary situation. They could look at everything they had been, and use their history to reimagine their future.

Our rabbis chose option three.

Put yourself in their position.

Imagine you were there, not just in the aftermath but right in the thick of it. Jerusalem is under seige. Your family are starving. Your people are fighting the Romans, but mostly they’re fighting each other. You can see your world on fire. You don’t even know if you will survive.

What would you do?

That’s how it was for Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai. He was alive then. That was what he saw.

He told his students to put him in a coffin, pretend he was dead, and smuggle him out of Jerusalem. Once out of the besieged city gates, he got out and demanded to speak to the Roman emperor, Vaspasian.

As it happened, Vaspasian was willing to compromise. He said: “OK, tell me you want.”

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai said: “Give me Yavne and students of Torah.”

What was Yavne? It was a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. It was filled with displaced people. Who were the students of Torah? Just a bunch of people who remembered what the old religion used to be like.

Why? Why would you ask for such a thing? If the commander of the imperial Roman army is willing to negotiate, why not find a way to get the troops to leave?

Because a people that knows who they are cannot be destroyed.

Sure, the colonisers might go, and the Jews might live, but Judaism could end. The only way for anyone to live on after facing near annihilation is to look at where they’ve been. They have to take a long look at their story and reimagine it for a new era.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai and his students learnt everything. They committed to memory their whole history so that they could recite it by heart.

Then, they revolutionised it. They said: we don’t need the land of Israel or Jerusalem any more. From now on, we’re going to be spread across the whole world. We’re going to make our religion portable so that it can be sustained in any nation.

They looked at their Temple and its sacrifices and said: we’re not going back to that. We’re going to reinvent our practices. We will replace them with prayer and study. As long as people keep our words alive, we won’t need for animals to die.

They looked at the priesthood and said: that’s done. From now on, we have no hierarchy.
From hereon out, we are equals. The measure of Jewishness won’t be who your father was but how imaginative you can be in reexamine your tradition.

They looked over their old systems of justice, and interrogated them. Who is included here, and who is left out? What is justice going to look like for us now? They were so radical that they tried to work out how they could turn the Torah against the Torah.

And that instantly transformed Judaism. Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples weren’t from the elites. They were blacksmiths and peasant farmers and outsiders. They saw, from that vantage point, how their people could creatively rebuild. And that is why we have our Judaism today.

And here’s the thing. Rabbi Yochanan had, maybe, ten students. There were fewer people in his beit midrash than there are in this room.

You only need a handful of visionaries to spark a revolution.

Be in no doubt, that is what could happen here this week.

We are, as always, facing catastrophe. Queer people are under attack once more. The planet is burning. Capitalism is in crisis. The old ways of doing Judaism are floundering.

Do you think that the future of Judaism is going to be secured by happy people in their comfortable homes? No way. They have nothing to lose from the current situation. They don’t have the imagination to see how things could be different.

The future of our people lies with those on its margins. Its the queers. It’s the weirdos. It’s the radicals. It’s you.

That’s why we’re here. We’re going to do what queers and Jews have always done. We’re going to rebuild while our world is on fire.

We’re going to learn everything we can, internalising the words of our ancestors so fully thar they will travel with us everywhere. We’re going to re-analyse them in light of our own circumstances, seeing how these traditions bear on our own lives and struggles. And, out of that, We’re going to completely retell our story.

This is where the future of Judaism starts again.

I love being queer. I love queer people. And I can’t wait to see what we achieve.

This talk was based on the Crash Talk by Rabbi Benay Lappe, used for Queer Yeshiva Summer Intensive 5782 in Essex

fast · sermon · theology

Tonight, we begin grieving.

Tonight, we begin grieving.

As the sun goes down, I will eat my last meal for 25 hours. I won’t bathe or shave or change. I’ll probably read a book, or some poetry, and contemplate what it means to be destroyed.

Tonight, the fast of Tisha bAv begins. It commemorates every disaster that has befallen the Jewish people. If we were to dwell on every time we had been injured, our year would be non-stop suffering. We would never have time to celebrate. 

So, we compound all our catastrophes onto a single day. Every exile. Every genocide. Every desecration of sacred texts and spaces. Every racist law and every violent uprising. As far as we are concerned, they all happened on this day: on Tisha BAv.

It is a day of immense profundity. The tunes are haunting. The texts are harrowing. It is the hardest fast of the year, taking place in the heat of summer, with long days and disturbing topics. 

For years, I marked this fast alone. Very few Progressive Jews wanted to participate. Many Reform and Liberal synagogues don’t mark it at all. I would turn up to Bevis Marks, the centre of Sephardi Jewish life in the city, where cantors from the Netherlands regaled us with their greatest piyyutim. But this occasion attracted so little interest from the people who shared my religious beliefs: the other Progressives. 

Why would they not want to mark it?

The first reason is emotional. It is difficult to sit in misery for a full day. It paints a tragic picture of our past, compounding every struggle we have faced into a single problem, overwrit by centuries of destruction. 

In fact, I think this objection is what really commends Tish bAv. Grieving what’s gone can teach us important lessons. It can put us in touch with our most challenging emotions, like guilt, misery and despair. 

True, if we went around all the time complaining about how difficult Jewish history had been, we would never move on, and we would be bound by a negative self-image. By placing all of Jewish suffering on a single day, we are able to confront atrocities, and engage with them, then move on.

Progressives have also objected to Tish bAv on theological grounds. As Reform Jews, we have no desire to return to the Temple or its sacrifices. We are the heirs to the rabbinic revolution, which rebuilt our entire religion after Jerusalem was destroyed. 

Because of the early rabbis, we became a Diaspora people; replaced animal slaughter with prayer; and substituted hereditary priests for a system in which all Jews could be equals. 

But those rabbis understood something profound. You have to engage with the past in order to progress from it. We cannot just pretend things never happened. 

Our rabbis pored over their ancient texts, repeated their oral traditions, and grappled with the world that had gone before. They may have moved beyond the time of the Temple, but they always referred back to it. They faced their tragedy, and rebuilt their religion.

Perhaps the biggest reason that Tish bAv is not given the respect it’s due is because it has been replaced. Since the Second World War, many Jews now instead mark Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Memorial Day.

This is understandable. The Holocaust was, of course, unprecedented in the scale of slaughter; the degree to which industrial machinery could be dedicated to human suffering; and the gleeful participation of so much of Europe in Jewish extermination. It is absolutely right to mark it and honour so many outrageous deaths.

But these events have their own theology. They teach that Jewish suffering was a thing of the past, now resolved. In the case of Holocaust Memorial Day, the problem has now been solved by the United Nations in international commitments to human rights. 

Yom HaShoah is part of the secular cycle of the Israeli calendar, a week before Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates Israel’s victory in 1948, and a fortnight before Yom Yerushalayim celebrates Israel’s Conquest of Jerusalem in 1968. Yom HaShoah suggests that the answer to Jewish suffering is the state of Israel’s military might.

These may well be the political views of some congregants, but they are not the religious views of rabbinic Judaism. Judaism shies away from simplistic answers to subjugation and refuses to allow genocides to be resolved by slogans. We actually have to engage with the horrors of the Shoah, and to understand that they cannot be explained away. We have to sit with our grief.

Tisha bAv poses an alternative response to our experiences of evil. It tells us to fast and grieve, but, unlike on any other fast, we are to carry on working. We can still do many of the things we would on a normal day. Our world is upended, but we must keep going. 

The idea of Tish bAv is that we can face destruction and, through faith and community, nevertheless survive. We can still hold onto our God and our values. Even while we are being destroyed, we are able to rebuild.

Consider how Reform Jews of the past responded to the Shoah in the 20th Century. While in the camps, Rabbi Leo Baeck preached Torah beside waste heaps. When he was liberated from Theresienstadt, he immediately published a work of optimistic theology, expressing his hope of Judaism’s continuity. Think of Rabbi Albert Friedlander, who, having escaped the Nazis, spent the post-war years establishing synagogues and saving scrolls so that our religion could be preserved. Their lives are a testament to Jewish hope in the face of despair.

That is the story told by Tisha bAv. That, yes, we have suffered, but we have also survived. We have refused to let Judaism be extinguished. Into every generation, we have passed on our values and our faith. We have always found ways to rebuild. Tish bAv teaches us that we may always suffer, but that we have also always carried on. 

So, tonight, we begin grieving. I hope you will join me at ELELS for our ECAMPS service to mark this important fast. We will read poetry, hear the chanting of the Megillah, and reflect on the tragedies of destroyed cities and vanquished people. And, through this sorrow, we will learn again the strength and creativity of our people. We will remember all those who have kept this Judaism alive.

Tonight, we begin grieving. Tomorrow night, we will begin rebuilding.

Shabbat shalom.

halachah · sermon

What makes food kosher today?

Not long ago, after a near-lifetime of vegetarianism, I decided to try treif. And not just any treif, but the real deal: pork.

I knew I wanted to give it a go but I was afraid of being seen by other Jews. So I went on holiday to Gran Canaria, sat down in a fancy restaurant, and ordered a full-blown roast pork.

As I was waiting, however, a couple from my old congregation walked into the same restaurant. They instantly recognised me and came up to say hello. Just as we greeted each other, my pork came out from the kitchen: a giant pig on a massive platter with a big red apple in its mouth.

Flummoxed, I exclaimed: “My goodness… so this is how they serve apples here!”

OK, so that last part didn’t happen, but I really did decide to try treif about a decade ago. I’ll be honest with you, some of it tastes pretty good, but they’re not worth giving up Judaism for.

I hadn’t eaten pork since childhood. Aged 6, I had precociously insisted to my parents that I wanted to be religious and go to synagogue. My mum had told me that if I was going to force her to go to synagogue, I’d have to give up sausages. I wanted to be Jewish and I wasn’t allowed to do it half-heartedly.

I think all of us know that food laws play some role in our Judaism. Some of you here keep kosher kitchens. Some of you guiltily sneak a steak when you think you won’t get caught. Some of you, like my brother, eat extra bacon ‘to make up for all the ancestors who missed out on it.’

Whatever your choices, being a Reform Jew means to get to make those decisions for yourself. Our movement believes in informed choice.

Making the choice is your responsibility. But making sure you are informed is mine. So it’s my responsibility to share with you that there are lively debates happening in the Reform rabbinate about what kosher should mean today.

I recently attended my first Assembly of Reform Rabbis, where learned colleagues were discussing kashrut for the first time since the 1970s. It says something interesting that the topic hasn’t been addressed in such a long time.

The reason we are discussing kashrut again today is that the government is contemplating whether to ban traditional ritual slaughter – shechita. For many centuries, Jewish butchers have used the same methods for killing animals. That is: they slit their throats, puncturing the trachea, oesophagus and arteries with one rapid incision.

Throughout our history, Jews have considered this to be the cleanest and most humane method of killing animals. It comes out of a desire to show respect for the animals and to minimise risk of diseases.

Today, however, there is a new movement to favour stun slaughter. In this method, animals are electrocuted before they are killed. For cattle, this means putting a charged bolt through their heads. For chickens, it means electrifying them as a group. Proponents argue that this is more humane, since it renders animals insensitive to pain in their final moments.

There are two other factors that have made stun slaughter so popular, neither of which should be ignored. One is that industrial meat production means that factories produce far more meat. They want to be able to slaughter as efficiently as possible to maximise profit from the animals. Industrial stun slaughter certainly helps here.

Another factor is antisemitism. Across Europe, the movements to ban traditional slaughter have largely been led by white supremacists. Their primary target is Muslims, whose customs around halal slaughter are very similar to our own methods of shechita. Jews are really collateral damage in cultural wars about trying to retain Europe’s status as a Christian continent.

These factors make addressing this issue exceptionally complex. Proponents of stun slaughter ask us to set aside questions about racism and capitalism, just to focus on the issue at hand. I find that very hard to do. Rabbinic law is never about making moral decisions in the abstract. We make our ethical choices as real people living in the real world.

I think it is highly doubtful we will ever be able to prove that taking an animal’s life is better served by electrocution than through throat slitting. It may well be true that these new methods of industrial killing cause less pain, but shechita requires butchers to actually look animals in the eye before taking their lives. I’m not convinced either is more humane.

But, even if one were, we cannot escape the horrific systems that underpin animal consumption. Right now, the insatiable demand for meat is one of the leading causes of global warming. This week, we saw record-breaking temperatures. We can expect such heat waves to take place more regularly and more ferociously as runaway climate change unfolds.

The meat industry is an enormous enterprise that involves destroying natural habitats, depleting the oceans, battery-farming animals, deplorable working conditions, and unspeakable cruelty.

In every generation, Reform Jews have to work out anew what the most ethical way of living is. Today, it is hard to make the case that this includes participating in such an unjust system.

Rather than engaging in debates about specific methods of killing, I feel the appropriate response should be to question whether we should keep eating meat at all.

Indeed, this synagogue has long been an exclusively vegetarian site. This is partly because of convenience: it means we can host anyone and we can avoid messy arguments about separating meat from milk. But it also comes from the moral courage of previous leaders in this community, like Rabbi Henry, who felt that was the best way to live our values.

Please do not think me preachy. Quite on the contrary, I want to be open about my own hypocrisy. I still do eat meat on occasion, especially fish and chicken. I eat eggs and cheese. But, deep down, I know that the ethical vegans have already won the argument.

I once expressed my sadness about this to a frum vegan friend. She advised me: don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. If you wish you could be vegan but can’t give up cheese, be vegan except for cheese! If you wish you could be vegetarian but like fish too much, be pesacatarian! We must all find ways to reduce our meat intake and limit our negative impacts on the planet.

The Reform rabbinate is still in open conversation about how we redefine kosher for our age. We did not settle the matter at the Assembly, and I don’t want to leave this sermon as if I have reached a definite conclusion. Instead, I want to bring you into the conversation. I want to hear how you think we should best live our values today.

Let us engage in open discussion. Let us talk with each other about our own practices and our own driving values. And let us fashion together a new future for what an ethical Jewish life looks like.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · sermon

Ordination address

The most commonly asked question I’ve had while training to be a rabbi is “why?”

And I always tell them the same thing.

I was sitting in synagogue one shabbat morning, when a great beam of light came in through the sanctuary window, the heavens opened, and a great booming voice said: “Lev! Apply to Leo Baeck College!”

Of course, that didn’t happen. And it doesn’t take people long to realise I’m joking.

Rabbis don’t get called on by God. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud were pretty suspicious of any purported voices from heaven.

Today, I will share with you the real reason I wanted to be a rabbi. During my twenties, I began to wonder what happened to gay men over 30. I knew so few.

At the same time, I saw some friends, in different ways, destroy themselves. They were all queer.

And I didn’t need to ask why. I understood how living in a homophobic and transphobic society could make them believe that the world didn’t want them.

I had grown up in that world too, often experiencing homophobic violence.

But I had one thing that differentiated me from some of my friends who didn’t think they belonged in this world.

I never had to doubt that I had a family, a community, and a God who loved me.

I grew up in a synagogue that accepted and embraced me as a gay and gender non-conforming child.

I knew, too, that were gay rabbis out there. At least two. Over decades, pioneers had fought for a Judaism that would benefit people they would never know. That would shamelessly embrace difference. That would speak out for social justice against conformity.

And I wondered if, perhaps, I could pass on something similar. That others might grow up with a God and a community and a religion that loved them. That, if they did, perhaps they wouldn’t destroy themselves.

So, in that sense, I feel like I was called.

Called upon by future queer kids, asking, will you make space for us?

Called upon by past generations of Jews, many lost to the centuries, saying, we brought this Judaism this far. We nurtured inclusive Judaism for you to inherit it. Will you keep it alive for us now?

Called upon by those that didn’t make it, asking, will there be communities that can love us, too?

And yes. Called upon by a loving God. The voice of justice. The moral force of the universe that will always stand with the oppressed.

The outstretched hand that brought us out from Egypt so that we might spread a prophetic message of equality and justice throughout the world.

That voice doesn’t come as a booming sound from the heavens. It is a still, small voice. It is a gentle murmur, calling us to do right, urging us to rectify iniquity, offering hope.

Such a voice can only be heard if there are people to amplify it. To those who have kept it reverberating throughout the ages – thank you.

It is calling us all.

May we merit to answer.

Amen.

judaism · sermon · torah

That land had neither milk nor honey


“There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese!”

In one of my favourite childhood movies, a gang of mice pranced about the film screen singing these words. There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese.

In An American Tail, the protagonist is a seven-year-old Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. In his home country, the mice are terrorised by cats. They struggle to eat and sustain their traditions. His whole family dreams of making the journey across the Atlantic to a new country where they won’t face these problems any more.

In America, they imagine, the cats, which represent persecution or kossacks or fascists or pogroms, won’t exist any more. After years of not eating, America will provide them with every food they have imagined. Over the ocean, even the streets will be paved with cheese.

As the plot unfolds, the mice arrive in New York. Fievel discovers that America’s streets are no more cheesy than the old country’s, and that cats are just as prevalent. In their new land, they will also be hungry, and persecuted, and tired, just as they were in the old. Their dreams could not be realised by moving from one country to another.

In this week’s parashah, Moses sends out scouts to survey the land of Israel. He asks twelve envoys to go into the country they expect to possess and report back on its contents.

I imagine this must have been a moment of great trepidation. We today know what other countries look like. We are able to travel abroad; we meet migrants from foreign places; we have access to people anywhere in the world through media in the palms of our hands.

Not long ago, such journeys were rare. People did not know how expansive the globe was or how similar and different people around the world would be to them. Perhaps travelling merchants brought fantastical tales from places they had never been. Some maps were marked with warnings of sea monsters and dragons. For the Israelites making the journey to Canaan, it would have been their first time leaving their valley in Egypt. Anything could await them on the other side.

When they came back, ten gave their report. The land has fertile soil, with large grapes growing on vines. But the people who live there are numerous and giant. We looked like grasshoppers to them. The cities are walled, fortified, and guarded. We have no chance of taking that land, and, even if we could, it will swallow up everyone who inhabits it.

Caleb and Joshua disagreed. They offered a minority report. We can do it. We can take this land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. As long as you obey God and Moses, you can capture that place and live the life you have fantasised about.

According to our story, the other ten scouts were struck down with plagues and punished for their transgression. How dare they give such a negative report?

Only Joshua and Caleb go on to enter the Promised Land. Rabbinic commentaries make much of how courageous and optimistic those men were. They had faith. They believed in God’s strength and their own.

But here’s the thing. Joshua and Caleb were lying. That land was not flowing with milk and honey. They really were outnumbered. They really were about to take on fortified cities. It really was unlikely that an exhausted band of runaway slaves were going to be able to conquer an entirely new country.

All Joshua and Caleb were offering were politicians’ promises. They were giving false hope to keep people in line and stop them rebelling against Moses.

They say, at this moment, God decided that this generation would not enter the Promised Land. They were too rebellious and stubborn. Only Joshua and Caleb, who actually believed in God, would be permitted admission. This was their punishment: they will not know what the Land of Israel looks like, and they will wander further.

But, if they had entered the land, the whole Israelite people would have seen that the first ten scouts were right. They would have realised that Joshua and Caleb had fleeced them. They would have seen that Moses promised them a land that did not exist.

Preachers often lament how sad it was that Moses never saw the Promised Land. But how much sadder would it have been if Moses had reached it? Imagine if Moses had travelled all those miles, given up everything, fought with everyone, and struggled endlessly, only to see that the much-vaunted land of his ancestors was just another desert.

The lands of Israel are no more fertile than the plains on the east side of the Jordan. They are filled with inhospitable desert. While the Israelites have had to fight with Amalekites and Moabites to reach their destination, in the new country they will battle Canaanites, Philistines and other tribes. For all the promises of peace, the war is not over.

Moses had brought the Israelites away from Egypt promising freedom. In the new country, there will still be slaves. There will still be priests and kings to subjugate them. There will still be debts to pay and unaffordable rents and famines and strife. They will still see death, sickness, and injustice.

How tragic would it have been for Moses to reach that land flowing with milk and honey, where he would find that it had neither. The Promised Land was not as promised.

There were still cats in America. The streets were not paved with cheese.

At the conclusion of An American Tail, the mice eventually band together to defeat the cats. Using their cunning, technology, and finding surprising friends, they build a contraption to scare away their evil persecutors. They learn that there will be cats, but that they have to work in solidarity if they want to defeat them. They discover that streets are not paved with cheese, but that, if they find some, they can share it, and in those moments they will feel sated and free.

None of the spies could really give a report on the land, because it wasn’t a place they were going. It was somewhere they imagined they might build by common endeavour.

They could have said: “That land does not flow with milk and honey. But it could. We could make it feel like it was.”

Maybe we don’t learn those things from speeches and scouts’ reports. We only learn how to work together by doing it. We only discover what we are capable of if we try.

Only by working together can we make a world that flows with milk and honey.

Together, we can free the world of cats and pave the streets with cheese.

Shabbat shalom.


festivals · sermon

But Ruth was a Moabite

In the Louvre, there is a towering stele, engraved with glyphs in an ancient language. Cast into the stone are the words purported to come from King Mesha of Moab. It tells of how the kingdom of Israel waged war against the Moabites and subjugated them.

He tells how King Omri decided to destroy the house of Moab forever. How he occupied land and oppressed the people. How the Israelites demanded tribute from the Moabites and forced them to send hundreds of men as captive slaves.

And our sources? Our sources agree. The Bible tells the same story. In the book of Kings, Mesha, king of Moab, is described as a sheep breeder who had to hand over 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. He is treated as a despised servant, mocked for his weakness at being conquered. Our Bible groats that the Moabites were utterly destroyed.

But. But Ruth was a Moabite.

Ruth came from the plains of Moab where there was famine and joined herself to Naomi’s household. She joined with them and was a model of love and kindness. She was strong and noble. Ruth is still the model of decency. And she was a Moabite.

These weeks, we turn to the book of Numbers. Almost the entirety of this chapter is a polemic against the Moabites. It tells of never ending war. It talks about how the Moabites feared the Israelites strength and number; how the Israelites went and crushed them. It triumphantly promises that a scepter shall rise out of Israel and smash the forehead of Moab. Death to Moab. Death to the Moabites.

But… Ruth was a Moabite. Ruth was a Moabite. Could she be included in these celebrations of ethnic cleansing? How could anyone do that to Ruth?

In the Psalms, God jokes that Moab is a washpot. The basin in which God’s feet are cleaned. Ezra laments in disgust that Israelites would ever marry Moabites. Numbers calls the Israelites who married Moabites harlots. Deuteronomy treats this intermarriage as a sin.

But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And their story is the one we turn to when we want to understand true love. Their union is how we imagine all marriages should be. For them, marriage wasn’t a problem. It was a joy. Who could forbid such a thing?

When King David took power in Israel, he set out to conquer and destroy the Moabites. He trapped them in the valley and allowed nobody to leave. He split the Moabite camp in two with a line. On one side, he massacred them. He killed them without exception. On the other side, he enslaved them, and kept them as degraded servants.

But Ruth was a Moabite. And Ruth married Boaz. And they has children. And grand-children and great-grandchildren. And one of those descendants was David. Yes, King David, too, was a Moabite by ancestry. He was a product of one of those forbidden unions.

In so many places, the Bible speaks of destroying and degrading the Moabites. Only a few verses in one solitary book speak of Ruth as a Moabite, and position her as a source of love and the originator of the Israelite nation.

The Bible is not so much a book, but a library in discussion with itself. It is a compendium of different contradicting voices.

Somewhere, at some time, some voice thought it was important to say that Ruth was a Moabite. And she was a model of love and kindness. And she took better care of her family than anyone could. And she was the pinnacle of loyalty and devotion. And she was the grandmother of King David. And she was a Moabite.

You might wonder why anyone would bother. The entire Bible is a torrent of hatred against Moabites. Every word is oppositional. All the history speaks of war and conquest. Why would one lone author put their head above the parapet to suggest something otherwise? Why would it be worthwhile to say that Ruth was a Moabite?

But think about it. There are countless verses of contempt for Moabites, and only one that suggests they are worthy of love. And which one do we remember? Does anyone today feel any animosity towards the ancient tribe east of the Jordan? Does anyone still take pride in Israel’s long-gone military victories against its neighbours?

No. But people remember that Ruth was a Moabite.

Empires rise and empires fall. Nations come in and out of being. The names of kings and warriors are lost to the ages. But one loving word can last a thousand lifetimes.

The voices of hatred and jingoism are fleeting. They cannot be sustained. But the voice of love – the voice of humanity – that speaks out across centuries and spans generations. It lasts long after the malaise has subsided.

Ancient Israel was a great kingdom. It was able to conquer lands and bring neighbouring nations to their knees. It could compel people to erect stone monuments to their own misery. And the thought of it makes us, at best, uncomfortable.

But, now, all we take pride in is love. The love our people have had for their God. The love our leaders have had for their Torah. The love they have had for each other. They love they have had for strangers.

Gentle words. Small memorandums of compassion. Fleeting acts of kindness.

A verse. Ruth was a Moabite. Remember that, Ruth was one of them.

Shabbat shalom. Chag sameach.

festivals · sermon

Will there still be Jews?

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?”

Thus joke points to a perennial Jewish anxiety: will people stay Jews? Will Judaism continue?

In every generation, a study is published, fearfully proclaiming that Jewishness is declining, which will be swiftly followed by rabbinic pronouncements about how to save it, philanthropists putting money into projects that engage young Jews, and various pundits proclaiming that this proves exactly what they had always said.

Why, when this problem has been repeatedly highlighted, has Judaism nevertheless continued, and Jewishness never seen the burial it was foretold?

For starters, it turns out that many of the things that people assured us would mark the end of Judaism were not that threatening after all. At the start of the Enlightenment, Orthodox leaders agonised that, if Jews went to universities, they would be needlessly subjected to heretical ideas and turn their backs on religion. In the end, Judaism and academic study proved more than compatible.

The fear about Jews losing their beards turned out not to be so troubling either. After all, half the Jewish people had never been able to grow them! In the 90s, the great moral panic centred on mixed marriages, which, experience has shown, only grew the Jewish population, rather than diminishing it.

So, why all the worry? In fact, these concerns undoubtedly go back to the beginnings of Jewishness. In the book of Ruth, we read a story of a young woman faced with the choice of whether to remain with the Jewish people. Either she could stay with her mother-in-law and run the risk of never marrying; or she could return to her original village and begin her life again.

Being Jewish was the harder option. Being Jewish was riskier and unknown. Ruth’s sister, Orpah, chose to leave the Jews and rebuild. Ruth chose Judaism.

She must have seen something in it that made her want to stay. Perhaps it was the God, or Naomi, or the people, or the way they lived. Judging by what she said, it was a combination of all of these. She chose the harder option, because it was the more beautiful one.

That has always been the way with Judaism. High risk. High reward. Hard to maintain. Worth maintaining.

That is why we feel anxiety about Jewish continuity. We know that it is not the easy option. It takes work. So we look around for people who will do it.

Our rabbis understood this feeling well. They told a story of the revelation at Sinai: that, on the day when God gave the Israelites the commandments, God raised Mount Sinai over their heads and told them to accept them. If they took them on, they would live. If not, the mountain would come crashing down on their heads and make the desert their grave.

“Choose life” wasn’t advice. It was a threat. Of course, they accepted.

But, said the rabbis, there were other times when they took on the commandments too. When there were no threats from God but plenty from the ruling powers. They point to the story of Esther, when the Jews lived under Persian imperial rule and could have been slaughtered for practising their religion. God did not appear to make promises or offer consolation. But they chose Judaism anyway.

This is a narrative of how Judaism has been continued. On an individual level, this is what happens to many of us. As children, we go to synagogue because our parents tell us to. We live their ways and eat their food because we have no other choice. Now, as adults, we turn up because we want to. There is no compulsion to attend. We do it because we have found in it something beautiful and worthwhile.

This is true, too, of our history as a community. There was a time when we had no choice but to be Jewish. Think of the periods when Jewishness was stamped on our passports and our job application papers; when being Jewish determined what jobs we could do and where we could live. We kept up Judaism because we had no other choice.

But now we have reached a time when it is a choice. Nobody is making us be Jewish. We sustain it because we want to. You who have turned up this morning could have gone anywhere. You could have done anything. But you chose to come here. Like Ruth and Esther, you decided that something in Judaism was beautiful and worthwhile.

You decided that this religion and these festivals have meaning. That is why I’m not really worried about Jewish continuity. I know that you are keeping it alive. I know that, in every generation, as long as there are a good few people who think Judaism is worthwhile, it will be.

On Shavuot, we renew our covenant with God. We take on the Torah once more. We decide to keep the flame of Jewish truth burning.

And, because of that, Judaism lives on.

festivals · sermon · theology

A night for finding answers

Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight, as we open the haggadah, we will tell the children they are free to ask. We will lay out plates of display foods, including an egg, a bone, and a mushy mixture of fruit and nuts, so that people will ask questions about our exodus from Egypt. 

In “mah nishtana,” the lovely song chanted by the youngest at the table, we hear four questions about why tonight is different from every other. Why do we lean to the left when we drink? Why do we dip things in salt water? Why do we eat that tear-jerking horseradish, maror? And why have we had to substitute delicious bread for mediocre matzah?

So highly valued is questioning at this season that Judaism has been described as a religion of questions. Ask us a question and we’ll answer with another question. A decade ago at this season, the American businessman Edgar Bronfman declared “to be Jewish is to ask questions.” This festival, with all its questioning, he said, proves that Judaism permits plenty of doubt and openness to many answers.

I have a problem with this approach. The trouble is… these questions have answers! They’re not open-ended speculations to which we’ll dedicate the rest of our lives pondering. 

We lean to the left when we drink our wine to show that we are free. We dip parsley in salt water to remind us of the taste of tears that came from enslavement. We eat the bitter herbs in commemoration of the bitterness of slavery. We eat matzah to recall that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry, because we can waste no time in pursuing freedom.

These are the answers. They tell us what the festival is all about and what Judaism really means. It’s about how freedom tastes good and oppression is painful. It’s about the moral message of a God who saw the difference and decided to redeem the Israelites. These questions have a purpose, to provoke us into contemplating justice.

This idea that Judaism is all about questioning and doubt has taken such a hold that people have hung entire theologies on it. There is a story in the Talmud that the two great founding houses of rabbinic Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, were in a conflict for three years. Eventually, a divine voice announced from the sky: “these and these are the words of the living God.”

It is a beautiful story, but it has been repeatedly cited by Jewish educators to justify a relativism that firmly believes nothing. Everything is true. All views are valid.

These teachers always conveniently omit the subsequent words from that divine voice: that the halachah is in accordance with Beit Hillel. They both may have valid viewpoints, but only one can be implemented. The Talmud asks why it was that Hillel’s house won. It answers that they were עלובין – a word often translated to mean ‘modest’ but which really means ‘wretched’ or ‘poor.’

The House of Hillel really were comprised of the poor. Their judgements consistently advocated for the slaves against the masters and the peasants against the patrician class. They strove to make Judaism more accessible to the downtrodden and more just for the oppressed. In other words, God may be able to speak through many voices, but ultimately the one that champions moral truth is still the correct one.

I do understand why people might want to advocate for doubt and questioning. It is an antidote to dogmatism. It stops people becoming fundamentalists, Imagining that they alone can speak for God. 

But there are real problems with leaving everything open to debate. Surely it is not just an open question whether or not to hurt people. The words of oil barons and indigenous climate activists are surely not equally ‘the words of the living God.’ We can’t give equal weight to every view or only question without seeking answers.

My very favourite philosopher was a British-Jewish woman called Gillian Rose. She wrote with such beauty about things that really matter. She saw the problems of only questioning and allowing every viewpoint quite clearly. She also agreed that we couldn’t just assert answers. If either everyone is correct or only one answer is correct, there is no room for discussion. 

So, Gillian Rose says, you have to pick a side. You have to decide what you think is right. You have to look at what your conscience tells you and aim for meaningful justice. You might be wrong, so you have to keep your mind open to nuance and debate. But you also have to know right from wrong. 

Pesach is indeed a time for asking questions. But it is, above all, a night for seeking answers. 

Pesach invites us to ask about freedom so that we will fight for it. Pesach invites us to ask about oppression so that we will vanquish it.

We must ask these questions because Pharaoh was not just a man who lived a long time ago and the exodus was not a one-time event. These are words of a living God because they speak to struggles that are still very live.

Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight is a night for seeking answers.

The great question of Pesach is: what are you doing to bring about justice today?

And now you must give your answer.

article · festivals

What does freedom mean?

This is the season of our freedom. 

To show that we are free, we will lean to the left and drink wine like Roman elites once did on their chaise longues. 

We will perform rituals and eat strange foods and, when our children ask us why, we will answer: “we were slaves in the land of Egypt. We were exploited and degraded there. But with mighty deeds and an outstretched arm, the Almighty redeemed us and delivered us. Now we can be free.”


The idea of freedom means far more this year. For the first time since the pandemic began, we are able to gather for Pesach again. We will actually be able to leave our answers and reconnect with people. We will be able to eat and drink together. We will feel free.

But what does freedom mean? What does it really mean to be free in the context of our Pesach celebrations?

Freedom, for the ancient Israelites, was all about who your master was. Society was divided into people who had masters and people who had land. The people who had masters had debts and had to work them off. They could not leave and, even if they did, they had nowhere to go. 

One of the ways out of this was that a family member would come and redeem you. They would pay off your debts and take you out of the place where you were labouring. Then you would be free: you would no longer belong to your master but to your clan. You would work not for the profits of a landowner but for the common good of your people.

This was what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. They were taken as servants; forced to work for their master, Pharaoh. They did gruelling labour, building militarily garrisons for their oppressors. But who could redeem them? Their entire family was enslaved. Nobody from their clan could come and grant them freedom.

But, all this time, they had a family member they had never met. A parent who loved them unconditionally and grieved their absence. One who desperately wanted them back. That was God.

With mighty deeds and an outstretched arm, God came into Egypt and redeemed them. God declared to the Israelites’ masters: you do not own these people. They are My people. They serve me and they will never serve any human being.

That is what freedom means. We have no masters but God. Our only debts are what we owe society. Our only labour is in service of our Creator. Our only bondage is to Torah.

That is what freedom means. Freedom means responsibility. 

This Pesach festival celebrates our redemption. It calls on us to use that responsibility wisely, in service of our God. 

Chag Pesach kasher vesameach.