article · theology

A Tale of Two Gods

In the time of the First Temple, in the world of the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Israelites brought sacrifices to the cultic centre in Jerusalem. One of these was the korban o’la – an offering of burnt animal fat. Every part of the sacrificed animal was burnt on the altar, except for its skin. The Hebrew word o’la, meaning rising up, referred to the pungent smoke released twice daily when the sacrifice was made.

Many centuries after the destruction of the First Temple, in the time of the Second, a group of pious believers came to translate the text into Greek. This early translation of the Bible became known as the Septuagint. Greek had no direct translation for the term o’la, so the editors chose a word meaning ‘completely burnt’ – holo kauston. Holocaust.

That is the word that has come to represent the ritual slaughter of 17 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish, in the middle of the 20th century. Like the animals of many millennia before, the people in the concentration camps were burnt throughout the day so that nothing remained of them.

It is perhaps for this reason that many of the victims were reluctant to use the term Holocaust. Jews called it by the Hebrew word shoah, meaning ‘disaster’ or churban – ‘destruction’. Roma people called it Porajmos – ‘the devouring’. For historians it was simply called by its Latin name ‘genocide’ – the killing of a people.

Something sinister lurks behind the very word ‘Holocaust’. The Jews, forever seen as relics of the Christian Old Testament, were murdered in the manner described by their book as a tool for expiating sin.

The word calls us to ask: to whom were these Jews sacrificed? On whose behalf? For what sin were they intended to atone? And was the God that received these offerings satisfied?

In the time of the First Temple, minor transgressions were deemed to pollute the land. The o’la served as a way to ritually cleanse ancient Israel of its impurities. Priests appealed to the national god for mercy and knew their petitions had been answered by the arrival of regular rainfall.

In the world of the Third Reich, ethnic impurities and social deviations polluted Europe. Germany and its empire was in breach of its duty to be thoroughly white, Christian, patriarchal and heterosexual. Isolating the minorities was not enough to recompense for their transgressions. The minorities had to be destroyed in their entirety. Devout Nazis played their part to remove and destroy every blemish in their land.

Of course, such blemishes can never be fully removed. The sin of non-whiteness is too volatile and its terms too expansive. The god of nationalism is thoroughly empty, so no amount of flesh will ever fill him. He is insatiable. Modern fascists remind us that the nationalist god is still hungry for blood.

The God of the ancient Temple, by contrast, no longer requires burnt meat. That Temple was destroyed and its people forced into exile. God fled with the refugees and, with them, became transnational. Prayers replaced sacrifices. The God of Israel became the God of the Jews, who wanted good deeds, social justice and piety. It mutated into the God of Love and could be found on every continent.

The god of nationalism, paradoxically, is now no less international. He permeated borders through colonialism and found a home on every soil. In every country, he can be seen represented by each flag. His priests can be found adorned in military uniforms of every stripe. His followers proclaim his word from pulpits the old preachers could never have imagined, reaching millions.

And he still requires blood. His altars are the lynch ropes for Muslims in India. His followers ritually parade through Charlottesville, Belfast, Rangoon, London and Sao Paulo. And, yes, the god of nationalism is worshipped in Israel too. The very land that birthed the universal God now hosts nationalism in its gates. In every place, his offerings are returned in coffins. And, no matter how many die, it will never be enough.

As the god to whom fascists make their sacrifices ascends, the universal God of the Jews withers. In Auschwitz, our God stood trial. The pious Jews who prayed in the camps convened a court and charged God with breach of covenant. God had abandoned them. Or forgotten them. Our rabbis had no choice but to pronounce: God is guilty. And when they knew that divine help was not coming, they did the only thing they could. They prayed.

After the camps were liberated, the remnant survivors had to face a new reality. They wondered whether their God was dead. A bitter irony. For centuries, the Jews had been accused of deicide against Jesus. Now they witnessed their own God burned in the flames of fascism’s altars. Only later did the quiet Christian witnesses realise that their God had been the same one, and was dying too. Their doctrine of goodwill and universal love was no less weakened. And only then did they realise they had killed the wrong God.

Is it too late? Can the old religion of truth and humanity be revived? Certainly, its followers are rebuilding. Synagogues are emerging anew in places where sceptics imagined that God was buried: in Córdoba, Warsaw and York. True believers congregate in mosques, chapels, gurdwaras and living rooms. Those who hold the greatest hope are unafraid to protest in God’s name against violence. They refuse to sacrifice to the new gods. They are the source of my faith.

As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we must remember not only the millions of human sacrifices, but the deity for whom they were killed. We must rededicate ourselves to destroying its idols and exposing them for the false gods that they are. In memory of the murdered, we must destroy fascism today.

Yet just because we oppose one god does not mean we must give up the One God. The Force of hope, solidarity and justice cannot be abandoned, even if we feel as if it has abandoned us. So, in memory of all those who were martyred professing a faith in that religion, I ask you to do something normally unthinkable in a radical publication like Novara Media – and pray.

burning smoke columns

I wrote this article for Novara Media for Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday 27 January 2020.

judaism · theology

God will reign forever

Tonight, at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community, I won’t speak much, in order to give everyone a chance to express their sadnesses, fears and hopes. The Jewish community is still reeling from shock at the shooting at Eitz Chayyim synagogue in Pittsburgh. I know I am not alone in fearing the rise of fascists in Brazil, Italy and Hungary. People will need to name their fears and have them heard. But I will say a few words before we daven to set the tone. I share them here.

I have a secret love, perhaps unbecoming of a Liberal Jew. I love Chassidic house music. Shwekey, Nachas, Beri Weber… I love the upbeat, pop-py, happy tunes with Jewish liturgical slogans chanted over them.

A couple of months ago, a housemate came in to find me singing along to it as I cleaned the kitchen. I spritzed the table and mopped it up, chanting “Hashem melech! Hashem malach! Hashem yimloch le’olam va’ed!” The song’s lyrics mean “God reigns, God has reigned, and God will reign forever.”

My housemate, who had grown up in Habonim Dror, a secular socialist Jewish youth movement, was horrified. “How can you say that? You of all people?”

I reflected on his question. Of all the Chassidic house music I’ve sung along to, this seemed the least offensive lyrics I could think of. These were words that we say regularly in prayer.

I think the problem is that we have different views about what God is. What he thought I was singing for was theocratic tyranny. If I imagined that God was that bearded, judgemental man in the sky, I would do everything possible to stop Him from reigning anywhere. Indeed, we have all seen what happens when religious people that do believe such things take power.

For me, God is not that judgemental man, but the force of love and justice that gives morality meaning. God is an indescribable binding power, an energy of love that hums beneath the chatter of man-made hate.

And yes, I believe that force reigns, has reigned, and will reign forever.

Today, when we see the rise of fascists and we mourn murdered Jews, the underlying force of love and justice is still there, and still has power.

In our darkest moments, when we have witnessed personal tragedies and collective atrocities, the power of morality still reigned. Our lives still possessed a deeper meaning.

And God – our God – the God of love – will outlive every antisemite, every president, every nation, every empire. No matter how dark things seem, I know that God will reign forever.

Let us pray.

candlelit vigil

 

judaism · sermon

What makes people change?

What is it that makes people change? People do change, after all. Change is a foundational principle of our religion. We call it teshuvah: turning, repenting. Although we Jews hold fast to few dogmas, we know that people can make mistakes and correct them. We know that people can be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. Without this belief, our religion would be meaningless and our lives devoid of hope.

So what is it that makes people change? In this week’s parashah, Emor, God gives the Israelites a framework for repentance. They will have rest-days and festivals. They will come together on Yom Kippur and present an offering of food in the Temple. But repentance can’t be limited to only one day a year. Week after week, the Israelites must bring offerings of bread and oil to burn on the altar.

Today, it is hard to imagine how these rituals might have brought about meaningful change. We are too far removed from a Temple-centred agrarian society to imagine the spiritual significance of priests sacrificing grain on an altar. But, to those who practised it, this must have been a meaningful experience. They set aside time for worship and brought their only source of income – the harvest and livestock on which they depended for a living – then watched their offerings publicly go up in flames. Perhaps this itself was enough to make people reconsider their lives and commit to acting differently.

In the parallel haftarah, Nehemiah, the Jews throw dust on their heads, separate themselves off and wear sackcloth. They fast and cry. This was how they repented after the return from the Great Exile, when the First Temple had been destroyed. It is a spiritual world that seems so strange and yet so familiar, and we feel a sense of how that ancient cult of Temple priests evolved into the religion we practise today.

Today, we offer up prayers; we take time to reflect in silence or recite ancient meditations. To the Temple cultists, our approaches to changing ourselves might look as bizarre as their rituals appear to us. That’s because they can’t see what’s going on behind our penitentiary words: that, with them, we are examining ourselves and finding ways to be better people. These songs and silences prompt us to repair relations with people we’ve wronged, and adjust our views and actions. At least, we hope they do.

We believe that people change, but it’s hard to put that faith into practice. I have watched with some concern as news has unfolded around political scandals over the last week, both of Amber Rudd stepping down as Home Secretary for her racist policies and the beginnings of expulsions of Labour Party members accused of antisemitism. There can be absolutely no doubt that there is no place for antisemitism, anti-Black discrimination or xenophobic feeling in our public sphere. Everybody who has drawn attention to it has done the right thing. Their campaigns have been wholly legitimate.

But what comes out of them leaving their ministerial posts or their political parties? Have their views changed? Have the political forces that engendered racism been challenged? Or have we got rid of certain people from the public eye so that we can pretend that issues of bigotry are confined to individuals, rather than something we all, collectively, need to address? It seems like we have ruled out the possibility that people can change. By removing them, it seems we assume that Amber Rudd and Labour Party antisemites cannot change. And it seems we assume that we, ourselves, do not need to change. The Jewish principle of teshuvah is made obsolete.

This leaves me wondering: is there an alternative? Is there a way to encourage people to change their bigoted views that can have a lasting impact? This week, I watched a documentary, called ‘Keep Quiet’, about the Hungarian neo-Nazi Csanad Szegedi. He was a leader of the feared far-right party Jobbik, heading up their racist street army. He was celebrated by white supremacists across the world when he won a seat in the European Parliament to promote Holocaust denial, racist conspiracy theories, and anti-immigration policies.

And then something shocking happened. His grandmother informed him that she was Jewish. She had survived Auschwitz. Her daughter, his mother, was also Jewish. In Orthodox religious law, he, too, was Jewish. These revelations forced him to embark on a journey of self-discovery that dramatically changed him.

Only a few days after his Jewish status leaked to the press, Szegedi called up his local rabbi, Boruch Oberlander, a Chabad Lubavitcher, originally from New York, whose parents were Shoah survivors. Although Szegedi was very much the star of the documentary, it was his rabbi, Oberlander, who really stood out to me. Nobody else was willing to engage with Szegedi. Oberlander’s own congregants and funders actively discouraged him from meeting with the neo-Nazi. But Oberlander believed, against all evidence, and against what everyone else was saying, that Szegedi could change. He told the filmmakers that he saw Szegedi as a Jew and believed that every Jew deserved a chance at repentance.

Rabbi Oberlander opened up that space for Szegedi to become someone new. He met with him weekly, then bi-weekly. Over a period of years, he introduced him to the principles of Judaism, educated him about life under the Nazis, and showed him the compassion we would expect of a Jew. Szegedi resigned his membership of Jobbik. He bought up all the copies of his own fascist book he could find, and burnt them. He got circumcised. He began davening daily. And he publicly renounced his racist views. At each stage, Rabbi Oberlander encouraged him, saying: “You’re not done yet. You still have more repenting to do. You still can go further.” And Szegedi believed in that encouragement.

This is a totally different model of engaging bigotry to the one we have seen in British politics. It is one of patience and compassion. It builds from the assumption that people with unpalatable views are on a journey, and that they can be transformed with enough kindness, encouragement and care. It is a model that appeals to me on a deeply spiritual level.

As Jews, we have, by necessity, become hardened to antisemitism, but we should not become so hard that we forget our core values: that all people are created with a spark of the Divine; that the world is perfectible; and that we are tasked as a people to show what a world rooted in ethics might look like. Although it may seem politically unrealistic, it is religiously necessary that we engage people in uncomfortable conversations. The appeal of racism is that it offers easy answers. Our response, therefore, must be a willingness to pose hard questions, and listen sensitively to the answers.

Just as the Temple priests of old knew that repentance was not something that could be done as a one off by one person, but needed to be done constantly by everyone, Britain as a nation must also be willing to engage in teshuvah. We as a nation must face up to our country’s horrible past. Antisemitism owes its origins to the Crusades, where Jews were treated as a fifth column, and physically attacked as stand-in representatives of Palestine that the knights sought out to conquer for Christianity. Tropes of Jew hatred are part of Britain’s class system, where Jews were used by monarchs as pawns for collecting taxes, and for directing the hatred of the masses when rebellion was in the air.

Similarly, anti-Black racism comes out of Britain’s colonial history. Black people were taken from Africa to the Caribbean as slaves and forced to work on plantations. Britain called over its subjects from the colonies to help rebuild it after the war, often taking on menial jobs and living in squalid conditions. That is why the Windrush generation are here, and that is why they are being oppressed as they are.

If we really want to rid our world of the scourge of racism, Szegedi’s story will not be enough. All of us need to examine the racism in our own hearts and throughout our society. We need to create a culture where everyone is willing to learn, develop, and be better people than they have been. We also all need to learn from Rabbi Oberlander’s example: to be more willing to engage with people who have objectionable views, and patiently believe in their capacity to change. If we can meet the world with compassion and self-reflection, we may be able to restore hope.

Shabbat shalom.

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I gave this sermon on Friday 4th May at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. The day before, the country had gone to the polls in local elections, where racism and antisemitism were live issues.