‘These prayers aren’t for me’ a woman said. She was addressing Judith Plaskow, the great feminist Jewish academic. Plaskow and her colleagues were on women’s study retreats in the 1980s. They were trying to wrestle with the Jewish tradition – a tradition they loved and simultaneously felt oppressed them as women. On these retreats, they discussed theology, read poems, studied Torah, engaged in rituals, meditated and wrote new prayers.
‘These prayers aren’t for me. These aren’t the prayers I grew up with,’ a woman told Professor Plaskow. ‘I don’t feel comfortable with them.’
‘We’re not the generation that gets to feel comfortable,’ Plaskow responded. ‘We’re the generation that gets to create a tradition so the next generation grows up in it, and for them it will be the authentic tradition, and they will feel comfortable.’
In my own life, this has turned out to be completely true. Siddur Lev Chadash was the prayer book of my childhood. It was first published in 1995. I remember standing together with Reading’s Jewish community, burying the old siddurim in the ground and celebrating the arrival of our new liturgy. Even at this young age, the event felt momentous. It felt simultaneously like everyone was grieving and celebrating. It was the end of an old cycle and the beginning of a new one.
The prayers of Siddur Lev Chadash were my prayers. I feel sucked in by their rhythm, transported by their ideas and comfortably at home when reciting them. But at the time when they were first introduced, they were scandalous. This prayer book, our prayer book, did something no prayer book anywhere else in the world had done before. It made God gender-neutral.
Nowhere in this siddur will you see God called “He”, “Him”, “Lord”, “King” or “Master”. At the time, this move was ridiculed. People saw it as the excesses of feminism. Even some congregations within Liberal Judaism opposed it as a drastic departure from the theology they were used to. They did not feel comfortable. But as Plaskow warned many years before, they were not the generation who would get to feel comfortable. Mine was.
And for me, the idea that God could be anything other than gender-neutral seems preposterous. How can an infinite being, who transcends space and time, be contained by something as small as a gender? I felt that I had the legitimate, authentic Jewish tradition. Words like “the Lord is my Shepherd” , to me, sounded decidedly Christian. On the other hand, “You are my Shepherd and my God,” the new translation of exactly the same psalm, was an unambiguously Jewish prayer.
The editors of that prayer book took a leap of faith. They created prayers that would make their own congregation uncomfortable so that my generation could have ones that would make us feel more comfortable. They gifted us a Judaism rooted in feminist thought, that taught us about God’s transcendent and unknowable nature. They ended old ways so that others could enjoy new ones.
In fact, this has been the way of Liberal Judaism since its inception. When it was first founded as the Jewish Religious Union, some of its members may have known the siddur of Reform Judaism’s West London Synagogue. Most, however, only knew Orthodoxy. They had little referent point beyond the lengthy Hebrew-language services that dominated London at the time.
They innovated in ways we could not dream of. They hacked up the services, re-ordered all the prayers, cut out every part they found offensive or uninspiring and produced a prayer book that reflected their values. From this, Rabbi Israel Mattuck, the movement’s first ever minister, created what would be the siddur for over forty years. It emphasised God’s universality, focusing not only on God’s special relationship with the Jews, but also on God’s relationship with all of humanity. This must have been outrageously audacious at the time. But if they had not had the courage to innovate, our Judaism would not exist.
In the 1960s, the Liberal prayer book, ‘Service of the Heart’ took a step that no other Jewish liturgy in English had taken before. It decided to focus on God’s personal and intimate character. It spoke about God in the vernacular, saying “You” instead of “Thou”. People were outraged that any liturgy had ditched the holy tongue of Elizabethan English. Today, it feels only natural that we should speak to God the way we speak in our daily lives. We may use grander language than we would in the supermarket, but the basic English grammar is the same. Those Liberal Jews took a decision to leave behind a language that felt comfortable so that we would have one that felt right to us.
Today, as we edit the movement’s new siddur, we are faced with the same challenge. We must ask ourselves not what prayers will make us feel most at ease, but how we want the next generation to feel at ease praying. We have to ask tough questions about what values we want to communicate and what learning of Liberal theology we hope to transmit.
Already, the editors, Rabbis Lea Muhlstein and Elli Tikvah Sarah, have begun that process. They have decided that not only should the English reflect our thinking, but that the Hebrew should reflect the English. Hebrew is a necessarily gendered language, so they have taken the bold step of feminising the Hebrew in some sections. They have diversified the names by which we call God. Not only will you see ‘Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh’ and ‘Elohim’, but you will also find ‘El Elyon’ – God on High; and ‘El Shaddai’, a biblical name for God derived from the word for breasts. You will see ‘Shechinah’, a word meaning ‘dwelling-place’, which in the Kabbalistic literature refers to the feminine aspect of God.
I have no doubt that this will be a difficult adjustment for all of us. It takes courage to leave behind something you know and begin something anew. But every year, at Simchat Torah, we do just that. Every year, we leave behind a year of Torah reading and begin again with the story of creation. We know that this year will be entirely different and we will read it in ways we never have done before. But we are able to let go of the old because we know that is what we must do to progress.
So, as this community moves from the familiar territory of Siddur Lev Chadash into the uncharted waters of Siddur Shirah Chadashah, I ask you to be brave. I ask you to imagine how these prayers will feel in thirty years’ time to somebody who has been raised on them. I ask you to allow yourselves to be uncomfortable. Embrace it. Even though these prayers are not for us, take the decision to make them yours.
I gave this sermon on Saturday 19th October at Three Counties Liberal Judaism in Ledbury, Herefordshire.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
These are the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. If anybody understood human complexity, it was him. Solzhenitsyn wrote these words from inside a gulag – one of Stalin’s forced labour camps – in the second half of the 20th Century. In this space, he experienced what any impassive arbiter would be forced to term evil: show trials, exile, slavery, massacres, and torture. His documentation of these events helped expose to the world the sheer cruelty taking place in the Soviet gulag system.
Yet, as we heard, Solzhenitsyn was adamant that evil was not something external to himself, nor exclusively the domain of Stalin’s henchmen, but something that could be found in the heart of every human being. How could he arrive at such a conclusion?
He knew the evil in the heart of humanity because he, too, was a war criminal. As a commander for a battery in the Red Army, Solzhenitsyn oversaw atrocities. He witnessed gang rape and murder of civilians. He saw his armies enter Germany not to liberate it but to seek revenge. He felt, yes, that the Nazis and the gulags and the western powers were guilty, but did not believe that he was any better.
Solzhenitsyn eventually found a reconciliation between the evil he had committed and that which was done to him in the form of religion. I do not know enough about the Russian Orthodox Christianity to which he converted to comment on how it might have helped him, but I can see outlines of such a theology in the Jewish tradition. I see it in the traditional Torah readings for Yom Kippur.
Ordinarily, Liberal Jews do not read the parashah concerning the slaughter of goats by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Many of our founders felt that this text fetishised ritual over ethics, and gave too much weight to a practice that was defunct and that, in any case, we had no desire to reintroduce. In his final words, published in LJ Today, Rabbi David Goldberg, z”l, bemoaned that many of the younger Liberal rabbis were turning their backs on the radicalism that he had embraced. For him, that meant cutting out parts of the Scripture that were distasteful or outdated.
While I greatly admire the sincerity of Rabbi Goldberg’s convictions and his pioneering approach to our movement, reading a text is not the same as rehabilitating it. We can engage with a Torah text to see what wisdom it can offer to the present generation without imagining that we have to then institute the arcane rituals it describes. The text that will be read today by Reform, Masorti and Orthodox Jews need not be read as an instruction manual. Instead, let us treat it as an effort by our forebearers to psychologically grapple with the same issues that face us today.
Leviticus 16 is the description of the High Priest’s ritual on Yom Kippur. Here, Aaron is instructed to bring two male goats before God at the Tent of Meeting. He will take lots for the goats – one will be assigned for sacrifice to God; the other will be sent off into the wilderness for Azazel. Having carried out atonement rituals for himself, Aaron will then lay his hands on the goat that has been assigned to Azazel. He will recite over this goat all the sins that had been committed by the Israelites in the previous year and send the goat, carrying all of these iniquities, off into the desert, where it shall be set free.
It is only natural to wonder what these two goats are doing, why one has been assigned to Azazel, and who Azazel even is. Rabbinic tradition furnishes us with some explanations. In some traditions, Azazel is identified with a demon, parallel to God, who has no power over the Jews unless they have committed sins beyond redemption. Then, on Yom Kippur, Azazel will be able to take hold over us. In another tractate, Azazel is identified with the fallen angels, Uzza and Azael, who caused humanity to sin by teaching them violence and brought on the Flood in Genesis.
Whichever of these interpretations we adopt, Azazel is clearly a representative of some demonological tradition within Judaism. This figure represents utmost evil. It is either the cause of all violence in the world or an evil spirit, waiting to take control over us if we are not sufficiently well-behaved. The goat assigned to Azazel, then, is laden with all the parts of the Israelites they do not like, and sent off to be dealt with by this wilderness demon.
By contrast, the other goat, arbitrarily selected for God, acts as an expiation offering. In its sacrifice, the Israelite’s purity and devotion are symbolically offered. This ritual, then, is a demonstration of that need to split the human psyche. Everything in ourselves we do not like can be pushed out into the desert and sent away. Whatever we do like can be ceremoniously paraded in the centre of our communal space.
We have hopefully come a long way from our belief in demons and deities that desire animal blood, but how different are we from our ancient ancestors, who sought to divide the world into good and evil? Today, we do not impose all our fears on goats and hand them over to monsters. Instead, we perform that same psychological distancing with other human beings.
We project onto them the things we fear most in ourselves. They, our inversions, are stupid, ignorant and hateful. They, the opponents we imagine, are conceited, conniving and immoral. We turn anyone we do not know into a container for our fears. The term ‘scapegoat’ is derived from this parashah, and it is a perfectly apt description of how human beings can be transformed into symbolic representatives of all that is in us that we hate.
You may hear this and think, yes, they do that. The others, whoever we perceive them to be, surely think and act in this way. By imagining others in this way, we fall prey to exactly the trap I am describing. Yom Kippur does not call on us to examine the lives of others, but to engage in inspection of ourselves. Yom Kippur asks us, as individuals, how we will improve.
The challenge this parashah poses to us, then, is to consider who we scapegoat. Who is it that we imagine is out there, holding the views we find contemptible and acting in ways we find objectionable? What is it about them that we fear, and hate? And what is it within us, that in making these assumptions about others, we are seeking to ignore or erase?
Solzhenitsyn learnt from bitter experience that the line between good and evil does not run between different parts of humanity but cuts right through the human heart. We cannot do away with the parts of our heart that seek to hate and destroy. We can only examine them and ask ourselves what has really motivated these feelings.
As much as this teaching pushes us to acknowledge our own wrongdoing, it also teaches us that, within all of us, there is goodness. We cannot deny all that is noble and kind and just within us any more than we can deny our own wickedness. It is, in fact, the basis of all growth and change that we accept that there is much within us to love.
While Azazel helps us to think about the monsters inside us we would like to hide, our relationship with the other goat, that which is given over to God, prompts us to remember all that is good within us. Judaism teaches us that we are, whatever our imperfections, fundamentally lovable and worthy.
If we were not, we would never be able to improve. Few of us believe that we are wholly evil, but many of us turn our mistakes into character traits. How often have you heard somebody apologise for being late by saying that they always are? Or, for that matter, excuse themselves for letting you down by saying that they are a bad friend? When we define ourselves by the mistakes we make, we cut off our potential to make better choices.
The ritual of the two goats reminds us that we are not the stories we tell about ourselves. We are neither wholly bad, destined to be consumed by a demon in the wilderness; nor are we wholly good, perfect to be presented before God. We are all of our flaws and all of our successes. We are complete human beings, capable of trying and capable of failing; capable of improving and capable of succeeding.
As we fast and pray our way through Yom Kippur, let us work to embrace all of who we are. Let us seek to remember that the flaws we see in others may also be true of ourselves. Equally, may we not forget that even those we dislike contain the positive attributes to which we aspire. Let us remind ourselves that the flaws we see in ourselves are also balanced by the traits of which we are proud. Solzhenitsyn warned us not to split up the human heart. This Yom Kippur, may we unite it and help it to grow.
Back in the village, when myths were true, an old man used to come round with a goat. In the autumn, when the leaves were turning crispy and the days were getting shorter, he’d walk through the shtetl streets, dressed in rags and a flat cap.
Clopping along behind him came a goat on a rope leash. Although scruffy and somewhat unkempt, the goat was well-behaved. She didn’t eat the villagers’ laundry off their lines or stop and refuse to move, the way goats would normally do. She just casually pattered along behind the old man.
And as they walked along the winding, cobbled pavements, the old man would call out: “Sins! Sins! Bring your sins! Sin collection! Bring your sins!”
And they did. One by one, people came out of their houses, bringing their sins with them. A man with a cane came out, rested his hands on the goat’s head, and whispered in her ear: “I get angry too often. I need to stop losing my rag. I keep boiling over when I don’t mean to.” The goat nodded sagely, and the man hobbled back into his home.
A young girl leaned out of her wooden shuttered windows, rested her hands on the goat’s head, and whispered in her ear: “I make a mess and blame my sister. I tell my mum it was her. I know I shouldn’t lie. I don’t want to lie anymore.” The goat nodded sagely, and the little girl popped back through the windows and into her home.
The old man and the goat walked all through the streets of the village, as people patiently clamoured out from shops and houses to whisper their sins. As each person leaned down to place their hands on the goat’s head and confess their sins, the old man would hold the goat’s rope leash and stare off, wistfully, until they were finished. Then he’d move on and return to his call: “Sins! Sins! Bring your sins! Come see the goat and tell her your sins!”
They winded up and out through the town, into the farmland and countryside. As the houses grew further apart, the villagers came out in drips and drabs. A farmer walked out through the barley fields and stepped over the style to his pastures. He put his hands on the goat’s head and whispered in her ears: “I gossip. I ask other people’s business and I repeat it. I tell everyone private stuff. I know I need to find better ways to talk to people. I need to find better ways to talk about people.” The goat’s eyes glistened and the man returned to farming.
Off they went, the old man and the goat, up a winding road, leading up a mountain, to the castle that overlooked the village. Nobody ever talked about the old man or the goat or what they told them. Nobody gave too much thought to the castle or where the sins went. They just knew that, once the day was over, they felt as if they had been forgiven. Somehow this ritual alleviated their guilt and helped them to change.
Every year, at the same time, on this day, the old man and the goat came round and the people gave their sins. That was how they maintained peace in the village. It was their collective form of self-help.
One year, that changed. One little boy became a little too curious. As the old man came round, shouting “sins! Sins!” he wondered where all those sins went. He wondered why a goat had need of such sins, or whether such a method was really effective at getting rid of guilt. He decided to subtly follow the old man and the goat.
He crept along behind them, keeping his distance, all the way through the village and the farmland and the countryside; all the way up the winding mountain path to the castle, until the old man and the goat arrived at the enormous front door and walked in.
The little boy stood at a distance and watched through a window. Inside a giant hall was a beautiful queen sat on a towering throne. The queen accepted the old man and the goat into her presence. “What sins do you have for me?” she asked.
The goat opened her mouth and replied: “The baker has been holding back bread to drive up the price.”
The queen nodded. “And will he do it again?”
“No,” said the goat. “The baker wants to change.”
“Then this is forgiven,” said the queen. And a white cloud came out of the goat’s mouth and disappeared off into the air.
“Tell me another,” said the queen.
“A teenager in the town keeps staying out late and lying to her parents,” the goat proclaimed.
“And does she want to change?”
“Yes. She wants to be honest.”
“Then this is forgiven,” said the queen. And a white cloud came out of the goat’s mouth and disappeared off into the air.
So that’s where the sins go! The little boy was shocked. All this time it was not the goat that had removed the sins but the queen.
“Tell me another,” said the queen.
“The milkman deals unfairly in business. He dilutes the milk with water and gives people the wrong change. He overcharges to get more for himself.”
“And does he want to change?”
“Not really,” the goat shook her head. “He is weighing out unjust measures as we speak. He will send the same sins next year.”
“Then this will not be forgiven,” she said. A black cloud came out of the goat’s mouth, and floated back down towards the town. The little boy watched as it descended down the mountainside and into one of the farmhouses.
He had seen enough. He fled from the castle and ran back towards the town. He pelted towards home, but just as he was approaching the edge of the village, he heard wailing and sobbing. It was coming from the cow shed, where the black cloud had gone.
“He’s dead! He’s dead!” cried a woman from the farmhouse. She sobbed as she lugged out her brother’s body.
Suddenly the boy understood. What the queen did not forgive she avenged with death and punishment. The boy wanted no part in it. He ran into the village and told everyone what he saw.
“The goat decides if we live or die! The goat is judging us and telling all our secrets to the queen in the castle!”
The villagers were furious. They crowded around the town hall in their outrage. When the old man and the goat next came around, they chased them out of town. The man and the goat ran away into the wilderness and were never seen again.
Then, having calmed down, the villagers realised what they had done. Their whole system for penitence and improvement was gone. They turned to each other once more and asked what they should do.
The mayor held her head in her hands and told them there was only one option. They must go to the castle and visit the queen. She would tell them what to do.
Every single villager in the town huddled together and marched solemnly to the top of the hill where the castle was. They gathered at the drawbridge and walked into the throne room, where the queen was sitting.
She looked up as the entire town flooded into her hall.
“This is most unusual,” she told them, wryly.
The mayor stepped forward: “We’re very sorry, Your Majesty, only we don’t know what to do. We chased away the old man and the goat and now we have no way to process what we’ve done wrong. We have lost our path to repentance.”
The queen sighed. “Once, you used to send me your sins through an old man and a goat. Now, you will need to tell them to me in person. Come into my palace, all of you, and confess together.”
At that moment, every villager began frantically shouting out their sins. Every voice drowned out every other as they clamoured to be heard. From her throne, all that the queen could hear was a roaring, indiscriminate din. She patiently gazed out over the assembled hoard.
It did not take the villagers long to realise that their method was proving ineffective. To make sure they were understood over the din, some villagers began to gather together to confess to having committed similar trespasses.
“Ashamnu. We have done wrong. Bagadnu. We have betrayed. Gazalnu. We have robbed.”
Soon some of them had developed a chant to confess everything together: “Dibarnu dofi. We have told lies. Heevinu. We have been perverse. V’hirshanu. We have done wrong.”
Soon, all the hundreds of attendees had joined in and were chanting in unison: “Chamasnu. We have been violent. Tafalnu sheker. We have told lies. Yaatznu ra. We have given evil advice.”
The queen assured them: “When you had your goat, I knew who to judge and how. But now that nobody can tell me who is sincere and who is not, I will judge you together with mercy. If you come together in sincerity, I will accept your petitions. But if you stay home or ignore this new ritual, I will judge you all unfavourably together.”
And every year, the villagers came back and recited the same chants as the queen watched from her throne, going through the entire alphabet of their transgressions. They built up more elaborate rituals, abstaining from food, beating their chests, dressing in white, reciting their prayers from sundown to sundown. Together, they announced their iniquity and took responsibility for each other.
We are their descendants. We, the Jewish people, are the inheritors of the traditions of those people who once whispered to goats. There was a time when our community lived in a small place, and had a Temple, and intermediary priests performed strange rituals with goats to expiate our sins. Perhaps, if we believe the myths we will hear in the Yom Kippur parashah, we once lived in a time when God individually judged our sins and immediately exacted punishment and reward.
We are no longer those people. No longer do we sacrifice animals in a Temple. No longer do we require men to intercede on our behalf. No longer do we believe in immediate divine retribution. But we are their heirs. We have maintained their values. We still feel that, together, we can process our guilt through words and songs. We continue to believe that we can improve as individuals and as a collective. We still come together in the autumn, when the leaves turn crispy and the days grow short, to pray that we may be forgiven.
In the absence of miracles or curses, we, like our ancestors in the village, are called upon to take responsibility for ourselves and each other. We atone with our words and hold each other in this space, as we hope that we can find a path to repentance. Together, let us pray.
If a woman steals a loaf of bread to feed her starving family, has she really done anything wrong?
This moral question is familiar. We have heard it before. We hear the question and all of us intuitively answer “no.” Nobody would hold her guilty.
And I don’t dispute that gut reaction. When it comes to matters of morality, the answer our conscience automatically gives is usually the right one. But what does this answer tell us? What does it mean about ethics?
The question is, in fact, first asked and answered in the Book of Proverbs: “Nobody hates a thief who steals to satisfy hunger.” (6:30) It is the Bible itself, where we also read “thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) that tells us that, of course, we would not hold it against a starving person to steal.
Perhaps, we might conclude, there are limits to the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we should see the sixth dictum not to steal as a guideline rather than a rule. We might even conclude that there is no absolute morality, because there will always be exceptions and extenuating circumstances to mitigate against our moral judgements.
For me, that answer doesn’t feel right. It is not that no sin has been committed, but that a far greater one is hiding in the fact that the very question has been asked. What we should really ask is: how is it possible that this woman’s family is starving? Who has permitted poverty to even exist? That is the moral question facing us.
In these days of awe and religious introspection, most of us focus on our own conduct throughout the year. We wonder how much we have exhibited kindness and generosity since we last stood in synagogue and pledged to do better. But the sound of the shofar calls us to a far greater reckoning than just the state of our own souls. The High Holy Days call on us not only to take responsibility for our own actions, but for the state of our society.
The prophet Isaiah, whose haftarah we read on Yom Kippur, called us to exactly this accountability. He pours scorn on the Israelites’ prayers: “Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness.” (58:4) He tells them in no uncertain terms what is required of them: “Loose the fetters of wickedness. Break the yoke. Give bread to the hungry and homes to the poor.” (58:6-7)
The early Jewish reformers treated this text as the springboard for their theology. Scripture, they argued, was not primarily interested in the minutiae of ritual observances like kashrut and keeping shabbat. God’s direction to the Jews was to perfect the world through the pursuit of social justice.
That demand remains just as relevant today. Our prayers may be beautiful. Our services may be meaningful. We might read the Torah with feeling and precision. But all of that is utterly worthless if it doesn’t direct us towards an ethical life.
But Isaiah is also doing something far more radical. He is transforming morality from an individualistic concern with one person’s behaviour into a collective expectation of equity. Isaiah’s insistence on food for the hungry and houses for the homeless only makes sense if it is directed at society as a whole. Nobody in the peasant smallholder society of ancient Israel would have the power to do that on their own. Isaiah’s is a fundamentally political prophecy.
The moral task of the Jew, then, is not the relatively easy requirement that the comfortable should not steal, but an urgent calling to dismantle poverty entirely.
Never before in my lifetime has that felt so important in Britain. Today, there are well over 2,000 food banks in our country. Academics warn that they are becoming so institutionalised that we may well soon accept these symbols of poverty as normal. They were created to fill the gap left by savage cuts to the welfare to which people were once entitled. Some experts warn that they may soon replace benefits altogether.
When critics call our state today Dickensian, they are not exaggerating. The diseases of poverty-stricken Victorian England are back on the rise. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever and malnutrition are making a very unwelcome comeback. None of us can deny having noticed more rough sleeping, cramped housing or slum-like living conditions.
We cannot blame this increase in poverty on personal failings when there are such clear structural causes. Joblessness and housing shortages; austerity and recession; political policies. These are the causes of inequality in Britain, the world’s fifth richest nation. Individual action alone will never come close to remedying these ills.
Poverty in Britain today is both a political choice and a moral disgrace. As we pray in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we must pay attention not only to our own conduct but to our whole country’s. We must be prepared to live up to the true ethical calling advanced by our tradition. The responsibility rests on us to make sure that poverty is completely eliminated forever.
Nobody should ever have to steal to feed a starving family. Nobody should ever have a starving family.
Although your body was born into this world at a different place and time, today is the day that you were created. This is the day that the part of you that makes you more than a body was born.
On this day, your soul was created. Our Creator had already formed light and darkness, separated water from land, built mountains and rivers, and introduced every living thing from the fruit fly to the tiger onto our planet. Then, on the sixth day, God created you. Today is the anniversary of the day when God crowned the completion of the world by making humanity.
You are already familiar with the story of the first human beings. They were created out of red mud and holy fire. Perhaps you do not yet know that, on this day, God also created every soul that would ever live.
Back then, at the very beginning of our history, God took all the souls of everyone who would ever live around the Garden of Eden. Your soul saw how perfect the world could be, and your Creator instructed you.
“This is the moral truth that I have established for all time,” God said to these souls. “You shall not kill. You shall not hurt animals. You shall pursue justice. You shall create a haven of love and honour.” And you, the part of you that absorbs truths that can’t be understood only with limbs and eyes and senses, took in those teachings.
When you were born, you may have forgotten what the Garden looked like. You may not remember the sound of the voice of your Creator. But ever since birth, your soul has clung to your body, reminding you of right and wrong.
That is, of course, just a story. Few Liberal Jews would say that it was an authoritative account of history. But this aggadic midrash, which appears in many rabbinic traditions, points to something that, to me, feels intuitively true. Our moral claims are real. When we say that murder is wrong or that love is right, we are not simply offering opinions about our personal preferences. We are describing transcendental facts about the universe.
There was a time when few people questioned that morality was real. While Greek philosophers and biblical prophets may have understood the origins of morality differently, or disagreed about their ethical applications, everyone agreed on a fundamental truth. Morality was meaningful.
Centuries of thought have sought to undermine that claim. Sociologists have argued that, instead, morality is simply a set of rules that human beings have developed to function in civilisations. Psychologists have shown that our brains are just machines responding to positive and negative stimuli. Many of the advancements in the name of science have reduced us to amoral automatons.
In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is an affirmation of a fundamental religious truth. This world was given to us as an act of love by the Source of all righteousness. We were born imprinted with an innate sense of how we can bring this world closer to Heaven, or to turn it into a living Hell. This ancient ritual embodies our tradition that humanity was created in the image of God, endowed by our Creator with a profound sense of right and wrong. That belief may not be provable, or even rational. It speaks to something that goes beyond reason.
When we blow the shofar, it is not supposed to sound pretty or musical. It is supposed to sound like an anguished cry. It is the wailing of all creation, calling on the soul to attention. It is a reminder of the truths we learnt in the Garden of Eden, long before our bodies were born.
I believe, I have to believe, that all people do have consciences. Against all evidence to the contrary, I want to believe that people do know good from evil, and do strive to choose good. I know that we don’t always. Most of the time, when we err, it’s because we have been too hurried or caught up in our own struggles to see that a more righteous path is possible. Sometimes we can all make mistakes from callousness or indifference.
But there is a type of evil that people can only do if they wilfully ignore their own consciences. There are evil acts that are cruel and calculated. Such acts can only be performed out of sheer moral nihilism.
It is with that in mind that I read news coming in from the USA. Across the Mexican border, the American president has built holding centres, where migrants seeking a better life are incarcerated. So terrifying are these spaces that some have dubbed them ‘concentration camps’.
We have seen videos emerge of dehydrated women crying out from glass boxes, yelling to journalists: “ayudame! Ayudame!” Help me. Help me. We know that the children in these camps have been denied beds. They are kept awake all hours, never granted the respite of darkness to sleep. Trump’s attorney general has denied that these children need toothbrushes or soap. They do not have adequate food. They have no access to lawyers.
One month ago, Trump’s administration announced that all these practices were legal. They did not even try to claim that these camps were moral. They simply stated that the people living in these camps deserved their suffering, because they were illegal. They crossed the border. They broke the law. These are the consequences for people who are no longer perceived to be human.
How can we talk about these actions as anything other than immoral? If we reject the spiritual truth of moral realism, we leave these camps as a matter of opinion. Whether people should be held in these conditions becomes simply a matter of personal preference. Worse still, we can reduce it to clinical policy choices, with cost-benefit analyses of how worthwhile it is to give prisoners toothpaste.
It is not out of malice that I say I believe those running these camps know they are wrong. Quite to the contrary: it is an affirmation of their humanity. Any one of us can commit acts of evil. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there is another way.
A Jewish group called Never Again Action have taken up that role. They are carrying out direct action to disrupt the functioning of the camps.On Tish b’Av, thousands of them marched for change. As Jews, they perform our people’s sacred task of being the moral voice to all humanity.
These Jewish activists rightly invoke the memory of Auschwitz with their slogan: “never again”. Our communal history teaches the dangers of holding people deemed “illegal” by dint of their existence in camps.
But these activists may also invoke the memory of Eden. As Jews, they may remember a time, on this day, when God brought their souls into the Garden, and taught them the difference between right and wrong. They can call on our centuries of tradition to remind world leaders of their moral obligations.
Many of their supporters have intoned that history will not judge Mr Trump kindly. But who is history, and why should we care what it thinks? Should the leaders of America only care that one day someone will write in a textbook that what they did was wrong?
I believe these appeals to “history” are really secularised versions of a truth that was once well-known: a moral force outside of time is judging us. God is judging us. God takes note of our deeds.
Even the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest military will have to answer. No matter how powerful anyone is, the moral arc of the universe stands higher. The immutable force that teaches us the difference between right and wrong still takes note. And that force, our God, loves us enough to allow us to change.
Despite everything, I believe we all still want to do good. Even for those whose actions are hurting people today, there is still the chance to turn back. Everyone has it in them to turn away from evil and return to the natural state their souls knew when they were first placed in the Garden at the beginning of time.
This new year, may we commit ourselves to remembering what we learnt in Eden. May the sound of the shofar awaken all of our souls.
Shanah tovah. Happy new year.
I delivered this sermon at Lincoln Synagogue for Rosh Hashannah on Monday 30th September 2019.
The issue I want to talk about today may be controversial, but I know that you are not afraid to be challenged. It is, in any case, a question that is very dear to my heart. This question has been posed by many over the years, and I feel it is important that I give a serious and considered answer.
Can a dog have a bar mitzvah?
Last year, the ultra-Orthodox Israeli member of the Knesset, Mordechai Eliav, rebuked progressive Jews by saying “go bar mitzvah your dogs!” I will be honest with you. I didn’t have much of a desire to carry out such a ceremony, but after that outburst, I really did. There was just something about the way he said it that made my contrary spirit think: I can’t wait to get the chance.
To the best of my knowledge, no such ceremony has ever been performed in a synagogue of any variety. There are, however, documented cases of such celebrations taking place in Jewish homes. These simchas have been lovingly dubbed “bark mitzvahs”. As I understand it, these usually take place when the dog turns 13 in dog years, which is at around their 3rd birthday in human years.
But what does it mean to conduct such a ceremony, and why did the idea make Mordechai Eliav so angry? Surely he must know that, throughout history, dogs have been quite friendly to the Jewish people. According to the Exodus narrative, no dog barked as we were leaving Egypt, so we were able to sneak away in silence.
Perhaps, within Orthodoxy, the idea is risible. Orthodox Judaism is primarily concerned with ritual observance and adherence to halachah. In Orthodoxy, the term “bar mitzvah” is interpreted to mean “liable for the commandments”. To them, becoming bar mitzvah is taking on responsibility for the 613 statutes codified by Maimonides. So we need to know whether a puppy that came of age could engage in such pursuits.
Could a dog switch to a kosher diet? Certainly. There are plenty of kosher meats. In fact, every year, London’s Orthodox Beit Din publishes a list of approved pet foods. There are even brands dedicated to providing such snacks. Unsurprisingly, their price increases significantly around Pesach. According to this list, one can not only have a kashrut-observant chihuahua, but also a halachic hamster, guinea pig, rabbit, rat, goldfish, cat or budgerigar. Dr Dolittle would have no problem maintaining a kosher kitchen after all.
But could our canine friends observe any of the other traditional mitzvot? A Jack Russell terrier could not light shabbat candles. With the best will in the world, that is a task that requires opposable thumbs. Now, some dogs might be able to handle tefillin. The head tefillin could certainly fit on a Doberman, but can you imagine trying to place an arm tefillin on a Dachshund?
A dog might even be able to join in with traditional davening. I once led a Friday night service in East London that was attended by a Giant Schnauzer. When everyone rose for the Amidah, he rose too. When we sat for the psalms, he sat too. When we got up and bowed in Lecha Dodi to welcome the sabbath, yes, the dog bowed. He even covered his eyes when it came to the Shem’a. By the time we were reciting Aleinu, I realised that the dog was mumbling along to the prayers, following along in the Koren Sacks. I said to his owner: “this is incredible. Your dog could be a rabbi!” She said: “Tell that to him. He wants to be a taxi driver!”
If following commands is what it takes to lead a normatively Jewish life, surely that’s what dogs are best at. I am concerned, however, that even if a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel could be trained to follow most of the rules by command, she still would not be able to fulfil the mitzvah of transmitting these teachings to her puppies.
Enough speculation. I clearly do not have the necessary skills to assess a Dalmatian’s suitability for being called up to the Torah. I need to turn to our textual tradition. Thankfully, a book has already been written on this subject. In 2007, the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary published their definitive guide, ‘How to Raise a Jewish Dog’.
I had hoped that this would answer the important theological questions I am posing. As it quickly became apparent, however, this text was only applicable to the specific minhag of coastal North American Ashkenazi secular Jews. It advises dog owners, instead of saying no to your dog, ask him: “how can you do this to me? What did I do to deserve this? Is this my fault? Go on, you can tell me.” When your dog errs, the book suggests, remind him of everything you’ve done for him – and this is the thanks you get! And, of course, as a proud parent of a Jewish dog, you must make sure your pet knows not to mumble when he barks, cover his mouth when he sneezes and not to whine. Either ask for something or be quiet.
The truth is, however, that neither the secular approach nor the Orthodox one will help us ascertain whether any progressive British synagogue will have a Maltese poodle giving sermons from the bimah any time soon. For that, we have to understand what a bar mitzvah means in our own specific context.
When I first sit down to teach bat mitzvah students, I always begin by asking them: what do you think you need to do to become bat mitzvah? Usually, they will answer that they need to learn Hebrew, read from the Torah, give a drash, and learn the prayers. No, I say. She does not need to do any of these things. All she needs to do to become bat mitzvah in a progressive synagogue is turn 13. So, why then, do we spend with them a year learning Hebrew, Bible, theology, ethics, interpretation and how to politely gossip about the rest of the congregation?
Because, a progressive Jewish bat mitzvah is, first and foremost about choice. It is a young adult’s choice to make informed choices about what being Jewish means to them. They learn all this because they are becoming adults, and adults need to make decisions. They will need to decide how they read the Torah, how often they go to synagogue, what being part of a community means to them, and what role they want to play.
Above all else, our tradition teaches them how to make moral choices about participating in the modern world. Yes, Judaism speaks to the concerns of our society today. This week’s parashah contains a slogan that so perfectly summarises our values it may well be the international strapline for Progressive Judaism: tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice, you shall pursue. Not the justice that can be blindly followed by adherence to commandments. Not the justice that you can achieve solely through creating culture. No. The Torah teaches that we must pursue the type of justice that needs to be reasoned, debated and pursued based on conscientious conviction.
I teach a regular cheder class. Recently, I overheard the students, unprompted, discussing whether they would participate in the Youth Climate Strike. Across the country, school students have been leaving school to protest against the destruction of our planet by corporate greed and government inaction. Their debates were informed and wise. They each discussed the respective attitudes of their schools, parents and peers. They talked about the repercussions if they participated and the possible consequences if they did not. They shared their best understanding of the scientific, moral and political concerns involved.
And I marvelled. No dog could ever have such a conversation. Most 12 year olds would not engage like this. Whatever conclusions these students came to, only a religion school that centred informed choice and civic conscience could generate such discussions. This is our Judaism. And that is why, no matter what criticisms Mordechai Eliav wants to throw at us, I am proud to be a progressive Jew.
I gave this sermon at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Shoftim on 7th September 2019. An earlier version of this sermon misattributed the offending remarks to Stav Shafir, who in fact had been defending Reform Jews, for which I apologise.
Tikkunistas. That’s the word that some Orthodox Jews have derisively given us. The first part “tikkun” is a reference to “tikkun olam”, the centrepiece of Progressive Jewish theology since the 1970s. In English, it means “repair of the world”, pointing to a belief that our world is broken and that we, as Jews, are tasked with fixing it.
The suffix “istas” is, I assume, a nod to Latin American protest movements, like the Sandinistas, Nicaragua’s anti-colonial rebels, made famous in Britain by punk band The Clash.
It is meant to be an insult. Personally, I think it’s a great compliment and an elegant summary of what I believe. You see, I was raised with two religions: Judaism… and Marxism. Both my parents were socialist trade unionists. Most of my earliest memories are of protests, pickets and petitions.
Now, a proper communist family would be avowedly atheist, but somehow, even as a five-year-old, I was adamant I wanted a religion. Grudgingly, my parents took me along to Reading Liberal Jewish Synagogue, praying to Lenin that I’d soon grow out of it.
Unfortunately for them, I fell in love with Liberal Judaism. I loved the songs. I loved the prayers. I loved the discussions. And the food. Oh, the food.
So I became bar mitzvah and kabbalat Torah. I got stuck in. In all honesty, socialism and Progressive Judaism seemed very similar to me as a child. Both were about social justice. Both were based in grassroots communities. Both were building towards something wonderful.
This continues to be my Judaism: the Judaism of social justice. A Judaism of food, community and song. A few years ago, I came to the realisation that if I didn’t invest in preserving this Judaism, it ran the risk of disappearing. So I applied to Leo Baeck College and, to my surprise, they accepted me onto the rabbinic training programme.
For the last two years, I looked after Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. It was a privilege to be with people as they explored their Judaism. Having spent my twenties working mostly in the charity sector as a campaigner, doing rabbinic work has felt like nothing short of finding a calling.
When I came to the inaugural service of Three Counties Liberal Judaism in July, I felt instantly at home. The community is clearly so warm, so engaged and so full of optimism for its own future. I share wholeheartedly in that optimism.
With the year ahead, we will no doubt face challenges as these communities merge into one, but these are also great opportunities. A community that never changes can grow stale. This shake-up gives us the chance to look together at how we pray together, support each other and build community. It may even enable to heal a little corner of our world.
“Please, God, I beg you, let me cross the Jordan.”
Forty years of struggle. Forty years of exile. Forty years of wandering. And here Moses stands, on the brink of realising the end of all his labours, only to be denied access.
“God,” says Moses, “you are so strong, so great and so incomparable. Please give me a taste of the Promised Land. Please let me see Lebanon.”
“No,” answers God. “This is enough for you. Don’t speak to me any more on this matter. It’s over.”
How can we feel anything but pity for this great leader, reduced to grovelling as he is faced with death and disappointment?
All that is left in the Torah narrative now, taking us through these last parshiyot of Deuteronomy, is Moses’s final speech and death. Here, in the height of summer, just after Tish b’Av, in the slow climb to Rosh Hashanah, all that is left is to wrap up the story. We join Moses at this juncture, looking back over the wandering in the desert, to the miraculous revelation at Sinai, over slavery in Egypt, back through our ancestors Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, back all the way to God’s creation of the universe. And what do we feel? For all our hope and joy, this part of the story invites mostly longing and despair as we ourselves wonder if the story had to end this way.
The rabbis who devised our lectionary cycle asked the same question. At one time, scholars argue, the Torah was not a Pentateuch – a collection of five books – but a Hexateach – a collection of six. Whereas the Torah we know begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy, a previous version of the Scroll continued into the sixth book of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Joshua.
In Joshua, the Hebrews move into the Land of Israel, conquer it, colonise it and either drive out or subjugate the tribes living there. Some of the stories from this are famous: Joshua’s success in the battle of Jericho, where he tore down the city walls with the sound of the shofar is among the most popular stories we teach in cheder.
For Progressive Jews, it is probably a mercy that we don’t have to regularly read such violent texts today. But from a literary point of view, concluding with Joshua makes far more sense. Concluding here, as we do, with Moses’s demise in Deuteronomy leaves us on a cliff-hanger. Quite literally, as Moses stands on a mountain overlooking the Jordan. We do not know what becomes of the Israelites.
If we ended with Joshua, everything would be wrapped up. The leader dies but the nation is born. The journey is long but the land was reached. If we wanted to make a comfortable, Disney version of the Torah, Joshua would be its climax.
So, why do we today end with Deuteronomy? Do we have to end it this way? Some scholars guess that the answer is yes. In exile, they argue, the trauma of losing the land of Israel was too great. Our rabbis could not stand the great hardship of being removed from their holy land, so they cut off the story early and relegated Joshua to the prophetic texts.
This explanation is highly unsatisfying, and unlikely to be true. The lectionary we have was not devised in the immediate aftermath of exile, when the trauma of dispersion was raw, but in Babylon some time between the 2nd and 6th centuries. During this period, Jews were not outside of the Land of Israel because they were trapped, but because they didn’t particularly want to return. Our rabbis went back and forth between Palestine and Babylon, sharing the teachings of the two communities with each other. Some migrated, but migration out of Eretz Israel to the more prosperous Babylon was more common than the other way around.
The rabbis of the Talmud developed theological positions about their relationship with this country. Some said they were forbidden to move to the Land of Israel. Some said it was only forbidden if they attempted to move en masse. Others said they were entitled. Others still felt it was mandatory.
The reason for such vast divergence in opinion was not simply a tension between their religious text centred on Israel and their economic life in Babylon. It was that Israel, to them, was not simply a location between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, but a symbol of Messianic hope.
Prophets like Haggai and Malachi had assured their ancestors that return to Jerusalem would herald the end of days and the coming of the Messianic age. As a result, the land was more a metaphor for emancipation than a location where they could live.
Israel, Jerusalem, Zion – these words signified something far greater than physical space. They pointed to a time of complete liberation. Arriving there was not reaching a destination but reaching the climax of history – when justice would reign supreme. I believe, then, that the Torah had to end with Deuteronomy not because the Jews were distanced from the land of Israel, but because they were so removed from the vision of social justice that this word symbolised.
In Progressive Judaism especially, that is what this national language signifies. On a theological level, it does not speak to us about aspirations for migration or statehood, but about our sacred task on earth to perfect the world. The Reformers who founded our movement taught that the task of every Jew was to heal what was broken in humanity and advance all of us towards a messianic age of truth and righteousness..
The language of our liturgy reflects this interpretation. In the weekday amidah, we recite that God will build Jerusalem and bring forth a sprouting of justice. Our prayers are structured to give Jerusalem a deep meaning no matter where we live, as a locus for reflection on our hope of living in a world of justice. Jerusalem can stand as a meaningful word to everyone regardless of their political opinions about Zionism and the State of Israel because it does not refer to an earthly city but to a Heavenly kingdom
It was, undoubtedly, this interpretation of the Promised Land that Martin Luther King had in mind when he gave his last speech. Preaching in Memphis, at the height of the black civil rights struggle, that great Christian minister concluded his sermon to his congregation:
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, he was assassinated. King’s Zion – an America where Black people would live with equality, dignity and safety, was not realised in his lifetime. Nor has it yet been realised in ours. But we can have no doubt that he took the world closer on its journey to that destination.
The story of Moses ended with Deuteronomy. Martin Luther King’s ended in 1968. And what about us? Must our story end this way too? Must we finish our lives glimpsing at the world of social justice to come from the other side of the river, or may we yet cross the Jordan into a world where the whole of humanity is emancipated?
We cannot know what the products of our efforts will be. All we can do is try. Together, without Moses, we the Jewish people must continue to march. And although we can see our endpoint only faintly, we must walk towards it with the certainty that it exists. We must try to perfect the world, hopeful that for somebody, someday, it will not have to end this way.
I gave this sermon on Saturday 17th August 2019 at Kehillat Kernow, in Cornwall.
When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.
The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.
I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”
“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”
She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.
She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.
A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.
Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.
It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.
This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.
Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.
What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.
Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.
History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.
How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?
The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.
The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.
Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”
The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.
But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.
Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.
I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019