sermon · talmud

Can you purify this spider?



Spider season seems to have begun early this year.

It’s that time of the year when we start seeing spiders, climbing up walls, hanging out in sheds, and getting comically stuck in bathtubs. Of course, they live all year round, but in early autumn they are visible everywhere.

I love spiders. I think they’re quite cute. We don’t have any dangerous ones in this country, as far as I know, and they eat the ticks that we really don’t want in our houses.

But I get why other people are creeped out by them. They’ve got eight legs, which is far too many, and they scurry around like they’re up to no good. We’ve been fed media images of terrifying tarantulas and it’s understandable that people would associate them.

The Torah has a word for these beasties. Sheretz. It’s root is resh-vav-tzadi, to do with running around, so most translations render sheretz as ‘creepy-crawly,’ or ‘creeping thing.’ It applies, first and foremost, to mice and lizards, but extends to any scuttling insect or racing rodent. There are also the sheretz bamayim – the creepy-crawlies underwater, like jellyfish, octopus and lobster you might find scampering on ocean floors.

They were created by God on the fifth day. They are mentioned by name. For some reason, God decided that spiders were supposed to exist. God made room for them in the world and dedicated a verse of Torah to celebrating their creation. God made mosquitoes and shrews and chameleons and God saw that they were good. So, if you’re in the camp that loves spiders, you get a point.

God has also banned them. We are prohibited from eating them. They are described as disgusting and as abominations. On some level, we are supposed to revile them. So, if you’re in the camp of people who can’t stand spiders, you get a point too.

(I promise you, this is going somewhere.)

I’ve spent the last week thinking about the sheretz. From Monday to Thursday, this synagogue hosted the Queer Yeshiva. It was a momentous occasion. Never before in Progressive British history have so many people come together to study the Talmud in such an intense way. Everybody talked about how wonderful this synagogue is, and I want to thank you all for opening this space to a bunch of LGBT people to study Torah.

Over the week, we read a sugya of Talmud from Sanhedrin, a tractate that deals with capital crimes. It asks questions about who gets to condemn somebody for the death penalty, and on what grounds.

It contains a list of characteristics expected of Jewish high court judges: tall; wise; handsome; elderly; fluent in at least seventy languages; and, of course, familiar with sorcery.

So, who is eligible? Do we have any candidates for the Sanhedrin in this congregation? I won’t be putting my hat in the ring. It’s tricky to find someone, but I’m sure such people exist.

Then it adds another requirement. Anyone who wants to sit on a Sanhedrin has to find grounds for declaring clean the sheretz. You want to put somebody to death? You’ve got to be able to make lobsters kosher. You have to be able to purify a spider.

Who can make unclean things clean? Who can make what’s treif kosher? If anyone in this room can do it, you will be welcomed with open arms to the Jewish law courts of Babylonia.

But it seems unlikely that will fall within any of our skill sets. It sets an impossibly high standard.

Perhaps that’s the point. You have to be so good at thinking and reasoning that only the highest standards of scholars can join. You have to be of such excellent calibre that you know Torah inside out and can interpret it, even against itself.

Many have understood this edict that way. In fact, elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that there are as many as 150 ways to make shrimp kosher. There’s not just one secret method of purifying a sheretz – there are a whole bunch of them – and you should be able to work them out.

But the Talmud doesn’t give any convincing explanations as to how this is possible. Even where rabbis have a stab at it, they are soon shot down. Nice try, but no. That’s not how you make mice edible.

As a result, plenty of rabbis throughout the ages have tried to show that they can purify the sheretz. Great thinkers who knew the Torah inside out have tried to show that they are eligible for sitting on the Sanhedrin.

But here’s the thing. You can do all the reasoning you like. A spider will still be a spider. A lizard will still be a sheretz. And a sheretz will still be unclean. You can’t actually change what the Torah says.

So the rabbis have made sitting on the Sanhedrin impossible. It is so restricted that we will never find people capable of achieving it. De facto, the rabbis have abolished the death penalty.

This is a tremendous achievement. Subtly, and without saying so, they have done exactly what they say needs to be done: they have turned the Torah against itself. Except, instead of turning the Torah against itself so that they can kill people, they turn the Torah against itself so nobody can!

Suppose somebody were to come along and actually give convincing proof that spiders are really kosher. OK, then we would have a problem. My hunch is that the rabbis have already thought of this. Anybody who could do so would, by their nature, refuse to implement the death penalty.

A person who can see the kosher in a lobster can see the goodness in a convict.

A person who could cleanse the body of a mouse could cleanse the soul of a criminal.

You have to be able to see people, and creepy-crawlies, the way that God sees them: as good.

This is the rabbis’ genius way of telling us who is allowed to judge others. The only person we would permit the authority to judge others is the one who would judge them favourably.

The spiders are out and about in our houses. We might love them or hate them or greet them with indifference. But who gave any of us the right to kill them? God, for whatever reason, has determined that they have a place on this earth and it is not our job to decide they don’t.

The world is full of people we don’t like. Some of them do detestable things. And we might feel fear and hatred and anger towards them. And sometimes those feelings are justified.

But we don’t have the right to kill them.

We are not worthy to judge them.

Unless you can purify a spider, you have to live in this world with everyone else.

God has made enough room for them in this world and we have to make enough room in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · social justice · story

Welcome to the Queer Yeshiva

Hello and welcome to the Queer Yeshiva.

My name is Lev. I’m one of the teachers here, with Jo, Hava and Daniel.

A month ago, I was ordained as a rabbi. One of the things that most made me want to be a rabbi was bring gay. I wanted to be part of a religious life that made being queer feel as empowering and magical as it really is.

I love being queer. I love queer people. One of the things I love most about us is that no matter what life throws at us, we always rebuild.

I think about the lives of queer people. Everyone I know has had to struggle with who they are, face down violence, and out of adversity, rebuild themselves as someone stronger than anyone could have imagined.

When I was a kid, I was already too fabulous to be contained. All I wanted in life was to wear dresses and do Spice Girls dance routines. I knew I was different and I didn’t care.

But the rest of the world did. I grew up in a small town with few opportunities. For most of my teens, I was beaten up on a near daily basis. I was attacked at school, walking home, in the shops, and outside my front door. That was only the other kids. The adults were worse: at best they ignored it; at worst they encouraged it. At the school leavers’ assembly, the teachers gave me an award for “most likely to have a sex change.”

But I’m not bitter. I’m proud. I came out of all that knowing who I was and willing to fight for others. That’s why we have parades. That’s why we stand up celebrate our community, because we have withstood discrimination and violence and built out of it fantastic cultures. All that queer art, queer music, and queer innovation- that came out of queer struggle. We are who we are because of who we were.

And that’s not limited just to us here. That’s something queer people have to do in every generation. Think how many times we have been destroyed, and think how many times we have rebuilt.

Consider only the last century. At the beginning of the 1900s, our people were dealing with criminalisation, as many had been imprisoned. Against that backdrop, Magnus Hirschfield created the Institut for Sexualwissenschaft, pioneering the understanding of queer people.

His work was burned by the Nazis. Queers were turned into pariahs and murdered in te death camps. Even once the Second World War was over, many homosexuals were forced to stay in prison to complete their sentences.

In the aftermath, our ancestors picked themselves up again. They built the Gay Power movement. They formed the Lavender Menace. They created the ballroom scene in the nightclubs of New York.

Once again, they were decimated by the AIDS crisis. Government indifference and vengeful homophobia killed a generation of queers.

And still, we could not be destroyed. We came back stronger, demanding legislative changes and pushing for a transformed world. We recreated community to fight for our liberation.

In every generation, people have tried to destroy us. In every generation, they have failed. We will always rebuild. We will always imagine a greater future. We will always reappear.

We are indestructible.

In that sense, we are the heirs to the rabbinic tradition.

Judaism, as we know it, is the product of people who saw their world crash around them repeatedly and, every time, rebuilt it.

Our Judaism was born out of a time of fundamental crisis. At the start of the last millennium, the Jews were a nation. They had their country, the land of Israel. They had their capital, Jerusalem. They had their cultic centre, the Temple. They had their religious leadership, the priests. And they had their religious practices, sacrifices.

Then, they faced catastrophe. The Romans came and waged an aggressive war, killing off the leadership, and starving the people of Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple and abolished its customs.

Yesterday was the fast of Tish BAv. It was, for many religious Jews, a day of weeping and despair. We recalled the genocide, the disruption, the pain. We remembered the destruction of the Temple in the context of all the times that Jews have been destroyed.

But, in that act of ritualised remembering, we also remember that we have survived. Jews and Judaism have kept going, even two thousand years later.

Let us remember why.

Faced with annihilation, the Jews had three choices. One: they could dig their heels and pretend nothing happened. They could decide that they were going to carry on with the Temple and the priesthood, even though they were gone.

Two: they could abandon their old religion altogether. That was what normally happened to ancient peoples when they were conquered: they gave up their old traditions and gave in to colonisation.

Three, the third option: they could retell their story for the sake of their contemporary situation. They could look at everything they had been, and use their history to reimagine their future.

Our rabbis chose option three.

Put yourself in their position.

Imagine you were there, not just in the aftermath but right in the thick of it. Jerusalem is under seige. Your family are starving. Your people are fighting the Romans, but mostly they’re fighting each other. You can see your world on fire. You don’t even know if you will survive.

What would you do?

That’s how it was for Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai. He was alive then. That was what he saw.

He told his students to put him in a coffin, pretend he was dead, and smuggle him out of Jerusalem. Once out of the besieged city gates, he got out and demanded to speak to the Roman emperor, Vaspasian.

As it happened, Vaspasian was willing to compromise. He said: “OK, tell me you want.”

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai said: “Give me Yavne and students of Torah.”

What was Yavne? It was a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. It was filled with displaced people. Who were the students of Torah? Just a bunch of people who remembered what the old religion used to be like.

Why? Why would you ask for such a thing? If the commander of the imperial Roman army is willing to negotiate, why not find a way to get the troops to leave?

Because a people that knows who they are cannot be destroyed.

Sure, the colonisers might go, and the Jews might live, but Judaism could end. The only way for anyone to live on after facing near annihilation is to look at where they’ve been. They have to take a long look at their story and reimagine it for a new era.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai and his students learnt everything. They committed to memory their whole history so that they could recite it by heart.

Then, they revolutionised it. They said: we don’t need the land of Israel or Jerusalem any more. From now on, we’re going to be spread across the whole world. We’re going to make our religion portable so that it can be sustained in any nation.

They looked at their Temple and its sacrifices and said: we’re not going back to that. We’re going to reinvent our practices. We will replace them with prayer and study. As long as people keep our words alive, we won’t need for animals to die.

They looked at the priesthood and said: that’s done. From now on, we have no hierarchy.
From hereon out, we are equals. The measure of Jewishness won’t be who your father was but how imaginative you can be in reexamine your tradition.

They looked over their old systems of justice, and interrogated them. Who is included here, and who is left out? What is justice going to look like for us now? They were so radical that they tried to work out how they could turn the Torah against the Torah.

And that instantly transformed Judaism. Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples weren’t from the elites. They were blacksmiths and peasant farmers and outsiders. They saw, from that vantage point, how their people could creatively rebuild. And that is why we have our Judaism today.

And here’s the thing. Rabbi Yochanan had, maybe, ten students. There were fewer people in his beit midrash than there are in this room.

You only need a handful of visionaries to spark a revolution.

Be in no doubt, that is what could happen here this week.

We are, as always, facing catastrophe. Queer people are under attack once more. The planet is burning. Capitalism is in crisis. The old ways of doing Judaism are floundering.

Do you think that the future of Judaism is going to be secured by happy people in their comfortable homes? No way. They have nothing to lose from the current situation. They don’t have the imagination to see how things could be different.

The future of our people lies with those on its margins. Its the queers. It’s the weirdos. It’s the radicals. It’s you.

That’s why we’re here. We’re going to do what queers and Jews have always done. We’re going to rebuild while our world is on fire.

We’re going to learn everything we can, internalising the words of our ancestors so fully thar they will travel with us everywhere. We’re going to re-analyse them in light of our own circumstances, seeing how these traditions bear on our own lives and struggles. And, out of that, We’re going to completely retell our story.

This is where the future of Judaism starts again.

I love being queer. I love queer people. And I can’t wait to see what we achieve.

This talk was based on the Crash Talk by Rabbi Benay Lappe, used for Queer Yeshiva Summer Intensive 5782 in Essex

social justice · talmud

Support our Queer Yeshiva

I am so excited to share this.

For years, I have harboured a dream of setting up a queer yeshiva. Now, we are launching a crowdfunder to get it started.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

The Talmud is the most beautiful work of Jewish thought. It was what inspired me to train as a rabbi and got me through some of my most challenging times. It has so much to offer queers. Can you help fund it?

Since launching less than a week ago, we have raised over £4,000. We need your help to bring us up to our total goal of £5,000. Whatever you can give will be immensely welcome.

I hope you will join me in supporting this cause and sharing it with anyone you know who might be interested.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

Our mission

We want to bring queer, radical Talmud learning to the UK. We are asking for your help to fund us. 

The Talmud is a beautiful and subversive text at the heart of traditional Judaism. 

Created by radicals who wanted to reinvent their religion, it teaches people how to think outside of binaries and assumptions. 

But for years, this sacred knowledge has been kept locked up by elite straight men. We want to break it open.

Our goal is to learn Talmud in a way that centres marginalised people. 

We are upending hierarchy and empowering queers with the tools and knowledge to bring these texts to life. We are here, we are queer, and we are ready for shiur.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

The project

In the summer of 2022, we hope to launch a ‘Queer Yeshiva’: Four days of intensive rigorous learning. 

Based in East London, this will be an empowering experience of accessing traditional Jewish wisdom.

We need to be in a fully accessible venue, meeting the learning needs of everyone. We need this space to be open to single parents, unemployed people, and Jews who have never studied before.

This is a big undertaking, and it costs money. That is why we are asking for your help.

Within a year, we hope to be fully self-funding and sustainable, but first we need a cash injection to get this project off the ground. 

Can you help?

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

Who we are

For seven years, Babel’s Blessing has been London’s leading grassroots language school. We teach Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and Sylheti so that Londoners can communicate with each other. We run a bnei mitzvah programme so that Jews can connect with their traditions on their own terms. We provide ESOL classes for migrants to the UK, including working as the only teachers of English as a foreign language in arrival centres.

Svara is a traditionally radical yeshiva in the United States. It teaches queer-centred Talmud pedagogy with methods designed to help oppressed people feel empowered within their tradition. Our educators have learnt from them and in their methods. 

Please donate and share now. We can’t do this without you.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

judaism · theology

We are not our past mistakes.

We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir was the greatest rabbi of his generation. He learnt from both the great masters of Mishnah, Akiva and Eliezer. He was ordained a rabbi by his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, younger than any of his contemporaries and gave more rulings than any of them.[1]

Meir was a great rabbi, but his wife, Beruriah, was even greater. She once learnt 300 rulings from 300 different sages in one day.[2] She was the only woman to be credited with making religious decisions. Sometimes she even overruled her husband. 

One day, Beruriah came in on her husband and heard him praying. He had been harassed by local hooligans. Rabbi Meir cried out in supplication to God: “Sovereign of All Worlds, I wish You would kill those bandits!”

Beruriah was shocked. “What are you thinking?!” she demanded. Meir looked surprised: “I am only asking for what it already says in the Psalms – let sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more.”[3]

“That’s not what the verse says,” retorted Beruriah. “It says: let sins disappear from the earth, not sinners. The wicked won’t just disappear because someone wishes them away. They will only disappear because they will repent and give up their sins. The wicked do not disappear because God takes vengeance on them, but because God has mercy on them.”

From then on, Rabbi Meir changed his prayer. Instead, he said: “May God have mercy on them and may they change their ways.”[4]

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes only that they will turn from their evil ways and live.[5]

That is the message at the heart of this season. This is the last Shabbat in Elul, opening the last week of this month of repentance. Tonight, in Ashkenazi custom, we begin the practice of Selichot – reciting penitential prayers in the evenings. They are intended to help us acknowledge where we are going wrong so that we can correct our ways. 

As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the end of the Torah. We have been on a journey through the wilderness, and God has journeyed with us. 

When our story began, God wanted to destroy humanity. At the start, God flooded the world in anger at our violence. At Babel, God struck down the nations for our defiance. At Sodom, too, God destroyed a city for failing in its moral obligations. 

Now, at the end of the narrative, God no longer wishes to destroy us, but instead promises to rescue us. We are told that if we try to return, God will bring us back in love. No matter how far we think we have gone, God can find us and return us. No matter how much of an outcast you imagine yourself to be, God will be in your corner.[6]

That is the essence of teshuvah. Although often translated as repentance, it really means returning. It is the practice of becoming who you already are. At core, you are good, honest and faithful. If you do wrong, you are departing from your natural state. 

Contrary to the Christian doctrine that preaches we are born in a state of original sin, Judaism teaches that we are constantly reborn in a state of moral purity. Each morning, God sends us back our soul, renewed and ready to do good.

God has already given you the greatest gift you could need to face up to your flaws: you have another day. You have the chance to get up this morning and correct what you did wrong. You have the opportunity to be better than you were. You can revert to your initial state of holiness.

Teshuvah is the process we undergo to turn away from doing wrong. We look inside ourselves. We acknowledge where we have gone wrong. We announce that we will not make the same mistakes again. We make amends for what we did. And then, faced with the same situation again, we do not repeat our old errors.[7]

At this time of year, we are forced to face up to our mistakes. The more we look at them, the more we realise how many there are. Faced with our own inadequacies, we might despair. We might think that our lives our not worth living or that we are better off destroyed. This week’s parashah teaches us: it is not too late. We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir only truly learnt this much later in life. His teacher, Elisha ben Abuya, had given up on Judaism entirely. He had stopped believing and stopped pretending to believe. He was acting immorally. Meir came to find him. He said to him: “Come back, rabbi, make teshuvah.”

But Elisha replied: “I cannot. Because I have heard the divine voice reverberating: “Return, O backsliding children,”[8] except for Elisha ben Abyuah, who knew My strength and yet rebelled against Me.” Meir’s teacher, Elisha, believed he was beyond redemption. He believed he had gone too far for God to still love him.

At the end of Elisha’s life, he fell ill, and Rabbi Meir went to visit him. He said: “Return!” Elisha asked: “Having gone so far, will I be accepted?” Rabbi Meir replied: “The Torah teaches: “God will allow a person to return, up to their being crushed,”[9] even up to the time that life is being crushed out of them.” In that instant, Elisha ben Abuyah began to weep, and then he died. Rabbi Meir rejoiced, saying: “My master departed in a state of repentance!”

But the story doesn’t end there. After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven to burn his grave. The other rabbis came and told Meir: “The grave of your master is on fire!” Rabbi Meir went out, spread his cloak over the grave, and prayed that God would redeem Elisha. “But if God is not willing to redeem you, then I, Meir, will redeem you.” Then the fire went out.[10]

When he was young, Meir learned that he should pray for sins to be destroyed, not sinners. And when he was old, Rabbi Meir learned that he should pray for people to make teshuvah, even when he believed it was too late.

And his prayer for others, that God have mercy on them and they change their ways, reverberated and affected his teacher in his tomb. God’s mercy extended beyond the grave.

Yes, God can bring us back even in our dying moments. God can help us make teshuvah even after death.

Our mistakes do not define us.

We are not our past mistakes.

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 12th September 2020, Parashat Nitzavim, for Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 14a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 62b

[3] Psalms 104:35

[4] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a

[5] Ezekiel 3:11

[6] Deuteronomy 30

[7] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:2

[8] Jeremiah 3:14

[9] Psalms 90:3

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiga 77b