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.

judaism · sermon · theology

Abraham and the Paradox of Jewish Evangelism

A priest, a monk and a rabbi are debating which of their religions is the correct one. They decide to settle it with a contest to convert a bear to their religion.

The rabbi tries first. Two days later, the priest and the monk end up visiting him in the hospital.

The rabbi says: “OK, maybe I shouldn’t have begun with circumcision.”

Let’s set aside the foreskin jokes, because I don’t think the rabbi would have had much better luck with a lady bear. Isn’t it a strange fact of our religion that we almost never set out to proselytise?

We, of course, welcome all sincere converts, and this synagogue is happy to encourage anyone on their spiritual journey. But you won’t find us outside Asda, handing out flyers with words from the Mishnah. And you certainly won’t turn on your TV to see a rabbinic televangelist warning you about the perils of pork.

But if you think you have stumbled upon spiritual knowledge, don’t you want to share it with the world? Who are we to zealously guard the secrets of the universe?

Even if you take a more humble approach to Judaism’s teachings, and think they’re just as good as any other people’s, there must be something particularly worthwhile about Judaism for you to log in to this morning’s service rather than watching Bargain Hunt. (Wait, don’t go, I promise this is going somewhere!)

That strange paradox of Judaism – that we have a universal truth but don’t seek to spread it – is encapsulated in the story of Abraham.

This week, God tells Abraham: “Go out by yourself. I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.”[1]

Then, in the next two verses, as if a parallel to the first, God says: “All the families of the earth shall be blessed by you.” Then Abraham goes out with Lot and Sarah.[2]

So… does Abraham go out to bless himself or does he go out to bless others? Which is it?

This is the great tension in Judaism. Do we exist only for Jews? If so, why are we trying to change the world? Or do we exist for humanity? In which case, why aren’t we trying to make everyone Jews?

Our midrash plays with this tension. Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic explorations of Genesis, contains an unusual parable. In it, Rabbi Berekhyah compares Abraham to a tightly sealed bottle of perfume. The bottle was left in the corner and nobody smelt it. As soon as it was moved, its fragrance was emitted. This, says our midrash, is what it was like when God told Abraham to go out from place to place and make his name great in the world.[3]

Makes perfect sense, right? No? Fine, let’s unpack it.

Abraham is a tightly closed bottle of perfume when he starts out in Haran. At this stage, Abraham has encountered God. Abraham has realised that the idols amount to nothing and the Creator of the Universe is a singular and invisible presence. He is somehow pure and untouched. The Pagans have not affected his beliefs, and he has not affected theirs. He is hermetically sealed.

Then God tells him to lech lecha – to go out. Abraham moves around out from Haran and down to Shchem and Be’ersheva in the land of Canaan. As he moves between these places, others get to smell him. They encounter the truth that Abraham has learned about ethical monotheism. God is one and just! Now everywhere he goes people can get a whiff of this knowledge.

Only there’s another problem. Bottles of perfume don’t emit their scent because you move them. They only work when you open them. In this analogy, the balsamic bottle that is Abraham still remains sealed. How is he spreading his fragrances everywhere if he hasn’t even opened up?

I don’t think the editors of our midrash have made some mistake. I think they are telling us something profound about the Jewish paradox. We have a truth that we want others to know and yet we don’t want to convert anyone. Our role as a light unto the nations is that we go from place to place, showing others who we are, but not changing anything about who they are. We are still Abraham, that sealed bottle, going out from Haran, somehow expecting others to smell our perfumes but not opening up wide to spread our scent.

The very word “evangelism” is a Greek one, meaning good news, referring to the Christian Gospels. The early Church actively went out on recruitment drives, telling people about Jesus and his message. We have no such good news to share. What would we say to people? “Rejoice! God has commanded you to pursue justice and only eat unleavened bread in the springtime!” Jewish evangelism seems somehow a contradiction in terms.

And yet we do go out and share our beliefs. We are happy to expound our Torah to anyone. We expect to transform the societies we are in. When we speak out for justice wherever we live, we are very much hoping that others will take note of our concern for the stranger and adjust their actions accordingly. How can we reconcile this desire to change others with our lack of desire to convert them?

Perhaps the problem isn’t perfume metaphors and paradoxes. Maybe the issue is how we understand Judaism’s mission. Abraham wasn’t sent out to turn others into Jews. Abraham was sent out to be a Jew.

Abraham had to go out and be different, to hold a truth that no one else held. Even when he passes it on to his children, they each hold a different truth. Isaac becomes the founder of our Judaism. Ishmael becomes the founder of Islam. They go out holding different truths, both contradictory and complementary. Abraham’s revelation of God’s unity is a realisation that this universal God can never be captured by one person in a single truth.

Abraham’s mission wasn’t to make everyone Jews. It was to enable everyone to be themselves. It was that all these other nations could celebrate their differences, just as Abraham loved his own.

That is our task today. We don’t say to the nations: “we want you all to be Jews.” We say: “we want you all to be you.”

We are models of difference in a society where we are not a majority and in a world where we are not dominant. Our role is to show how to conduct that uniqueness in a way that demonstrates dignity.

This is our evangelism. That is the truth we hold and that we want to share. That difference is a wonderful and treasured thing. From our differences, we are blessed. And in our differences, we bless each other.

So go out from Haran and share that sacred truth. And don’t worry – you don’t need to go circumcising bears.

This sermon is for Parashat Lech Lecha. I will give this sermon on Saturday morning 31st October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue, and a shortened version the night before for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.


[1] Gen 12:1-2

[2] Gen 12:3-5

[3] Ber Rab 39:2

fast · high holy days · sermon

Closing the Gates

These are the short sermons I delivered for the final two services of Yom Kippur 5781.

Yizkor

This morning, I talked about how this year could be understood through the lens of grief. Yet nothing can compare to the grief of losing a loved one. Every feeling we described, of denial, bargaining, sadness, anger and acceptance, is intensely heightened by the enormity of the lives that have been lost in this last year.

I will not say numbers. Their lives were not statistics. They cannot be reduced to the collateral damage in government reports about which measures worked best. They were full human beings, imbued with the sacred light of God. They were people with pasts and dreams, filled with stories. They were complete people, with flaws and complexities and little idiosyncrasies.

And we have not yet even begun to mourn them. In the midst of a pandemic, we have been like the Israelites in the desert, forced to keep on moving and maintaining high spirits for an undefined period of time. We keep looking straight ahead to keep our spirits awake, so struggle to look back at the hurt. Even old wounds from people long dead have returned to us, and we have struggled to find ways to heal.

Here, in this moment, for this brief service, we can take the time. Let’s stop in this space and reflect. We remember the names of everyone who mattered to us. We loved them. We cared for them. They cared for us. We admired them. We looked up to them. They took inspiration from us. We laughed with them. We cried with them. We got angry with them. We hated them. Sometimes. We spent precious time with them. We did not spend enough time with them.

And now, in this moment, we remember them. And we refuse to let them ever be forgotten.

Neilah

This year has been challenging for all of us. As much as our physical health has been at stake, everyone’s psychological wellbeing has taken a toll. Public health experts warn that we are facing a delayed mental health crisis. 

This morning, I spoke about how the year could be understood through the stages of grief. Those feelings, however, can be pathological when taken to an extreme. Sadness can become depression. Anger can become anxiety. Denying what exists and accepting what does not can result in psychosis. 

We will need to pull together in the coming year. We will need to check in on each other more than ever and find new ways to support each other. Above all, please talk about your feelings. If it feels like it’s going too much, do talk to a rabbi for pastoral support, or to a doctor for medical help. It is important that we all look after each other.

I know that we begin Yom Kippur by annulling the vows we have made with God. I think, however, this year, we need to end by making a new one. We need to promise each other we will make it. We must swear to each other that we will do everything we can to keep our bodies, minds and souls alive in the coming year. Say it to God, make it a vow.

As the gates of prayer close, I vow that I will care for myself and my community. I vow that I will be honest with my feelings and kind to my body. I vow that I will be here next year.

Next year, in a world without pandemic. Next year, in a world built back better without racism and injustice. Next year, in a world where we can see each other in person. Next year, in the building, with each other, holding hands and singing together.

We will make it to next year. Shanah tovah.

high holy days · sermon

Being holy

These are the short sermons I am giving at Glasgow Reform Synagogue for Yom Kippur afternoon 5781.

Being holy

This afternoon’s Torah service instructs us: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal One your God, am holy.” But how do we live holiness? An answer to this comes from the great tradition of mussar. This was a movement that emerged in 19th Century Vilna for promoting Judaism as an ethical movement. The musarnikes, or moralists, argued that study alone was not enough, but that it had to be directed towards making Jews into better people.

The heir to that movement is the Mussar Institute in the USA. Earlier in the year, its leader, Alan Morinis, gave a four-day virtual conference at Edgware Reform Synagogue, advocating its ideas. In the musar system, people have attributes, called middot, that we must cultivate in order to be a holy people. Qualities like faith, modesty, willingness, and joy. In these short divrei Torah for the afternoon, I will give stories and quotations from the mussar tradition that reinforce our liturgical readings.

At every stage of this Torah reading, the reason for each commandment is “because I am the Eternal One your God.” It is repeated at the end of almost every verse. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, taught: “Do all you can to internalise faith and live with it daily.”

I know faith will mean many different things. For some, it is in God.  For others, it is in our fellow human beings. And for others still it is in the possibilities the future holds. Wherever your faith lies, cling to it, strengthen it, and build it into every decision you make.

Being simple

Our next Torah reading comes from Deuteronomy. It tells us: “These teachings are not too baffling for you, nor are they beyond your reach. It is not in the Heavens […] nor is it over the sea.” The Torah, we understand, is a simple text with a simple message. That message is summarised by Micah in the dictum: “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

This simple message is reinforced by the mussar tradition. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a leader of the Orthodox community in 20th Century Britain, taught: “Human beings pursue worldly pleasures because they have a subconscious urge to still the pangs of spiritual hunger. Everyone has this nameless inner yearning: the longing of the soul for its state of perfection. Earthly indulgence is only an illusory substitute for this.”

In these trying times, we have to enjoy the simplicity of what we have. We may not be able to enjoy the luxuries of previous years, and even many essentials may seem out of reach. But this provides us with an opportunity to get in touch with what really matters. With our souls, with ourselves, with each other. To walk humbly with our God.

Being willing

Jonah ran away from everything he was supposed to do. He ran away to Tarshish to get away from Nineveh. He hid in the boat rather than face the other sailors. He sat in the belly of a giant fish before he accepted his responsibility. 

On Yom Kippur, we pray about the sins we have committed willingly and unwillingly. I think this year, we might also reflect on the good deeds we have done willingly and unwillingly. What has been a challenge to us to do right? 

Sometimes, for many, even getting out of bed in the morning feels difficult. The first line of the first part of the major law code, Shulchan Aruch, teaches: “One should strengthen herself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve her Creator, so that it is she who awakens the dawn.” 

The greatest challenge facing us this year is not to give in to futility. Whatever we can do, we must be full of enthusiasm. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of 18th Century Italy taught that we have to be self-motivated and not abandon ourselves to heaviness so that we come to merit divine service.

Even when the days can take their toll, may we approach winter’s tasks with willingness. May we pursue the needs of our community with enthusiasm, and hurry to do more for our loved ones.

Being joyous

We must be joyous. Of all the attributes to strive towards, joy might seem the strangest to mention in between the death bed confession and the recitation of sins. But it is, by far, the most important.

Rabbi Dovid Bliacher taught: “when faced with trouble, do not see it as a punishment for a past lapse, and do not be filled with guilt and despair. Rather, rejoice in this new opportunity to rise up by the medium of the test you now face.”

Even in the hardest times, we have to approach them with joy. Yes, we live in a crisis, but this is also an opportunity. Out of the rubble of Coronavirus, we can build back a better society, where people care for each other, where intergenerational communities support each other’s health and happiness, and where the needs of every human being on the planet are met.

Let us not delay for a moment in seeking to achieve that. And, as we go, let’s take joy in all that we have. This community. These friends. These bodies. This earth. This one precious life, in which every moment is a gift from God. Let us greet every day with joy.

festivals · high holy days · judaism

A journey through time

Sermonettes for Rosh Hashanah

This year is unlike every other in so many ways. In order to keep people engaged with the services, I delivered sermonettes between prayers, as two-minute reflections on the meaning of the festival. The seven drashes for Rosh Hashanah 5781 follow.

  1. On breathing

How wonderful are Jacob’s dwelling places! How good it is for us here, where for the first time in living memory, we are not all gathered in one place but we are all in each other’s tents. This whole community has gathered together in dispersed places. And although we are distant, we are somehow together. We are with each other, in our living rooms.

This is, of course, not a normal New Year, and this is not the usual format. Rather than preach at you uninterrupted for twenty minutes, this morning I am simply going to guide you through the service. At each stage, I will offer little sermonettes explaining our purpose here today.[1] Welcome, and thank you so much for coming on this journey.

Jewish liturgy takes us on a journey through time. Each service is a journey from primordial history through the present towards the ultimate redemption of humanity. The Jewish High Holy Days take us on a journey from the creation of humanity towards the Messianic Age.

And today – today, right now – is where it all begins. On the seventh day of creation, at this precise time in history, the first human being was created. The Holy One breathed air into Adam’s nostrils and that wind became his soul.[2] So, too, was his wife called Chava. Chava – Eve – literally means breath. She is both breath and life. We are here with Adam and Eve at the dawning of humanity once more.

Rabbi Zahavit Shalev taught us that every night when you go to sleep, your soul disappears and returns to God. Then, when you wake up in the morning, God returns your soul to you so that you can breathe alive once again.[3] As we wake, we say to God: “thank you, Sacred Name everlasting, that you have returned my soul to me in compassion, unending is your faith.”[4] We are here at the beginning of a day at the beginning of time, grateful to be alive.

Right now, you are Adam. You are Eve. You are the first person rising up on the first day, breathing for the first time, saying to God: “this soul that you have placed inside of me is pure.”

[1] Everything about these sermonettes I owe to my teacher, Dr. Jeremy Schonfield

[2] Genesis 2:7

[3] From her rabbinic dissertation on sleep

[4] Modeh Ani, Forms of Prayer 2008, p. 18

* * *

2. On taking responsibility

Eight days after a baby is born, it becomes liable for its first commandment.

By ten days, it has been named, or washed, or circumcised. It ceases to be an embryo and takes on its first responsibilities of being Jewish. It realises that being human is a blessing and a privilege, and that it must honour the duties that come with that.

Ten days after we are created on Rosh Hashanah, we come into contact with Yom Kippur. We are forced to inspect our lives and accept that we are responsible. We take on the commandments laid down to us by God. We accept that we are not just flesh and bones, but living spirits with moral responsibilities.

Ten generations after Adam came Noah,[1] who learned that people could fail in their responsibilities. Ten generations after Noah came Abraham,[2] who realised how painful keeping promises could be. Abraham, we read today, was called upon by God to head up Mount Moriah and sacrifice his youngest son. Abraham encountered God and learned that this came with reward, but came with responsibility too.

Ten minutes after we wake up, we are faced with our obligations. Having thanked God for our souls, we return our debt of gratitude by doing the most important commandment that has been given to us. We study.[3]

You are here. A ten day old baby. Abraham receiving God’s call. A full human being, learning that you are responsible. Learning that you must learn.

[1] Genesis 5

[2] Genesis 10

[3] New Forms of Prayer Draft Liturgy, p. 32

* * *

3. On ancestors

The Amidah is a journey within a journey. It begins with Abraham and Sarah and ends with King David building Jerusalem. When we begin this voyage in time, we cast our minds back to our ancestors. We remember Sarah’s hospitality; Rebecca’s generosity; Rachel’s patience and Leah’s humility.

Amidah means standing. It is the standing prayer, and we are literally standing in their footsteps. We are here because of our ancestors. Generations of human beings from hunter-gatherers to the creators of our modern industrial cities have brought us to this moment.

And we, as Jews, are here as Jews, because of every other Jew. For thousands of years, people have put their feet together on this day at this time of year and recited these words. By showing up today, we have kept that tradition going. We are another link in the chain.

Over time, we have come to do things differently. Spontaneous prayer gave way to memorised blessings, which gave way to words written on scrolls, which became prayer books with the advent of the printing press, that we can now see on computer screens in front of us.

Although the medium has changed, the message has not. Ethical monotheism. Judaism’s mission of doing justice in the name of the One God. We stand in the footprints left by ancient prophets, affirming the faith they once held.

* * *

4. On being yourself

Stop. Breathe. Take a moment. Shut your eyes.

Feel your breath rising and falling. Don’t try to force it. Just notice how you inhale and exhale. Pay attention to your nose, chest, lungs, shoulders, mouth. Feel the breath coming in and out of it.

When we began this journey through time, you acknowledged that the soul within you was pure. That is your natural state. Good. Honest. Righteous. Beautiful. That is who you are.

When you looked back over your ancestors, you remembered their piety. Of course, they made mistakes, but it is their goodness that has endured. So will it be with you.

You not only have ancestors. You are an ancestor. You are leaving your own tracks in the sand. What you put into the world now will stay long after you are gone.

Breathe. Contemplate. What do you want to leave behind?

Breathe. Remember. Who are you, deep down?

Breathe. Know that you are loved and lovable and able to love. Make the conscious choice to fill the world with the best of who you are.

Open your eyes. Open your lips. Pray that you may become who you are.

* * *

5. On being vulnerable

The service is reaching its apex. When we started, it was summer. Suddenly, you look around and see that autumn is coming. We are at the turning point of the year, when green leaves turn brown and Elul’s rays give way to Tishrei’s rains. We will change our blessings. Soon we will stop asking God for dew and start requesting fertile rains. We have journeyed through the seasons.

You are older now than when this service began. Yes, an hour and a half  has passed, and with it you have learnt more about who you are and who you want to be.

You are spiritually older, too. You have been Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Rachel, David. And now, you have grown enough that you can finally be you. You can find yourself exactly as you are, vulnerable and exposed. You can be present in this mortal body.

Your body is mortal. This year has brought home for many of us how fragile health can be. We have asked God to make peace for us as it is in Heaven. We ask God now for healing. We accept that our bodies are frail. Souls need plenty of sustenance. As individuals, as Jews, as humanity, we pray for God’s sacred restitution.

* * *

6. On the messianic future

The future awaits us!

The shofar is a herald for many things, but above all it was once used as a siren to announce that a dignitary was coming. When kings and queens approached a town, the shofar would sound to announce their arrival. That sound alerted the villagers to prepare their banquets and make a welcome party.

This section of the shofar service is called malchuyot. It shares its root with melech – king; malkah – queen; malchut – sovereignty. It means royalties. This is the time of our acknowledgement of God’s supremacy over all.[1] It is a reminder that the day will eventually come when everyone will understand God’s unity.

We sound the shofar and announce that the Ultimate Sovereign is coming. God is on the way.

When compiling the liturgy in the 3rd Century, Rav ordained that within this section we would recite ‘aleinu’ – the prayer affirming God’s majesty and our messianic future. It speaks of the coming day when all humanity will be united by a single God.

As progressive Jews, we understand this not as Davidic kingship or nationalist aspirations for supremacy, but as the coming of an age of peace and justice. We look forward to a utopian future in which all struggles are brought to an end, replaced by enduring joy. And we accept that it is our responsibility to bring about that perfect society.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a

* * *

7. On today

You have been young and old. You have been the first human being and witnessed humanity’s ultimate redemption. You have breathed so many cycles, taking advantage of the beautiful soul placed within you. And now, having been through all of this, having seen time from every angle, all you are left with is today.

Today.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once met Elijah. He asked him: when will the messiah come? Elijah said: “The Messiah is at the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor, the sick and wretched. Like them, he changes the bindings of his wounds, but does so one wound at the time, in order to be ready at a moment’s notice.”

Rabbi Joshua went out to the gates of Rome, and lo and behold, he found the Messiah sitting there, tending to his wounds. Rabbi Joshua said to the Messiah: “When will you be coming?” The Messiah looked up and joyously answered: “Today!”

The next day, Rabbi Joshua went back to Elijah and complained: “The Messiah lied to me. He said he was coming today and did not.” Elijah replied: “He said he would be coming today, if only you would hear his voice.”[1]

Olam haba zeh olam hazeh. The world to come is the world we are in.

We are here today with nothing but the present. Whatever the past and future might hold, this moment is sacred. And so we call on God – hayom teamtzeinu. Give us strength today. Give us blessing today. Remember us for life today. Amen.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a

festivals · high holy days · judaism

Spiritual Dialectics

Sermonettes for Erev Rosh Hashanah

This year is unlike every other in so many ways. In order to keep people engaged with the services, I am delivering sermonettes between prayers, as two-minute reflections on the meaning of the festival. The four drashes for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 follow.

  1. On lighting candles

The world stands balanced between darkness and light. Just as the day comes, night will surely follow. And when night falls on a night like tonight, on a holy night, we light a candle.[1]

Adam was afraid of the dark. When the first human being witnessed the sun start to fall on his first evening on the planet, he cried out because he thought the sun would never return and the darkness marked his death. Throughout the night, he and Eve cried, until dawn came, and he realised that God had made day to follow night.[2]

As night falls, we too can feel fear. But we know something that Adam did not. We know that the day will come. We know that even in the midst of utmost darkness, light will surely come.

This year, celebrating Rosh Hashanah may inevitably feel bittersweet. We are dipping our apples in a honey that has tasted pandemic and economic collapse. Many of us are facing uncertainty about our health, finances and relationships. It is natural that we should wonder how much we can go on.

But by coming here tonight, we affirm that we will go on. We remember the thousands of years we endured since the first human being looked upon the first night sky. We acknowledge that we do not only pray that day will come, but that we can work to bring on the day.[3] And we know that no matter how dark it may seem, we can always light a candle.

[1] New Forms of Prayer Draft Liturgy, p. 19

[2] Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a

[3] Yaakov Roblit, Shir laShalom

* * *

2. On the holiness of hope

“You’ve got to have hope. To some people the only thing they have to look forward to is hope.” These were the words of Harvey Milk, a gay Jewish immigrant in California; an activist who transformed politics in defence of minorities. As he sought election to office, he told his captive audience: “You have to give them hope.  Hope for a better world. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that all will be alright.”

And it wasn’t alright for Harvey Milk, who was assassinated 40 years ago. But it was alright for many others. Because of his fight, I grew up in a better world than I otherwise would have done. Because of the sacrifices he made, I live in a world that gay people of the past could only have imagined. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up hope now.

We are all here because of the optimism of previous generations. The immigrants who packed their bags, believing they could make a better life here. The survivors who made it through the camps because they had the strength of will. The feminists who insisted that women had a place in the synagogue, not just as spectators but as leaders. Every Jew who decided that showing up was  worthwhile and kept the faith of our people alive through the centuries. We owe it to them, and to the generations who will follow us, to keep hope alive.

The psalm that Howard and Fiona just read for us teaches: “When the wicked flourish, they are only like grass […] but the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, growing tall like a cedar in Lebanon. Even in old age, they will bear new fruit and shine green in the courtyards of our God.”[1] Remember this. Remember that the wickedness we see in the world is only grass that will wither, but that righteousness plants firm roots in the soil and refuses to be moved.

Know that just as we live in the dialectic of night and day, so too do we live in an unending struggle between right and wrong. As Jews, we will hold on to our faith in what is right. And in pursuit of it, we will remind the world of the holiness of hope.

[1] Psalm 92, excerpted and adapted

* * *

3. On blessing the new moon

There was a time in King Solomon’s life when he was given over to nihilism. He wrote Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, in which he declared: “Everything is vanity.” He said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”[1]

His advisers tried to console him, but Solomon only retorted with a challenge: “tell me something that will always be true.” Many days and weeks passed, but no one could respond. One day, a jeweller came in holding up a ring. On it, she had engraved three words: גם זה יעבור – this too shall pass.

Yes, the only certainty is change. We recite hashkiveinu – cause us to lie down and let us rise up to life renewed.[2] We go to sleep only to wake up. We wake up, and we go to sleep. We live in this constant cycle.

In a moment, we will recite the blessing for the new moon. The moon, like us, like life, exists in a constant state of flux. It waxes only to wane and fills out only to diminish again. Note that is not the full moon we bless, when the night sky is brightest and the moon appears most whole. It is the new one, when only a slither hangs in the night sky, promising only potential.

When the rabbis blessed the moon, they used to gaze up at it and say: “David, king of Israel, long may he live.”[3] David was, of course, long dead. He, the father of Solomon, was for them the prototype of the messianic age. He represented an imaginary perfect society of the past. And he stood in as the harbinger of the future utopia. We do not live yet in a perfected world, but we can look up at the sky and see the moon as our model. Just as the moon starts out as a tiny crescent and expands to its fullest form, we too can live in the darkest of times and know that completeness will follow. Whatever this pandemic throws at us, we know that it will pass, and a brighter future awaits us.

[1] Ecclesiastes 2:1-2

[2] New Forms of Prayer Draft Liturgy, p. 53

[3] Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 25a

* * *

4. On sickness and health

We live in the balance between sweet and bitter; darkness and light; completion and absence; justice and iniquity. Above all, this year, we live in the balance between sickness and health.

Let us take time to reflect on sickness. On all those who have died of Covid. The 40,000 who died in the UK and over 900,000 who have died worldwide. We think of all those who have survived Covid but still live with its scars – those who still have trouble walking, breathing and carrying out daily activities. We think of all those suffering with sicknesses unrelated to the pandemic, often marginalised and ignored. We contemplate the mental health of everyone in our society, as we face anxiety, depression and trauma. We pray for everyone whose bodies, minds and spirits need healing.

But in the dialectic of health, we are also able to celebrate the vitality we still possess. We show joy at all those who are alive. We are grateful that we who sit here tonight are counted among them. We can think of the community we have built, the solidarity we have engendered and the strength we have found in each other. Let us pray, then, not only that we will be healed, but that we will be active in helping others to heal.

judaism · theology

We are not our past mistakes.

We are not our past mistakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our mistakes do not define us.

We are not our past mistakes.

Shabbat shalom.

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

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 14a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 62b

[3] Psalms 104:35

[4] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a

[5] Ezekiel 3:11

[6] Deuteronomy 30

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

[8] Jeremiah 3:14

[9] Psalms 90:3

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiga 77b