interfaith · sermon

Where Abraham came from

Once there was, and once there wasn’t. In the long-distant days of yore, when haystacks winnowed sieves, when genies played jereed in the old bathhouse, fleas were barbers, camels were town criers, I softly rocked my baby grandmother to sleep in her creaking cradle…

So begin Turkish folk stories. And this is a folk story, although whether it is Turkish, you will have to decide.

This is the story of our common ancestor, Abraham. For as long as there have been followers of his mission, there have been people telling his story. Across trade routes and migratory passages, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Samaritans and Druze exchanged legends of the man who made monotheism. 

These stories could be more valuable than coinage because they allowed people to connect across boundaries of language, ethnicity and religion. He could be called Avraham, Ibrahim, and everyone would know who you were talking about. There weren’t right or wrong versions of the story – only different iterations of the same truth.

That story, as we know it, begins today. It starts when a man named Avram sat in his ancestral home in Ur. He heard a God he did not know call to him and say: “Lech lecha! Go! Get out.”

“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

Avram pilgrimages from there to many places: through Canaan, Jordan, and Egypt. He meets many people: friends, enemies, family, and angels. To mark his changed status, Avram receives a new name: Avraham. The father of many nations. God promised him that he would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. He would have as many children as there are grains of sand on the shore.

And, indeed, just as God had promised, Avraham’s spiritual descendants now comprise over a third of the globe. Those who affirm monotheism and lay a claim to this spiritual tradition started in his name call themselves “Abrahamic faiths.” Their stories and beliefs, although disparate, fall under the banner of a single prophet who taught of a single God, revealed through history, known by good deeds.

Because of his great international fame, many places claim to be his hometown. There are various cities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon named “Ur,” or with variant names, that say they are Abraham’s father’s house, from which he went out on his mission. 

One such city is named Urfa. It is located in the modern-day state of Turkey, in a southeastern corner inhabited largely by Kurds, and bordering Syria. It has been Akkadian, Armenian, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman. About seven years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the place.

It is stunning. The entire city is built around a cave where, the locals say, Abraham was born. According to their legends, Abraham was birthed there in secret to avoid the wrath of the wicked king Nimrod. 

Around the cave, there is an incredible mosque complex. Beautiful off-white stones form curving arches, high ceilings, and expansive courtyards.

There are carved streams with carp in them. A local told me that these had been there since the time of Abraham. The Pagans had attempted to burn our prophet alive, but God intervened. As they set alight a bonfire with Abraham at the centre, the flames became water and the logs became fish. Today, if you eat any of the fish in the surrounding streams, you will instantly go blind.

I was certainly not going to test this superstition.

I went during the month of Ramadan, as pilgrims wandered around the site. It remains one of the most blissfully spiritual places I have ever been. I went through the mosque and into the cave. 

Around me, some men were doing the raqqas of Muslim prayer. I prayed as a Jew, mumbling Hebrew verses as I faced the spot where our patriarch was allegedly born.

Nobody batted an eyelid. We were all praying to the same God at the site of a shared prophet. I felt on some level that Abraham himself would have approved. This was the movement he had spawned. Uniting people in love of their One Creator. 

That unity, however, is threatened. Overhanging my time in Turkey was the heavy weight of nationalism. Over the last century, Turkish authorities have attempted to homogenise the country – transferring their Christian population to Greece; imposing taxes specifically on Jews to push them to move to Israel.

The country today has a virulently ethno-nationalist government that only briefly allowed the Kurdish minority some relative freedom to speak their language and live their culture. When Erdoğan launched counter attacks against ISIS, part of his goal was to crush Kurdish rebellion and extend Turkish military control.

Turkey is not unique. Nationalism has defined the politics of Europe and the Middle East for over a century. Entire groups seem increasingly set on defining themselves by ever narrower criteria, and enforcing the boundaries of who belongs with greater violence. 

This nationalist tendency permeates religious thought too. There are those who want to claim Abraham only as their own. There are those who try to say that they, and only they, have access to the true religion. There are people who want to pretend they are exceptional, and that with their difference comes claims to land, wealth and military might.

What could be more antithetical to the message of Abraham! This prophet sought to unify. His mission was one of going beyond borders, defying the lies of national gods and bringing people together under the truth of something beautiful and transcendent. 

There are many stories about Abraham. These stories can place him all over the world and ascribe to him all kinds of miracles. These stories can be used to bridge divisions and form common purpose. And they can be used to foster conflict and hatred.

We must be careful with which stories we tell.

Shabbat shalom. 

high holy days · sermon

The changing face of the Jewish family

Imagine a Jewish family. Go on, close your eyes and envisage what a Jewish family looks like. 

How many of them are there? Where are they? What do they look like? What are they wearing? 

OK, you can open your eyes again. 

Perhaps you pictured one of the families from Shtisel. You’ve conjured up Haredim in black hats and long coats and white socks. You might be picturing women with covered heads, racing around a dinner table, providing food and clearing away dishes, while a bearded patriarch at the head of the table murmurs prayers from a benscher. Yes, that is a Jewish family. 

Or maybe you imagined the family from Gogglebox. A husband and a wife. Two children, a boy and a girl. They sit on the sofa in front of the TV. They eat their meals on their laps. They light the shabbes candles and sing together the brachah, then go back to watching X Factor.

Yes, that’s a Jewish family too.

Or maybe you’re remembering your own family, from your own childhood, at some festival or simchah, and seeing yourself in your own family make-up. 

You might reminisce on siblings, cousins, single mother, married parents, step-parents, step-siblings, uncles, aunties, grandparents, great-grandparents, step-great-grandparents, neighbours, babies, babysitters, cats, dogs, goldfish. You can scratch out and fill in whatever applies. You’ve got a Jewish family. 

If you’ve got a family and there are Jews in it, that’s a Jewish family.

The truth is there is no one way to have a Jewish family. We come in so many shapes and sizes. We are too diverse even for a single stereotype. 

Still, people often have an idealised vision of what a Jewish family should be and how it should look. Take today’s Torah reading. 

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read of Sarah’s anguish at having one too many children. 

In our parashah, Sarah knows she must provide an heir to Abraham. At first, she offers up her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate so that Abraham might sire a child. This is successful, and leads to the birth of Ishmael. Later, God blesses her with her own child, Isaac. 

But this is where things get really complicated. Sarah wanted Hagar to have Ishmael when she thought he’d be the only one. She liked the idea when she was providing her heir for her husband. But now Ishmael looked like a competitor for her son Isaac’s birthright. 

Sarah had an image in her head of what her family was supposed to look like. When her surrogate son plays with the child that she gave birth to, Sarah decides only one of them can last. Sarah instructs Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Now, the Jewish family of five gets swiftly reduced down to two. 

Sarah had an image in her head of how her Jewish family was meant to look. But it didn’t match up with reality. Rather than adjust her expectations to her reality, Sarah decided to make reality conform with the fantasy. Even if it meant making people destitute and homeless. Even if it meant cutting up the family she had.

Unfortunately, this desire to force reality to fit the fantasy still permeates Jewish life centuries later. In our communities, people still want to police what a Jewish family should look like. 

The result can only be disappointing for everyone. Families that don’t fit the mould find themselves excluded and cast out from communal life. The people who are “on the inside” get increasingly frustrated that nobody is coming along to synagogue who matches up with their idealised vision of the Jewish family. Eventually, synagogue leaders find themselves exasperated that their membership is dwindling and short on children. 

Rather than fighting reality by clinging onto a fantasy, successful synagogues find ways of embracing change. The best and most active shuls make sure they celebrate diversity, rejoicing in how manifold their membership can be. 

So, let’s take stock of what Jewish families really look like today.

Today, a Jewish family may only have one Jew in it. According to research, a quarter of Jews are in mixed relationships with people from other religions and none. 

In the 90s, moral panic about Jews “marrying out” meant a lot of community resources were spent trying to get Jews into relationships with each other by any means possible. After decades of bemoaning mixed families and complaining that these Jewish groupings don’t look right, there are more mixed families than ever. That number is set to grow.

Contrary to Orthodox and establishment Jewry, Reform Jews made it our mission that we would celebrate families in all their diversity. People could know that, no matter who they loved, the synagogue would be here for them and support them through every step of their life’s journey.

Because the family has changed, conversion has changed too. Decades ago, you could reasonably assume that, if somebody was converting, it was for marriage. That is no longer the case. 

The vast majority of Jewish converts over the last few years have been “spiritual seekers”: people looking for God who have found something meaningful in our traditions. Last year, over 80% of candidates at the Reform Beit Din were lesbian, gay, bi and trans. They are people who looked for a religion of integrity that celebrated them as they are, and found it with us. 

Like the rest of the country, our families reflect the choice that people have over how they want to live. Our families are sometimes one dad with three children and sometimes two mums with a baby; they are cousins and grandparents living under one roof; and they are friends raising children together as neighbours. 

So, imagine your Jewish family again. And again. And again. Keep picturing them until, as in Abraham’s promise, you have as many configurations of families as there are stars in the sky.

Yes, now we know what a Jewish family looks like.

And now we can welcome and encourage them in all their diversity. We can find ways to bring everyone into the synagogue and feel like this is a home where they are loved and encouraged. We can make sure that nobody is turned away.

Imagine the possibilities.

Shana tova. 

I gave this sermon on Second Day Rosh Hashanah at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

judaism · sermon · theology

Abraham and the Paradox of Jewish Evangelism

A priest, a monk and a rabbi are debating which of their religions is the correct one. They decide to settle it with a contest to convert a bear to their religion.

The rabbi tries first. Two days later, the priest and the monk end up visiting him in the hospital.

The rabbi says: “OK, maybe I shouldn’t have begun with circumcision.”

Let’s set aside the foreskin jokes, because I don’t think the rabbi would have had much better luck with a lady bear. Isn’t it a strange fact of our religion that we almost never set out to proselytise?

We, of course, welcome all sincere converts, and this synagogue is happy to encourage anyone on their spiritual journey. But you won’t find us outside Asda, handing out flyers with words from the Mishnah. And you certainly won’t turn on your TV to see a rabbinic televangelist warning you about the perils of pork.

But if you think you have stumbled upon spiritual knowledge, don’t you want to share it with the world? Who are we to zealously guard the secrets of the universe?

Even if you take a more humble approach to Judaism’s teachings, and think they’re just as good as any other people’s, there must be something particularly worthwhile about Judaism for you to log in to this morning’s service rather than watching Bargain Hunt. (Wait, don’t go, I promise this is going somewhere!)

That strange paradox of Judaism – that we have a universal truth but don’t seek to spread it – is encapsulated in the story of Abraham.

This week, God tells Abraham: “Go out by yourself. I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.”[1]

Then, in the next two verses, as if a parallel to the first, God says: “All the families of the earth shall be blessed by you.” Then Abraham goes out with Lot and Sarah.[2]

So… does Abraham go out to bless himself or does he go out to bless others? Which is it?

This is the great tension in Judaism. Do we exist only for Jews? If so, why are we trying to change the world? Or do we exist for humanity? In which case, why aren’t we trying to make everyone Jews?

Our midrash plays with this tension. Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic explorations of Genesis, contains an unusual parable. In it, Rabbi Berekhyah compares Abraham to a tightly sealed bottle of perfume. The bottle was left in the corner and nobody smelt it. As soon as it was moved, its fragrance was emitted. This, says our midrash, is what it was like when God told Abraham to go out from place to place and make his name great in the world.[3]

Makes perfect sense, right? No? Fine, let’s unpack it.

Abraham is a tightly closed bottle of perfume when he starts out in Haran. At this stage, Abraham has encountered God. Abraham has realised that the idols amount to nothing and the Creator of the Universe is a singular and invisible presence. He is somehow pure and untouched. The Pagans have not affected his beliefs, and he has not affected theirs. He is hermetically sealed.

Then God tells him to lech lecha – to go out. Abraham moves around out from Haran and down to Shchem and Be’ersheva in the land of Canaan. As he moves between these places, others get to smell him. They encounter the truth that Abraham has learned about ethical monotheism. God is one and just! Now everywhere he goes people can get a whiff of this knowledge.

Only there’s another problem. Bottles of perfume don’t emit their scent because you move them. They only work when you open them. In this analogy, the balsamic bottle that is Abraham still remains sealed. How is he spreading his fragrances everywhere if he hasn’t even opened up?

I don’t think the editors of our midrash have made some mistake. I think they are telling us something profound about the Jewish paradox. We have a truth that we want others to know and yet we don’t want to convert anyone. Our role as a light unto the nations is that we go from place to place, showing others who we are, but not changing anything about who they are. We are still Abraham, that sealed bottle, going out from Haran, somehow expecting others to smell our perfumes but not opening up wide to spread our scent.

The very word “evangelism” is a Greek one, meaning good news, referring to the Christian Gospels. The early Church actively went out on recruitment drives, telling people about Jesus and his message. We have no such good news to share. What would we say to people? “Rejoice! God has commanded you to pursue justice and only eat unleavened bread in the springtime!” Jewish evangelism seems somehow a contradiction in terms.

And yet we do go out and share our beliefs. We are happy to expound our Torah to anyone. We expect to transform the societies we are in. When we speak out for justice wherever we live, we are very much hoping that others will take note of our concern for the stranger and adjust their actions accordingly. How can we reconcile this desire to change others with our lack of desire to convert them?

Perhaps the problem isn’t perfume metaphors and paradoxes. Maybe the issue is how we understand Judaism’s mission. Abraham wasn’t sent out to turn others into Jews. Abraham was sent out to be a Jew.

Abraham had to go out and be different, to hold a truth that no one else held. Even when he passes it on to his children, they each hold a different truth. Isaac becomes the founder of our Judaism. Ishmael becomes the founder of Islam. They go out holding different truths, both contradictory and complementary. Abraham’s revelation of God’s unity is a realisation that this universal God can never be captured by one person in a single truth.

Abraham’s mission wasn’t to make everyone Jews. It was to enable everyone to be themselves. It was that all these other nations could celebrate their differences, just as Abraham loved his own.

That is our task today. We don’t say to the nations: “we want you all to be Jews.” We say: “we want you all to be you.”

We are models of difference in a society where we are not a majority and in a world where we are not dominant. Our role is to show how to conduct that uniqueness in a way that demonstrates dignity.

This is our evangelism. That is the truth we hold and that we want to share. That difference is a wonderful and treasured thing. From our differences, we are blessed. And in our differences, we bless each other.

So go out from Haran and share that sacred truth. And don’t worry – you don’t need to go circumcising bears.

This sermon is for Parashat Lech Lecha. I will give this sermon on Saturday morning 31st October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue, and a shortened version the night before for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.


[1] Gen 12:1-2

[2] Gen 12:3-5

[3] Ber Rab 39:2

judaism · sermon · theology · torah

Go for yourself

Trying to get by with biblical Hebrew with modern Hebrew speakers is difficult. Among a group in Jerusalem this summer, I tried to coax out a dog, saying “Lech lecha, celev.” The Israelis around me burst out laughing. “What? What did I say?” I asked. “Nothing,” they said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

I had just repeated the first words of our parashah, when God instructs Abraham to get out of Haran and go to Canaan. Without context, the expression was bizarre. Phrases that were once meaningful in this language can lose their sense. But, for our commentators throughout history, this specific phrase has been perplexing. Without the vowels we might think it is emphatic – a repetition of the same verb, telling Abraham “go, go, get out.” But the Masoretic markings are quite clear. This is not “lech lech” but “lech lecha” – which could be read ‘go to yourself’, or ‘go for yourself’, or ‘go as yourself’… It is a strange construction.

Ramban suggests that it’s just an idiom of biblical Hebrew. He points to other examples in Jeremiah and Deuteronomy where similar constructions are used. But that answer feels disappointing. Why this idiom? And why here? Every idiom has a purpose, even if that purpose isn’t even entirely clear to the native speaker.

The answer I like best comes from Rashi. Rashi says “go for your own benefit, for your own advantage”. This puts the rest of the sentence into context: “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” Don’t go for their sake. Go for your own sake. But when you go for your own sake, when you go knowing that you are seeking out a blessing for yourself, then everyone will receive that blessing too.

It calls to mind the distinction between charity and solidarity. That idea was summarised by Lilla Watson, an Australian indigenous rights activist, in her address to the UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Watson herself has challenged the attribution, saying that it was thinking that had come out of collective work by indigenous women in Queensland over a long period of time.

Indeed, differentiating between charity and solidarity has long been a feature of thought for oppressed peoples. Charity, seeking to help people for their own sake without any regard for your own, is surely a noble feeling. But it leaves the person who gives it feeling better than the one who receives it. For the one who gives it, it leaves them feeling helpful, assuages their conscience, and contributes to a sense that they are doing the right thing. For the recipient, it can leave them feeling powerless, pitied, supported, and not treated as a full human being.

Charity is ultimately, too, not that helpful to the one giving it. It turns human interaction into a form of sacrifice, based on guilt, self-effacement and pity. It forces people to ignore their own lived realities and struggles, and put themselves at a position of distance from others.

While charity can address material needs in a positive way, it reminds everyone of the power relations that caused the need for charity in the first place. It reminds the donor of their power and the receiver of their lack. It can even reinforce those structures, as the impoverished turn to the donors as a source of wealth rather than looking to their own talents. The donor can impose restrictions on how the money is used or on how the receiver might conduct themselves in ways that ultimately secure the authority of the donor.

Solidarity asks us to “lech lecha” – to go for ourselves, to go as ourselves. It asks us to come to problems as full people with our own issues and concerns that we need to address. It asks us to treat everybody as if they, too, are going for themselves: full human beings who have a great deal in common with us and their own unique purposes.

Solidarity requires both parties to feel vulnerable together. It asks that the person motivated to give charity considers their own interests and what stake they have in changing the current circumstances. It also asks both parties to work together: they have a common interest and need to empower each other. Solidarity places people’s self-respect and cooperation at the centre of organising change.

Rambam picks up this theme in his eight levels of ‘tzedaka’. The word ‘tzedaka’ is often translated as ‘charity’, but it shares a common root with the word for ‘justice’. The concepts of charity and solidarity are held together by this same word, so Rambam needed to spell out the differences between different forms of giving. Like the indigenous activists of Australia, Rambam puts solidarity on a much higher level than charity. He considers “empowering others with meaningful employment” to be the highest level of tzedaka. Unlike giving into the hands of the poor, empowerment such as this ensures that everyone’s dignity is preserved, and everyone benefits from the work.

So it is that G-d says to Abraham: “Go for your own sake and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” When you go out considering your own self-respect first and foremost, it follows that everyone else can act from theirs. Abraham does not go out to save the world. He goes out to save himself. But by being prepared to take risks for his own soul, he sets an example and sets the wheels in motion that everybody can seek out G-d’s blessing.

That is how the nations became blessed through Abraham. As we approach the challenges of our day, we should seek to ask the same questions as he was forced to. What do I really need? What does G-d require of me? How can I see others as full human beings and respond to their needs? How can I go for myself, so as to be a blessing for others?

Go for yourself, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.

white horseman nahum gutman

I gave this sermon on the morning of Thursday 18th October at Leo Baeck College for Parashat Lech Lecha. 

judaism · sermon · torah

Being hospitable

It was a dark night in an Eastern European shtetl. Shabbat was just about to come in. The Baal Shem Tov sat at the dinner table, surrounded by friends and family. Every spare inch of space had somebody sitting in it. The Baal Shem Tov was not a rich man, although many of the acolytes of the movement he founded later would be, and he would have to make a thin chicken soup stretch to feed everyone. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Standing in the doorway was a vagabond. He smelt bad, his beard was unkempt, his clothes were untidy. He asked: “can I come in? Can I eat?” The Baal Shem Tov looked back at the full house, looked over at the steaming pot of thin chicken soup, looked back to the man, then up to Heaven and said: “If God has made enough room for him on this planet, then surely I have enough a room at my table.”

The Baal Shem Tov was a model of hospitality. In this week’s parshah, we read about Abraham, who was, too, a model of hospitality. Two strangers come to approach Abraham, and he cannot do enough for them. The Torah is usually noticeably scarce on detail, but on this occasion, we hear everything he did. He bowed, he welcomed them, he gave them water and bread-cakes, he washed their feet, he offered them shade. He even killed a calf for them, and in those days meat was far more expensive than it is today.

Abraham doesn’t even know who these people are yet. As it turns out, they are messengers of God. But they could have been anyone. Nevertheless, from the outset Abraham addresses them as if they are angels. Perhaps it was that Abraham could sense something in them. Perhaps he had been expecting God. But I think, most likely, Abraham simply saw the face of God in everyone.

Rashi tells us that Abraham always used to sit at the entrance to his house, so that he could invite anybody in who walked past. The midrash tells us that Sarah always had a listening ear. She was known everywhere for how tirelessly she worked to cultivate a garden for visitors to sit. Their tent was open on all sides, so that they could welcome people coming from every direction. And from this story, the rabbis derive a mitzvah, perhaps the most important commandment of all: the duty to be hospitable.

The next story in Genesis is a parallel. Two angels turn up in Sodom. Lot invites them to stay the night. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surround the house. They threaten to assault their visitors. When Lot objects, they deride him for being a foreigner and try to break down the door. Lot offers his daughters up to the baying mob.

Although there is a modern Christian interpretation that the story of Sodom is in some way about homosexuality, the rabbis did not have such a tradition.  For them, this was a story about hospitality denied. This, they said, was a city so wicked that they would not even allow their residents to show any hospitality or compassion to strangers. This, they said, was a city where even neighbours were not kind to each other; where a dog-eat-dog ideology took root so that nobody worked together. This was a city so wicked that even people like Lot, who should have been righteous, ended up turning against their own daughters and denying them the childhood they deserved. That is why the angels destroyed Sodom.

Which city do we live in? Which house do we inhabit? I often wonder what the two angels would make of our neighbourhoods and homes if they came to visit. While we have more technology and medicine and infrastructure than the prophets and tsaddikim could ever have anticipated, we have just as many people in need of hospitality. Our society seems more isolated than ever.

Manchester is known for its hospitality, but even here we can see the isolation. We already know older people who live in loneliness. We already know younger people who are desperately reaching out for a community, only to find nothing. We have seen newcomers turn up in this city only to encounter racism, hostility and closed doors. We have all seen the number of rough sleepers on our streets rocket over recent years.

In that situation, we have the same choice that was facing Lot and Abraham. Will we throw open our doors to let people in, or will we take the cruelty we experience in society and turn it on the people in our own homes? Will we increase the love or increase the isolation? This is a societal problem, but it will only change if people welcome each other, get to know each other and build solidarity with each other.

So, we must start with ourselves and our own homes. Jewish life is not something that happens in the synagogue. The synagogue is just a place we come to get respite and reenergised as we live a Jewish life. Jewish life happens in what we do the rest of the time. If we spend the rest of our week building communities, showing hospitality and modelling loving-compassion, that is when we’re living Jewish lives. Hospitality is one of the most important mitzvahs because it affects how we interact with everything. Being welcoming to people helps to break down isolation. It helps to create a sense of community. And it makes better, kinder people of ourselves.

Let’s all make the effort to be better hosts and to give more time to each other. Choose to be like Abraham and Sarah. Choose to be like the Baal Shem Tov. As Jews, let’s be the people who decide not to let an isolating and inhospitable society last. The struggle for community begins here, with us.

besht

This sermon was first delivered Shabbat Vayeira, 3rd December, at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community