sermon · social justice

When did Moses stop being Egyptian?

When did Moses stop being an Egyptian?

When Moses was born, he was decidedly Hebrew. This fact was dangerous. The Hebrews were living under oppressive rule, enslaved and oppressed by hard labour. Fearing the Hebrews’ strength in numbers, the Pharaoh had decreed that all first-born Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the Nile. Staying Hebrew would have meant certain death for Moses.

So, he was raised Egyptian. His mother put him in a basket and sent him down the river, where he was picked up by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the central palace. He was given an Egyptian name and raised as if he was a member of the Egyptian aristocracy. 

But, at some point, Moses ceased being an Egyptian. One day, he saw a slavemaster beating a Hebrew. Seeing the Hebrew as his brother, and the Egyptian as his enemy, Moses struck back and beat the slaver. He killed the Egyptian. Moses fled into exile in the Midianite desert. He knew he was no longer Egyptian. 

There are varying accounts of how Moses ceased being Egyptian. In the classic Dreamworks film, Prince of Egypt, Miriam and Aaron bump into him in the street, reveal to Moses his history, and persuade him to join the slaves’ revolt. The film is so ubiquitous that many imagine this is the Torah’s version of events.

This version makes for fantastic cinema, but doesn’t quite fit with the narrative presented in Exodus. In our story, Moses’s mother, Yocheved, and his sister, Miriam, put themselves forward to care for Moses in the Pharaoh’s palace. Surely his own family, having stayed with him since birth, who look more like him than Pharaoh’s daughter, would have raised him to know his history, even if only secretly. 

As Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet astutely notes, the text suggests that Moses held onto both identities. In the same verse where Moses rises up against the slavemaster, he calls both the Egyptians and the Israelites his “brothers.” He goes out to join his brothers the Egyptians in surveying the building works, then beats the slaver in solidarity with his brothers the Hebrews.

Moses could have quite easily continued living as an Egyptian while knowing he was a Hebrew. Many people throughout history have held multiple nationalities without contradiction. The useful question is not when Moses became Hebrew, but when he stopped being an Egyptian. 

Perhaps, as some of our commentators have suggested, the key lies a few verses before. There, it says that Moses grew up. Rabbis of the past have wondered what this growing up could mean. Surely it can’t refer to weaning or early childhood, because he has the strength to hit back against a fully grown adult wielding a whip. It must refer to a deeper maturity: Moses reaches the age where he can question the lies of Egyptian society. He reaches the emotional maturity to put his heart with the oppressed and rebel against injustice.

Moses was always a Hebrew, but he stopped being an Egyptian once he refused to identify with their system. As soon as Moses was willing to rebel against Egypt, he not only lost his identification with his enemy, but he lost the protection of being part of the elite family. He had to flee into exile. The only circumstance in which he could return was to lead the mass exodus of his people, the Hebrews.

It may seem surprising that Egypt and brutal slavery were so entwined that Moses could not remain Egyptian while opposing the evils of its system. How can it be that this country was so repressive that the slightest opposition made him stateless? How can it be that even a member of the elite, raised in the palace of the most powerful man in the land, could be rendered an exile just by standing up against the cruelest possible thing one human can do to another?

Of course, today we live in more enlightened times. We now live in a society where citizenship is awarded as a birthright, not as a reward for good behaviour. We have systems of international law that guard against making people stateless. Our government in Britain would never behave as Pharaoh’s did. 

Or would they? Two weeks ago, the government passed a law through the House of Commons called ‘The Nationalities and Borders Bill.’ According to this new law, anyone who is entitled to claim another nationality can be stripped of British citizenship without warning. 

This builds on the hostile environment initiated by Theresa May, which makes it harder for immigrants to reach Britain and easier to deport them. Similar policies have already been used to send away Carribeans who have lived in Britain their whole lives and to make refugees in this country stateless.

This new law expands these powers. And it affects us. 

How many members of the Jewish community have held onto second passports in case antisemitism becomes destructive again? How many Jews do you know who are also dual nationals with Israel, South Africa, Canada, or a European country from which they were once exiled? 

My dad and brother claimed German citizenship as part of post-Holocaust reparations. Now, this very fact makes them vulnerable to have their British citizenship revoked at a moment’s notice, without them even being informed. 

Indeed, every one of us could be subjected to similar treatment. A study for the New Statesman indicates that 6 million Britons – a tenth of us – could now be deported by Priti Patel. 

This law may not have been intended for us, but it could easily be applied against us. There is plenty of historical precedent. When governments want to issue repressive measures, they begin by attacking foreigners. Anne Frank was a German until the Nazis decided she was a Jew. Moses was Egyptian until the slavers decided he was a Hebrew.

Our community should be deeply concerned by these draconian measures. Whether out of solidarity with those who have already been deported from this country, or for fear that we, too, could fall victim to these new powers, we must be willing to speak up against it.

But there is reason to be hopeful. Earlier this year, when a Home Office van came to remove two asylum seekers from their home in Glasgow, their neighbours fought back. Two hundred local people surrounded the van and refused to move until their friends were freed. The immigration authorities were forced to capitulate and let the refugees free.

Our parashah teaches that the Hebrews could not be contained by the Pharaoh’s repressive measures. “The more they oppressed them, the more they rebelled.” Like our ancestors, we must be willing to do the same. 

The more this government treats foreigners as enemies, we must be willing to accept them as friends. The more this government declares that people do not belong here, we must be willing to assert that they do. The more they say that people are illegal, we must be willing to loudly assert: nobody is.

No one is illegal. Everyone who is here belongs here. You cannot deport our neighbours and friends. You cannot take away our passports.

Shabbat shalom.

South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue; Parashat Shmot; Saturday 25th December 2021

judaism · sermon

My DNA test results

When I sent the sealed tube back to a laboratory in America, I had high hopes for what would come back. My parents were mixed – Scottish Presbyterian and Anglo-Jewish. I had grandparents and great-grandparents from Poland, Portugal, Peru and Prussia. (By Prussia, I mean Germany, but that doesn’t begin with P). Family legends trace our roots to Italy, Spain and North Africa.

I was excited. I hope my DNA results would come back like a scratch map of the entire world. I would proudly proclaim myself a global citizen. I would research my relatives in Tanzania, the Philippines and even more exotic locations like Scunthorpe.

After weeks of waiting, I opened the results with trepidation. Here they were. European: 99.7%.

Breakdown: 47.8% British and Irish. 48.4% Ashkenazi Jewish. Trace amounts of other ancestries: 1.9% ‘Broadly European’. 0.7% French and German.

I was so disappointed. Where was my globe lit up with dots on every continent? Where were my secret ancestors from places I’d never heard of? And what was I going to do with all my ‘We Are the World’ t-shirts? Perhaps all the family narratives were unreliable.

Maybe I’d need to rethink my entire identity. I wondered if I should perhaps just accept my Ashkenazi heritage and start pronouncing tafs as samechs, mumbling my prayers to myself, even letting my sideburns grow into locks. Or perhaps I should celebrate my connection to the British Isles by listening to Gaelic folk music and trying to revive Welsh as a language.

I confessed my confusion to a friend, who is a geneticist. He reassured me: “these tests are 92% nonsense.”

“But what about the other 8%!” I exclaimed, “surely that counts for something.”

He laughed “That 92% is just as arbitrary as all the percentages on your DNA results. DNA testing is like getting your fortune read at a funfair. They pick 100 genes out of a sequence of thousands, run them up against trends they’ve already found, and act like they’ve given you a whole picture. Treat it as a science-based game, not as a guide to your whole history.”

Well, now I felt even more confused. My family history might be unreliable, and the science was probably pretty suspicious too. The pillars I thought I could rely on for my identity were toppling around me.

I thought about this week’s parashah. Here, in Shmini, as part of all the levitical rules on sacrifice and cultic life, were the rules on which foods we could and couldn’t eat.

Although historians once understood these rules to be about health and cleanliness, biblical critics are now less sure. They point to the fact that any of these meats could cause diseases, and raise the issue that almost every neighbouring nation of the Ancient Near East had its own proscribed foods. Rather than taking a rational, medical approach, they suggest that the original purpose of these rules may have been to develop a sense of national unity. When people knew they had to eat the same foods as each other, they bonded as a community, creating an in-group. Kashrut rules were really there to form a sense of national identity.

I wondered if I could apply this to my own life. Perhaps what made me Jewish was my engagement with its food and ritual life. I seek out beigel bakeries, love challah, won’t eat pork or shellfish, and make cholent on Friday nights.

Maybe that was what made me British too. I think the slightest glimpse of sunlight is an excuse for a barbeque. Nothing makes me feel more at home than a pint of cider in a beer garden. I even like marmite.

I lived out my internationalism, too, in all the curries, sushi and pizza I could eat as a Londoner. My internationalism was bound up in important rituals like voting in the most important decisions facing our continent, like who should win Eurovision.

But this answer wasn’t that satisfying either. Rituals and foods can help build communal identities, but they don’t tell us that much about who we really are. These forms of banal nationalism might well create a sense of in-group, but the flipside is they create exclusions. In the wrong hand, any sense of nationhood based on these traits can be turned to nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia. By comparison, DNA results and family legends felt relatively benign.

I came to realise what the founders of Liberal Judaism understood long ago. All ideas of nationhood are myths. Whether we route them in science, history or culture, they’re just stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. They don’t really help us know how to act, and in the globalised world of the 21st Century, they can even be harmful to facing our challenges. What we should really ask ourselves isn’t “who are we?” but “what do we need to do?”

In 1917, in the midst of the First World War, Lily Montagu delivered an address to the West Central Club. In it, she gave a scathing critique of Jewish nationalism, challenging its very foundations. She insisted that her citizenship was British, but her primary allegiance was to the religious goals of Judaism. At its inclusion, she declared: “the Jewish ideals, the ideals of peace and unity and love and righteousness, are for all times and all places. We are to express them to the world. That is our life’s task.”

Reading this again now, I realise that the reason why Liberal Judaism is so embracing of mixed families, of converts and of diversity, is not just a matter of pragmatism or a weak sense of tolerance. It is born out of the firmly held conviction that what makes life matter is what we do with it. What makes a Jewish life matter is how ethically we live, and how hard we strive to apply these values of social justice in our world today.

When Judaism is defined not by nationhood, but by ethical principles, it is open to everyone who shares them. What is at stake in conversations about who belongs is a fundamental question about what being Jewish really is.

Our founders had it right when they proclaimed Judaism’s emphasis to be in its prophetic vision. Today, what makes us who we are isn’t who our ancestors were but what world we create for our descendants. That is our life’s task.

Shabbat shalom.

dna-illustration

I delivered this sermon on Shabbat 30th March for Parashat Shmini at Finchley Progressive Synagogue. I’m still disappointed by my DNA results.