festivals · story

Set a place for Elijah

If you receive a knock on your door over this Pesach season from a beggar, please be warned. It could be Elijah.

You have been setting a place at the table for him every year, leaving him an extra glass of wine. You have been waiting for him. Did you never imagine what he would look like?

Sure, in the children’s stories, he is like a jolly Jewish Santa carrying presents. But you are all old enough and learned enough to know how Elijah is really depicted in our tradition.

When you think of Elijah, you need to imagine somebody who absolutely stinks. You need to picture wild matted hair and cackling laughter and a leather hip flask filled with hooch. 

The prophet is a drinker, and who can blame him?

No crueller punishment has ever been doled out than that given to Elijah the Tishbite. Elijah was cursed with unending life.

His sentence came in the time of Queen Jezebel but he was already much older than that. Nobody knew how old, or where he was from.

Back then, the people called him the Tishbite: the immigrant. The name stuck so hard that later generations imagined he must have come from a place called Tishab. 

He made enemies in life. Prophets always do. They have God on their side, but the powerful have the weapons, and, for now, the truth of swords is stronger than Scripture. 

At first, Elijah revelled in his mission. He was a notorious outcast. He went out in the streets making fun of the false gods. He wound people up in the markets. He poured scorn on every priest. 

And, at first, his adversaries found him entertaining too. He was like a court jester, telling the monarchs what they didn’t want to hear, as onlookers cheered him on.

But the joke grew thin. And the ruling powers had enough.

“I swear by all my gods, I will kill you,” said Queen Jezebel, and Elijah fled into the mountain caves. 

“The trouble is,” Elijah wailed, “people don’t know what’s good for them. Nobody is faithful any more. The real ones have vanished from humanity. Everyone lies. They have twisted lips and two faces. Why can’t you just cut out their tongues?”

God gave him food and water and rest through the kindness of ravens. 

“Please, Almighty,” prayed the prophet. “Send me a sign.”

The wind rattled mercilessly through the mountains, shattering rocks and splitting cliffs.

“Please, God,” said Elijah. “Just a small sign of Your provenance.”

In the valley below, the earth rumbled and quaked apart.

“Are you there, God?” he asked.

Over the tops of the hills, Elijah saw black smoke puffing out of white flames as a raving fire blistered through the thickets. 

That’s when Elijah made his fatal error. He begged God to let him die.

“I’m not looking for miracles, O Merciful One. I’m all out of hope. I have had enough. Please take my life.”

Then there was silence. 

No more infernos or hurricanes or earthquakes. 

The pressure dipped. The ravens stopped chirping. 

Not even an echo in the still canyon. 

He heard a whisper in the cave. 

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The Tishbite stood up in the dark silence. He mustered his courage. He announced: “I am a zealous warrior for the Almighty God. And I am the only one left.”

“A zealous warrior who wishes he were dead?”

Elijah got ready to speak, but the whisper interrupted him.

“A man of the people who despises the people? A faithful prophet who does not see miracles? A truth teller who lies in the face of God?”

Elijah was still and small.

“Faithless, are they?” 

God’s words reverberated in the cave. 

“In that case,” said the Creator. “You will need to watch over them. They will never perform our rituals without you there. So you will attend every circumcision and attend every seder until the end of time. Then you will see how faithless My people are.”

A hurricane of flames burst from the clouds and dragged Elijah, screaming, into the sky.

“Your mission is ongoing,” the Eternal One instructed him. “You will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. You will be my herald of a greater age.”

“When people are ready to listen to you, when they believe you and see you,” said God, “then I will send the Messiah.”

So Elijah trudged on. He stood in the gateways of every city, proclaiming visions of a coming world. “There will be no hunger or war; neither envy nor competition. Goodness will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.”

But nobody listened. 

He had no more cheerleaders, and no more adversaries. He was just another vagrant with a vivid imagination. 

Do you know what happens to a body when it is condemned to live? It trundles on with all the distress of ageing but without any hope of repose. Over centuries, the bones break, the eyes dim, the flesh rots, the organs become riddled with disease. In each era new viruses and plagues are created and you contract them all. It takes a long time, but you get sick and your lungs fill up and feet swell and your joints fuse and your muscles contract and your pores reek and your hands tremble.

It is like being unbelievably tired but never, ever allowed to sleep. 

It took a while before Elijah really allowed time to lay waste to his body. Before he let his hair become matted and knotted. Before he stopped washing and his skin turned to oily fungal patches.

Talmud teaches that, when the Romans ruled the world, he used to sit at the gates of their capital city. He would sit with the other beggars, tending to his wounds. He would unwrap each bandage and then tie it again, gingerly holding his body together as it broke.

A great rabbi came to visit him and recognised him from a mystic’s description. 

“My master, my teacher, peace be upon you,” the young rabbi beamed as he alighted on the prophet.

Elijah was filled with joy. For a brief moment Elijah felt he was seen. 

“When will the Messiah be coming?” The rabbi asked. 

“Today!” Elijah laughed. “Today! Today! Today!”

The rabbi went back to his homeland with the prophet’s words in his ears. 

“Today,” said Elijah, as he sat back down to tend his wounds. “Today. If you are able to see me and you are willing to hear my words, it really could be today.”

“I don’t think that was really Elijah,” the rabbi said to his friends on his return.

So the Messiah didn’t come then, and the Messiah hasn’t come yet. 

Some snooty Jews are expecting him to turn up with beaming smiles and a suit and tie. Or they imagine he will be a wispy spirit. Or they think the Heavens will open and they will see God themselves. 

They open the door to him. But, even with the place set and the doors wide open, they don’t notice that the old prophet is already there, dressed in his rags and nursing his whiskey. He has always been there.

Only when we are able to realise that intoxicated crazy people might be Elijah will we really be able to see the prophet.

And when we all recognise that every outcast and despised person may be the harbinger of the greater age, we will not need to wait any longer. The Messianic age will have already arrived. 

So, set a place for Elijah this Pesach. Fill a glass of wine for his health. Open your door to welcome him.

Just be sure you know who you’re looking for.

Shabbat shalom.

festivals · sermon

Reform Judaism – or Revolution Judaism?

There was a seder that lasted all night. We talk about it every year.

It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all that night until their students came and said to them: “Our teachers, the time has arrived to read the morning Shema.”

How could it be that five rabbis could talk all night and not know that the time had come to say Shema? We might imagine them engrossed in animated conversation, but even the best dinner party guests can identify when the sun has come up. The Shema is to be recited at dawn, and surely five great sages would know when the dawn has come.

Unless, of course, they couldn’t possibly know whether it was dark or light. Perhaps, our commentators now speculate, the rabbis were deep underground in a cave. You see, these rabbis lived through the great revolt against Rome, the Bar Kochba Rebellion. During this time, Jews hid out in caverns, as armed conflict raged between Judean zealots and Rome’s imperial armies.

The year was 132 CE. The great Temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed 60 years earlier. The wicked emperor Hadrian, who was also responsible for the Wall less than an hour from this synagogue, had overtaken the entire region. He erected a new temple to the Roman god Jupiter, renamed the capital city after himself, and persecuted the inhabitants.

Hadrian further antagonised the Jews by introducing new taxes and prohibiting certain religious practices. Shimon bar Koseva, better known as Bar Kochba, emerged as a military leader, determined to wage war against Rome. He gathered troops and summoned the entire Jewish diaspora into revolt. He called on our sages: “get armed! Get ready to reclaim Jerusalem!”

Every single one of the rabbis had an opinion on the matter. The core question facing them was whether they, the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, should get behind the armed struggle. Do they join with the ranks of the militants, or seek to make compromises with the Empire? Do they risk dying on their feet, or concede to live another day on their knees?

The new Reform Haggadah stages a debate between these five thinkers. Throughout rabbinic literature, we have statements attributed to each sage, many of which may have been directly connected to the struggle against Rome. Haggadateinu stitches them together into a dialogue, where each rabbi advocates his position.

Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Joshua tried to persuade the others of pacifism. The Torah teaches peace, so that was what they should pursue. The Jewish mission, after all, was to beat swords into ploughshares.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer countered them. The Jewish mission was to declare victory for God by opposing tyranny. This was, after all, the festival of Pesach, the celebration of freedom from Pharaoh, when the Jews had brought down the greatest empire of the age. They could relive their former glory, with swords in their hands and God on their side. A messianic fervour took hold of them, and Akiva even concluded that Bar Kochba must be the Messiah, ready to lead the Jews to ultimate salvation.

They continued the debate all night. They didn’t realise that dawn had come.

We do not know whether any of the sages changed their mind. But we do know what happened next. The Jews joined en masse in the revolt against Rome. And they lost. Hadrian persecuted them and destroyed an entire generation of rabbis. Akiva was flailed to death as he recited his prayers. Tarfon joined him as one of the ten martyrs.

So, with hindsight, which one of them was right? A cynic would dismiss Rabbi Akiva’s passion, saying he was foolhardy to take on the empire. But there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t have suffered just as much if they hadn’t resisted.

Maybe collaboration with Rome would have secured their survival. Our ancestors could have gone down Rabbi Tarfon’s route. They could have negotiated and compromised. Perhaps he would have permitted them to stay under his rule in Palestine and they would have lived there.

Then who would we have been? We would never have spread across the Diaspora as a light unto the nations. We may never have composed the Mishnah, the Midrashim, the Talmuds, or any of the subsequent generations of rabbinic literature. Quite possibly, if every Judean of the time had survived, the people would have lived, but there would be no Judaism. We needed the revolutionary spirit, that sense of injustice, and that determination to fight for what was right, in order that we could truly pass on a tradition.

Our Judaism is the Judaism of Rabbi Akiva.

But it is also the Judaism of Rabbi Tarfon. After the failure of the revolt against Rome, our rabbis had to regroup and reconsider what Judaism would mean. They re-made their religion as a movement that was not tied to any country or Temple, but that could live everywhere in the world. They did away with ancient sacrifices and replaced them with universal prayers. They found a way to make an accommodation with reality.

And they held onto Rabbi Akiva’s dreams, too. For two thousand years, Judaism has sustained its hope for a messianic age. At the end of the seder, we still declare ‘next year in Jerusalem!’ We are not making a plan to buy plane tickets. We are talking about the Jerusalem that Akiva had hoped for – the time of the Messiah. The age when tyranny is destroyed and war abolished.

We are, therefore, a religion of both revolution and reformation. We are still holding that tension, between working within oppressive systems, and seeking their abolition. We continue to recite the words of all five sages, holding their ideals alive.

And, as we recall their seder in Bnei Barak at our sederim in Newcastle, we join them back in those caves. We are with them, asking the same questions. We still want to know: how will we get free? What must we do? When will we know that the time has come?

We are still, in many ways, in Mitzrayim. The messianic age has not arrived. But every year we raise our glasses and welcome Elijah. We eat our symbols of liberation. We pray for the coming of a new day.

Yes, although we may feel that we are in darkness, we know that the dawn will come.

The dawn will surely come.

Chag Pesach sameach vkasher.

judaism · sermon · social justice · story · torah

Pinchas joins us on the Pride march

In the time of Moses, love across boundaries was common. Israelites fell in love with people no matter what boundaries were set down by their priests, and openly entered relationships with people of every background. Intermarriage with the Midianites – a tribe from the Arabian Peninsula – was quite common. This incensed the priests.

Pinchas, the son of a leading priest, saw an Israelite man going home with a Midianite woman. He took a sword and killed them both. One cut straight through the belly. According to the Torah, this stopped a plague that had killed 24 thousand people.[1] That is our week’s parasha: a zealot stabs people in the stomach because he doesn’t like their relationship.

The rabbis showered Pinchas in glory. He was, in their minds, the guardian of Jewish tradition.[2] The Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, an early Aramaic translation of our text, holds Pinchas in such high esteem that it says he was made immortal. He has God make him an angel of the covenant, living forever, so that he could announce Redemption at the end of days.[3]

This is how our tradition treats a violent zealot. In 2015, Yishai Schlissel, a Haredi man in Jerusalem, went out to the city’s Pride parade and stabbed the LGBT people who were celebrating there. One young woman, Shira Banki, died from the wounds. She was 16. Schlissel had done the same thing ten years earlier, and had just been released from prison.[4] In his defence, Schlissel claimed he was inspired by Pinchas. Like Pinchas, he was protesting sexual immorality. Like Pinchas, he was a zealot taking direct action. Like Pinchas, he stabbed them in the belly.[5] On the streets of Meah Shaarim, an Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, posters went up celebrating Schlissel’s violence by quoting this week’s parasha: ‘and the plague was lifted.’[6]

This text’s history is painful. The tradition is so horrible that it makes me wonder why we study these texts at all. What can we possibly gain from them? How can this story form part of our Torah of love and justice? There is a part of me that would prefer to pretend Pinchas never existed, and to hope that Yishai Schlissel will simply rot in a jail cell somewhere and never have his name mentioned again. But we cannot gloss over it and pretend that Jews who hold these violent views do not exist. We have to engage with it.

What can we say to it? If you sat face-to-face with Pinchas, what could you tell this biblical figure about morality? How can we speak back to this troubling text?

I want to propose an alternative reading of the story of Pinchas. The Targum only tells us that Pinchas lived forever, but not what happened to him afterwards. I want us to imagine together that Pinchas was kept alive, not as a reward, but so that he could learn the error of his ways. Pinchas, as an immortal angel, has had to follow the progress of the Jewish community and see the accomplishments of the queer liberation movement.

He stayed alive to see the unbridled love between Ruth and Naomi. Ruth, a Moabite woman, devoted herself utterly to her mother-in-law, followed her everywhere she went and accepted all the ways of the Jewish people.[7] She became the ancestor of King David.[8] As Pinchas followed them on their harsh wanderings through the desert, Pinchas wondered what he had been so afraid of. Were foreign women really such a threat to Jewish existence?

In the time of the rabbis, Pinchas sat on the banks of the Galilee and saw Rabbi Johanan fall in love with Resh Lakish. Johanan stunned Resh Lakish with his long flowing hair and androgynous good looks. Resh Lakish, a gladiator, turned away from violence just so he could spend his life studying halachah with Johanan.[9] They never touched each other, because the times would not allow it, but gazed at each other fondly as they pored over pages of the Torah together. They learned to control an uncontrollable love.[10] Pinchas watched them and wondered: “Could this be so bad?”

In the Middle Ages, Pinchas was transported to Spain. He sat in the courtyards of Arabic-speaking rabbis who drank wine and unabashedly serenaded each other with love songs. He saw the great Jewish poets of the generation ring out praises for same-sex love in the sun of Al-Andalus.[11] Pinchas sat at their feet and thought about what he had thought sexual impropriety was. Was this it? Were these loving sages, so dedicated their Judaism, the thing he had so much feared?

Pinchas saw the rise of the queer liberation movement. He saw modern gay, bi, lesbian and trans people gather together in Magnus Hirschfield’s flat in Berlin. He saw how, at the turn of the 20th Century, European Jews led the charge for freedom to live and love.[12] He witnessed them insist that this was the articulation of their Jewish values: that to live unabashed and unafraid was a far greater representation of the prophetic message of Judaism than the narrow nationalism others espoused. Pinchas asked himself: “Are they talking about me?” Pinchas saw the Nazis destroy everything Magnus created.[13]

I hope that Pinchas came to England too. I hope he saw Rabbi Lionel Blue (z”l) give hope and heart to all those who worried that they could never be gay and Jewish. I hope Pinchas saw Lionel proudly come out and preach the words of a loving G?d to an audience of millions.[14] I want to imagine that Pinchas sat in the beit midrash with Rabbi Sheila Shulman (z”l), and heard her expound radical lesbian Jewish theology.[15]

Pinchas was there on that Pride Parade in Jerusalem in 2015. Pinchas saw a 16-year-old girl murdered in his name. Pinchas saw the people who celebrated it. Pinchas buried his head in his hands and wondered: “Is this my Judaism? Is this my Judaism?”

No, Pinchas, this is not your Judaism. We have come a long way from the tribal zealotry of the past. Across the entire Jewish community, people are waking up to the joys of love. It will win.[16] There are others who are slow to accept us, but they will, with time. Like you, Pinchas, people are learning through the struggles of queer people that progress is nothing to fear.

So, Pinchas, come join us at Manchester Pride Parade this year. The season is just starting. There will be an entire marching bloc of Jews from all the best synagogues in this great city. Come and turn your zealotry to the cause of progressive Judaism – its inclusion of every Jew and its promise of a relationship with a loving God. March with us, and fulfil the role that God set out for you – that you should be an angel of the covenant and a harbinger of Redemption.

Shabbat shalom.

Her name was Shira Banki.

I gave this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on 7th July 2018 (Pinchas 5778) on the day when the Pride season kicked off in London. Manchester Pride march will be on August 25th. To join the Jewish bloc on the demonstration, get in touch with Jacksons Row Synagogue, who are coordinating it.

[1] Numbers 25:7-8

[2] BT Sanhedrin 82a-b

[3] Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Numbers 25:12

[4] https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-pride-parade-stabber-to-undergo-psychiatric-evaluation-1.5383572

[5] https://www.jewishideas.org/article/zealotry-and-its-consequences-case-yishai-schlissel

[6] https://www.timesofisrael.com/praise-for-gay-pride-parade-attack-posted-in-jerusalem/

[7] https://www.jewdas.org/ruth-and-naomi/

[8] Ruth 4

[9] Bava Metzia 84a

[10] Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct, 1997

[11] Norman Roth, Deal Gently with that Young Man, 1982

[12] https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1868-the-einstein-of-sex-is-born-and-dies-1.5361786

[13] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/lgbtq-institute-in-germany-was-burned-down-by-nazis

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/19/rabbi-lionel-blue-gay-liberal-thought-for-day-star-dies-86

[15] http://www.rainbowjews.com/rabbi-sheila-shulman-a-true-pioneer/

[16] https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-london-rabbi-preaches-inclusivity-toward-gays-sets-off-uproar-1.5482362