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…

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.