sermon · social justice · theology

What do we stand for?

Five years ago, I interviewed to start rabbinic training. Over four days, I went into different rooms, where rabbis, academics and lay leaders quizzed me about why I wanted to be a rabbi. 

It was intense. In one interview, one of the rabbis asked me: “what do you think you most want to learn while you are here?”

I said: “I’d like to learn what we stand for.” 

My interviewers scrunched up their faces. I imagined them thinking, “are you sure you’re in the right place?”

How could I not know what we believe? We are Progressive Jews; we stand for Progressive Judaism. Perplexed, she pushed me: “can you think of any principles of Progressive Judaism?” 

I thought, and said: “informed choice.” We do what we like, in conversation with Jewish tradition.

The rabbi sat back and took notes. I wasn’t sure whether I had given a correct answer, and she was confused how I could say I didn’t know what we stood for if I had that grounding, or if I’d missed something more important.

What I was trying to ask was: surely we don’t just choose whatever we like? A Progressive Jew can’t make the informed choice to commit murder. We don’t look at that central commandment and think: ‘ah, but it was for its time.’ We have a shared assumption that the prohibition on killing applies to every time. So how do we make these informed choices? What decides for us which choices are right and wrong?

Permissiveness is not really a value. It’s something you do out of indifference. There must be something stronger than that motivating our congregants to get out of bed and labour for the welfare of their community. 

Apparently, I am not alone. Throughout my time as a student, going to congregations across the country, people have asked me that very same question in different ways. 

What are the values of Reform Judaism? What does living by Progressive Jewish values actually mean?

After 4 years of study, well… I still don’t have the answer. But I feel much closer to it than I did when I started. And the answer begins with this week’s parashah.

At the end of Masei, we hear the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. They come forward before Moses and assert their rights to inheritance. Their father, they say, was a good man who had no sons. As it stands, his property will be passed on to nobody, and these women will be left destitute. They argue that they should be the ones to inherit his estate. Moses talks to God. God agrees.

This is a big deal in Torah terms. It shows that a law can change. Decisions are not fixed in stone but can adapt with the times. It fits exactly with the Progressive mindset. We look at the laws again, and work out if they are still relevant. Moses looked at inheritance law, saw that it wasn’t working, and decided it was time to set a new precedent.

This is at the heart of Progressive Judaism. We progress. We treat the Torah and our traditions as our basis, but we are always willing to review it, and find new ways that better suit our reality.

The case of the daughters of Tzelafchad is a great example. It fits with our intuitions about what is right and wrong. Of course these women should inherit.

But does that mean every time a law changes, it’s an improvement? In the course of the Torah, laws also change to take rights away from people. Laws can change that make people’s lives worse. 

The reason why we consider this legal change so praiseworthy is because it makes life better for people. In particular, because it makes life better for women. 

It fits with the feminist lesson we have learnt from history. Through the last century of the women’s liberation movement, our religion learned the importance of giving everyone their full rights and abilities to participate in Jewish life.

We have our own hashkafah: our own way of looking at the world. We see progress in terms of what gives people the most equality, dignity, and justice. 

Other strands of Judaism may give priority to tradition, nationalism, or conservatism. We say that what matters is equity. 

We did not decide to pursue this egalitarian cause because we thought it would make things easier. Quite on the contrary: it made things harder for many people. At the start of our movement, people were disowned by their families and ridiculed by the religious establishment because of their conviction that equality mattered. They took the more difficult course because it was the right one.

Since the early days of Reform Judaism, we have prioritised gender equality. This week, I met with one of the founder members of SWESRS, who said that in their very first days, the community discussed what they wanted from a synagogue. Even in the 1950s, they insisted that equality between men and women would be of the utmost importance.  

This synagogue has gone on to create a legendary legacy. The UK’s first woman rabbi, Jackie Tabick, was raised here. This is a place with a proud history of putting forward that great principle of Reform Judaism: that equality matters.

That is how we approach the question of whether and when to change a law. We are not beholden to tradition, forced to do everything today and tomorrow, just because we did it that way yesterday. Nor will we go along with every change, just because it feels fashionable or convenient. 

At every stage, the question we ask ourselves is: is this right? Is this just?

We seek to make changes that will make people more equal, more empowered, and more dignified. 

So, now, if I am asked what we stand for, I have a much clearer answer.

We stand for equality.

We stand for the emancipation of all of humanity.

We stand up for the oppressed and stand beside the marginalised.

We stand in the footsteps of Moses, who changed laws because he could see that justice mattered.

We stand before God, proud to inherit a tradition; and courageous enough to change that tradition for the better. 

That is where we stand.

Shabbat shalom. 

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, Parashat Matot-Masei, 10th July 2021

article · spirituality

A Letter to God

Hi Judy,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Judy. I know Lionel Blue used to call you Fred. I remember reading about it in one of those compilations of Thought for the Day segments he put out. He said we should talk to you like an old friend, with the same degree of familiarity. He called you Fred and addressed you like you were his conscience; a kind voice coaxing him to do better. I picture something approximate to Jiminy Cricket.

So I’ll address you as a friend and call you Judy. I want to call you Judy because I don’t know anyone who goes by that name, so I can invent an image from scratch without knowingly projecting my ideas of others onto you. I want to talk to you as a woman, maybe because I’m just sick of having religion dictated to me by older men. I imagine you queer, because Judy only you truly know how much I need my God to be non-conforming. 

So I’ll picture you, if I may. Pixie dyke haircut and hooped earrings. Comfortable trainers. A flowing blouse. Sitting on one of the chairs in my back garden, any back garden I’ve ever had. And you smoke a rolled-up cigarette, or maybe it’s a joint, and you don’t offer it to me because you know I quit smoking a long time back. But you are immortal and immutable, so you don’t need to worry about what impact all that tar will have on your health. 

Judy, I hope you don’t mind that I say “you” and not “You.” If I were writing high liturgy or biblical translations, I think I would have to capitalise you. But I’m following a theology that Rabbi Blue picked up from Martin Buber, who adopted it from German Protestants. I’m supposed to speak to you unguarded and as my full self, without illusions of grandeur, neither yours nor my own. 

I have to ask forgiveness just for talking to you this way, because I know it is heretical. Even imagining you is an affront to who you really are. Maimonides long ago instructed us that you had no physical form nor anything resembling one. Like the Rambam, I admire the austere iconoclasm of philosophical Islam. It pushes us to realise that you are incomparable to a human being. You are more akin to a force, like gravity or entropy. You are like the moral vibrations of the universe. We only can say what you are by saying what you are not.

But I can’t talk to a vibration or an equation. I can’t make friends with an abstraction. The truth is, Judy, I need you, and I need you to be a relatable human being, because I depend on your guidance for change. I need to picture someone who believes in me and my capacity for goodness, especially on days when I feel like I have nothing to give. I try hard to be someone better than I am, I honestly do, and imagining a slightly stoned lesbian can help with that.

I’m writing this because I want to connect to you, truly and faithfully. I want to reflect on what you mean to me. I want to try and develop morally and spiritually. So I talk to you like you’re here.

I don’t need you to say anything back. I don’t have any illusions about what role you play in the universe. I just need to feel that somehow you are there; listening to me; encouraging me. I just imagine a warm smile and a gentle hand on my shoulder. Jonah’s God. Shechinah. Someone intimate and loving.

If I have to accept that you are beyond comprehension, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you. I would feel like I’m shouting into a silent void. Elijah’s God. The God who isn’t there.

And there are few things I find more frightening than silence. Part of what prompted this letter was a series of exercises where I had to keep quiet for long periods because it was supposed to be spiritually enriching. I get that it is supposed to be enlightening. That’s the popular image of Orientalist postcards showing gurus meditating on the Ganges and fully-robed Buddhist monks sat for hours in silence. It is a significant part of the imagination of Westerners who can’t connect with their own traditions.

That’s not fair. That’s not (the only reason) why it makes me so uncomfortable. It’s also part of English religious history. There is so much I admire about the Quakers. I normally find myself chiming with their politics; impressed by the way they turn anti-militarist protest into acts of religious service. I admire that. I have felt deeply connected to you when in their presence. In your queerness and hunger for justice, I imagine that you blockade arms fairs too.

But I don’t feel your presence when in their silences. I feel anguished and frustrated when I’m forced to contend with silence. I once walked into a retreat happening in the home where I lived. The people weren’t talking or engaging with each other. It reminded me of hospices and retirement homes I had visited where the patients were so drugged up or afflicted by dementia that they had no idea what was going on. I left instantly. 

Later, I returned to sleep. While the more enlightened sat in the living room experiencing their quiet contemplations, I washed the dishes with a friend. She talked about her own discomfort, that these practices were stripped from their original contexts of social justice movements and anti-colonial practices, then re-packaged into the medicalised language of “wellness” or the neoliberal politics of “self-improvement.” I had not considered that such a practice could be radical, because I understood silence to be entirely isolating and alienating.

That comes from my own experiences. So much of being gay has, for me, been about deciding what to share and when. In nearly new spaces I wonder whether I can be camp, or if it will put people off. I wonder if I can tell the stories of who I am and who I love and the small queer family I am building, or whether it will invoke new anger from people. In most circumstances, I have to kill part of myself in order to fit in. Coming out isn’t a one-time event, and nor is being in the closet. It is a constant process of ascertaining whether somewhere is safe, and how much. That is why being coerced into silence affects me so much. It’s why I need to be able to talk to a God like you, Judy; someone who is an outsider too.

When I construct my own gay deity, I don’t feel like my queerness is the problem. I feel like it’s part of the solution. Growing up in a world made by other people to suit their own hierarchies has made me empathetic to the struggles of others. I don’t claim to understand what it is like for black men in Chicago or Palestinian children in Sheikh Jarrah or women working in Bangladeshi sweatshops. But I care about it because I know how I have felt when faced with injustice. And that burning rage against oppression feels holy. 

It doesn’t just feel like endless anger when I’m with you, Judy. It feels like it means something so much bigger. It is not just politically expedient solidarity or, worse, bleeding heart liberalism. The combined grief and anger of all persecuted people feels like it is deeply spiritually meaningful. It is the foundation for divine justice. It is proof that all of humanity is connected by something bigger than ourselves: a sense of righteousness in resisting iniquity. I think that is what the Latin American liberation theologians are getting at. I feel like they have sat in the back garden with you too.

Judy, it matters greatly that you are there at those barricades and back gardens. Without you, as a real and personal presence, all my fears about the world and desires to change it are misplaced. There is no right and wrong. Oppression is just something that happens. We are alone on a burning planet in an empty universe. There is nothing we can do to change that and, even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. I have to believe you are real. And that you are really real, not just as a story that I have chosen to believe, like existentialists who are nihilists with self-deception. I have to believe that moral statements mean something and a greater tomorrow can come.  I have to believe you are real or life will not be worth living. 

There are so many who want to treat you like you don’t exist. Some of them claim the Holocaust as a reason to deny you. God abandoned them at Auschwitz, so they will abandon God in turn. Or: if God were real, God would have intervened. I was asked this last year by Shoah survivors at a Tu Bishvat seder. I just listened. I told them they did not have to believe anything. Because my instinctive reaction is to say: what did you think would happen? Did you imagine God would strike Hitler down with a thunderbolt from the sky? Did you think God should just swallow up the camps into pits before they piled the Jews into the gas chambers? How would that work? But, faced with living survivors, I had nothing to say. Albert Friedlander taught that any theology had to be able to be repeated in front of a million murdered Jewish children. Faced with them, I had no answer.

I think that’s why I have to imagine you silent, just listening, and refusing to intervene. If I thought you could respond or intervene, I would be so angry at you. So I imagine you calmly reflecting, nudging me on, reminding me with your eyes that you did not kill all those people, Nazis did. You remind me with your smile that human beings are responsible for our own actions. Above all – that I am responsible for mine.

Because of that, I do look upon some atheism with cynicism. There are people whom it suits very well to deny that there is a God or that morality has any meaning. The world created by Thatcher and Reagan is one where everyone is an individual atom, compressed to its smallest form, seeking nothing but the maximisation of its own wealth and happiness. If there were some great force holding us all together, their entire project would be at an end. If there were such a thing as love or justice or retribution, they would have nowhere to turn. So they pretend not to know you. When they sit down and feel your presence beside them, they shut off the part of them that knows what it means. They are no different to those who thank you for their success, as if you would ever hand out rewards like cookies to children. 

I think I heard you once. I was in intense pain and struggling with life, around seven years ago. I was standing on top of a roof, smoking a cigarette. (I wasn’t looking to kill myself instantly, just slowly with tobacco.) I looked up at these overpowering grey clouds and I asked what I should do. And I heard this voice saying “forgive yourself.” It said “forgive yourself” over and over again, quietly at first, and then louder and louder. At that time, I felt like I had always been hearing those words; I’d only just paid attention to them for the first time. I felt like you were there with me, and that was your message for me. And once I’d heard it, truly heard on it, I no longer heard it, because I no longer needed it. Suddenly, I felt ten stone lighter and like I had a message for the whole world. 

Judy, you might be imaginary. I might have had a moment of insanity. We might be alone in a meaningless universe. There are so many scientific explanations, and I’m sure there could be so much wonder in the world even without faith. Maybe justice doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Maybe. Maybe all kinds of things. But I’ve chosen a story that makes sense so I can live a life that feels right.

I have to believe. So I talk to you and write to you and call you Judy. I only ask one thing of you, Judy. Please don’t answer. Please don’t tell me what you think or what I need to do. The only thing worse than silence would be to hear your voice. I couldn’t bear your judgement, or your love. Either would be too much. Let me remain in doubt, that’s all  I ask. 

You take the last drags on your roll-up. You stub out the fag end on the ground. You put a hand on my shoulder and use my body to lift yourself upright. And you leave me again, for a while.

Thanks for listening, Judy.

Thanks for being here.

I love you.

festivals · sermon · theology

Falling in Love is a Choice

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about falling in love. Maybe it’s the spring heat of May. Maybe it’s the newborn baby delighting me with his first smiles. Maybe it’s my boyfriend moving down from Manchester. Or, perhaps, it’s because it’s Shavuot.

The model of a loving relationship in Tanach is of Ruth and Naomi. It may sound strange to think that two women could be such an example even in Orthodox Judaism, but Ruth’s words are used in wedding liturgies to this day, as well as recited by proselytes upon their conversion to Judaism. Why is it that this text connects falling in love, joining a faith and receiving the Torah at Shavuot?

After Ruth’s husband dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, begs her to leave. But Ruth responds:

Entreat me not to leave you, nor to turn back from following you. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May God do so to me, and more, if anything but death parts you from me.

When Ruth tells Naomi she will never leave her, Naomi puts up every possible objection. It would leave her without a husband or income. Her sister has gone. Anybody would leave her. Be sensible. Go. 

But Ruth refuses to see sense. Her choice to stay with Naomi is irrational. She could never explain it in a way that makes sense to anyone else. Something more powerful than reason must have gripped Ruth’s heart. Surely it was love. Messy, confusing, irrational love.

Is that not how falling in love really feels? For anyone who has felt it, is love not completely illogical and nonsensical? Nobody could reason it. It runs not just contrary to reason but is almost its opposite.

And yet, somehow, love is also a choice. Ruth stayed with Naomi because she wanted to. She could have stopped up her heart, grieved and left her mother-in-law. But she stayed. Because love is nothing if it isn’t freely given.

At first it feels like the lapping of an emotion at your insides. And then the waves of longing seem to get bigger as they ask to be allowed to grow. And then you make a choice. If you are not ready to fall in love, you can walk away from its shores. But if it feels right, you will dive in and let its waters subsume you. 

Whether with a first partner or a best friend or a newborn baby or a brother or a mother or a spouse to whom you have been married for years. Love, when it comes, is a choice. But it is a choice we cannot help but make.

I think the same is true of faith. It is not something that can be reasoned or explained, but only felt. Religious belief starts as a nagging feeling of suspicion that there might be something greater than what our senses perceive. After that, we have to make a choice. As Einstein put it, either everything is a miracle or nothing is. 

And so, faced with a latent sense of wonder, the faithful make a choice about how to see the world. For those who believe, God is manifest in everything that exists. Every facet of nature is a revelation of God’s truth and a calling to accept it.

This, to me, was the true miracle of Sinai. It is that, like those who fall in love, the Israelites made an irrational choice that changed their lives and stuck with it. Shavuot is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is the renewal of our wedding vows with God. Whereas anniversaries between human beings celebrate the date of falling in love, Shavuot is the anniversary of our falling in faith.

We are told so much about the fanfare that greeted the Israelites when Moses received the Torah. Thousands of people gathered round and all witnessed exactly the same thing. Thunder and lightning. A giant cloud descended over the mountain. A horn blast sounded loudly from the air. The whole mountain became cloaked in smoke and shook on its foundations.

But a cynic could have looked at all this and said: these are just natural phenomena. Thunder and lightning on the desert are rare, but they happen. It wasn’t really a shofar blasting from the sky, but the sound of sonic shock waves from the lightning. The mountain didn’t really move, it just felt like it from all the noise.

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites were not interested in reason. They were falling in faith.

When Moses came down the mountain, his face was radiant and shining out beams from his cheeks. He carried with him two tablets, inscribed with the laws that would govern the nation for generations. The Ten Commandments. 

Some say that, as he descended, the desert mountain erupted in blossoming flowers. Some say the Commandments were written in black fire on white fire. Some say the mountain was upended and suspended over the Israelites’ heads.

And, of course, any sceptic could have said: this is trickery. God did not write those laws, but Moses made them himself while he was hiding up that mountain. These flowers and fires are just sleight of hand by an adept magician. 

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites had made a choice to accept faith over reason. Thousands of them, huddled together in a strange place, made the decision to accept a beautiful belief over a plausible one. And nobody objected. Out of the many hordes assembled, nobody suggested that it was all a lie or a collective delusion. They let faith dictate to them.

And what did that faith say? That God is personally interested in the lives of people, even in those of refugees and runaway slaves! That the moral fate of the universe rested in the hands of a persecuted people, who were singled out to be light unto the nations. That love, truth and justice mattered more than could be calculated.

As Liberal Jews, we place a great deal of emphasis on reason, and rightly so. Reason keeps us from blind submission to antiquated and offensive ideas. It helps us keep Judaism alive in our own time. But we must also celebrate faith. Sometimes we hold beliefs that cannot be pinned down by logic, but can only be felt. Sometimes our irrational choices are so compelling that we live our lives by them.

Like having faith. Like seeing beauty. Like believing in miracles. Like falling in love.

Chag Shavuot sameach. Shabbat shalom.

love in the mountains

I gave this sermon for Shavuot on 29th May 2020 over Zoom for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.