sermon · torah · judaism

Why only one God?

Why only one God?

A Jewish scientist finds herself at a conference, presenting a paper. A colleague asks her: “what’s your religion?” Nervous of prejudice, she says: “I’m an atheist.” Her colleague answers: “Yes, but is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?”

As everyone knows, the best jokes are the ones you have to explain. And the very best jokes are the ones you spend a whole sermon unpacking, so strap yourselves in, because we’re going to look at the archaeological and scriptural evidence for why that introduction was, in fact, really funny.

It is a basic assumption of religion in the West that there is one God. Even for those who do not believe, they assume that it is one God in whom they have disbelief. Yet our society is filled with different religions and practices. When we encounter Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Hindus, we assume that underlying the diversity of our doctrines and rituals, there is an underlying unity of belief in a single and universal Being.

But it was not always that way. In fact, the idea of monotheism was novel and contentious throughout the entire development of the Hebrew Bible. The insistence on one God is Judaism’s great innovation, and we have built our monotheism up into an obsession. Knowing God’s oneness is the first commandment.[1] Not worshipping other gods is the second.[2] Worshipping other gods can incur capital punishment.[3] It is treated as an unforgivable crime, on par with murder, and a Jew should choose death rather than worshipping another god.[4] The Deuteronomic insistence on one God has become the centrepoint of Hebrew prayer: “hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God; the Eternal God is One.”[5]

In this week’s portion, Moses exhorts the Israelites: “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”[6]

But why? Why is it so important that there be one God? And why is it so important that the ancient Israelites worship no other? What was so bad about the other nations’ religious practices?

Archaeological excavations help us answer that question.[7] Scientists have dug up altars, shrines, coins and amulets to help us make sense of pre-monotheistic religion. The Canaanites, who preceded the Israelites, had a family of gods: Baal the storm god; Asherah, the fertility goddess; Mot the lord of death; Yam, the judge of the sea; and Moloch, the child-eating fire deity.

This is referenced in Scripture: “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Eternal One hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”[8]

In that case, the issue with polytheism is the unethical behaviour it engenders! The old gods of Canaan required evil practices as part of their worship, like ritual human slaughter. But then why not simply abolish those gods, and leave the others? Or just legislate against those practices but keep the rest of the religion intact? In the mind of the ancient Israelites, there must have been something that directly connected any worship of multiple gods with murder.

Here, archaeology can help us further. Digs from different times show us that polytheism wasn’t suddenly abolished, but fell out of favour when the Israelite religion took off. The Canaanite pantheon reduced down to just a few gods. We can find statuettes representing them at most ancient Israelite Temple sites.

This is backed up by text: Jeremiah condemns the Israelites for baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven and making offerings to Baal.[9] Jeremiah explicitly condemns this because these are the ways of the Egyptians, who held them in slavery. Idol worship, says Jeremiah, means keeping up the practices of theft, murder and lying.[10] It is not just that the old gods require ritual murder, but that their whole religion is based on an Empire that was built on it. Idols are the symbols of captivity.

This point was finally hammered home when Jerusalem was destroyed and Nebuchadnezzar took the Israelites hostage in Babylon. After Ezra led the return to the Land of Israel, we can find no more evidence of idols or their shrines. The people abandoned them altogether.

What could have been more convincing that idols were the work of murderous empires than exile in Babylon? The Israelites saw first-hand how looting, murder, war, conscription and sieges were built into imperial expansion. We know that the Babylonians used their pantheon as a way to legitimise their colonisation, as they brought the local gods of conquered people into their own cult and placed them in inferior positions. We know that the emperors turned themselves into gods and made people throughout their lands worship them.[11]

All those gods in Israelite minds became death-gods. The only way to truly abandon the ways of the oppressors in Babylon and Egypt would be to uproot the idolatrous shrines and eliminate the pagan pantheon altogether.

Monotheism was an act of resistance to these corrupt ways.

God’s unity was not a mathematical question but a moral one.

The One true God could not be co-opted into imperialism because it was universal: no one nation could control it. No ruler could declare himself to be that God because God had no flesh or form. And whereas the many gods constructed hierarchies and different customs for different places, with monotheism came ethical universality.

That is why one God was so important then, and why it remains so important now. God’s unity continues to represent the unity of human beings and the refusal of the faithful to be dominated. So, in answer to the question: “is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?” the atheist could happily answer “neither.” And I will gladly answer “both.” They are One.

Shabbat shalom.

Asherah-figurines
This is a photo of Asherah statuettes, which have been excavated at almost every ancient Israelite cultic site prior to Ezra’s Great Return

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s weekly newsletter, and will deliver it for Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Saturday 15th August 2020, Parashat Reeh.

[1] Deut 5:6

[2] Deut 5:7

[3] Ex 22:20

[4] Yoma 82a

[5] Deut 6:4

[6] Deut 12:2-3 NIV

[7] All references to archaeology in this sermon are derived from ‘The Bible Unearthed’ by Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman

[8] Deut 12:29-31 NIV

[9] Jer 7:5-19

[10] Jer 7:8-11

[11] cf Dan 2

judaism · sermon · theology

How will we know when this crisis is over?

How will we know when this crisis is over?

Because this crisis will end. Every catastrophe there ever was has been brought to closure at some point.

Wars have begun with shots fired on foreign shores and ended with neighbours kissing outside their front doors.

Our scientists have conquered tuberculosis, leprosy, HIV and polio. It may take months and it may take years, but they will find a cure and people will recover.

Humanity has survived ice ages, famines and nuclear meltdowns. And it will survive this. This crisis will, one day, be over.

And when it is… how will we know?

The ancient world had rituals for bringing every ordeal to a close. When the sick returned from their quarantine, they were ritually bathed seven times, given new clothes, and shaved from head to toe.1

We, too, will wash ourselves anew. We will look at water and soap differently. We will cry in the shower to produce as much water as possible, knowing that those cleansing droplets are the secret to life itself.

And we still won’t know whether the crisis is over.

The priests of the bible would perform ceremonies to indicate that closure had occurred. On recovery from sickness, they would give offerings of unleavened cakes, fine flour, oil and animal blood.1 They would thank God for their health with their sacrifices.2 They would wave their hands in the air, bringing the ingredients together, embodying their wholeness.3

We, too, will make offerings. We will return to reopened pubs and put our glasses in the air and celebrate our survival with pints of cider and drams of whiskey and we will say ‘l’chaim’ like we never knew what it meant to say ‘to life’ before.

We will be grateful. We will thank God that we were among those who survived. We will thank God that even those who did not survive would be proud to see the continuity of the world they built. We will realise that a day when you can drink surrounded by friends and family should never be taken for granted. We will truly understand that life is a gift.

And still we will not know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark transitions with words. When good things happened for the first time in a long time, they instituted that we should say “blessed are you, Eternal One our God, Creator of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and allowed us to reach this season.”4

We will do old things for the first time. We will play in parks with our children again. And they will meet new children for the first time. And we will leave our houses without a purpose just to knock on old friends’ doors and see their faces for the first time. And we will hug. And we will kiss. And we will go to cinemas and nightclubs and gyms and synagogues. Yes! we will most certainly pack out our synagogues again. And we will treasure those moments and thank God that we lived to see them.

And we won’t know whether the crisis is over.

Our rabbis knew how to mark the bad with the good. They knew that not every transition was a recovery. They knew that sometimes people died and it felt like the whole world had been destroyed. They knew how to mark it. They told us to rip our clothes and let our hair grow long.5 They knew that sometimes so many loved ones would die that we would have to shred our whole wardrobes.6

We will grieve. We do not yet know how many we will grieve. It may be only the thousands who have already died. We will learn not to call thousands of deaths ‘only’. We may lose a person whom we love. We may lose many people whom we love. We will grieve for all of them.

We will cry in the streets in funeral processions for all those who never had the chance to mourn properly on lockdown. We will wail without abandon for every life taken too soon. Every life that will be taken will have gone too soon. We will huddle together in houses and let out all our sadness and anger.

We will feel guilty. Because, after all, feeling guilty is a part of grieving and surviving isn’t always such a cause for celebration. And although we will not believe it at first, we will recover. And we will move on.

And we still will not know whether the crisis is over.

Because the crisis will not yet be over.

If we leave our houses and go back to our old jobs to pay rent and mortgages in the same houses to barely survive in the same cities, Coronavirus will not have been defeated. We will only have signed an armistice with sickness, knowing that another plague will face us again. This will not be the last virus. Any effort to return to normality will only exacerbate the problems that have gone before.

Never again will we fight each other for dried pasta and toilet roll and sanitary pads and formula milk. Never again will we stare into our cupboards and wonder how long our tinned food will last us. We cannot ever return to the days of scarcity.

Before we can begin to move on, we have to be assured that all of humanity’s basic needs will be met unconditionally. Healthcare, food, water and clean energy will be considered human rights. When we struggle for them, we will struggle for everyone to have them. We will insist on it the way that world leaders pledge at the end of wars never to pick up weapons again, only this time we will mean it.

And still that will not be enough for us to say that the crisis is over.

Never again will people carry on working when they are sick because dying of starvation sounds worse than dying of disease. Never again will people live one pay cheque away from homelessness. Never again will family homes be foreclosed. Never again will people worry how they are going to self-isolate when they have nowhere to live. Housing will be provided universally on the basis of need, so that these crises can never be repeated.

And that won’t be enough for us to say it’s over.

Because there are today vulnerable, elderly and disabled people who are saying that self-isolation was already their standard practice, and that they did not choose it voluntarily. Because there are sick people who already feel like they are a burden to society when their lives are a gift from God. Because there are families torn about by borders and there is escalating racism that makes people feel even more afraid and we know that loneliness and bigotry and fear make life unbearable. We will judge our society not by the strength of its economy but by the strength of its weakest members. Only when we are assured that the value of human life is unquantifiable will be able to draw a line under the past.

And that day will come. This crisis will end. Ever crisis that ever was has come to an end.

And we will mark it. Every human being who is alive will sign a new international constitution, swearing allegiance only to each other and to God. And we will swear to protect everything that lives and the precious planet that sustains it. And on that document we will enshrine rights we never thought possible. And it will be the benchmark for everything that comes afterwards.

And everyone, all around the world, will subscribe to it.

We will not know the crisis is over because everything goes back to being the same. We will know the crisis is over when we are certain that everything has changed.

Then we will know beyond all doubt that this crisis is over.

salah taher peace treaty

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College, Parashat Tzav. I then decided to publish it early because I have too much free time. 

1Lev 14:1-10

2Lev 7:1-15

3Plaut 787

4Berachot 54a

5Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 7

6Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avel 8

festivals · sermon · social justice · theology

Those who attack the weak

Purim is such a strange time. It is a time when everything is turned upside down. In our story, the oppressed become the oppressors; the ones who wanted to slaughter become the slaughtered; Jews become Persians; Persians become Jews.

We act out the topsy-turviness of it all by dressing up in costumes, getting drunk, and generally living as we normally wouldn’t. Somehow this grand inversion festival is one of my favourites, but I’m never really sure what it was about until it’s over. In fact, every year for the last year, I’ve preached about Purim after it happened, rather than before. I suppose that fits with the overall back-to-front-ness of the whole celebration.

This year, what struck me most was the connection between the Torah portion and the Megillah reading.1 In our Megillah, the story of Esther, the enemy is the evil Haman. Haman sets himself up as a god, demanding that people bow down to him, and when they do not, he seeks to wipe out the Jews. The Jews, in this antique Persian context, are already the most vulnerable people. They are the smallest minority, unarmed, and completely powerless. Haman decides to wipe them out.

In the Torah reading, taken from Deuteronomy, the enemy is Amalek. We are enjoined to remember him and what he did to the Israelites in the wilderness.2 The Amalekites had attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest, dehydrated and suffering without water.3 According to our commentators, Amalek attacked from behind, killing the weakest first.4

The Megillah tells us that Haman was a descendant of Amalek, via their king, Agag.5 We do not necessarily need to believe that Haman had any genetic connection to Amalek. What they had in common they showed through their actions. Both attacked the weak. Both went for the most vulnerable first. They are not only symbols of antisemitism, but of all tyrants. This is how the cruel operate: by doing first to the weak what they would like to do to the strong.

It is deeply distressing to see in our times that the ideas of Amalek still prevail. At this moment, the world is closely watching the Coronavirus. My rabbinic colleagues in Italy are on complete lockdown. Many services have been cancelled. I am giving this sermon, for the first time, over the internet, rather than in person with my regular congregation.

That there is a pandemic should not be too alarming. There are often diseases going around the world – some are more contagious and more deadly than others. This one, it seems, is much less deadly than bird flu, but is more contagious than regular flu, and we do not yet have immunity to it.

In these times, maintaining calm and supporting each other is of the utmost importance. We should all, I am sure you already know, be meticulous about following NHS advice to wash our hands regularly, avoid touching our faces and not get too close to each other. If you exhibit symptoms, like a dry cough, shortness of breath, or fever, you should stay home for 7 days. Don’t go to the hospital or the GP.6

Yet there are those who have not helped maintain calm, but who have almost revelled in the potential death toll. Jeremy Warner, a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote in his column that the death of the weak from Coronavirus could be good for the economy. He said:

Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.7

With this one sentence, the Telegraph reminded me that Amalek’s ideology never ceases. It is in the idea that the weak are disposable, that the strongest survive, and that the strength of the economy or the nation matters more than the lives of the vulnerable.

The idea espoused by Warner might be called ‘social Darwinism’. It is a theory of evolution that sees all species as rugged individuals, fighting over resources. Sickness and death are nature’s way of weeding out those who are unnecessary. If people survive, it is because they deserved to. This was the logic that allowed the weak to be killed by the Nazis. It is the theory that underpinned government inaction to HIV as it killed off gay and black people.

It must be opposed. No idea could be more antithetical to the Jewish mind. We affirm that every human being is created in the image of God, and every life has intrinsic value. The disabled, the elderly and the immuno-compromised are not valuable because of how much they can contribute, but because God has placed them on this Earth. The Creator’s purpose for humanity far exceeds what any stock market has in mind.

We must oppose it not only because it contradicts religious truth, but also because it contradicts scientific truth. In 1902, the biologist and Russian Prince, Piotr Kropotkin, wrote his major work, ‘Mutual Aid’.8 In it, he argues that the survival of the species is due as much to cooperation as it is to competition. In the animal realm and throughout history, the major reason for life’s continuity has been its ability to work together.

Different species depend on each other and selflessly help each other. Most of all, human survival is intrinsically linked up with our social nature. Our skill lies in our ability to communicate complex ideas with each other. We are, by nature, dedicated to the preservation of our young, our elderly and our neighbours.

That is the message we must take away today in this time of sickness. We must support one another. For some, this means staying home so that they do not infect others. For some, this means checking in on our neighbours to see how they are and what they need. For others still, it means making donations to charities and mutual support organisations.

Purim was a time of inversion, when old habits were reversed. Let us shake off the old traditions of individualism and greed, to replace them with the Torah values of love and support.

In the face of those who attack the weak, we will be the ones to make them strong.

Shabbat shalom.

mutual aid animals

1 Mishnah Megillah 3:6

2 Deut 27:17-19

3 Ex 17:8-16

4 Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael 17

5 Esther 3:1

 

I donated to Queercare, who are doing work for at-risk LGBT people. I encourage you to give to the charity of your choice.

sermon · torah

Children are a blessing

Children are a blessing.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be in a community with so many children. At Sukkot, it was a precious experience to gather round with the young people as they built the sukkah, then shook the lulav and etrog. Tomorrow, the cheder year will begin and I am so excited to start studying with our young people – from 5-year-olds who will be coming to their first ever class, through to 18-year-olds who have stayed on to offer support. This is the sign of a truly intergenerational community that values its members of all ages.

The Torah goes to great lengths to convey to us just how important children are. At the beginning and end of most of the parshiyot in Genesis, we read a list of descendants, telling us who begot whom from the first human being up until the next point in the story. It is a way of letting us know that Judaism is passed on as an inheritance from generation to generation over great spans of time.

In previous weeks, we read how difficult having children can be. We were confronted with Sarah’s dismay at her inability to have children in her old age.1 We learned about Hagar’s surrogacy, and the ensuing rivalry between Abraham’s two wives.2 The parallel haftarah to that week is of Hannah, who is so desperate to have children that, when she prays in the Temple, the Priest believes she is drunk. The Torah lets us know that children are not something that can be taken for granted. Fertility can be a precarious thing, and children are not always a guarantee.

The Torah communicates its message that children are a blessing. Yet, as this week’s parashah shows, children can be… a mixed blessing. Rebecca and Isaac want to have children, but once they arrive they are fraught with problems. Even in the womb, Rebecca can feel the foetuses kicking at each other and struggling together. It is as if God has only answered her prayer to punish her.3

When they are born, the reason for their strife becomes obvious. In character and demeanour, Jacob and Esau are polar opposites. Jacob was a meek, introverted boy who worshipped God and read books. Esau was a hunter who loved the outdoors.4 I am told by natal doctors that children really are born with personalities. Some come out curious; some terrified; some as if they’re already the life of the party. This tension between different personality types is what makes the Torah, and life itself, interesting.

Immediately, Isaac and Rebecca understand that these different children need different parental approaches. Isaac focuses on Esau; Rebecca on Jacob. They raise them according to their respective strengths. The children are treated as blessings for who they are in their own right, and grow up to blessed in their own ways.

Rabbinic literature takes this idea even further. The midrash teaches in the name of Rabbi Yehudah: “Come and see how beloved small children are by God. The rabbis were exiled [to Babylon], and God did not leave with them. The priests were exiled, and God did not leave with them. Only when the children were exiled did God leave with them.”5 It is as, if, for the rabbis, the very life of a community depends on the presence of children.

So, why all this talk about children? I am certainly not trying to say anything negative about those who cannot have them; still less about those who have chosen not to. Our community is made up of myriads of different households, including loving relationships in many different permutations. All of them are welcome and celebrated in this synagogue. But the issue of children has been forefront of my mind.

In part, this is a donkey story. In her incredible Ted Talk, Rabbi Benay Lappe coins the term “donkey story” to describe how people look into the Torah and see themselves. She begins by quoting her teacher, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, who said, “if donkeys could read Torah, all the donkeys would jump out at them. All the stories about donkeys, they’d see. All the stories that we completely skim over.” Rabbi Lappe says that, in reading Talmud, she saw her own donkey stories: as a woman, a queer person and a radical. Ever since hearing her explain it, I’ve realised that the Torah often reflects back to me my own anxieties and hopes.

Right now, I am about to move in with my best friend, who is expecting a baby. We are both gay, but made the decision some time ago to engage in queer Jewish co-parenting. Or, as most people would call it, parenting. The baby is due (please God) at the end of March. I am both filled with excitement and racked with anxiety. I am excited because the thought of waking up in the morning to put a baby in a sling and take it outside to pray shacharit with me fills me with a joy I can’t decribe. I am excited because I had for so long imagined that parenting was something restricted to straight people and that it would never be something I was allowed to do.

And I have all the anxieties that people normally do when expecting children, like being able to afford them, spend enough time with them, keep them healthy, pass on enough Jewish knowledge without too much Jewish trauma and create a loving home.

Yet there is an anxiety I have that I had not expected. Just as I see children everywhere in the Torah, I also see how unfriendly so many spaces are to children and parents. For the first time, I walk into familiar meeting rooms, classes, and buildings and wonder how welcome I would be in them with a child. I am realising how many spaces I have created where I thought about how the experience would be for almost everyone, except families.7

I now come to synagogue and ask the same questions. How are children being treated here? As a blessing, or as an inconvenience? As participants in services, or as distractions from them? Are all kinds of families welcomed fully, or are they merely tolerated?

And, of course, welcoming people of all ages is not easy. The haftarah this week has an obvious link to the parashah, in that it talks about Jacob and Esau, but there is a more subtle link at the end. Malachi’s last words, the last words of all prophecy, are that parents need to turn their hearts towards their children and children towards their parents.8 Both need to acknowledge each other for successful community.

There will always be conflicts between the needs of some and the needs of others. Some people come to synagogue wanting nothing but peace and quiet, while others – especially children – will want to make as much noise as possible. Building truly intergenerational community requires all of us to make compromises, and for everyone to adjust slightly.

I recently witnessed a good model for this at Westminster Synagogue, an independent shul that split from West London Reform Synagogue. At this very posh place in Kensington, congregants are immediately greeted with small cards on their seats that give small pointers on how to make young and old feel welcome in the space. The card encourages older people to show children where we are, tell them about what the service means, and point out to them the ritual objects, like tallits, ner tamid, aron kodesh and rimonim. At the same time, it encourages parents to make full use of the space, including taking children outside and into the lobbies if they need to.

As a community, I hope we might be able to have conversations and reach our own conclusions about what compromises everyone can make so that this synagogue is as welcoming to everyone as it should be. We are already doing very well. I have been to synagogues where there were no children at all. I have worked in synagogues where there are no older people at all. We are doing really well by the simple fact that people are already here. If we want to move to the next stage as a community, we need to discuss not just how we get people here, but how we make sure everyone feels at home here.

May everyone who comes to this community know that they are truly a blessing.

Shabbat shalom.

kids and animals

I gave this sermon at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Toldot on 30th November 2019.

1 Gen 18:11-15

2 Gen 15:1-6

3 Gen 25:21-22

4 Gen 25:27-28

5 Eichah Rabbah, 1:33

7Two books have been especially helpful for thinking about this: “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” by China Martens and Victoria Law; and “Rad Dad,” by Tomas Muniz and Jeremy Adam Smith.

8Malachi 3:24