halachah · sermon

What makes food kosher today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

debate · sermon

Jews are coming home

The 1996 UEFA Cup was when I first truly became aware of football. I was 7. Everyone was talking about it. My mum, a proud Glaswegian, made sure all the neighbours knew that she would be supporting Germany in the upcoming semifinal. Still, she seemed to feel little glee when England inevitably lost on penalties. 

Football, I soon discovered, was not for me, but I still enjoyed the atmosphere. In the last UEFA Cup, I couldn’t help but join in the excitement and feel the buzz of possibility. Everywhere, you could hear a song that had been popularised in the first competition I could remember. Football’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming…

Legendary comedian, Frank Skinner, and his Fantasy Football League co-host, David Baddiel, wrote the song: ‘Three Lions’. It is more than a catchy anthem. It tries to put forward a vision of the nation that is about shared struggles and optimism in the face of defeat. It speaks to something wonderful: the joy of being an underdog; the thrill of hoping for a victory that might never be realised; the bittersweetness of feeling like your favourite thing belonged in your favourite place, but was also part of a much wider world. 

Recently, David Baddiel has come back into the public consciousness, this time with a new memorable slogan. Jews Don’t Count. This was the title of his book, published earlier this year, which seems to have been read by every politician and pundit in Britain. It is accessibly-written by a popular writer. Many Jews have a copy. Some have come to cite the book’s title, as if it were already a well-established truism.

This meant that, last week, as the Royal Court Theatre showcased a play where the main character was a greedy billionaire called Hershel Fink, whose climax is the sacrifice of a child, pundits asked whether this was evidence that ‘Jews Don’t Count.’ 

This week, when a group of teenagers attacked a bus full of Haredi kids celebrating Hanukkah on Oxford Street, the incident was treated within the prism of whether Jewish suffering matters. That is a narrow way to look at antisemitism, probably never even intended by the book’s author.

The most common criticism of Baddiel has been that he is the wrong messenger. 25 years ago, he dressed up as black footballer Jason Lee by covering his face in brown paint and putting a pineapple on his head. The offensive image sticks in many people’s minds, so they question how well-equipped he is to speak on racism.

Baddiel addresses this in his book. He says that he has already apologised, and, in any case, the people criticising him for doing blackface are the real racists because they think his historic racism invalidates his current experiences of antisemitism. He cites the example of Malcolm X, who despite having made antisemitic comments in the past, is still upheld as a visionary of anti-racism. 

What Baddiel seemingly misses is that Malcolm is an icon precisely because of his journey. He went from a pimp to a fundamentalist to a person committed to the liberation of all people. His earlier mistakes are viewed in light of where he ended up. If only all of us could be so willing to publicly make mistakes, learn, and grow.

Still, I don’t think it is helpful to criticise Baddiel as a man. We must engage with the content of what he has to say. The book’s thesis is that there is an oppression Olympics taking place, and Jews should have better odds of winning than the bookies have given them. It doesn’t challenge the idea of whether there is such a thing as a competition over who has suffered most, nor whether such a contest would be desirable. He just wants everyone to be clear that Jews have suffered as much as anyone else.

In only the opening pages, Baddiel bemoans hearing an antisemitic poem on the BBC and insists “no other minority group would be compared to rats, or envisaged as any similar negative racist stereotype, on Radio 4.” The claim is bizarre. The last few years have seen intense attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers, often likening them to vermin and plagues. Barely a day goes by without some racist dog-whistle making it into our mainstream press. 

Even if Baddiel was right, and it was only Jews who were subjected to bigotry in national media, his complaint about other minorities’ treatment is far from helpful. Freedom is not a finite resource and tolerance is not in short supply. If others did have more of it, our task would be to make the case for why we need it too, not to undermine others’ gains. Setting up the struggle against antisemitism as a competition with other antiracist struggles only weakens potential allegiances and undermines our cause.

But more than sending out the wrong signals to other minorities, this book gives the wrong message to Jews. It reads every silence as hatred, complicity or indifference. We are alone. Nobody likes us. The right wants to destroy us and the left doesn’t care. We are isolated on an island where nobody cares about our suffering and the only solution is to wallow in our own self-pity.

If Jews were a football team in this narrative, we would be Manchester United: unfairly reviled by everyone simply for being successful. No one likes us and we are very upset about it.

At a time when the British  Jewish community already feels beleaguered and lacking confidence, it is unsurprising that such a depressing message has taken hold. But is it helpful? Does it give us clarity about what antisemitism is and how to combat it? Does it strengthen our position as a people and foster solidarity with others?

Part of the problem with Baddiel’s analysis is that his main objection is to The Guardian and its readers. I am not a reader of The Guardian, so perhaps I underestimate its importance. But I do find it hard to accept that the problem of antisemitism begins with middle-class liberal progressives. Some may well be antisemitic, and I have no doubt that some are ignorant of Jewish experiences of prejudice. But they are hardly the part of British society that worries me most.

Antisemitism is not just an exchange between two people, or a trade-off between different groups, but a system that has been embedded in Europe for over a millennium. Since medieval times, Jews have been used as a racialised buffer class between the peasants and the elites. 

Jews were not citizens of the countries where they lived, but treasured subjects, offered physical protections by the monarchs if they did the most undesirable jobs. They were tax collectors, money lenders, merchant traders, and publicans. 

This precarious position meant that, when things turned bad, the poor would not storm the castles but then their ire on the middlemen. The elites actively encouraged pogroms. They spread blood libels and shady conspiracies about how the Jews were really the ones with all the power.

Antisemitism continues to work in the same way. Jews are not kept at the bottom of the barrel, nor are we permitted entry into the upper echelons. We do enjoy privileges that other minorities do not, and we do nevertheless experience discrimination and stereotyping.

That is the context in which we must view the recent ordeal at the Royal Court. They put on an antisemitic play, not because progressives are indifferent to Jewish suffering, but because British theatre is entrenched in centuries-old systems of promoting Jews as lascivious and money-grabbing. They reproduced the same images of Shylock and Fagin that have been used to promote antisemitism for years.

That is also the context in which we need to view the group of teenagers attacking a bus of Jewish kids celebrating Hanukkah. They didn’t harass them because they were indifferent Guardian-reading liberals. Far from it. They attacked them because they have grown up in an antisemitic system, imbibed its propaganda, and believed its lies. Any theory of oppression that doesn’t focus on its real origins will only address the symptoms at the expense of the root cause.

When we understand that antisemitism is systemic, we can see that the way to combat it is by directing our criticisms at the system itself. Outbursts of violence on the street are only terrifying results of something more deeply rooted. 

It is in our interest, then, to join our struggle that of all other victims of racism. It is necessary to treat other minorities not as adversaries for attention from well-meaning liberals, but as allies in a struggle for fundamental change. 

I hold on to a faith that such change is possible. 

In this sense, Baddiel’s original classic of ‘Football’s coming home’ speaks much more closely to my experience of being a Jew in Britain. It is not that I believe things are great, but that they could be. It is not that I feel like we are always doing well, but I feel invested in the struggle to get there. I am joined to others by a misty-eyed possibility of what this country could be. I hold out hope for ultimate redemption that may one day come, and work with others towards that goal. Like England fans, no amount of hurt has ever stopped me dreaming. 

This place where we live really is our home, and it is also somewhere that we must make our home. It has been where we belong and we must shape it into a space we never want to leave. We are here, and we are not yet, because we always have some way to go. Together, with all victims of oppression, we are always coming home.

Jews are coming home, we’re coming home, we’re coming…