judaism · sermon · social justice · torah

Can we talk about menstruation?

This week’s portion is about menstruation. Listener’s discretion is advised.

When Nathan asked me to sermonise on this parasha, the first thing I said was: “Are you sure? Is this… is this definitely in the lectionary?” I was surprised to even think that it was a topic to discuss.

Yes, it’s there, and there’s no getting round it. I did even try. I looked through the rest of the parasha. The section immediately before it dealt with the defiling force of semen; the one just before with scaly skin diseases. Whatever I did I was going to have to talk about bodily functions, and the one portion for today looks at menstrual blood.

Nathan said: “It’s OK. You don’t have to do it on exactly the topic in the parasha.” Why was it that this topic made us both so uncomfortable? What is it about this very normal and natural process, integral to human reproduction and a big part of many congregants’ lives, that should set it outside of discussion in synagogue?

I know of a senior Liberal rabbi who was so affronted to hear a Bat Mitzvah student speaking on the topic of menstruation that he literally heckled during her sermon. He was embarrassed. So was everybody.

It can’t be that menstruation isn’t a suitable topic for discussion in synagogues per se, because it is right here in the text of the Torah. All over the world, people in different communities will be studying this passage today. It can’t be that this topic is out of place in a Liberal synagogue. If anything, our track record of feminist thought and openness to ideas should make us more willing to talk about difficult topics.

Here’s the reason: menstruation is taboo. It’s taboo for me. It was taboo for that senior Liberal rabbi. It’s so taboo that, at least in the male and mixed spaces I move in, it almost never gets talked about, and when it does, it’s spoken about in euphemisms and hushed tones. It’s that time of the month. I can’t help but feel that the best way to deal with a taboo is to face it head on. If we feel uncomfortable about it, I think, perhaps, the best thing for us to do, is to feel uncomfortable together.

Presumably menstruation also made the redactors of the Torah uncomfortable. As it’s worded in the Torah: when blood comes out of a woman’s body, she is unclean. Not just her, but anything she touches is unclean. The bed she slept on, the chair she sat on. Even if she licks a thread to stitch a garment, that whole garment becomes unclean. Anyone who touches her becomes unclean by association. According to Rashi, if anyone touches her accidentally, they’re unclean for seven days. If they do it deliberately, they can be cast out of the community altogether. It is a very negative reaction.

But more than that – it is punishing. We learn elsewhere in the Torah that if somebody is unclean they have to stay outside the camp. They are to be isolated away from everybody else. They can’t see their family. They can’t participate in Temple rituals. They can’t earn a living or gain social status. Something about menstruation made the authors of this text so uncomfortable that they wanted to exclude women who were bleeding. That was their way of dealing with taboo: to get it out of sight and out of mind.

The first thing anybody will notice is how gendered this is. Unlike other parts of the Bible, which may well include songs and stories by women, the books of Leviticus and Numbers are unambiguously written by men. These are the works of male Temple priests, most likely living in Jerusalem, just before the great Babylonian exile.

These rabbis make a clear connection between women, menstruation and dirt. The Torah text makes that clear, speaking about it in very gendered language. We can compare this to how men are treated for secreting semen. A man would be unclean and kept outside the camp for one day. A woman for seven days. Moreover, the chances of a man having a nocturnal emission are pretty rare. For most adult, pre-menopausal women, menstruating is a monthly event. This means that women would spend most of their lives excluded from society. This is, then, powerful men, telling women who make them uncomfortable that they don’t belong in society.

In the Talmud, restrictions only became worse. The rabbis ruled that a woman couldn’t be considered clean until seven days after her period had finished, whereas the implication of the biblical passage is that it ends seven days after the start. They purposefully narrowed the amount of time women could spend in public space and have sex.

This attitude must, of course, have no place in the modern world. And yet. And yet. Right now, in most Orthodox and many Masorti communities, menstruating women are regulated by the rules of niddah – the Talmudic codification of what women can and can’t do while bleeding. This involves sleeping in separate quarters, not able to see their husbands. It involves ritual immersions to “cleanse” themselves of the “pollutant” of menstruation. It forms a big part of life for many religious Jews.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from it. Many women talk about the joy of the mikveh, the ritual cleansing bath, and the relief of not having to see men when they’re at their most vulnerable. People have made these rules into sources of strength and empowerment. As much as we might acknowledge that, however, this is a practice rooted in patriarchal stigma against women’s bodies.

Even in secular society, the menstrual taboo continues as a major force for controlling women’s lives. The amazing Jewish feminist, Gloria Steinem, writes: “what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could notClearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event. Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day. To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”

She’s joking, of course, and things have come on a long way since the 1980s when she wrote it. But it speaks to an important point: women really are demonised for menstruating. They really are ignored by doctors for it. They really are excluded from power for it, as happened in the rhetoric used against Hillary Clinton when she was running for President. Women’s exclusion for menstruation may not be codified in law today as it was in ancient Israel, but it is still a major barrier to participation in public life.

This has become a key topic for women’s rights campaigners. The result of the taboo on menstruation is that teenage girls are skipping school when they’re menstruating because they fear the risk of bleeding in public, and the shame and stigma attached to that. This is as much a problem in the UK as it is anywhere else in the world.

Over the course of a lifetime, the average woman will spend £18,450 on products for dealing with menstrual blood and pain. On top of all this, thanks to a bizarre policy, sanitary products for menstruation are taxed at 5%. And here’s where the problem goes from tragedy to farce: according to research by the Guardian from the beginning of this month, the money levied by the tampon tax is being used to fund – wait for it – anti-abortionists. The government had pledged to scrap the tax but, in the last budget, decided to instead keep it and distribute some of the money to women’s health charities. Perhaps a noble endeavour, but one of those charities is called Life, which describes abortions as “death penalties” for foetuses, calls aborted foetuses “corpses” and warns young women against terminating their pregnancies. This is not the policy of a backwater fundamentalist country, but something that is happening in Britain right now. Women are paying an unavoidable tax, only to have that money spent on restricting their rights. No wonder feminists are up in arms to end this tax on tampons.

I began by saying this topic made me uncomfortable, and perhaps it made you uncomfortable too. Menstruation may well be a taboo, but what does that taboo do? It stops women accessing public life. It stops girls being able to access school. It costs inordinate amounts of money. There are, unfortunately, girls who still don’t know what periods are until they get their first one and think it is a sign of impending death.

Our silence can be dangerous. Menstruation might make us uncomfortable to talk about, but if we stay silent on it, we could be letting down loads of women and girls. So although it may be difficult, perhaps it’s time to break that taboo.

Shabbat shalom.

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I gave this sermon at South London Liberal Synagogue on 29th April 2017, before I had begun at rabbinical school. When I delivered it, I looked out at the congregation and near panicked. I was especially worried that I would upset the sensibilities of older members. After the service, many of these same older members came up to express their agreement and chime in their concerns about period poverty. It was a real moment of realising how open I could be with a community I knew well. I think, if I were to give the sermon today, I would be far less apologetic.

judaism · sermon

My DNA test results

When I sent the sealed tube back to a laboratory in America, I had high hopes for what would come back. My parents were mixed – Scottish Presbyterian and Anglo-Jewish. I had grandparents and great-grandparents from Poland, Portugal, Peru and Prussia. (By Prussia, I mean Germany, but that doesn’t begin with P). Family legends trace our roots to Italy, Spain and North Africa.

I was excited. I hope my DNA results would come back like a scratch map of the entire world. I would proudly proclaim myself a global citizen. I would research my relatives in Tanzania, the Philippines and even more exotic locations like Scunthorpe.

After weeks of waiting, I opened the results with trepidation. Here they were. European: 99.7%.

Breakdown: 47.8% British and Irish. 48.4% Ashkenazi Jewish. Trace amounts of other ancestries: 1.9% ‘Broadly European’. 0.7% French and German.

I was so disappointed. Where was my globe lit up with dots on every continent? Where were my secret ancestors from places I’d never heard of? And what was I going to do with all my ‘We Are the World’ t-shirts? Perhaps all the family narratives were unreliable.

Maybe I’d need to rethink my entire identity. I wondered if I should perhaps just accept my Ashkenazi heritage and start pronouncing tafs as samechs, mumbling my prayers to myself, even letting my sideburns grow into locks. Or perhaps I should celebrate my connection to the British Isles by listening to Gaelic folk music and trying to revive Welsh as a language.

I confessed my confusion to a friend, who is a geneticist. He reassured me: “these tests are 92% nonsense.”

“But what about the other 8%!” I exclaimed, “surely that counts for something.”

He laughed “That 92% is just as arbitrary as all the percentages on your DNA results. DNA testing is like getting your fortune read at a funfair. They pick 100 genes out of a sequence of thousands, run them up against trends they’ve already found, and act like they’ve given you a whole picture. Treat it as a science-based game, not as a guide to your whole history.”

Well, now I felt even more confused. My family history might be unreliable, and the science was probably pretty suspicious too. The pillars I thought I could rely on for my identity were toppling around me.

I thought about this week’s parashah. Here, in Shmini, as part of all the levitical rules on sacrifice and cultic life, were the rules on which foods we could and couldn’t eat.

Although historians once understood these rules to be about health and cleanliness, biblical critics are now less sure. They point to the fact that any of these meats could cause diseases, and raise the issue that almost every neighbouring nation of the Ancient Near East had its own proscribed foods. Rather than taking a rational, medical approach, they suggest that the original purpose of these rules may have been to develop a sense of national unity. When people knew they had to eat the same foods as each other, they bonded as a community, creating an in-group. Kashrut rules were really there to form a sense of national identity.

I wondered if I could apply this to my own life. Perhaps what made me Jewish was my engagement with its food and ritual life. I seek out beigel bakeries, love challah, won’t eat pork or shellfish, and make cholent on Friday nights.

Maybe that was what made me British too. I think the slightest glimpse of sunlight is an excuse for a barbeque. Nothing makes me feel more at home than a pint of cider in a beer garden. I even like marmite.

I lived out my internationalism, too, in all the curries, sushi and pizza I could eat as a Londoner. My internationalism was bound up in important rituals like voting in the most important decisions facing our continent, like who should win Eurovision.

But this answer wasn’t that satisfying either. Rituals and foods can help build communal identities, but they don’t tell us that much about who we really are. These forms of banal nationalism might well create a sense of in-group, but the flipside is they create exclusions. In the wrong hand, any sense of nationhood based on these traits can be turned to nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia. By comparison, DNA results and family legends felt relatively benign.

I came to realise what the founders of Liberal Judaism understood long ago. All ideas of nationhood are myths. Whether we route them in science, history or culture, they’re just stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. They don’t really help us know how to act, and in the globalised world of the 21st Century, they can even be harmful to facing our challenges. What we should really ask ourselves isn’t “who are we?” but “what do we need to do?”

In 1917, in the midst of the First World War, Lily Montagu delivered an address to the West Central Club. In it, she gave a scathing critique of Jewish nationalism, challenging its very foundations. She insisted that her citizenship was British, but her primary allegiance was to the religious goals of Judaism. At its inclusion, she declared: “the Jewish ideals, the ideals of peace and unity and love and righteousness, are for all times and all places. We are to express them to the world. That is our life’s task.”

Reading this again now, I realise that the reason why Liberal Judaism is so embracing of mixed families, of converts and of diversity, is not just a matter of pragmatism or a weak sense of tolerance. It is born out of the firmly held conviction that what makes life matter is what we do with it. What makes a Jewish life matter is how ethically we live, and how hard we strive to apply these values of social justice in our world today.

When Judaism is defined not by nationhood, but by ethical principles, it is open to everyone who shares them. What is at stake in conversations about who belongs is a fundamental question about what being Jewish really is.

Our founders had it right when they proclaimed Judaism’s emphasis to be in its prophetic vision. Today, what makes us who we are isn’t who our ancestors were but what world we create for our descendants. That is our life’s task.

Shabbat shalom.

dna-illustration

I delivered this sermon on Shabbat 30th March for Parashat Shmini at Finchley Progressive Synagogue. I’m still disappointed by my DNA results.

judaism · sermon · story

Blot out the name of Amalek

It was the evening of Purim in the shtetl. The rebbe and his disciples were sat in the cold wooden yeshiva. They were reading the Megillah. They had almost reached its climax, when the rebbe slammed his hands down on the table, bolted upright on two feet, grabbed his coat and headed for the door.

His disciples were dismayed. “Where are you going?” they asked.

“To blot out the name of Amalek!” he replied.

The students were anxious. They shuffled in their seats. They knew who Amalek was. They knew what the injunction to blot out Amalek’s name meant.

When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, the Amalekites attacked them from behind, targeting the weakest members; the old, the ill and the tired. The book of Deuteronomy adjured them: “blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Never forget.”[1] This call in the Torah spoke to far more than historic memory. It was a call to violent revenge. Surely this couldn’t be what the rebbe meant?

One of the rebbe’s students stood up. “Rebbe, you can’t be serious?”

“Of course I’m serious,” said the rebbe. “It’s Purim.”

Purim? Purim, of course. It was the time to read the story of Esther. Haman, the wicked adversary of the Jews in the story of Esther, was an Amalekite. Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek. Haman had plotted to kill the Jews in their entirety. As they read the Megillah, at every mention of his name in the scroll, the disciples had been booing to drown out the word. By the end of the story, Haman’s fortunes have been completely overturned. The king decrees that, instead of Haman being able to kill all the Jews, the Jews can kill all of Haman’s supporters and descendants. They go on a fortnight-long massacre, killing 75,000 people.[2]

This has always been interpreted as part of the act of blotting out the name of Amalek. Surely this couldn’t be what the rebbe meant? Surely he didn’t think that violence and genocidal rampaging had any place in Judaism? It was a bawdy story, not an instruction manual. What could the rebbe be thinking? The students followed him out into the streets, rushing after him as he pattered away down the cobbled path.

One of his students caught up with the rebbe, panting, saying: “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Our Talmud teaches us that we no longer know who the nations are. Empires and diasporas have scattered us. Nobody knows their lineage. We cannot possibly know who the Amalekites are any more.”[3]

The rebbe was undeterred. “You do not need to know somebody’s ancestry to know who Amalek is,” he said, as he carried on walking. “We know our enemy.”

Another student shot up and interjected. “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Our commentators argue that the duty to blot out Amalek is upon God. The Torah says that Amalek should be blotted out from under Heaven. That is, it is Heaven that will destroy Amalek, not us.”[4]

“Nonsense,” said the rebbe. “Judaism calls us to action. We cannot wait for God to solve our problems. We must go and address them now.”

He marched on, now with the whole village trailing behind him. Everybody was agitated, determined to keep him from doing something foolish.

Another student challenged the rabbi. “Sir, with the greatest respect, I think you may be mistaken. Nahmanides teaches that we cannot attack Amalek out of a sense of revenge, but only out of a sense of the honour of God. If you seek destruction now, you will be violating this mitzvah, not honouring it…”

It was too late. The rebbe had already arrived at the nearest village. He headed straight down for a Cossack inn, and burst open the doors. The folk band stopped playing. The publicans looked up in stunned silence. The Jews huddled outside, expectantly looking in. The rebbe stretched out his hand.

Silence. A moment that felt like an eternity. Then, suddenly, a Cossack got up and took the rebbe’s hand. To everybody’s surprise, they began to dance. The band started playing again. Some of the students tentatively made their way into the inn. They, too, began dancing with Cossacks. Before long, all the Jews and all the Cossacks were dancing. This Purim party spilled out into the street. They danced all through the night until they could feel the veins in their feet pumping. They laughed until their bellies ached. They ate and drank and comingled until nobody could tell who was Jew and who was Cossack.

As the sun came up, the rebbe and his students fell about in a heap outside the pub, laughing. “That”, said the rebbe, “is how you blot out the name of Amalek. You see, Amalek is not a person. Amalek is the part of us that wants to trample the weak, just as Amalek did to Israel in the desert. Amalek is the part of us that wants to crush difference and secure power, just as Haman did to the Jews in Shushan. Amalek is any part, in any of us, that chooses hatred. The reason our sages told us not to turn to violence to blot out Amalek is because Amalek cannot be destroyed by violence; only by love. That is our weapon against hatred.”

This is a lesson we have to learn again and again, in every generation. When this week began, we woke up to the news of Muslims being killed at their places of worship in New Zealand. This week has seen yet more attacks on mosques. In Birmingham, a vandal took a hammer to the windows of several masjids across the city. The rise of the far right has spread to the Netherlands, where fascists have made significant gains and unseated the government.

We live in times when the violent attack the vulnerable; when hatred seeks out to take over; when diversity is under threat.

It is understandable that we should feel fear. It is righteous that we should feel anger. But we must also greet these times with an open and outstretched hand, willing to accept that a better world is possible, hopeful that people can change, faithful that we can drown out the impetus to hatred. We must be ready to dance. That is how we blot out the name of Amalek.

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I gave this sermon at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue on Shabbat 23rd March. Although the parasha was Tzav and the themes of this sermon are more congruent with the readings for the previous week, Parashat Zachor, I felt it was important to draw the connections between the just-completed festival of Purim and the week’s news events. I heard a very abridged version of this story as a Hassidic folktale, but I could not remember where I heard it or find a source. If anybody knows its origin, please provide it so I can give due credit.

[1] Deut 25:19

[2] Esther 9

[3] Berakhot 28a

[4] Rabbeinu Bahya on Deut 25:19

judaism · sermon · torah

Rest is resistance

“Take a break,” Moses said to the Israelites. “I’ve spoken to God, and we’re both very keen on this: you need to take Saturdays off.”

“Yes, we know, we’ve heard this before,” said the Israelites. “You told us when we were around that mountain. You told us when we were building the mishkan. You said these exact same words only a few weeks ago in another parashah. You don’t need to keep going on about it.”

“I do, though,” said Moses. “It’s really important. I’m telling you now so you get it. 24 hours of rest. 25 if you want to be extra about it. But definitely no less. You need to take a break.”

The Israelites sighed. “We get it. Tell us something new.”

“OK,” said Moses. “Take a break. Or I’ll kill you. I’m serious now. Not resting on Shabbat is punishable by death. If I catch any of you picking up sticks or lighting fires on Saturdays, that’s it. Dead.”

“But why?  Why does this matter so much to you?”

“Because,” said Moses. “For generations, we were slaves. Our whole lives we worked. When our masters had their days off, we still worked, serving them. We broke our backs. We lost touch with what mattered. We forgot how to think. We forgot how to enjoy life. We have a chance here that we’ve never had before. We can build an entirely new society, where the measure of life isn’t how well we work, but how well we rest. If we instill this day of rest with holiness and make it the cornerstone of our society, we can build a community that resists the tyranny of work and the oppression of masters.”

And that was that. Shabbat became enshrined as the hallmark of Jewishness. No more would people exploit each other on their holy days. No more would we be defined by our productivity. Instead, the marker of Jewish observance was how holy we could make this day by refraining from work.

Generations later, our rabbis were faced with a new question. If work was forbidden, what actually was work? Perhaps in the peasant and smallholder society of ancient Israel, it was obvious. But in the new reality of urban living across a wide Diaspora, it was no longer so clear. They needed to know how to make the day holy.

So they looked to this week’s parashah. Here, in this section of Torah, the commandment to honour the Sabbath bookends descriptions of how to build God’s dwelling place. They looked at all the work that must have been involved in creating this momentous desert structure. Lighting fires. Tanning leather. Dying cloth. Joining wood. Polishing stones. Spinning wool. Carrying. Pushing. Lifting. Choosing. Separating. Drawing. Planning.

If this was the work that was required to build God’s dwelling place in ancient times, they reasoned, then abstention would be the way to build God’s dwelling place today. Just as the performance of work was a holy act in the Torah, not doing the same things could be a holy act in our world. Through their interpretation of this text, our rabbis gave new life to the holiness of Shabbat and the value in not working.

This idea has so much relevance to us today. In recent months, an article has been circulating entitled ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.’ It argues that the generation of people now in our twenties and thirties live in a permanent state of overwork and exhaustion. It gives good material reasons why this should be the case. We were born into post-Soviet Thatcherite Britain. The dominant idea was that anyone could work hard enough to become rich, and we were educated in a system that reinforced this. By the time we entered the job market, the country was in recession, wages permanently stagnated, housing became completely unaffordable and job security became a rare luxury. As a result, we are primed with a need to work hard, but the rewards for this seem completely unattainable.

I think the reason this article was so widely shared was because it spoke to many of my peers’ lived experiences. I doubt, however, that the issue is generational. I look at the teenagers I am tutoring for bar mitzvah, and I am overwhelmed by how much pressure is on them. They seem to be constantly examined, overburdened with extra-curricular activities, and pushed to constantly improve their CVs, even from the youngest age.

At the same time, I see friends in their fifties and sixties who are permanently exhausted. I recently asked an older friend how he was doing. He answered that he wasn’t sure if he was tired from sickness or just living out the regular fatigue that comes from working. We are, as an entire society, exhausted and struggling to keep our heads above water.

This systemic problem may feel insurmountable. The people sitting in this room cannot, on our own, redesign society, push wages up, make housing affordable, or transform the labour market. (Much as I my try to push the line that we can.) Yet there is one thing we can do. We can do what our ancestors did when they left slavery and decided to institute their own rules. We can do what our rabbis did when they were confronted with urban living and needed to re-imagine work. That is: we can shift our focus.

Against a culture that sees work as the end of human existence, we can prioritise rest. In a world that demands us to be constantly online, we can switch off. In a society that tells us we are isolated competitors, we can build meaningful community. We can insist that we do not live to work, but we work to live. Our lives do not have meaning because of how productive we are, but because of how much compassion we can put into this world.

Against the crushing pressure of modern capitalism, Judaism continues to issue forth a two-word rallying cry of protest: Shabbat shalom!

Shabbat-Kodesh_art

I gave an earlier version of this sermon at Kehillah North London in 2013 for Parashat Vayakahel. I reworked it and delivered it at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Saturday 2nd March 2019. 

judaism · sermon · social justice · theology

Yes, to heal the world

What is the point of Judaism?

Last night, I gave a defence of Judaism for the disengaged. I argued that religion gives us a sense of community, purpose and meaning. I talked about how Judaism is an antidote to many of the greatest problems we face in the 21st Century.

This morning, I want to talk about why progressive Judaism, specifically, ought to be our way forward. Progressive Judaism has, in recent years, come under attack. Last year, Jonathan Neumann released a book entitled ‘To Heal the World?’. Its subtitle – ‘How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel’ – probably tells you everything you need to know about this book.

In it, he argues that progressive Jews have distorted Judaism and created their own denomination, completely divorced from tradition. He pours scorn on one idea in particular, that of ‘tikkun olam’. The basic premise of this idea comes from Jewish mysticism. It argues that the world in which we live is broken, and that through the pursuit of social justice, we can begin to heal it.

For Neumann, this idea is an innovation. It is the ideology of the American New Left combined with some Jewish theology. In a way, he is certainly right. The idea of ‘tikkun olam’ was a new development. It was a rallying cry to bring together many of the issues on which the Jewish community in America was campaigning, particularly black civil rights, women’s liberation and international peace.

While he may be right about the nomenclature, he is completely wrong about the idea. This idea, that Judaism’s core is one of social justice, has been integral to progressive Judaism since its inception. Our founders, like Rabbi Abraham Geiger in 19th Century Germany, argued that the soul of Judaism was not in its laws but in its prophetic texts. The Reformers sought to reposition Judaism from its narrow focus on ritual to the universalist message of justice.

The prophets spoke in a language of justice that would be recognisable even today. In this week’s haftarah, we read of Elijah, arguably the greatest prophet post-Moses. His life was full of miracles: he could split rivers, heal the sick and bring on rainfall. At the end of his life, he was carried away to Heaven in a chariot of fire. All the wonder in Elijah’s life should not gloss over Elijah’s message.

He challenged kings, demanded an end to idol-worship and called on the Israelites to remember their covenant. For Jews the world over, he is the harbinger of messianic redemption. He is the first among our prophets to promise that a messianic age is coming. Subsequent prophets, such as Malachi, prophecy that, when Elijah returns, God “shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents.”

For progressive Jews, this promise of liberation is built into our very understanding of what it means to live a Jewish life. We cannot just wait, passively, for a better age to come up to us, but must participate in building it. We do that through our pursuit of justice, by following our consciences, and by seeking to make the world a more loving place.

While the branding of this idea as ‘tikkun olam’ may be new in Judaism, its message can be found throughout the Tanakh, rabbinic literature, and our liturgy. It is at the core of what Judaism calls on us to do.

This authentic Jewish idea is what Neumann finds terrifying. He argues that this is a deviation from traditional Judaism. Of course, he never defines what precisely that is. In all likelihood, that is because he doesn’t know. In a review of the book in Tablet magazine, Shaul Magid argues that Neumann’s argument falls flat because he doesn’t have the requisite knowledge of Judaism to make his case. Neumann is, after all, not a Torah scholar, nor a Jewish historian. He is an opinion columnist. Magid shows very successfully how Neumann simply doesn’t understand how Judaism, whether Orthodox or progressive, actually works. There can be no more damning critique of a book than that it would have been better if it had been written by somebody who knew what they were talking about.

For Neumann, progressive Judaism must be contrasted with ‘traditional’ Judaism. He seems to have in mind an idea of bearded men in segregated synagogues keeping kosher, observing shabbat and keeping to a very strict set of rules. The first issue with this is that he seems not to understand that Orthodox Judaism is, itself, a modern innovation. It is a response to the modern world, that takes a conservative approach to life and a dogmatic approach to commandments.

It is deeply depressing that, even within our own ranks, many of our members imagine that the black hats have, in some sense, a more authentic version of Judaism than we do. When we look at other religions, we are fully aware that the most compassionate, charitable and honest version is the most authentic. We do not imagine that Christianity is at its most authentic in its belligerent form, nor that Islam is most authentic in its fundamentalist form. We know that they are both closest to God when they are humble, sincere and loving. Why are we so shy about expecting the same standards of our own religion? We are not at our most Jewish when we have the strictest food laws, but when we are sharing that food with others.

Most importantly, Neumann’s idea of traditional Judaism is so narrow and limiting. He never seeks to answer the question: what, then, is the point of Judaism? If our purpose on earth is not to heal the world, what is it? Should we just be slavishly obedient to some rules because we have a mythologised idea of how our ancestors were? Does Judaism have nothing to say to the modern world? If that is all we are, how can we be expected to survive? What would even make us worth preserving?

The truth is that, for we progressives, halachic observance and social justice are not competitors. They complement each other. Our food laws help us because they force us to think ethically about our consumption. Shabbat is a joy because it teaches us about the value of rest and the holiness of God. All our rules and rituals have value because they turn us into disciplined, conscientious people, who will seek out justice when it is necessary. Progressive Judaism sees very clearly that the point of Judaism is not the rules in themselves but the pursuit of a better world through them.

And, yes, all of this points us in a particular direction. You might call it the messianic age, as our prophets did. You might call it progressive Judaism, as our German founders did. You might call it tikkun olam, as the Americans in the ’70s did. Whatever name you give it, the message is clear. We have a short time on earth and we are here with a mission. As Jews, we have been tasked with a sacred purpose of perfecting the world, demanding justice and pursuing peace.

That is the point of Judaism. Let us work to heal the world together.

Shabbat shalom.

tikkun olam

I gave this sermon at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Ki Tisa on Saturday 23rd February.

 

judaism · sermon

What is the point of Judaism?

What is the point of Judaism?

It might seem a strange question to ask. Do we even need to justify ourselves? In the shadow of antisemitism, and still reeling from the atrocities of the Holocaust, the fact that we exist at all is cause for celebration. It might seem egregious to even ask for explanation. We exist, and live our lives. Isn’t that enough?

But, I feel, it is exactly against this background that we have to ask this question. Many of the people we would expect to see here on Shabbat have become disillusioned with the religion. They might feel Jewish in their heart, and maintain a sense of Jewish culture, and even speak out with a moral voice in the name of their Jewishness. But our synagogues, our rituals, our traditional practices and our religious beliefs seem to have no meaning to them. To them, we have to answer the question: what is the point of Judaism?

At the same time, we progressive Jews are beset by a confrontation from the Orthodox. For them, Judaism’s point lies in its adherence to mitzvot: a total commitment to law codes laid down in the Middle Ages. Certainly, most would acknowledge that Judaism has an ethical and spiritual character, but the observance of law codes comes foremost.

To those who are Orthodox and to those who are disengaged, we have to be able to explain who we are and why Judaism holds such relevance to us. Tonight, I want to begin by addressing the first group. I want to spell out why, I think, Judaism should matter to somebody, even who does not believe in God, or who sees our practices as irrelevant to their world. Tomorrow morning, I will address the second question, and explain why I feel the progressive approach to Jewish religion is the best one for the 21st Century.

So what relevance does Judaism have to the people who feel it has no bearing on their lives? Let’s start with what people’s lives today are really like. Despite great advancements in time-saving technology, we seem to work harder than ever. Despite greater communication tools than we’ve ever known, people feel more lonely and disconnected. Although we are told that our economy is one of the greatest in the world, work is more precarious; housing more unstable; basic needs harder to meet.

Against this backdrop, religion might feel like an unnecessary burden, or a relic from a time when life was simpler. For many disconnected Jews, adding synagogue life to their commitments might well feel like another responsibility when all they’re looking to do is decompress.

Yet Judaism is precisely the antidote to this world. Whereas the secular world insists on work as the greatest virtue, Judaism elevates the highest form of life to rest – our Shabbat. Whereas the secular world seems to promote a life where everything can be reasoned and categorised, Judaism asks us to suspend all that in wonder at the fact that we exist. Whereas the secular world leaves people feeling lonely and disconnected, Judaism is, at its core, an effort to create a community.

That is exactly what happens in this week’s parashah. Having last week built the physical structures of their religion – the tabernacle in the desert – this week the Israelites create the community for which the space was intended. People volunteer. They pay subscription fees. They turn the tabernacle into more than a house for God, but into a home. This is the beginning of a lived community. We may see this is the start of an organised Jewish religion.

The idea of organised religion can make people bristle. People associate it with hierarchy, abuse and financial profiteering. If I thought that was essential to the idea, I would oppose it as vigorously and militantly as the most obsessed New Atheist. But what does it mean to be organised? Organised religion means religion that is made up of people working together. It must be contrasted with the isolated, individualised ‘spirituality’ that treats people as atoms with no connection to each other. Organised religion insists that people need each other. We are interdependent, strengthened by our relationships, and part of a community that goes way beyond our own homes.

It is true that, when people get organised, they can do terrible things. I do not need to list for you the crimes that have been committed in the name of religion. But it is also true that religion spurs people to do the most wonderful things for each other. I have never seen such good pastoral care of the elderly as I have here at Newcastle Reform Synagogue. I have never seen a place give children such a sense of pride and dignity as our synagogues do. In our synagogues, we bring together people from different classes, communities, backgrounds and ages to build truly integrated communities. Without the synagogue, how would that be possible?

You might object that this is just an argument in favour of community, not of religion itself. You might say, yes, but I can get community like that anywhere. To that, I have to ask: where? Where else is providing community of this kind? Where else has sustainably managed to bring people together like this for centuries and millennia?

The great Marxist-Jewish thinker of the last century, Gerry Cohen, reflected on this question when he wrote about his upbringing in the communist kibbutzim of Montreal. He acknowledges that the secular socialist Jewish community that had sustained him only managed to continue because the religious world on which they depended trundled on too.

This is the point of Judaism. No other community can sustain people in the way that religion can. That is not just because it is ancient and adaptable. It is because religion asks of us to put our faith in something greater than ourselves. We cannot live just by our self-interest. That is a lie of the 21st Century. The truth is that we need to believe that we are working towards something greater than this material world. For a community to truly function, we need God. We need hope in a world to come.

Tomorrow, I will talk about why progressive Judaism has the best answer to what the world we are building should look like.

diversity

I had intended to deliver this sermon on Friday 22nd February at Newcastle Reform Synagogue. In the end, however, I facilitated a discussion that yielded similar questions and conclusions.

debate · Uncategorized

Can religion play a positive role in progressive politics?

When Keir Hardie set up the Labour Party, he broke with many of the radicals who had preceded him by trying to organise his efforts where working class people really were: in the trade unions and the low church. He reached out to people in both their chapels – the ones where they organised their workplaces, and the ones where they organised their communities.

Since that time, both the trade unions and religious organisations have greatly declined in British public life, and in both cases we’re worse for it. Those traditional ways for people to meet, share culture, build up solidarity and envision a better future have been completely eroded. We’ve been left open to the worst austerity, neoliberal privatisation and attacks on the rights of marginalised people that we’ve ever known. Our lack of organisation and community has meant we’ve been constantly on the back foot, struggling against forces much stronger than us.

On the left, everyone acknowledges the decline in trade unionism for what it has been: a massive setback for working-class organising, an onslaught that has left us weaker, more divided and more isolated. But, to listen to some on the left talk, you’d think that the decline of religion was somehow a victory for our side. Millions of Britons no longer know their neighbours, no longer have any idea about the births, deaths, illnesses, tragedies and joys that are going on in their communities. Young people grow up without any access to traditional songs, stories and culture that was central to previous generations and instead only get the official versions of history. They learn that Churchill and Thatcher were heroes, but they never hear about the religious movements that shaped the country they live in, like the Chartists, Levellers and Quakers. People have completely lost connection to their community, and we’re supposed to somehow celebrate that as an accomplishment.

James-Keir-Hardie
Keir Hardie

Absolutely not. Religion isn’t the dark force that it’s been painted, but has been one of the greatest forces for progress and radical change. Keir Hardie recognised that. Socialists of previous generations were able to see the positive role religion could play because they were able to draw a necessary distinction. I say that Kier Hardie organised in the low church, because that’s where he was. He didn’t go out to the priests and the bishops and the high-ranking officials who’d latched on to state power. He was interested in the lay preachers. And that’s because there is a crucial difference between religion as it is imposed from above and religion created from below.

Like with all forms of culture, religion can go one of two ways: it can be a bourgeois, reactionary force that bolsters the forces of power, or it can be an emancipatory, proletarian force that empowers people to challenge systemic violence. I am not here to defend Iranian morality police, Bush’s crusader Christianity, the violent Islamophobia of India’s BJP, still less Kahanists in Israel. I do not want to defend religion’s connection to that kind of politics in any way.

But we need to be clear: the problem with connecting those politics to religion isn’t with religion itself, but with the politics we connect them to. I don’t want religion to play a role in the state – I want to abolish it. I don’t want religion to play a role in war – I want to abolish war. I don’t want religion to play a role in capital, the police, imperialism or the structures that uphold patriarchy, because in every case I want to abolish them.

The politics I’m interested in is politics from below – the struggles of working-class people, women, LGBT people, colonised, enslaved and massacred people to realise their own destinies and take control over the world. I think religion can play a very positive role there. It has done throughout the ages, and religion can continue to be a source of strength for all oppressed people.

When I talk about this religion for oppressed people, this isn’t an innovation. I’m not taking the message of religion and twisting it to meet my own ends. Quite to the contrary: combating oppression has been built into the meaning of religion since its inception. The earliest written religious texts, the Hindu Vadics, bring together a worldview that opposes all forms of systemic violence, from state warfare to animal consumption. The Torah is the story of rebel slaves turned refugees trying to build a just society. The prophet Amos denounced the ruling class of ancient Judea for stealing the spoils of the poor and hoarding them. The prophet Isaiah tells the rich that their prayers are worthless because they exploit people while they deliver them. Jesus comes to take direct action against money-lenders and the hypocrites that collaborate with a colonising army. The Talmud is a lengthy exegesis in how to bring anti-oppressive practices into every part of a person’s life. The Prophet Muhammad comes to affirm the unity and dignity of all of humanity, and to insist that people are treated as if they all contain the spark of the divine. Sikhism tries to break down all the barriers that differentiate religions, genders and ethnicities into one universalising faith. Religion, at its core, is anti-oppression. Don’t the politicians know that the God they claim to believe in despises them and their prayers?

Holy texts are brimming full of admonishments against the ruling class. Reactionaries leap on passing references to sexuality and gender difference, separate them from all context, and use them as a pretext to persecute people. They take what is a radical idea, focused on bringing about the kind of change socialists want to see, and they manipulate it to suit their own ends. 

But everyone needs to see that the religious tradition of speaking truth to power is much better represented by our heroes than by our enemies. It’s represented by all the religious activists who worked to end slavery, the ones who fought for democracy and debt relief, the anti-colonial fighters and the indigenous revolutionaries. They represent that prophetic tradition.

malcolm-x-9396195-1-402
Malcolm X

Two key people from the Black civil rights movement come to mind here: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Malcolm X – a Muslim minister in the slums of Chicago and New York, Martin Luther King Jr, a Christian reverend in America’s deep south. Both of them built their organising around their religious institutions and the deep network of Black faith communities across the USA. They based their activism around their religious buildings, religious texts, and religious traditions. Are you going to tell me that they didn’t play a positive role in politics?

It’s not like they could have done what they did without their religions either. Certainly they couldn’t have turned to the unions. At that time, the white-run unions were mostly fighting against black inclusion in workplaces and were trying to uphold segregation in places. They could be racist, reactionary lobbies, and their record of beating up protesters against the Viet Nam war and siding with anti-miscegenation politicians shouldn’t be quickly forgotten. That’s the context in which they were organising, and it was the religions that gave them the strength as a group to fight for their rights.

More than that, the turning point in the struggle for civil rights was when the white religious leaders from across the country came down to join the Black protesters in Selma, Alabama and showed that the weight of public opinion and that the moral voice of the country was firmly on the side of those protesters. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was on the frontlines, alongside the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said “when I marched, I felt that my feet were praying.”

When religion is in the hands of the working-class, and when it is used as a fountain for oppressed people to draw strength from, it is a powerful and challenging force. But if you pour scorn on religion, and you say that it’s irredeemable, you hand over religion to the bigots. If you say you don’t want anything to do with it, then you’re leaving that source of power to be controlled by reactionaries. No wonder people wind up believing that God is a homophobic, misogynistic, capitalist demon if you completely disavow religion and leave it in the hands of the right.

Socialists who have engaged with religions have seen incredible success. When the Latin revolutionaries, the Sandinistas, started out with atheistic, anti-religious Marxist arguments, they remained an isolated minority who had no relationship at all to the people. The ultimate success of the Nicaraguan revolution only came about because of the rise in liberation theology and the willingness of socialists to engage with the church.

sandinistas
Sandinistas

Vatican II of 1959 wanted to see the church more closely aligned with the poor and, as part of implementing this, Catholic activists set up “Christian base communities” rooted in poor favelas. These were the first platform from which poor communities could start organising against the capitalist authoritarian Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and it was not an accident. Church theologians of Latin America wrote explicitly about their need to bring their religious beliefs to a political mission. Liberation theology saw that the things most despised by Christianity: individualism, competition, materialism and greed were, in fact, integral to capitalism.

High-ranking bishops and the papacy were, of course, hostile to the work of these low-level bishops and sided with the regime. The upper echelons of the church had to come into direct conflict with their own members initially, but by 1977, the grassroots Catholic activists had been so successful in transforming the church that when Somoza’s newspaper Novedades asked the church to clarify its position, even the high-ranking officials were forced to side with the bishops against what they called institutionalised violence and inequality.  

These are not just interesting facts from history – they have a strong bearing on the present day. In my own organising in the Jewish community, I’ve seen how religions can play such a powerful role in activism. Synagogues have preserved the memory of what it meant to be refugees, how Jews came to this country hidden in the bowels of boats and rushed out on the last trains from Germany. This memory has been preserved so well in our religious institutions that, when the migrant crisis came to public attention, the Jewish community was at the forefront of offering help and refuge. Every synagogue in the country had collection points for aid to refugees. Key shuls in every area now have drop-in centres that provide free help and legal aid to asylum seekers. Young congregants drove out to deliver these aid packages and came back embolded and enlightened. I attended a service at an Orthodox synagogue where one such member came back, agitating in her community to lobby for rights and safe passage for refugees. South London Synagogue has organised for over 200 child refugees to be brought over from Calais and housed here. The Jewish community is not alone here. Religious institutions have played a powerful role in demanding an end to poverty, quality council housing and opposing racism. This is the reality of what religions in Britain today do.

I’ll say it again because it needs stressing: I’m not here to defend the religion of the ruling class – whatever form it takes. I’m here for radical religion that stays true to the message of fighting for justice. There is no doubt that awful things can be carried out in the name of religion, but just a cursory glance at history tells us that people are perfectly capable of carrying out the same atrocious acts without religion. 

Religion has been associated with violence when it’s been connected to state power and reactionary movements. There’s no doubt about that, but to suggest that it has some kind of connection to religious belief itself is completely ahistorical. Haven’t Stalinist gulags, Maoist terror and the genocides of Cambodia and Nazi Germany shown us that people are perfectly capable of committing the utmost evil without religion? The modern states of France and Turkey are perfect examples of how secularist ideology can be just as violent, colonialist and corrupt as any state that calls itself religious. The problem is capital. The problem is the state. The problem is the military. The problem is certainly not God.

The task of religions is to keep alive that moral, prophetic voice that insists on radical equality and seeks to transform the world. It would be a disaster to throw out all that religion has done to transform the political sphere for the better, solely because fundamentalists and puritans have hijacked it. Religion belongs to all those who practice it – and the faith of left-wing revolutionaries is far more sincere than that which connects itself to state power, capitalism and authoritarianism.

The central message of religion – of all religion – is a radical one that every socialist can support. It is that there is a force much greater than anything we can conceive; that though we are small in the grand scheme of the universe, our lives have meaning. Every one of us is indowed with a spark of the divine. The existence of God makes us all equal – in a profound and spiritual way. Religion challenges us to see that all of humanity is one, everyone deserving of dignity, and to bring that claim to life in the world. It is a call to action – to overthrow the Pharoahs of the world as Moses did; to cast out the demons of legions as Jesus did; to demand rights for widows, orphans and disabled people as Mohammed did; to resist sectarian violence as Guru Nanak did.

Faith can give us the courage to fight for a better world. Thank you.

fists raised

I gave this as a speech at Ideas for Freedom, the annual conference of Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a Marxist-atheist sect, back in July 2016. There were two other panelists, arguing that religion could not play a positive role in politics. My speech was not well received.

I doubt I could get away with making the same speech today. My teachers would definitely chastise me for over-simplifying matters, making sweeping generalisations, going off on random tangents, and flattening out history. I stand by, however, the central idea, that religion has a radical core, rooted in resistance. I doubt any of my teachers would question that this was a legitimate and necessary expression of religion.

I was moved to upload it by my brother, with whom I spent a long time discussing this topic over the winter holidays. He asked that I write up some of my ideas, and I remembered that I already had. I will speak on a similar theme, albeit to a very different audience, when I preach this coming Shabbat in Newcastle.