How lovely are your tents, O Jacob

Balaam was nervous. He rode his donkey to the steppes of Moab. The donkey trotted slowly in the desert heat, weighed down by Balaam’s travelling bags. Balaam looked this way and that, up and down at the craggy mountains, and back to the land he’d left behind. He fiddled with the donkey’s harness, twitching at the leather straps.

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me,” King Balak had told him. “Come now, put a curse on them for me, for there are too many of them for me. Maybe, with your help, I can defeat them and drive them out of the land. I know that whoever you bless is blessed indeed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”[1]

It was true. Since childhood, Balaam had known he had a gift. Whatever he said came true. The right words just came out of his mouth and took meaning. As an adult, Balaam had become something of a blessing mercenary – offering prayers for kings across the world in exchange for payment.[2] Normally, he turned up, said the words, and left with enough money to feed his family for a few more weeks.

But this time was different. Before being asked to curse the Jews, Balaam had never heard of them.[3] Then, the second he’d been asked to curse them, their God appeared before him. God told him: “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.”[4] Initially, he’d refused, but King Balak had been insistent. Mercenaries cannot say no to kings. So he agreed.

Balaam sidled up to the edge of the valley where the Jews were camped. He looked out over all their tents, pitched in the desert. He saw the speckled silhouettes of people wandering about between the marquees. He opened his mouth to curse them. But the words to curse weren’t coming. Every time he tried to curse them, his tongue dried up and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He felt a heavy marble in his gullet, choking up all his words. Then, from somewhere outside of him and deep within, a voice came out of his own mouth:

“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”[5]

To this day, those are the first words Jews say on entering a synagogue. We Progressives sing them together when we begin our services. Orthodox Ashkenazim recite them as they approach a community’s door, or even idly walking past a shul.[6] Why is it that the words we say when we come to a synagogue are the words of a non-Jew, who knew nothing of the Jews, but was somehow overwhelmed by the Divine Spirit? What has made us decide to use this blessing in such a way?

I suspect part of the answer is that, when we go into a synagogue, all of us feel like non-Jews. Whether we attend shul weekly, or only turn up for Yom Kippur, something about the space can make anyone feel not quite Jewish enough. We can all feel like we are saying somebody else’s words, tentatively mouthing out sounds that don’t quite feel right.

I rarely meet Jews who feel completely comfortable in their own Jewishness. Everybody feels excluded in some way: not quite learned enough, not quite spiritual enough. A stranger recently told me he was just not quite brave enough. Being a people who don’t belong is hard enough without worrying who belongs to that people. Many people have come up with their own definitions for what makes a Jew Jewish, but my favourite is: a Jew is somebody who worries they are not quite Jewish enough.

This prayer goes some way to honouring that feeling. All of us, no matter how observant or learned, recite the words of a non-Jew who has been bowled over by the Jewish God. The prayer reassures us: you may feel like you don’t belong, but you are home.

I used to wonder if I would ever reach a point where I felt like I knew enough. As a teenager, I stumbled over Hebrew words as the people around me seemed to recite them so confidently. I thought that perhaps when my Hebrew was good enough I would feel secure in my Jewishness. Then, having learnt Hebrew, I realised how little of the Torah I knew. I thought that if I could only master the Scriptures, I wouldn’t worry if I belonged.

Last week, I finished my examinations for my first year at rabbinical school. Our teachers assessed us on sections of Talmud, Hebrew grammar, Aramaic language, leyning the Torah, philosophy and biblical criticism. As I came to the end of them, I realised how much I still did not know. The rabbinical course gives us the tools we need to be able to explore every part of Judaism, but it cannot fill us up with everything. Our religion’s traditions are too diverse; our interpretations too vast.

I have come to embrace that feeling. Judaism is a bit like star-gazing. You lie on your back and set your eyes above you. You realise there is no way you could ever count all the stars you see. After a few moments, your eyes adjust, and you realise that there is another layer of stars behind the ones you couldn’t count. Suddenly, you’re humbled as you realise you’re facing upwards to infinity, beyond an entire galaxy with no end in sight.

This is our Judaism: layers of complexity reaching out to infinity. All we can do is stare at it in awe, flummoxed by our God, and say: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.”[7]

stars moab

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College‘s weekly parasha blog.

[1] Numbers 22:5

[2] Midrash Tanhuma Balak 4

[3] Rashi on Numbers 24:14

[4] Numbers 22:12

[5] Numbers 24:5

[6] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mah-tovu

[7] Numbers 24:5

We are asked to believe in something impossible

We are asked to believe in something impossible.

We are asked to suspend everything we know and accept that a God of fire and cloud descended on the place where the Israelites were camped.

In the day, God came down to earth like a pillar of cloud, encompassing the tents where people lived. At night, God rose up like a pillar of fire, showing people the way.[1]

The movements of these clouds or the fiery appearance would signal that the people were to either break up and move, or make camp, as the case might be.[2]

Ever since the Torah was first canonised, people have exercised a healthy scepticism about what these words might mean. We have rational doubts about whether pillars of fire and cloud could come out of nowhere.

Even in the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, one of the earliest translations of the Torah, this text is altered to say that what they say was “like a vision of fire.” Here, as elsewhere, the Targum tries to keep people from taking the words of the Torah overly literally. It is not, the Targum suggests, that a real pillar of fire descended from the sky, but that people had visions of something that looked like fire. This is more digestible.

Commenting on this problem, the medieval Spanish philosopher Maimonides tells us that such ideas “come from dreams and visions.” He argues that “the imaginative faculty achieves so great a perfection of action that it sees the thing as if it were outside.”[3] The Israelites only saw the fire and cloud in their minds, but their vision was so powerful that it was as if they could see it out in the real world.

Where Maimonides can’t explain such phenomena, he tells us that they are metaphors. When the Torah says that God wrote the Torah by hand, it doesn’t really mean that God has hands. When the Torah says that God walked about in the Garden of Eden, it doesn’t really mean that God has feet. It’s using language we understand to explain something we cannot.

The idea that this is all a metaphor is powerful. After all, if we want to understand God or Divine Revelation, we must accept that we’re thinking about something way beyond our comprehension. None of us are really enlightened enough to see God or to understand what God wants of us. These descriptions are just tentative imaginations to tell us about something too profound and complicated to be described.

In modern times, historical criticism has gone even further to rationalise what is written in this parashah. The pillars of cloud and fire weren’t visions. They weren’t even metaphors. For some historians, these were probably just burning wood pyres and incense sticks, guiding people through the desert.[4]

I can completely see why people would interpret the Torah this way. It fits better with our experience of the world and keeps us from straying into fundamentalism. We need to keep critical distance so we can remember that this was a book written by men, who were fallible. That is especially important in a community like ours, where we know that the sense of justice we get from our own consciences is far more important than the rules written in an ancient book.

But, in a way, I also find the efforts to rationalise stories like these quite disappointing. By dispelling myths as just visions or metaphors or the hocus-pocus of priestly magicians, we do these texts a disservice. The Torah is not a book of scientific or historical truth. It is a book of spiritual truth. It is trying to tell us something much deeper about the world than science or history ever can. We can’t judge the claims of the Torah, then, on the same terms as we would a physicist’s estimate of how old the universe is. It is talking about truth of a wholly different kind.

For a while, in my teens, I was something of an atheist. I was suspicious of all religious stories, felt the Tanakh to be riddled with contradictions, and faith in God to be a bit ridiculous. At that age, I didn’t realise that the stories weren’t meant to be taken literally, that the contradictions were questions waiting to be explored, or the powerful role that God would come to play in my own life.

Reflecting on the views I once had, I know why I dismissed stories like these so readily. A God of cloud and fire who descends over wandering people in the desert is, of course, impossible. It’s just that now, I have much more room in my heart for impossible things.

Everything about the story is impossible. A God of cloud and fire who wrenches slaves out of Egypt, rains down plagues and parts the seas. Unfathomable.

A nomadic people stranded in the desert approach a mountain and hear out of it thunder and lightning, declare that it is their God, the Eternal One, and that they should have no other gods. Completely unrealistic.

A slave people, who had never known anything but the bitterness of toil and struggle, are told that they will all be priestly people, all have regular complete days of rest, all strive to live in equality and justice with one another. Unbelievable.

An immigrant people with no home, dispersed and lost, hear it promised that every foreigner will be treated with the same decency and equality as everyone else. They hear that nobody would ever hurt people for being different again. Inconceivable.

A people who had known nothing but hatred and turned their anger on each other heard that One True Creator of the Universe loved them wholeheartedly and would cherish them as a treasured people. They heard that it was their task on earth to live up to the highest standards of morality and lead the world as a living example of what an ethical life could be. Absolutely, completely impossible.

And yet. And yet somehow, for thousands of years, we have held on to this idea that we can be beacons of justice, exemplars of love and heralds of a better world. Somehow, despite everything our people has suffered, we still have a sense that a world where people treat each other with dignity is within our reach.

We are asked to believe in something impossible, but all that cloud and fire does not matter half as much as the mission that comes out of it. The mission of the Jews, our sacred task on earth to sculpt it in God’s image, may be impossible, but impossible things are worth believing in. As a people, we are called upon to make the impossible possible. And we will succeed.

Shabbat shalom.

 

fire cloud

I gave this sermon on Saturday 2nd June 2018 at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community for Parashat Bhaalotcha. Partly, I was trying to work out in my own head the answer to the question of whether a Jew in the 21st Century must believe in G?d; and, if so, what that meant. In the lunchtime discussion, I found many congregants had similar concerns. Many of us felt that we believed in G?d, but struggled to find the language to describe what that meant. I went away feeling that, in a sense, the questions were more important than the answers.

[1] Num 9:15

[2] Tur haAroch 9:15:1

[3] Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:36

[4] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pillar-of-cloud-and-pillar-of-fire

Shavuot 5778

Chag Shavuot sameach.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here.

I have come here, first of all, to represent Leo Baeck College, where I am going into my second year of studying to be a rabbi. But there is a special reason why I’ve been invited to this specific synagogue on this specific day. Today, for the first time ever, my friend Rokhl leyned from the Torah. Her teacher, my teacher, and a figure well-known in this community, Chani Smith, suggested it might be appropriate if I come and join in today’s celebrations by preaching. It is an honour to be able to do so.

With that in mind, I hope everyone will excuse me if I indulge in kvelling a little bit before I start. Rokhl, watching you leyn Torah was an incredible experience. Growing up as a girl in the Orthodox world, I know that you were denied the chance to engage with Torah in the way you wanted. You told me of how intense it was, earlier this year, when you held a Torah for the first time. You have done so much to bring Jewish life to people who might otherwise feel excluded from it – as a singer here, through your Yiddish song classes and in the way you have reached out to people to create Judaism with you, especially women.

It is fitting, then, that your occasion to read Torah should fall on Shavuot. Shavuot is a multi-faceted festival: it is a time when we stay up all night, studying and praying. It is a time when everybody tries their hand at baking cheesecakes. It is a celebration of our receiving the Torah at Sinai. But, most of all, it is a time when we read that most beautiful megillah, the story of Ruth.

Ruth stands out in the biblical canon for its poetry, its gorgeous narrative structure, and its deep theological exploration of difference. It stands out, too, because it is one of very few stories that speaks of women as religious leaders. In today’s megillah, Naomi’s two sons die, leaving behind her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. Naomi begs her daughters-in-law to leave her. Orpah weeps as she leaves Naomi behind, but Ruth insists on staying.

Ruth utters these powerful lines: “Please do not ask me to leave you. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.”[1] Thus begins a unique story, where women are the only active agents, and where their relationship to each other and to Judaism is the centrepiece.

True, men appear occasionally. Boaz appears as an Israelite man, and Naomi encourages Ruth into a relationship with him. But, according to the rabbis’ commentaries, Boaz died on his wedding day. He existed in this story to fulfil a function, of providing Ruth with a child. He appears only briefly, after which Naomi and Ruth go on to raise their child together.[2] David, king of Israel, is listed as a descendant of Naomi, not of Boaz.[3]

The rabbis took this story a step further. From these lines, they interpret that Naomi was instructing Ruth in halachah. She was informing her of the mitzvot, telling her of all the difficulties that could be involved in becoming Jewish. Naomi tells Ruth that Jews spend their time in study houses, not circuses, and Ruth answers “Wherever you go, I will go.” Naomi tells Ruth that Jews affix mezuzot to their homes and Ruth answers: “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.” Naomi tells Ruth that Jews rise and fall together, so Ruth answers: “Your people will be my people.” Naomi tells Ruth that God is One. Ruth answers: “Your God will be my God.”[4]

Ruth hears all this, and she insists on staying. In the rabbis’ interpretations, then, we have a woman knowledgeable in Torah and teaching it to another. We have a woman who insists, despite all the obstacles presented to her, that she wants to have a relationship with Torah.

That, indeed, is the message of Shavuot. The story of Sinai teaches us that divine revelation was a collective experience of the whole Jewish people. It was not only men or the educated who received Torah, but everyone. The story of Ruth teaches us that divine revelation is a deeply personal and ongoing experience. The study of Torah is the birthright of all Jews, and this story is well-exemplified by the case of Ruth, a foreign woman who joins the Jewish people.

Last week, the UK gained its first Orthodox woman rabbi. Dina Brawer flew out to New York to receive semicha, and pledged her hope to be a role model for women. She joins a long line of women religious leaders, including Ruth and Naomi, but we in the progressive Jewish communities should be exceptionally proud of our role in paving the way for this success. It was the forerunner to Leo Baeck College, the Hochschule in Germany, that ordained Europe’s first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, in 1935. Jackie Tabick, the head of the Reform Beit Din, became the country’s first woman rabbi, in 1975. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is one of the only women to head up a major religious movement, not just in the UK, but worldwide. We have pioneered gender equality, and will continue to do so.

There is a reason I say all this. I have come here to represent Leo Baeck College.  Leo Baeck College is the heartland of the best of Judaism in Europe. It trains rabbis from the UK, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Poland and Italy. It is, of course, the institution that ordained every rabbi in this synagogue. Without the College, our Judaism could cease to exist. Our Judaism – that insists on the importance of women in leadership. Our Judaism – that maintains our ancient heritage of leyning in a style totally unique to these islands. Our Judaism – that creates space for all those who want to study Torah. We need the College in order to give this, living Judaism, a future.

I therefore urge everyone here to support the College in whatever way they can.

And I wish you all – a chag sameach.

ruth and naomi

I gave this sermon at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue on Shavuot morning to promote Leo Baeck College.

[1] Ruth 1:16-18

[2] Midrash Zutta

[3] Ruth 4:17

[4] Ruth Rabba 2

Psalm 84

For the leader, on the gittith, a psalm for the children of Korach

How wonderful are your dwelling-places, G?d of Heavens!

My soul yearns and even suffers for the courtyards of G?d. My heart and my flesh shout for joy to the god of life.

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she can lie down her brood at your altars, G?d of Heavens, my Sovereign, my god.

Happy are those who dwell in Your house, so are those who praise You. Selah.

Happy is the one whose strength is in You, whose heart is on the highways

They pass over the Valley of Baca, seeing springs as the early rain fills the rock-pools.

They go from strength to strength; the god of gods appear to them in Zion

G?d, the god of Heavens, hear my prayer. Give ear, god of Jacob. Selah.

Look at our shield, G?d, and see the face of your anointed.

For it is better to have a day in your courtyard than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of G?d than live in the tents of the wicked

For G?d is sun and shield, G?d gives grace and glory. G?d does not withhold goodness from those who walk with integrity.

G?d of Heavens, happy is the one who trusts in You!

valley-baca-springs0-300x198

I retranslated Psalm 84 for use on the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat. This text drew out an interesting tension between universalism and particularism/ Diasporism and nationalism. Some students felt this text anticipated Diaspora ideas of Judaism – the theological language shifts G!d’s dwelling-place from inside the Temple building to the natural world. Mountains become divine courtyards and birds’ nests become altars. Yet, other students pointed out that the Baca Valley is a very specific place in modern Lebanon, and that these psalms were written to celebrate a specific land. This prompted the students to write their own psalms about the lands in which they lived.

Psalm 65

For the leader, a psalm of David, sing:

The psalms for God in Zion are for You, and for You are vows sent

Hear this prayer; your servant and all flesh come

When wrongdoing overwhelms me, you forgive our mistakes

Happy is the one you choose, the one you draw near to the courtyard where you dwell, satisfy us with goodness in your house, in your Holy Temple

Answer us with the wonders of justice, our liberating God; all the ends of the earth and the distant seas have faith

The mountains are fixed by G?d’s power, strengthened by might

Calming raging seas, raging waves, and raging peoples

The people who live on the margins are awed by your signs; because of You, dawn and dusk shout out for joy.

You look after the land and water it; the river of G?d, full of water, makes it grow abundantly; you provide the grain that you have grown

You quench the riverbanks, lay down furrows; You soften it with showers and bless it with springing plants

You enclose the year with your goodness, and your tracks drip with abundance

They drop on the plains of the wilderness, and little hills rejoice all over

The meadows are clothed with sheep, and the valleys are covered in grain. They cry out for joy. Even they sing.

 

mountains

I retranslated Psalm 65 for the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat. This psalm, in particular, generated fertile discussion about labour relations in First Temple Judaism. Many students felt that this psalm reflected emerging class dynamics between agrarian workers, nomadic shepherds and Temple elites. As a result, one proposed that the word ‘margins’ might better be translated as ‘the edges of farmland’, or ‘the edges of civilisation’. Although less poetic, it feels truer to the meaning in this Marxist interpretation of the text.

Psalm 8

For the leader, on the gittith, a psalm of David

G?d, our ruler, how magnificent is your name in all the earth, you have covered the sky with your splendour

From the mouths of infants and babies, you have established strength for the sake of enemies, to end animosity and revenge.

When I look upon the sky, the works of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place,

What is humanity that you remember us, we children of Adam that you think of us,

That you made us a fraction of gods, adorned us with glory and majesty?

You have made us rule over the works of your hands and laid the world at our feet:

Sheep and oxen, all of them, and even wild beasts

Birds in the sky and fish in the water, everything across the seas

G?d, our ruler, how magnificent is your name in all the earth!

sheep grazing

I retranslated Psalm 8 for use on the ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’ retreat.

Finding ourselves in the Psalms

When we were captives in Babylon, we sat down by its river and cried. We hung up our instruments. Our oppressors asked us to sing. And we refused. How could we sing a song the Aleph’s song in a strange land?[1]

We had forgotten too much. We had forgotten that all our psalms were written in strange lands about the same land. The oldest psalms are etched in hieroglyphs in Egypt.[2] There are records of our psalms dating back thousands of years to Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Canaan and Sudan.

When we came into Canaan as refugees, we wrote new songs. In the wilderness of Judah, we found our voices.[3] Even in Babylon, we wrote new songs.[4]

King David compiled them. Although he had long died and was separated from some psalms by thousands of years, he drew them together. David resided in five different realities. He wrote his first psalm in the womb. He came into the world and gazed up at the infinite majesty of the stars and he wrote a new psalm. David sang whenever he saw the wonder of creation. He used to sing when he suckled on his mother’s breasts. David saw a future without evil and he found the words to say “hallelujah.” And in his tomb, David kept writing.[5]

So much has happened since those days. There are things we have lost. We have lost the pronunciation of that breathy 4-letter word they used to describe G?d.[6] Nobody knows what the instruments were that David played. The gittith – what is it? We don’t know.[7] Some words don’t make sense to us any more. Selah. Was it a drum beat? Was it a musical interlude? Was it an interjection? Was it a word we can no longer translate?[8] Perhaps we can no longer translate any of those words. Nobody can hear biblical Hebrew like it’s a mother tongue any more. And though we can sing every bit of the Torah and haftarah, the tunes to psalms are lost to us. Nobody knows what those symbols dancing round letters in tehillim mean any more.

But, oh, the things we have kept! Three thousand years have passed and we still have our texts. Everything that inspired David can inspire us too. We still have dark skies and rolling fields. We still have the miracle of life. We still have faith in justice. We have our voices and we can sing. We have our G?d. We can write.

We will write our own psalms. We will bring our own words and keep up that old tradition of using poetry to describe our relationship with creation, with Diaspora, and with G?d – whoever that is. We will sing about longing and belonging.

When we were in Babylon, we rejoiced by its rivers and laughed. We built new instruments. We were asked to sing a song of the land from where we’d came. We sang those songs and we made new ones too. We birthed a whole new culture all over again. Yes, we can sing a song in a strange land.

Tuscany misty panorama at sunset, rolling hills, fields, meadow.

I delivered this address at the opening of a retreat called ‘Standing Again at Snowdon’, organised by the Movement for Reform Judaism to educate young adults. Over the weekend, I used the Psalms as a tool for teaching about God, Diaspora and nature. In hindsight, I think I may have drawn too much focus to loss and not enough to all the new things that are gained by Jews in Diaspora.

[1] Psalm 137

[2] https://projectaugustine.com/biblical-studies/ancient-near-east-studies/parallelism-between-the-hymn-to-aten-and-psalm-104/

[3] Psalm 63

[4] Psalm 44, Psalm 74, Psalm 79, Psalm 80, Psalm 85, Psalm 89, Psalm 102, Psalm 106, Psalm 123, Psalm 137

[5] BT Berakhot 10a

[6] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-tetragrammaton/

[7] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6693-gittith

[8] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13398-selah