judaism · sermon · torah

Whose hearts will turn?

A scorpion asked a frog to carry it across the river on its back. The frog said: “Absolutely not. If I carry you, you will sting me.” The scorpion replied: “If I do that, we will both drown. It goes against my interests.” Reluctantly, the frog agreed and let the scorpion onto its back. They began swimming without a problem. Then, midway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog anyway. The dying frog asked the scorpion: “Why would you do that? Now we’re both going to die.” The scorpion replied: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

This famous animal fable, originally from 20th Century Russia, speaks to something both familiar and uncomfortable about the world. We know that people, no matter how much they want to change, often end up hurting others and themselves as if motivated by a fundamental nature.1 But the story is also problematic. It suggests that people have fundamental characters that cannot be overturned. Such a perspective is incompatible with religious Judaism, which teaches that everyone can change.

It is with this in mind that I read the opening of our parashah: “God hardened Pharoah’s heart. God hardened the hearts of everyone around him.”2 Literally, God made their hearts heavy, weighted, immovable.

In most places where we read this, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but here, God hardens it.3 This poses a fundamental question for us about free will. Could Pharoah not have repented? Could he not have turned around and told the Israelites they could leave?

The Torah tells us God did this “in order to show these signs among them”.4 Those signs included locusts that swallowed up all the crops, darkness that blinded everyone in Egypt and, ultimately, death to the firstborn. Were these signs, then, unavoidable? Did the ordinary people of Egypt have no choice but to endure these “miracles”?

Ibn Ezra, the great Spanish exegete, reverses the concern. He points out if somebody wants to do wrong, the opportunities will be available to them.5 In other words, God does not prevent people from doing good, but neither does God prevent them doing evil. On this reading, God did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, but simply allowed it to happen. That answer sits well with us theologically: free will must mean the freedom to do wrong. And, partly, this fits with our historical memory. In this week of Holocaust Memorial, we are painfully reminded that God’s gift of free will can be outrageously abused.

But that conclusion seems too ready to resolve discomfort. It glosses over something else we know about history: that when hearts are hard, they stay so. No dictator has ever willingly given up power; no slavemaster has ever freed their slaves without significant pressure.6 Indeed, the price of ending slavery in America was a civil war. In Britain, the slave-owners were paid heavy compensation for their loss of income after more than a century of struggle.

That is not simply because slave owners are evil or dictators are wicked. In truth, every one of them could turn away from their wrongdoing and choose the path of righteousness spelled out by God. But they do not. In Germany, not every Nazi believed in the racist ideology, but all became complicit in its atrocities.7 Like the scorpion who stung the frog even knowing they would both die, the wicked continue in their wickedness, even if they know it is ultimately destructive. And that is because, while they are free, they are fundamentally constrained.

If Pharaoh were to turn around and say that the Israelites were free, he would have every Egyptian landowner at his door demanding what had happened to their possessions. He would have to answer to the Egyptian poor who, despite having nothing, at least had their superiority over the Israelites. There would be immediate chaos and revolution. It is not only people that create immorality, but systems that engender them. Once a system is in place that enables slavery, it is very difficult for any individual to decide they no longer want to own slaves. Pharaoh’s heart is hard, then, not only by choice, but by necessity. It is in Pharaoh’s nature that he must uphold the oppression he has created.

Interestingly, we learn from the Torah portion that the contrary can also be true. As the slaves prepared to leave Egypt “God placed favour in the eyes of the Egyptians” towards the Israelites.8 The Egyptians, the Torah tells us, encouraged the people to leave, handing over to them food, money and clothes.9 While Pharaoh and his courtiers can do nothing but harden their hearts, the ordinary Egyptians are compelled to be supportive. If we remove the possibility that God literally interfered with their freedom, the lesson may well be that there are people who, by their very position in society, find themselves becoming allies in struggles against oppression.

This side of the Shoah is also true. Most places under Nazi occupation handed over their Jews willingly, sometimes enthusiastically, as in Poland. Where Bulgaria’s Jews survived it was not because of the goodwill of the government or their leaders’ unwillingness to participate in the slaughter. Much historical evidence suggests that the contrary was the case. It was because the ordinary people of Bulgaria, their non-Jewish neighbours, decided to show them compassion. These citizens worked against their government and occupying powers to stop the persecution and deportation of Jews.10

If we learn anything from this parashah, it is not that we do not have free will but that some hearts are easier to turn than others. Some people are more naturally our allies than others. Over the last few years, much of the Jewish community has engaged in its campaigning against antisemitism by focusing on the people at the top of the political pyramid, making enemies and allies. It is now becoming clear to most that some of those enemies were not as hostile as imagined, and some allies were not really so friendly.

It is a healthy reminder of the saying from the Mishnah: “Be careful with the powerful for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they will not stand by you in the hour of your distress.”11 This dictum may, unfortunately, reveal itself to be true.

But that should not cause us to despair. While the top of the pyramid may be unstable, we can count on the strength of its base. Our allies are the same people they have always been. They are our neighbours, our colleagues, the people who we see every day. They are the people who stand up to racism when they see it on public transport and on the street. They are the ordinary citizens of Britain, with whom we have built strong relationships over many years. Through our solidarity and interactions with them, we can build up the strength not only to overcome the prejudice against us, but against everyone. Together with Muslims, immigrants, foreigners, disabled people, LGBT people, Black people and all those who face discrimination, we can work together to defeat intolerance. And we will succeed. It’s in our nature.

pharoah prince of egypt

I gave this sermon for Parashat Bo on Saturday 1st February at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue

1 cf Lasine, Weighing Hearts

2 Ex 10:1

3 Rashbam to Ex 10:1

4 Ex 10:1

5 Ibn Ezra to Ex 10:20

6 cf Frederick Douglas: “power concedes nothing without a demand”

7 cf Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichman in Jerusalem’

8 Ex 11:3

9 Ex 12:33-36

10 cf Todorov, the Fragility of Goodness

11 Pirkei Avot 2:3

judaism · sermon · theology

The importance of not respecting different opinions

This is Interfaith Week, and many of my religious buildings across the country are holding similar services to this one. In most places, I suspect people will talk about the importance of respecting differences of opinion. You have your views, I have mine, but we can all get along. All religions have their own truths. It might be customary to say it, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Not all ideas have the same value. Some ideas are wrong. Some ideas are dangerous. Some ideas must be challenged as soon as we encounter them.

This week, we read a passage in the Torah with a violent history. In it, Jacob and Esau fight over who gets their father Isaac’s birth right. Jacob, the younger brother, tricks his dad into giving him his blessing. He dresses in his brother’s clothes, puts hair on his arms so that he’ll feel rougher, and puts flour on his tongue so that his voice will sound deeper. With the help of his mother, Rebekka, he kills an animal, makes some sweet meats and cons his father into giving him a blessing that was meant for his brother. When Esau comes in, Isaac is distraught to realise that he has given the blessing to the wrong son. Esau begs him to bless him, but Isaac insists that he can’t retract his blessing from Jacob. Instead, he gives him a new blessing: “You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”[1]

This story became more than a tale of sibling rivalry. It became the basis of bloodshed lasting centuries. Jacob took another name: Israel. As a person, he stood in for the whole of the Jewish people. Esau had another name: Edom. As a person, he became a symbol of Christianity and Rome. For centuries, that was the optic through which Jewish-Christian relations were viewed: as a struggle between two brothers for a blessing that could only be held by one of them. The Jews, Israel, insisted that they were the sole bearers of the blessing from God. Christians insisted that they had broken off the yoke of Torah when their Messiah came, and that they had replaced Jews as God’s chosen people.

This had real consequences for people’s lives. If Christians had replaced Jews, then Jews were a stubborn remnant of a bygone age; a people destined to be destroyed. St Augustine of Hippo, one of the Founders of the Church, argued that Jews should be allowed to live only as evidence, in their degraded state, of the superiority of Christianity. This story of Esau replacing Jacob was so influential on European thinking that, some argue, it helped to legitimate the Nazi genocide.

This month saw the five hundredth anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five these to the church door, demanding reformation of the Catholic Church. His ideas were so important. Luther was somebody who realised that ideas are powerful. He was responding to a time when the established Church used people’s fear of death to pay for a better place in the afterlife. The abuse of religion was creating a deeply hierarchical and unequal society. Luther wanted to challenge that. He realised that not every religious idea had to be respected. Sometimes they need to be resisted.

Luther was also a notorious antisemite. In his later life, he used his power as an academic to incite race riots against Jews. His ideas were adopted for centuries in justifying racist violence. When the movement he founded, Protestantism, gained the upper hand in Western Europe, his ideas were used to attack Catholics. Unfairly caricatured as automatons doing the bidding of the Pope, Catholics were denied access to citizenship, and imprisoned as foreign infiltrators, in many countries. Luther’s great idea – that religion should not be used to wield power – became subverted to serve its opposite purpose: of entrenching power.

Still, his ideas gave birth to our own religious movements. The Unitarians here draw their roots from Protestantism, wanting to take Luther’s best ideas to their radical conclusion of a religion grounded in equality and acceptance. Liberal Judaism, too, was inspired by Protestant reformation. Our forbearers wanted to create a Judaism without sexism or nationalism. Since then, we’ve tried to also create Judaism that embraces LGBT people and champions just causes like the rights of migrants and workers. I know that many of our Christian friends here share that ambition.

This leaves us with a question: how do we know if an idea is any good or not? If we’re not going to automatically respect differences of opinions, what grounds can we have for disagreeing without creating exactly the kind of competition between Jacob and Esau, that caused so many generations of suffering? I’d like to propose a test for conversations in interfaith dialogue: do our ideas support existing power structures, or do they resist them? Do they bolster the powerful or diminish them? There are questions on which we can agree to disagree – none of us knows for certain what God really is, or what the afterlife is like. But we can challenge our ideas about this world: do they make our world more just, more equal, more compassionate, and more peaceful? If not, can we really sanction them?

This, I would hope, could be the basis of a better model of interfaith. Rather than accepting differences, let’s challenge each other to live up to the best of the values we share. In the spirit of the prophetic tradition that has inspired us, let’s push each other to speak truth to power. The reformation brought about the idea that religion should not be wedded to power. Let’s take it to the next stage, and insist that religion be used as a weapon against power. Let’s work together to fulfil a religious mission of eradicating inequality, championing the cause of the oppressed, eliminating hunger and poverty, bringing about a world where all people are treated with the dignity they deserve. That would be a world that truly respects difference.

[1] Gen 27:40

ipswich church
Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House

This sermon was given as part of an interfaith service organised by Suffolk Liberal Jewish Community, and held in the town’s beautiful Unitarian Meeting House. After the service, an Anglican minister pointed out that I had not made clear that current Christian doctrine had tried to rid itself of its supersessionist ideology. I think it is important to note that much of the work challenging offensive ideas in Christianity has been done by Christians themselves, especially by Catholics at Vatican II. I am grateful to him for this constructive feedback.