interfaith · sermon

Where Abraham came from

Once there was, and once there wasn’t. In the long-distant days of yore, when haystacks winnowed sieves, when genies played jereed in the old bathhouse, fleas were barbers, camels were town criers, I softly rocked my baby grandmother to sleep in her creaking cradle…

So begin Turkish folk stories. And this is a folk story, although whether it is Turkish, you will have to decide.

This is the story of our common ancestor, Abraham. For as long as there have been followers of his mission, there have been people telling his story. Across trade routes and migratory passages, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Samaritans and Druze exchanged legends of the man who made monotheism. 

These stories could be more valuable than coinage because they allowed people to connect across boundaries of language, ethnicity and religion. He could be called Avraham, Ibrahim, and everyone would know who you were talking about. There weren’t right or wrong versions of the story – only different iterations of the same truth.

That story, as we know it, begins today. It starts when a man named Avram sat in his ancestral home in Ur. He heard a God he did not know call to him and say: “Lech lecha! Go! Get out.”

“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

Avram pilgrimages from there to many places: through Canaan, Jordan, and Egypt. He meets many people: friends, enemies, family, and angels. To mark his changed status, Avram receives a new name: Avraham. The father of many nations. God promised him that he would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. He would have as many children as there are grains of sand on the shore.

And, indeed, just as God had promised, Avraham’s spiritual descendants now comprise over a third of the globe. Those who affirm monotheism and lay a claim to this spiritual tradition started in his name call themselves “Abrahamic faiths.” Their stories and beliefs, although disparate, fall under the banner of a single prophet who taught of a single God, revealed through history, known by good deeds.

Because of his great international fame, many places claim to be his hometown. There are various cities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon named “Ur,” or with variant names, that say they are Abraham’s father’s house, from which he went out on his mission. 

One such city is named Urfa. It is located in the modern-day state of Turkey, in a southeastern corner inhabited largely by Kurds, and bordering Syria. It has been Akkadian, Armenian, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman. About seven years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the place.

It is stunning. The entire city is built around a cave where, the locals say, Abraham was born. According to their legends, Abraham was birthed there in secret to avoid the wrath of the wicked king Nimrod. 

Around the cave, there is an incredible mosque complex. Beautiful off-white stones form curving arches, high ceilings, and expansive courtyards.

There are carved streams with carp in them. A local told me that these had been there since the time of Abraham. The Pagans had attempted to burn our prophet alive, but God intervened. As they set alight a bonfire with Abraham at the centre, the flames became water and the logs became fish. Today, if you eat any of the fish in the surrounding streams, you will instantly go blind.

I was certainly not going to test this superstition.

I went during the month of Ramadan, as pilgrims wandered around the site. It remains one of the most blissfully spiritual places I have ever been. I went through the mosque and into the cave. 

Around me, some men were doing the raqqas of Muslim prayer. I prayed as a Jew, mumbling Hebrew verses as I faced the spot where our patriarch was allegedly born.

Nobody batted an eyelid. We were all praying to the same God at the site of a shared prophet. I felt on some level that Abraham himself would have approved. This was the movement he had spawned. Uniting people in love of their One Creator. 

That unity, however, is threatened. Overhanging my time in Turkey was the heavy weight of nationalism. Over the last century, Turkish authorities have attempted to homogenise the country – transferring their Christian population to Greece; imposing taxes specifically on Jews to push them to move to Israel.

The country today has a virulently ethno-nationalist government that only briefly allowed the Kurdish minority some relative freedom to speak their language and live their culture. When Erdoğan launched counter attacks against ISIS, part of his goal was to crush Kurdish rebellion and extend Turkish military control.

Turkey is not unique. Nationalism has defined the politics of Europe and the Middle East for over a century. Entire groups seem increasingly set on defining themselves by ever narrower criteria, and enforcing the boundaries of who belongs with greater violence. 

This nationalist tendency permeates religious thought too. There are those who want to claim Abraham only as their own. There are those who try to say that they, and only they, have access to the true religion. There are people who want to pretend they are exceptional, and that with their difference comes claims to land, wealth and military might.

What could be more antithetical to the message of Abraham! This prophet sought to unify. His mission was one of going beyond borders, defying the lies of national gods and bringing people together under the truth of something beautiful and transcendent. 

There are many stories about Abraham. These stories can place him all over the world and ascribe to him all kinds of miracles. These stories can be used to bridge divisions and form common purpose. And they can be used to foster conflict and hatred.

We must be careful with which stories we tell.

Shabbat shalom. 

high holy days · sermon

God has decided to let you off this year

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial. The Heavenly Court convenes and charges the Jewish people with its sins. 

The Accuser lays out the prosecution. They have sinned. They have betrayed. They have been two-faced. The people have been angry, cruel, violent, hypocritical, dishonest and corrupt. All the evidence is laid out before the Holy One, who presides over the case as its Judge. 

The evidence is pretty compelling. We have been everything that the Accuser says we have, and more. We cannot pretend to have been perfect. In fact, we have fallen pretty far short of decent. 

The Angel of Mercy steps forward to plead in our defence. True, the Jews have been callous and unkind, but they have also been charitable, supportive, participated in mutual aid groups, called up vulnerable people, tried to make peace with their friends and neighbours. They have done their best.

The Accuser laughs out scornfully. “I challenge you,” says the avenging angel, “to weigh up this people’s good deeds against its pad. Set their mitzvot on the scales of justice and see how they manage against all their malice. Let’s see whether their good even comes close to counter-balancing their bad.”

The Angel of Mercy is nervous. Of course, they won’t win. The good deeds aren’t nearly numerous enough. Every one has been kept and held tight over the year. This is a sure way for the Jews to lose.

Perhaps the compassionate Angel can plead extenuating circumstances. After all, we’ve been through a pandemic. There has been so much uncertainty. The Jews have had to work from home with screaming children. They have been cut off from all their usual support systems. They have dealt with unimaginable stress. 

Surely, God understands that they can’t be expected to have been on their best behaviour. Not this year. This has been the hardest year yet. And, yes, to be fair, the Angel of Mercy did make the same excuse last year, but this year really was even worse. It really was.

God interjects; raises a single finger. “Enough evidence,” God says. “This year, I have decided just to let it slide.”

Now, both prosecution and defence look confused. They glance at each other, the assembled Heavenly Court room, and we defendants here gathered in our witness box. Perhaps the Holy One has made a mistake?

“It is true,” says God “that this people Israel has done much evil, and it is true that they have done some good. Their good does not amount to much and their evil is pretty damning. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances, but they are not very convincing. I did, after all, give this Torah to all times and places, including to Covid-stricken Britain. So there is no good reason to forgive the Jews. But, having weighed up all the evidence, I’ve decided I’m just going to forgive anyway. I’m just going to pardon them. Court adjourned.”

And that’s it. That’s the end of Yom Kippur on high for another year. 

It was over quickly. But it went exactly as it did last year. And the year before that. And every year going back to when humanity was first created. 

This is the story told by Pesikta Rabbati, a great collection of stories and sermons from Jews in the 9th Century CE. According to this midrash, when Yom Kippur comes around, the Accusing Angel charges the Jews with all its sins before God.

This Angel heaps all of our sins on top of the scales of justice. They weigh down heavily, and it’s clear that the sins outnumber the good deeds.

God then gives greater value to the good deeds so that they can override the evil, but the Accuser has many more sins to submit in evidence.

So, says our midrash, God hides our sins. God wears a long purple cloak and shoves all the sins under it. God sneaks the sins off the scales, and determines to find us innocent anyway.

Our sins are removed and hidden away.

“Yom Kippur” is often translated as “The Day of Atonement,” but the literal meaning of “kippur” is “cover,” “curtail,” “tuck away.” This is the day when our sins are submerged under the great cover of God’s forgiveness. 

They don’t disappear, but God is able to hide them away and forget them. For the sake of love of humanity, God just lets us off.

Lo ‘al tzidkateinu – not because of our righteousness do we pray for God’s forgiveness, but because of God’s unending love. Only on account of God’s infinite compassion do we get to carry on. God’s forgiveness is infinite and instant. 

But if we already knew God would forgive us, why do we bother? Why turn up here for Kol Nidrei, and afflict ourselves, and spend 25 hours in prayer? What’s all this for? 

Well, it might take God only a short while to forgive, but for us it takes a bit more work. We have to go through some effort to get to a fraction of that clemency. So, we take our time to look within, examine our imperfections, and release the guilt we have been feeling. Now is the time for us to forgive.

This year may seem like it requires more forgiveness than usual. This is an unprecedented time for conflict between friends and family, personal struggles, grief, job losses and frustration. It is hardly surprising that people feel so much resentment. 

I speak to people angry about how much they have lost. Time. Money. Strength. Health. Joy. Socialising. All these things that we have been robbed of. We have struggled in ways never experienced before.

Understandably, people want to place the blame elsewhere. They project their anger onto others who they imagine haven’t followed the rules enough, or who have taken it all too seriously, or who don’t think the same way as they do. 

All that anger does is sit inside of the people who hold onto it. It won’t help get back what has been lost. The weight of holding onto slights without forgiving just pulls us down. It just holds us back from growth. The only way to move forward is to let go.

That is why we have forgiveness. We acknowledge our hurt. We take stock of the injuries. And then, although it may be painful, we let go. We accept the way things are and make peace with what can’t be undone.

So, I urge you to forgive.

You might not get closure. You might not get apologies. You might not get reconciliation. Try to forgive anyway. 

The people who have hurt you probably did much wrong. And they probably didn’t do enough to make up for it. And all the dire circumstances will not feel like enough to excuse their behaviour. If you can, excuse it anyway.

The people who you forgive might not be big enough to forgive you back. Still, consider forgiveness.

In the build up to Yom Kippur, we were supposed to apologise to everyone we wronged. You did apologise, didn’t you? Me neither. Not enough. Not completely. Not to everyone. Not for everything. 

And I know my own reasons. I have been so tired and preoccupied and overworked and anxious. I have been too busy getting by to be trusting or vulnerable. The right time to apologise just never came up. 

But I still want to be forgiven. And I know God has already found a way to be merciful towards me. So I will have to reciprocate. 

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial, and God finds us not guilty. Not because we deserve it, but because God has decided to put trust in us. Our task over Yom Kippur is to validate that trust. 

So, we will try to forgive. It is not easy. It may well feel incomplete, and some things may be beyond pardon. Nevertheless, let us try to leave some of the pain of the previous year behind. 

Let us endeavour to accept people, including ourselves, flawed as we are, and move on.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

This is my Kol Nidrei sermon for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

judaism · liturgy · sermon

Pray for the right kind of rain

Every day, we pray for the right kind of rain. 

The Amidah praises God’s holiness and dominion over the natural world. 

We change how we address God in rhythm with the seasons. In the summer, we thank God for making dew descend. in the winter, for bringing on heavy rains. 

For us living in cities, we can feel quite disconnected from how important this water cycle is. I only catch snippets of how it causes concern. A radio broadcast says British farmers are worried that there hasn’t been enough frost in January. In a supermarket, a cashier tells me there is a shortage of aubergines because there wasn’t enough rain in Portugal this year. 

The cycle of the right rains affects whether we have enough to eat. It can mean the difference between living safely and losing everything. There is a reason the greatest catastrophe our ancestors could imagine was a flood.

This week, we gained a sense of how important and delicate the rain cycle is. 

At the start of the week, I was heading back from a holiday in the Lake District. It was searing hot. The hottest summer we’ve ever had, people kept saying. As I climbed mountains, normally soft moss felt like dry straw under my hands. The shops had stopped selling barbecues and matches. 

Everyone said that the slightest spark could set the whole forest on fire. We would wind up like California or the Amazon, with acres burnt to a crisp. Thankfully, it didn’t happen, but I left with an awareness of the forests’ fragility and a deep concern that England was not ready for climate catastrophe. 

Only days later, I came back to intense flooding. The rains fell intensely, relentlessly. I thanked God that I was safe inside as the skies turned black and stayed that way for what seemed like days. The area around our synagogue was drenched. Charlie Brown’s roundabout flooded again. Some in this community saw damage to their property. Members of our synagogue were displaced: moved initially to the higher floor of the care home, then relocated. 

I was taken aback by how well our care team took to handling the crisis. Claire, Sue, Debz and others made sure everyone who might be affected received calls, and that anyone who needed help got it. They showed the very best of what this synagogue is for. 

But I was most impressed by the bnei mitzvah students I met this week. Jacob and Layla, twins, are preparing to come of age around Pesach, at the time when we stop praying for heavy winter rains and start celebrating the gentle dew. I asked them what they want to be when they grow up. Jacob wants to be a primary school teacher. Layla says she wants to be an environmental activist.

I have to be honest. When I was Layla’s age, I had no idea campaigning could be a job. It is a testament to her curiosity and sense of justice that she has found this out.

But it is also a wake-up call of how dire things are with our environment that Layla has to think of this job. The problems we saw this week had many causes. We have a rapidly changing climate. Companies have over-consumed fossil fuels and spoiled the ecosystem. Developers have built on flood plains. Much of the development after the Olympics destroyed natural wetlands, worsening the situation. But all of these factors share a common problem: we have taken nature for granted.

In this week’s parashah, we read: 

If you listen, if you truly pay attention, the Eternal One your God will grant the right rains at the right times: autumn rain for autumn and spring rain for spring. You will be able to eat and so will your cattle. 

But you must guard yourself against a straying heart. If you serve other gods and bow down to them, God’s anger will blaze out against you. God will shut up the sky. There will be no rain.

This text might feel familiar. It is the second paragraph of the Shema, found on page 214 in your siddur for the Shabbat morning service. You may have read it before, but it’s unlikely you’ll have heard it read aloud in any service. 

It is the custom of this synagogue, and of all Reform synagogues, to read these verses in silence. So, why do we whisper it? 

One reason is that we are very uncomfortable with what is implied theologically here. It suggests that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. We know this isn’t true. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Our rabbis knew long ago that there is no individual reward for good deeds in this life. So we won’t say it out loud when we have doubts about it.

But what if it is true? The warnings in these verses are not about how God might deal with individuals, but the impact of actions on entire groups of people. If you don’t pay attention to the ethics of Torah, you all can be destroyed. If you worship gods other than the Source of all creation, you will find yourself helpless before the forces of nature. Cause and effect. Action and consequence. 

In the biblical world, worshipping other gods meant turning to material things. Whereas the idol-worshippers bowed down to wood and stone, what marked out the ancient Israelites was that they only prayed to the transcendental God, who held all of nature in balance.

And that is what is happening in our world today. We are disregarding our ethical obligations to care for the planet, and we are seeing what happens. People have substituted the Eternal God for the material elilim of oil and gas. We have traded humility before nature for the arrogant belief that we can control and manipulate our environment without consequences. 

Now we are living the impact. We are dealing with the wrong rains. We are witnessing floods here, in China, in Germany, in New York, and in India. 

The Torah warns us: “Do not believe you have made all this with your own hands!”

We may have built cities and roads and bombs and planes, but we didn’t make the grass grow. We haven’t made the sun shine. It’s not us that makes the rains fall. 

All that is in the hands of a supreme Creator, who has charged us with protecting and sustaining this planet. We must hear, and truly pay attention, to that God, whose Word calls to us today. We must take up the challenge of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy; of rebuilding our world in harmony with nature, rather than against it; of tackling carbon emissions and climate disaster. We must enable Layla to inherit a living planet so that she actually has something to protect.

We must act now. 

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, 31 July, Parashat Eikev

sermon · social justice · theology

What do we stand for?

Five years ago, I interviewed to start rabbinic training. Over four days, I went into different rooms, where rabbis, academics and lay leaders quizzed me about why I wanted to be a rabbi. 

It was intense. In one interview, one of the rabbis asked me: “what do you think you most want to learn while you are here?”

I said: “I’d like to learn what we stand for.” 

My interviewers scrunched up their faces. I imagined them thinking, “are you sure you’re in the right place?”

How could I not know what we believe? We are Progressive Jews; we stand for Progressive Judaism. Perplexed, she pushed me: “can you think of any principles of Progressive Judaism?” 

I thought, and said: “informed choice.” We do what we like, in conversation with Jewish tradition.

The rabbi sat back and took notes. I wasn’t sure whether I had given a correct answer, and she was confused how I could say I didn’t know what we stood for if I had that grounding, or if I’d missed something more important.

What I was trying to ask was: surely we don’t just choose whatever we like? A Progressive Jew can’t make the informed choice to commit murder. We don’t look at that central commandment and think: ‘ah, but it was for its time.’ We have a shared assumption that the prohibition on killing applies to every time. So how do we make these informed choices? What decides for us which choices are right and wrong?

Permissiveness is not really a value. It’s something you do out of indifference. There must be something stronger than that motivating our congregants to get out of bed and labour for the welfare of their community. 

Apparently, I am not alone. Throughout my time as a student, going to congregations across the country, people have asked me that very same question in different ways. 

What are the values of Reform Judaism? What does living by Progressive Jewish values actually mean?

After 4 years of study, well… I still don’t have the answer. But I feel much closer to it than I did when I started. And the answer begins with this week’s parashah.

At the end of Masei, we hear the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. They come forward before Moses and assert their rights to inheritance. Their father, they say, was a good man who had no sons. As it stands, his property will be passed on to nobody, and these women will be left destitute. They argue that they should be the ones to inherit his estate. Moses talks to God. God agrees.

This is a big deal in Torah terms. It shows that a law can change. Decisions are not fixed in stone but can adapt with the times. It fits exactly with the Progressive mindset. We look at the laws again, and work out if they are still relevant. Moses looked at inheritance law, saw that it wasn’t working, and decided it was time to set a new precedent.

This is at the heart of Progressive Judaism. We progress. We treat the Torah and our traditions as our basis, but we are always willing to review it, and find new ways that better suit our reality.

The case of the daughters of Tzelafchad is a great example. It fits with our intuitions about what is right and wrong. Of course these women should inherit.

But does that mean every time a law changes, it’s an improvement? In the course of the Torah, laws also change to take rights away from people. Laws can change that make people’s lives worse. 

The reason why we consider this legal change so praiseworthy is because it makes life better for people. In particular, because it makes life better for women. 

It fits with the feminist lesson we have learnt from history. Through the last century of the women’s liberation movement, our religion learned the importance of giving everyone their full rights and abilities to participate in Jewish life.

We have our own hashkafah: our own way of looking at the world. We see progress in terms of what gives people the most equality, dignity, and justice. 

Other strands of Judaism may give priority to tradition, nationalism, or conservatism. We say that what matters is equity. 

We did not decide to pursue this egalitarian cause because we thought it would make things easier. Quite on the contrary: it made things harder for many people. At the start of our movement, people were disowned by their families and ridiculed by the religious establishment because of their conviction that equality mattered. They took the more difficult course because it was the right one.

Since the early days of Reform Judaism, we have prioritised gender equality. This week, I met with one of the founder members of SWESRS, who said that in their very first days, the community discussed what they wanted from a synagogue. Even in the 1950s, they insisted that equality between men and women would be of the utmost importance.  

This synagogue has gone on to create a legendary legacy. The UK’s first woman rabbi, Jackie Tabick, was raised here. This is a place with a proud history of putting forward that great principle of Reform Judaism: that equality matters.

That is how we approach the question of whether and when to change a law. We are not beholden to tradition, forced to do everything today and tomorrow, just because we did it that way yesterday. Nor will we go along with every change, just because it feels fashionable or convenient. 

At every stage, the question we ask ourselves is: is this right? Is this just?

We seek to make changes that will make people more equal, more empowered, and more dignified. 

So, now, if I am asked what we stand for, I have a much clearer answer.

We stand for equality.

We stand for the emancipation of all of humanity.

We stand up for the oppressed and stand beside the marginalised.

We stand in the footsteps of Moses, who changed laws because he could see that justice mattered.

We stand before God, proud to inherit a tradition; and courageous enough to change that tradition for the better. 

That is where we stand.

Shabbat shalom. 

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, Parashat Matot-Masei, 10th July 2021

article · spirituality

A Letter to God

Hi Judy,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Judy. I know Lionel Blue used to call you Fred. I remember reading about it in one of those compilations of Thought for the Day segments he put out. He said we should talk to you like an old friend, with the same degree of familiarity. He called you Fred and addressed you like you were his conscience; a kind voice coaxing him to do better. I picture something approximate to Jiminy Cricket.

So I’ll address you as a friend and call you Judy. I want to call you Judy because I don’t know anyone who goes by that name, so I can invent an image from scratch without knowingly projecting my ideas of others onto you. I want to talk to you as a woman, maybe because I’m just sick of having religion dictated to me by older men. I imagine you queer, because Judy only you truly know how much I need my God to be non-conforming. 

So I’ll picture you, if I may. Pixie dyke haircut and hooped earrings. Comfortable trainers. A flowing blouse. Sitting on one of the chairs in my back garden, any back garden I’ve ever had. And you smoke a rolled-up cigarette, or maybe it’s a joint, and you don’t offer it to me because you know I quit smoking a long time back. But you are immortal and immutable, so you don’t need to worry about what impact all that tar will have on your health. 

Judy, I hope you don’t mind that I say “you” and not “You.” If I were writing high liturgy or biblical translations, I think I would have to capitalise you. But I’m following a theology that Rabbi Blue picked up from Martin Buber, who adopted it from German Protestants. I’m supposed to speak to you unguarded and as my full self, without illusions of grandeur, neither yours nor my own. 

I have to ask forgiveness just for talking to you this way, because I know it is heretical. Even imagining you is an affront to who you really are. Maimonides long ago instructed us that you had no physical form nor anything resembling one. Like the Rambam, I admire the austere iconoclasm of philosophical Islam. It pushes us to realise that you are incomparable to a human being. You are more akin to a force, like gravity or entropy. You are like the moral vibrations of the universe. We only can say what you are by saying what you are not.

But I can’t talk to a vibration or an equation. I can’t make friends with an abstraction. The truth is, Judy, I need you, and I need you to be a relatable human being, because I depend on your guidance for change. I need to picture someone who believes in me and my capacity for goodness, especially on days when I feel like I have nothing to give. I try hard to be someone better than I am, I honestly do, and imagining a slightly stoned lesbian can help with that.

I’m writing this because I want to connect to you, truly and faithfully. I want to reflect on what you mean to me. I want to try and develop morally and spiritually. So I talk to you like you’re here.

I don’t need you to say anything back. I don’t have any illusions about what role you play in the universe. I just need to feel that somehow you are there; listening to me; encouraging me. I just imagine a warm smile and a gentle hand on my shoulder. Jonah’s God. Shechinah. Someone intimate and loving.

If I have to accept that you are beyond comprehension, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you. I would feel like I’m shouting into a silent void. Elijah’s God. The God who isn’t there.

And there are few things I find more frightening than silence. Part of what prompted this letter was a series of exercises where I had to keep quiet for long periods because it was supposed to be spiritually enriching. I get that it is supposed to be enlightening. That’s the popular image of Orientalist postcards showing gurus meditating on the Ganges and fully-robed Buddhist monks sat for hours in silence. It is a significant part of the imagination of Westerners who can’t connect with their own traditions.

That’s not fair. That’s not (the only reason) why it makes me so uncomfortable. It’s also part of English religious history. There is so much I admire about the Quakers. I normally find myself chiming with their politics; impressed by the way they turn anti-militarist protest into acts of religious service. I admire that. I have felt deeply connected to you when in their presence. In your queerness and hunger for justice, I imagine that you blockade arms fairs too.

But I don’t feel your presence when in their silences. I feel anguished and frustrated when I’m forced to contend with silence. I once walked into a retreat happening in the home where I lived. The people weren’t talking or engaging with each other. It reminded me of hospices and retirement homes I had visited where the patients were so drugged up or afflicted by dementia that they had no idea what was going on. I left instantly. 

Later, I returned to sleep. While the more enlightened sat in the living room experiencing their quiet contemplations, I washed the dishes with a friend. She talked about her own discomfort, that these practices were stripped from their original contexts of social justice movements and anti-colonial practices, then re-packaged into the medicalised language of “wellness” or the neoliberal politics of “self-improvement.” I had not considered that such a practice could be radical, because I understood silence to be entirely isolating and alienating.

That comes from my own experiences. So much of being gay has, for me, been about deciding what to share and when. In nearly new spaces I wonder whether I can be camp, or if it will put people off. I wonder if I can tell the stories of who I am and who I love and the small queer family I am building, or whether it will invoke new anger from people. In most circumstances, I have to kill part of myself in order to fit in. Coming out isn’t a one-time event, and nor is being in the closet. It is a constant process of ascertaining whether somewhere is safe, and how much. That is why being coerced into silence affects me so much. It’s why I need to be able to talk to a God like you, Judy; someone who is an outsider too.

When I construct my own gay deity, I don’t feel like my queerness is the problem. I feel like it’s part of the solution. Growing up in a world made by other people to suit their own hierarchies has made me empathetic to the struggles of others. I don’t claim to understand what it is like for black men in Chicago or Palestinian children in Sheikh Jarrah or women working in Bangladeshi sweatshops. But I care about it because I know how I have felt when faced with injustice. And that burning rage against oppression feels holy. 

It doesn’t just feel like endless anger when I’m with you, Judy. It feels like it means something so much bigger. It is not just politically expedient solidarity or, worse, bleeding heart liberalism. The combined grief and anger of all persecuted people feels like it is deeply spiritually meaningful. It is the foundation for divine justice. It is proof that all of humanity is connected by something bigger than ourselves: a sense of righteousness in resisting iniquity. I think that is what the Latin American liberation theologians are getting at. I feel like they have sat in the back garden with you too.

Judy, it matters greatly that you are there at those barricades and back gardens. Without you, as a real and personal presence, all my fears about the world and desires to change it are misplaced. There is no right and wrong. Oppression is just something that happens. We are alone on a burning planet in an empty universe. There is nothing we can do to change that and, even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. I have to believe you are real. And that you are really real, not just as a story that I have chosen to believe, like existentialists who are nihilists with self-deception. I have to believe that moral statements mean something and a greater tomorrow can come.  I have to believe you are real or life will not be worth living. 

There are so many who want to treat you like you don’t exist. Some of them claim the Holocaust as a reason to deny you. God abandoned them at Auschwitz, so they will abandon God in turn. Or: if God were real, God would have intervened. I was asked this last year by Shoah survivors at a Tu Bishvat seder. I just listened. I told them they did not have to believe anything. Because my instinctive reaction is to say: what did you think would happen? Did you imagine God would strike Hitler down with a thunderbolt from the sky? Did you think God should just swallow up the camps into pits before they piled the Jews into the gas chambers? How would that work? But, faced with living survivors, I had nothing to say. Albert Friedlander taught that any theology had to be able to be repeated in front of a million murdered Jewish children. Faced with them, I had no answer.

I think that’s why I have to imagine you silent, just listening, and refusing to intervene. If I thought you could respond or intervene, I would be so angry at you. So I imagine you calmly reflecting, nudging me on, reminding me with your eyes that you did not kill all those people, Nazis did. You remind me with your smile that human beings are responsible for our own actions. Above all – that I am responsible for mine.

Because of that, I do look upon some atheism with cynicism. There are people whom it suits very well to deny that there is a God or that morality has any meaning. The world created by Thatcher and Reagan is one where everyone is an individual atom, compressed to its smallest form, seeking nothing but the maximisation of its own wealth and happiness. If there were some great force holding us all together, their entire project would be at an end. If there were such a thing as love or justice or retribution, they would have nowhere to turn. So they pretend not to know you. When they sit down and feel your presence beside them, they shut off the part of them that knows what it means. They are no different to those who thank you for their success, as if you would ever hand out rewards like cookies to children. 

I think I heard you once. I was in intense pain and struggling with life, around seven years ago. I was standing on top of a roof, smoking a cigarette. (I wasn’t looking to kill myself instantly, just slowly with tobacco.) I looked up at these overpowering grey clouds and I asked what I should do. And I heard this voice saying “forgive yourself.” It said “forgive yourself” over and over again, quietly at first, and then louder and louder. At that time, I felt like I had always been hearing those words; I’d only just paid attention to them for the first time. I felt like you were there with me, and that was your message for me. And once I’d heard it, truly heard on it, I no longer heard it, because I no longer needed it. Suddenly, I felt ten stone lighter and like I had a message for the whole world. 

Judy, you might be imaginary. I might have had a moment of insanity. We might be alone in a meaningless universe. There are so many scientific explanations, and I’m sure there could be so much wonder in the world even without faith. Maybe justice doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Maybe. Maybe all kinds of things. But I’ve chosen a story that makes sense so I can live a life that feels right.

I have to believe. So I talk to you and write to you and call you Judy. I only ask one thing of you, Judy. Please don’t answer. Please don’t tell me what you think or what I need to do. The only thing worse than silence would be to hear your voice. I couldn’t bear your judgement, or your love. Either would be too much. Let me remain in doubt, that’s all  I ask. 

You take the last drags on your roll-up. You stub out the fag end on the ground. You put a hand on my shoulder and use my body to lift yourself upright. And you leave me again, for a while.

Thanks for listening, Judy.

Thanks for being here.

I love you.

festivals · sermon

The four children of Covid

Every seder, we read about the four children. These characters in our Haggadah have come to us from the Palestinian Talmud, and are based on Torah verses. They’ve entered our liturgy as a joyous part of the seder ritual.

It’s a fun annual party game to speculate about which of the four you might be, and even to assign the attributes to other guests at the party.

For what it’s worth, I usually play the wicked child of the Haggadah. I quite like the idea of being the trouble-maker.

But is it really how we want to define people, and their relationship to Judaism? My teacher, Professor Jeremy Schonfield, has pointed out that all the four children are really quite negative stereotypes, and they all get punished for their questions.

The chacham – or wise child – might better be called the know-it-all. She sits at the seder and already knows all the answers. So she comes along and, puffing up her chest, asks: “what are the laws of Passover?” Oh, she thinks she already knows. She’s asked this question every year. She can smugly rattle off to you how well she prepared koshering the house and she has strong opinions on what everyone else should be eating. Yes, you’ve met her.

So how do you respond to her? Tell the wise child the most complicated laws about Pesach, even the one about how you don’t start the second part of the meal until you’ve found the afikomen. That’s at the very end of Mishnah Pesachim, and she probably won’t have got that far. That’s it, put her in her place. Make sure she knows that she doesn’t really know it all. Thank you, chacham, for your very wise remarks, the rest of us would like to get on with the meal.

Then you’ve got the rashaa – the wicked son – who asks “what does all this mean to you?” To you, not to him. He doesn’t care. He’s not interested. Why are you doing all this? Your wicked son will do whatever he likes, but from his aloof standpoint, he can take a shot at you with your primitive rituals. The accusing patriarch responds to this by telling him he should have been left in Egypt. Hope you can take scorn as good as you give it, rashaa.

Next comes along the child who is tam. The Reform Haggadah generously translates this as naïve, probably to avoid the ableist overtones of the more familiar translation that this child is simple. The word could just as easily mean ‘mute’ or ‘modest’, but we’re probably meant to imagine her as clueless. She asks: “what’s this?” Like a lost sheep bewildered by the most basic rituals of the most famous festival, she’s stuck, absently pointing at objects and asking what’s going on.

How do we help her? The seder leader responds by saying “God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand…” – and then doesn’t even bother finishing the sentence. There’s a long verse you could quote to the tam but you assume she’s already lost interest and, frankly, you’ve already lost patience. Why bother with someone who’s simple?

You turn straight to the child who doesn’t know how to ask. And you repeat exactly what you just said to the simple child. How much more patronising can you get? You’re not going to even bother trying to include him. You just tell him what he already knows because he just heard you say it to your daughter.

If anything, the Haggadah is a model in how not to engage people. It’s an exercise in what happens when you label children and assume the worst in them. You respond with terrible answers that leave your dinner guests feeling deflated.

In 1950, the great Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg wrote a response to the Four Children. It was the only poem she ever wrote about the Second World War, and it’s a stunning meditation on how the trauma of genocide shaped her contemporaries’ outlooks. In this poem, she completely reimagines who the four children are, picturing each of their postures as a trauma response.

She begins with the child who does not know how to ask, imagining a woman heartbroken by survivors’ guilt. She has witnessed the most horrific brutality and lived to talk about it. Only now she has no words. Stumped, she asserts:

I am not wicked, not smart, not even simple,

And for this reason, I asked no questions

Her survivor cajoles the reader: If you can, then open me up.

Goldberg then helps us understand why someone might become ‘wicked.’ She tells of a man who has been toughened up by circumstances and now cannot bear to empathise. His tears have dried up and his heart has hardened. So he vows to be cruel and cool and estranged. He tells God:

To you, I blunt my teeth.

What about the simple child? Goldberg tells us of someone who has known so much pain that just looking at stars reminds her of her anguish. She looks at the millions of stars and sees the millions dead. The stars remind her of her night terrors:

On all other nights against a dark arrogant sky,

Against a delirious moon and against the milky-way

Great gloomy ghosts of a day gone by

And, just once, she wants to get back her naivety. She wants to be able to stop seeing her pain when she looks up at night. So she implores:

On all other nights, anticipation, silence

On this night – only stars

Why shouldn’t she be permitted her simplicity?

The wise child, in Goldberg’s poem, is the one who says the least. He is the one who died. That is what wisdom meant to a survivor of the Shoah.

Reframed through Leah Goldberg’s eyes, we can understand the four children not by their worst intentions but by the trauma they carry and the way they deal with pain.

This seems to me a much better way of greeting dinner guests. It should be a starting assumption that everyone we meet is carrying baggage. Everyone is hurting. We have to be able to meet people at their most vulnerable and our most sympathetic.

As lockdown eases, I am aware that many people are only just processing what we have been through. I am not by any means comparing what we have experienced to the Holocaust, but we have certainly been through something unprecedented and destabilising. Our old certainties about our religion, our health, and our community have been disrupted. We have known death, heartache, family struggles and isolation.

Now we meet each other. We can choose what responses we adopt. We will meet people who seem wicked, or who seem naïve, or who seem like they know it all, or who seem like they have nothing to say. We may well want to blunt our teeth at them and put them in their place. We may want to be impatient or patronising.

But the better response, the more Jewish response, will be to meet them where they are, and hear them in their hurt. Whatever type of child they seem to be, the important thing to remember is that inside them is a child. Someone inside of them is vulnerable, scared, and looking for assurance. Someone inside of you is the same.

Let us not label each other and dismiss people, but greet each other with compassion and empathy.

Moadim lesimcha.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Seventh Day Pesach, 3rd April 2021

interfaith · sermon

Can we claim Jesus as a Jew?

A rabbi and a priest are comparing career trajectories. 

The rabbi asks the priest: “so, you start here, what’s the next level up?”

“Well,” says the priest, “if I go further I become a bishop.”

“And how about after that?”

“The next level up is archbishop.”

“And then?”

“Well, then I could be a cardinal.”

“Wow, what next?”

“Well, at the very top, I suppose, in theory, I could become Pope.”

“Great,” says the rabbi, “and what’s the level up from that?”

“Up from that?” splutters the priest. “You want me to go higher than the Pope? What do you want me to be? God?”

The rabbi says: “One of our boys made it.”

Yes, one of our boys did make it. 2020 years ago a little Jewish boy called Jesus was born, and his followers have spent this week celebrating by eating his favourite foods of Brussels sprouts and roast parsnips. For the last month, their homes have been lit up with garish bulbs and their front gardens have been filled with camp inflatable objects. 

Personally, I love it. I felt a nostalgic loss at not having heard the Christmas jingles in shops this year, so played Whitney’s and Mariah’s classics to myself in the kitchen. I’m sure many of you did indeed mark the day yesterday. Not for nothing does demand for kosher turkeys sky-rocket at this time of year. 

There is an apocryphal story that Lionel Blue, in his first year after becoming a rabbi, found himself with nothing to do on Christmas Day. He decided he ought to visit his congregants. He knocked on a door, then heard stony silence. Out of it, he heard one of them shout: “It’s the rabbi! Quick, hide the tree!”

As far as I’m concerned, you can love or hate the 25th of December in whatever way suits you best. The harder question for Jews is what we do with Jesus. 

The most surprising thing for most Christians about Jewish theology is that we barely think about Jesus at all. It’s not just that he’s not our God and he’s not our Messiah. He’s also just not a topic of conversation for us.

But, given that it is Christmas, and the question might well be on your minds, this morning I will talk about how Progressive Jews have approached the question.

From the outset, one of the most interesting responses from Reform Jews has been to claim Jesus as one of our own. This might seem intuitively obvious, especially since today many Christians also emphasise Jesus’s Jewishness. But it wasn’t always so.

In the 19th Century, serious Protestant academics presented Jesus as a lone Aryan in the Middle East. They made clear that we should imagine him as a blonde-haired blue-eyed gentleman among the Semitic masses of Roman Palestine. Jesus, they claimed, was a superior, Western thinker who arrived to save the primitive, purity-obsessed Hebrews from their legalistic superstitions.

When Abraham Geiger, the first reform rabbi in Germany, sought to claim Jesus as a Jew, he was answering back to a Christian intellectual tradition that treated everything Jewish as underdeveloped, and Christianity as a perfected version of the blueprint. The great Jewish academic, Susanna Heschel, called Geiger’s thesis “a revolt of the colonised.” Geiger could reclaim Jesus from the Christians and remind them that he, like their Jewish contemporaries, was a Semite with a Jewish worldview.

This became the operative way for Progressive Jews to look at Jesus. In Victorian England, Claude Montefiore was the leading Jewish biblical scholar. He founded Liberal Judaism in Britain. He was born in the year of Jewish Emancipation and became the first Jew to get a phD in Divinity. 

Montefiore’s teacher was the Anglican theologian Benjamin Jowett. Jowett was a liberal, in that he didn’t think Montefiore had to convert to Christianity in order to be saved. Nevertheless, he harboured many Christian prejudices about Judaism. He wrote to Montefiore:

It appears to me that there is good work to be done in Judaism; Christianity has gone forward; ought not Judaism to make a similar progress from the letter to the spirit, from the national to the historical and ideal? 

As far as Jowett was concerned, Judaism was still stuck in the past. Montefiore responded by showing Jowett that Jesus was from exactly the same time period. At a lecture named for Jowett, Montefiore spoke to his Christian audience about who he, now an established historian of the Bible, thought Jesus was: 

“He was a prophet.” Montefiore even quoted The Gospel of Mark that said so. 

Montefiore went on to explain that Jesus “was the sort of man – under other circumstances and environment – such as seven and six hundred years before him had been Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.” 

This analysis places Jesus firmly in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which ended with the destruction of the First Temple. Jesus was not the herald of a new religion, but the practitioner of an old one. He spoke in the same language and on behalf of the same God as the people whose testimonies we read in our haftarot. More than that, said Montefiore, Jesus wasn’t even particularly special:

I do not think that he was always consistent. He urged his disciples to love their enemies, but so far as we can judge he showed little love to those who opposed him. […] To the hardest excellence of all even Jesus could not attain. For it was far easier for him to care for the outcast than to care for his opponent, especially when the outcast was ready to acknowledge that he was sent by God, and the opponent took the liberty of denying it.

For Montefiore, claiming Jesus as a Jew meant also claiming him as a human being. He was a man like any other, full of imperfections, even angry and hypocritical. It is a remarkable testament to how far Montefiore had come that he could speak so openly, and even more so of his Christian peers that they tolerated this exegesis.

Even today, it would probably be hard to speak in such terms. One of the groups that would be most scandalised if Montefiore gave his lecture today would be other Jews. There is a tendency, at present, to try to draw increasingly thick lines between each religion, and to ghettoise Judaism. Certainly, many of my peers would roll their eyes at any attempt to claim Jesus as a Jew. 

But I think doing so still has value. When we look at Jesus through the critical, historical lens of Progressive Judaism, we can see that he was just a man, doing his best to understand God’s will.

By association, we can recognise that our rabbis and prophets were no different. And we, too, might have a little less hubris. We might realise that all religions are just efforts to do right in the world and approach our own with some humility.

After all, none of us has all the answers. None of us can be God.

Chagall’s Jewish Jesus

I gave this sermon on Saturday 26th December for Parashat Vayigash at Newcastle Reform Synagogue. The research here is from my MA dissertation, done at King’s College London under supervision by Dr. Andrea Schatz.

story · theology

The morality machine

Once, in a plausible past, a scientist built a machine. It was so powerful it could handle complex reasoning. It could calculate absolutely anything.

The scientist programmed the machine so that it could work out the optimal outcome for any decision. If she asked it whether to eat porridge or cornflakes, this contraption would measure up the nutritional value of each cereal against her personal health, exercise and needs.

It would even factor in how happy each breakfast choice could make her, short term and long-term. This machine would crunch those numbers until it spurted out the best possible result. Porridge this morning. Almond milk. No salt or sugar.

This scientist discovered she could put her instrument to use with every daily task. Before long, she had completely optimised her life. She went to sleep and woke up at exactly the right time. She did the perfect amount of exercise. She worked a job that maximised her fulfilment, income and skill set. 

She used it to work out where to do her charitable giving: finding the cause that would save the most human lives for the least amount of money. The machine told her which purchasing choices would have the least impact on the environment for the fairest price to consumer, labourer and business owner.

Such a fine apparatus! Of course, it was only a matter of time before she realised this could have implications far beyond her own life. She brought her machine to the capital city and presented it before the benevolent president.

“Ma’am,” she intoned as she bowed, “this machine will help you make the perfect decision at all times.”

“Let me try,” said the president. She lifted herself from her seat and walked over to the metal block. “For the longest time, I have wondered if I need more advisers to increase the wisdom in my country. Perhaps this machine can tell me how many more I should hire, and what sort of person I need?” 

The scientist typed in the numbers, and you have already worked out what happened next. The answer was so obvious! The machine told the president that she did not need any advisors, because all her decisions could be rationally calculated by the computer. Immediately the president dismissed all her advisors.

Now the real work could begin. The computer informed the president of all the best crops that could be grown in the best soil for the best results. It told her what land to capture and which pastures to disregard. It explained which industries would be most cost-effective. Within a matter of months, the country was transformed.

Then the computer updated the president with which workers were most efficient, and which ones consumed more than they produced. The machine enumerated which people were most likely to disrupt social order. It showed how the population would be healthier and happier if it were smaller and more homogenous. The president gleefully implemented its dictats.

The machine calculated who to imprison. Who to promote. Who to ignore. Who to starve. Who  to execute. 

Because a machine can count absolutely anything. Except the value of a life.

No. The worth of a human being cannot be accounted for by any mathematical system. Life comes from something that is infinite and belongs to that Infinity. As such, it is indivisible, indefinable, immeasurable. No machine can capture God. No machine can understand those inviolable precepts that  we call ‘human rights’.

The idea that there is such a thing as human rights is, fundamentally, a religious ideal. It can only be understood by reference to something holy. The rights of human beings are inviolable because they are given by God. Philosophy’s great atheists – Bentham, Marx, Singer – also explicitly rejected the discourse of human rights. 

Conversely, Tom Paine grounded his rights of man in the biblical account of God having created us equal in Eden. When Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence, he explained that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” When the colonised and enslaved people of the Americas answered back that they, too, had such rights, they appealed to the same Divine Source. When Wollstonecraft vindicated the rights of women, she insisted that “God brought into existence creatures above the brutes so that they would have incalculable gifts.” 

In this week’s haftarah, God tells the prophet Zechariah: “not by might, nor by power, but only by My spirit” can the Jewish people truly live. All the force and wealth in the world cannot compare to the sacred truth of God’s infinity. We are nothing if we abandon God’s message.

More than a religious value, human rights are a Jewish value. Hanukkah is underway. It is a festival that celebrates an oppressed minority’s achievement of religious freedom in the face of colonial oppression. It remembers how the Seleucids once tried to violate Jews’ every right, but were ultimately defeated. Above all, we are told, it was God who safeguarded their rights.

A testimony to the Jewishness of human rights comes from the author of their Declaration. This week is Human Rights Shabbat, commemorating 72 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among its composers was a French-Jewish jurist named Rene Cassin. Cassin was keen to ensure that there was some legal framework for guaranteeing people were protected, no matter where they were from; what minorities they belonged to; or what they believed. 

In particular, in the shadow of a genocide perpetrated against Jews, the Declaration of Human Rights sought to ensure that never again would a group be systematically eradicated. Human rights were supposed to be a counterpoint against genocide.

Genocide, like the choices described in the story of the morality machine, is the result of mechanical thinking. It is something that can only be justified when human beings are reduced to statistics and social consequences only measured in terms of order or prosperity. 

You see, the machine that could calculate anything except the value of a life did not exist only in fiction. It is already a part of our daily reality. 

Before genocide can be carried out in camps, it is developed on spreadsheets and planned on computers. 

Before people can commit atrocities, they have to switch off the part of themselves that connects with their infinite source and plug in only to the finite equations of capitalist mentality. If we are not careful, we can become the machine. We become the automatons that punch out numbers and make calculations and rationally process every evil. 

Our media asks us how many people should be permitted into Britain, and we churn back answers into the polls. We are challenged to decide how many people should die of Coronavirus, and how many should be imprisoned to stop their deaths. We are told to weigh up which tools of warfare our country should have to capture the greatest resources for the least sacrifice. 

We are asked the most unconscionable questions and, barely processing the implications, return answers like amoral computers. If we permit ourselves to think like robots when we weigh up the values of other people’s lives, we truly do destroy the humanity in ourselves. 

We will only break free from such finite thinking when we put it into the perspective of Infinity. It is the infiniteness within someone that makes them holy. It is their Infinite source that makes their purpose sacred.

For the sake of humanity, we embrace human rights.

I wrote this sermon for the Leo Baeck College newsletter and will deliver it to Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Shabbat Vayeshev, 12th December 2020.

interfaith · sermon · torah

Who gets to be Jacob?

I am told that, as a toddler, whenever it came to game-playing, I had to be Postman Pat. No matter what the game was, I insisted on playing that friendly gentleman with a black and white cat. As I grew up, I had to compete with other children for different parts in our roleplay. We couldn’t all be the robbers, somebody would have to be the cops. Not everyone can be the Yellow Power Ranger and we can’t all be Ginger Spice.

Those were, at least, the parts we competed for in the 1990s. It was fairly low stakes, but it seemed quite important at the time.

But it’s nothing compared to the fight for roles that went on in the 5th Century CE. This big broigus was not just between two individuals, but between two whole religious groups: the Jews and the Christians. That battle was played out in two foundational texts of our traditions: a sermon by St Augustine of Hippo on the Christian side and the midrash, Bereishit Rabbah, for the Jews. Both were determined that they were Jacob, and the other side was Esau.

Which one would get to be Jacob?

At stake in this question is an ancient prophecy, told to Rebecca while she was pregnant: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your body. One shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”

When Rebecca gave birth to Jacob and Esau, she was not just birthing twins, but rival nations. A strong one and a weak one. An older one that would serve the younger.

We have Esau: the hairy, ruddy hunter. We have Jacob: the smart, younger upstart.

The contest over Isaac’s blessing and birthright laid out in our parashah was more than a competition between siblings. It was a war between peoples.

So which one is the Jews? And which one is the Christians?

As far as the Jewish texts are considered, Jacob must be the Jewish nation. Meak and smart? That’s us. Gentle but witty? Sounds Jewish. He even changed his name to Israel. Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel, klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, daat Yisrael, the laws of the Jews. Surely Jacob must be us!

And meanwhile Esau… well, he’s Rome. He changed his name to Edom, which, granted, is on the other side of the River Jordan in Mount Seir, but was the birthplace of Rome’s most wicked emperor and Temple-destroyer, Hadrian. And look at those Romans. They’re the hairy, barbarous, fighting ones. They’ve got their swords and their empires, just as Esau had his bow and his field.

Bereishit Rabbah, our classical midrash on Genesis, spells it out for us.

Two proud nations are in your womb, one is proud of his world and one is proud of his kingdom. Two prides of their nations are in your womb – Hadrian amongst the gentiles and Solomon amongst the Israelites.

We’re Jacob. We’re the one that God has chosen. We are the descendants of Solomon, proud of the world of Torah and obligation. They’re Esau. They’re the other brother. They’re the descendants of Hadrian, proud of their ill-gotten Empire.

Except, of course, for one obvious problem. Jacob is supposed to be the younger brother. Aren’t we, the Jews, clearly the older sibling? Our revelation is much older than the Christian one and the kingdom of David long predates the Caesarian Empire.

This fact was not missed by our Christian interlocutors.

Foremost among these Christians was St Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was a Father of the Christian Church, a theologian living in North Africa. His ideas were definitive in Christianity for many centuries, and people of all religious stripes still reverentially refer back to his writings. As far as Augustine was concerned, Jacob had to be Christendom. Israel, God’s treasured child, was the Church.

True, says Augustine, the Jewish nation sprang from Jacob, but since then, they have gone on to become Esau. They’re the elder people whom God has rejected. Esau was born shaggy and hairy, which means full of sins. Just look at the Jews – that’s clearly them!

Augustine continues: the prophecy promised that the elder would serve the younger, but that never happens in the biblical text. Esau goes on to become very rich and both wind up blessed in their lifetimes. Clearly, this refers to events that had not yet transpired: that the real Jacob would go on to have the upper hand. Now look at the world of Augustine, where the Christian Empire spans the globe and the Jews are a fractured diaspora in their lands. Surely this is the proof that the Jews are now Esau, serving their younger brother, the Christian Jacob.[1]

This battle of biblical exegesis probably sounds quite twee today. After all, why should it matter which of our religions gets to be Jacob? But this battle for religious identity and purpose shaped interfaith relations in medieval Europe.

If the Jews were Esau, then the Christians had replaced them as Jacob. Judaism was superseded, no longer necessary, and its practitioners were hairy remnants of an outdated doctrine. As Esau, the Jews were a savage menace who needed to be tamed by the genteel, pious Christians in their role as Jacob. This Christian doctrine was the theological basis for Jewish subjugation in Europe.

Faced with such hostility and oppression, it was only natural that medieval Jews felt the need to double down and insist that they were still Jacob. They imagined that Christian dominion would only last so long but that the Jews would ultimately triumph. They could still be Israel, despite what was said about them.

The modern era has seen reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Over time, theologians and historians on both sides have come to emphasise their kinship over rivalry. Perhaps, in the conflict over who got to be Jacob, these twin religions forgot that they were, in fact, siblings. Perhaps, still stuck in childhood contests, our communities had ignored the way the story ends.

By the time of the story’s completion, Jacob and Esau are no longer warring for the same birthright. They have both struggled, and lost, and achieved their own blessing. In maturity, Jacob and Esau meet again and wrap their arms around each other. They weep as they realise that God’s blessing is not finite. They never needed to fight over it.

After 2000 years of struggle, perhaps we Jews and Christians can reach the same intellectual adulthood. The campaign for who is the favourite brother can be put aside as we realise that we are on twin paths. We are both children of the same Divine Parent.

Perhaps we cannot all be Postman Pat, or Ginger Spice, or the same Power Ranger. But everyone can be Jacob.

I will give this sermon at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue on Shabbat 21st November 2020 for Parashat Toldot.


[1] ‘Sermon on Jacob and Esau’, Jacob Rader Marcus and Marc Saperstein, The Jews in Christian Europe, pp. 33-34

sermon · social justice

Until she was no longer useful

The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what always happens.

The weekly stories we read are not historical recountings of the lives of ancient people. They are contemporary retellings of the lives of modern people. Genesis is not a book about the past. It is about the present. 

So here is what happened. And here is what always happens.

Hagar had been an Egyptian princess in the court of Pharaoh. Sarah entreated her out to Canaan with promises of work. “You will serve such a holy man,” she promised her. She was given the name, Ha-Gar: the immigrant; the sojourner.

She worked as a maidservant. She, who had been so prestigious in her homeland, cleaned up after Abraham and Sarah in their tents. She washed their clothes and took care of their needs. 

Then Sarah realised that she was barren. She instructed Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and Abraham consented. We do not know how Hagar felt about her surrogacy.

They conceived on the first try. What a successful servant! Then Sarah became jealous. “Isn’t Hagar so haughty? Doesn’t she think she’s so much better than me?”

So she started afflicting Hagar and making her life unbearable. Hagar ran away. And then she came back, because where was she going to go?

Hagar did indeed bear a child, and called him Ishmael, meaning ‘God will hear.’ And then she was no longer useful.

Fertile woman. Hated woman. Did her work well. Did her work too well. Did her work so well she was no longer useful and had to be sent away

Sarah was threatened by her and demanded she leave. She was supposed to be a servant and now she was a competitor, with a rival child, an older boy. If Ishmael is allowed to grow up, he’ll take everything from Isaac. If Hagar is allowed to stay, she might have the upper hand.

And Hagar ran away into the wilderness and was so desperate she almost killed her son. But she found a well of water and they survived. Ishmael grew up to be a bowman.

We don’t know what happened next to Hagar. History does not record.

Now here is what happened. And here is what always happens.

Sentine Bristol was born in Grenada, a British colony in the Caribbean. The Empire lured her over to work in the United Kingdom. She came on a boat called the Windrush. She worked as a nurse in the NHS. A successful immigrant, keeping us alive. Too successful, stealing our jobs.

Aren’t they great, bringing their culture and ingenuity and skills? We will celebrate them in our Olympics opening ceremony. But it wouldn’t kill them to assimilate. Couldn’t someone else have done the work she was brought over here on the Windrush to do?

She brought her son with her. His name was Dexter. He worked as a cleaner until he was in his 50s. 

And then they were no longer useful. Hardworking immigrants. Parasitic immigrants. Did their work well. Did their work too well. Did their work so well they were no longer useful and had to be sent away. 

A new wave of nationalism swept the country. The Home Office destroyed the records of their having arrived in Britain. The government declared a policy of a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, which included people who did not have their papers because their papers had been destroyed.

So the state cast them out. Dexter had to prove he wasn’t a foreigner in the only country he’d known since he was 8 years old. And he couldn’t find the documentation. He lost his job and the right to claim benefits. He was threatened with deportation.

And no well appeared in the wilderness. And he didn’t go on to become a bowman or a great nation. He died of a heart attack from the stress of trying to keep his home. Sentine did not receive justice. She disappeared from the headlines two years ago. 

This is what happened. This is what always happens.

One group gains more wealth than another. Maybe by technology, maybe by force, maybe by resources, maybe by luck.  The wealthy people require the labour and expertise of others, so they entice them with promises of jobs and prosperity. People go wherever the wealth is. They become nurses, midwives, bricklayers, servants, dream-interpreters, delivery workers, chefs, surrogates, cleaners, plumbers and bus conductors. 

The migrant people are despised. They have taken our jobs and brought their diseases. Their ways are too different from ours; they refuse to assimilate. Their beliefs are too foreign from ours; they cannot be allowed into our spaces. We do not trust their food or their clothes or their appearance. They will overtake us by sheer force of their numbers or intelligence or might. They must be eradicated.

The migrant people are prized. Look at the wonderful ingenuity and work ethic they have brought to us. How lucky we are to have them in our ranks. Such awards we must give them for their brains, their athleticism, their musical talent. They have transformed our cuisine and our customs. We cannot imagine our culture without them. We must protect them.

And then they are no longer useful. Maybe they are feared or maybe their hosts become jealous. Maybe the wealthy people are no longer so wealthy, or maybe they no longer feel so wealthy. Maybe there is a new government or an old ideology or a charismatic movement promising to restore former greatness. And the migrant people are surplus to requirement, so they have to leave.

They go back where they came from or onwards to somewhere else, not that it makes much difference either way. They get deported or they go voluntarily because they know they’re not wanted any more, not that it makes much difference either way. They depart on foot into the desert unsure if their children will survive. They leave on camels, in caravans, on boats, in cars. They pile into buses and aeroplanes and dinghies, depending on which paperwork they have and how much money they can stump up front. 

And then they are forgotten. And we don’t know what happens to their story after that.

That is what happened. And that is what always happens.

The Torah’s stories tell of the time when humanity transitioned into a new kind of civilisation, one defined by inequality and migration. That is why they are not just about the past, they are about the present.

The Torah recalls what it was like for an Egyptian named Hagar to seek work and be abused among Israelites. It tells the story of an Israelite named Joseph who sought work and was abused among Egyptians.

And because it tells those stories of inequality and migration, it also tells the stories of all the people who moved to Britain over these centuries. Their struggles, our struggles, are reflected here too.

The Torah doesn’t tell us what happened. It tells us what always happens. Unless we do something about it.

I gave this sermon for Glasgow Reform Synagogue on Saturday 7th November 2020, Parashat Vayera.