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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.”
 Everything about these sermonettes I owe to my teacher, Dr. Jeremy Schonfield
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, who learned that people could fail in their responsibilities. Ten generations after Noah came Abraham, 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. And we know that no matter how dark it may seem, we can always light a candle.
“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.” 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.
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?”
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. 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.” 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.
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.
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.
Meir was a great rabbi, but his wife, Beruriah, was even greater. She once learnt 300 rulings from 300 different sages in one day. 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.”
“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.”
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes only that they will turn from their evil ways and live.
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.
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.
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,” 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,” 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.
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.
I gave this sermon on Shabbat 12th September 2020, Parashat Nitzavim, for Newcastle Reform Synagogue.
1998 is imprinted in my mind as a critical turning point in Jewish history.
Those who remember it are already nodding sagely in recollection of this key moment of reconciliation between Jews and others. It opened up the Jewish community to being more accepting of difference and showed that Jews had been visibly and publicly embraced.
It was, of course, the year Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest. Like many families across Europe, mine stayed up late watching the results come in. They were as expected – Dana had stormed the public vote.
Dana. Jewish. Yemeni. Israeli. Glamorous. Melodious. Trans.
Dana was a trans woman who had already made her name in the underground gay clubs of the Mediterannean and the Middle East. In some places, her albums had been sold illegally and discreetly.
At that time, trans people had no legal protections in any country. In popular media, they were exclusively the butt of jokes or objects of fear. There were very few public pundits who were trans or even willing to advance their cause.
But now, all of a sudden, she burst onto television screens to accolades, as if the world might finally be ready for latent queer liberation. Her victory wasn’t just a win for a pop star; it was a statement about what could be.
For me, it was mostly a watershed moment in Jewish history because it transformed the communal discussion about LGBT acceptance. British Jews celebrated Dana’s win as a win for Jews and a sign of our integration in Europe. At Purim that year, aged 10, I dressed up as Dana and danced around on the bimah.
This snapshot in LGBT Jewish history stands in sharp contrast to this week’s Torah portion. Here, we read: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Eternal One your God detests anyone who does this.” This has become known as one of the ‘clobber verses’ – words from Torah quoted at lesbian, gay, bi and trans people to oppress them.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov warns that men will dress up as women in order to sneak into their private women-only spaces. This is precisely the argument used today to exclude trans women, presenting them as sexual predators and imposters.
If anything, today’s discourse is far worse, since the Gemara ultimately rejects this argument, but such bigotry is often allowed to stand unchallenged in our newspapers, radio call-ins and TV debates. In fact, in the last few weeks, Members of Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Piers Morgan, JK Rowling and a number of other high profile figures have banded together to criticise what they term ‘transgender ideology.’
Defendants of trans women have spoken up to insist that they are not ‘men masquerading as women,’ but simply people seeking to live their own authentic lives.
I think, however, this defence is too constricting. There is nothing wrong with men dressing as women or women dressing as men. One of the strongest messages of the trans movement has been that gender need not be a prison. I personally have built on my childhood success imitating Dana by dressing up as Amy Winehouse and Lily Montagu for the last two Purims.
Trans people belong to a broad spectrum of people who don’t feel like their gender identity matches with what society assigned them at birth. They have diverse ideas about who they are, but shared experiences of people trying to force them to conform to a mould they do not fit.
I hope that by promoting those who do not fit the mould we can reconsider the mould altogether. There are so many ways to be a man, to be a woman, and to sit in the spaces in between.
Our communities should be strong enough to include everyone, regardless of gender presentation and identity. We should be able to accept and celebrate the myriad of gender variance today, as we did for Dana twenty years ago.
It is disappointing that what, in the late nineties, seemed like the inevitable advancement of trans rights, is now being pushed back by a toxic alliance. While other parts of society can have their own arguments, I feel it is important that Progressive Jews position ourselves firmly on the side of inclusion.
Thankfully, I am not alone. Last month, Reform Judaism’s outgoing senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, wrote alongside a leading Anglican bishop: “We believe that trans people, like every other person, have every right to be cherished, and protected by society and in the gender in which they choose to live. Our faith compels us to speak up for those on the margins, those whom others would seek to silence or misrepresent.”
This, you must understand, is not simply a matter of our liberalism trumping our Judaism, but is deeply rooted in our understanding of what Judaism requires of us. We do not believe that the Torah is God’s infallible word, but that it is a text, written by men, aiming to understand how best to live an ethical life. As a human work, it contains human biases, including sexism and what we would today term ‘transphobia.’
Instead of living by the letter of ancient words, we use them as the basis to interpret, through our own limited human experience, what morality requires of us today. Joy Ladin, a trans woman and Jewish biblical scholar, argues that while the verses criticising gender non-conformity are sparse, the commandment to know the soul of a stranger is repeated throughout Tanach.
She writes: “The commandment to know the soul of the stranger is more than a summons to social justice or a reminder not to do to others the evil that others have done to us. Knowing the soul of the stranger is part of the spiritual discipline required for a community to make a place for God. […] God commands the Israelites to hitgayer, to identify with the experience of being strangers so that they will know the soul of the stranger – the stranger who dwells among them, the strangers they are, the stranger who is God.”
It is on this deeply Jewish basis that we seek trans inclusion in our Jewish communities. We are commanded to know the soul of the stranger. We are called upon to make our synagogues not just places where words of Torah are heard, but where they are lived, so that our buildings are homes for people of all genders.
May we all know the soul of a stranger, and may all strangers know that our hearts are with them.
I will give this sermon on Saturday 29th August for Parashat Ki Teitzei at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.
Earlier in the year, I went to a Holocaust Survivors Centre to deliver a service. After we had sung songs, discussed Torah and celebrated the day, I went to join some of the survivors to eat.
We sat and chatted. They were all elderly, but brimmed with life. These refugees, mostly women, who had survived camps and treacherous journeys to get here, seemed to possess a vitality I rarely saw in people my own age.
They talked about their grandchildren, their local community and their synagogues. But they wasted no time getting to the really gritty questions. “Why should I believe in God after what happened to us?” “Did God let that happen to us?” “Do you believe in an afterlife?” I bashfully tried to answer their questions, often replying that I did not know.
But then one of them asked a question to which I did know the answer. To which I was in no doubt. She asked me: “Do I have to forgive the Nazis?”
“No,” I said. “No you do not have to forgive the Nazis.”
I did not cite a Torah verse or a scholar or a halachah. I just said no. There are things that are unforgivable, and I was taken aback at even the suggestion that a survivor could forgive the Nazis for what they did.
Not everything must be forgiven. Not everything should be forgiven. Not everything can be forgiven.
We have reached Elul. The new month has begun and we have entered the last lunar cycle of the year, taking us through to Rosh Hashanah. This is our season of contemplation and reflection; of apology and of forgiveness. In this time, it is natural that we want to unburden ourselves of the guilt we have clung to.
Forgiveness is supposed to be the release of resentment and vengeance when we feel we have been wronged. With it ought to come a feeling of relief and a sense of restitution in the world.
Yet, so far, I have encountered far more people struggling because they cannot forgive than because they cannot apologise. I think it is important to stress: you do not have to forgive everything and you cannot be expected to forgive everyone.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah taught: “for transgressions between a human being and God, Yom Kippur atones, but for transgressions between human beings, Yom Kippur does not atone, unless the wronged party forgives.” Judaism has no absolution. Our religion teaches that you must work to earn forgiveness, and guilt cannot be magically removed by prayer.
Even then, there are sins that can never be forgiven. For the most heinous crimes, like murder, even God does not forgive.
We must assume that God does not forgive such an act because no human being could. Murder is irreversible in a way that other acts or not. The murdered person is not alive to forgive; no family member could forgive on their behalf. Even if they could, nobody could reasonably ask the family member of a murdered person to provide forgiveness, because it would take a super-human level of magnanimity.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Moses creates cities of refuge throughout Canaan. In ancient Israelite culture, the relatives of murdered people were not only not asked to forgive. They were expected to kill the killer as a matter of honour. Such a person was called a “blood redeemer.” They were required to avenge their family member’s killer, even in a case of accidental manslaughter.
Moses established the cities of refuge so that the accidental manslaughterer would have somewhere to run. The killer could live there and escape being killed. Although they would need to start a new life, they would not be executed by the blood-redeemer, nor punished by the courts.
What is noteworthy about this system is how compassionate it is. There are times when people commit crimes and there is nobody at fault. Deuteronomy gives the example of a wood-chopper’s axe that backfires and kills a co-worker. In this case, it would be improper to try the killer as a murderer, because there was no malice.
Yet, more importantly, it is compassionate to the victims. It does not ask the victim’s family to abandon their anger, but builds in an assumption that there would be raw feelings that would never be resolved within the court system. Rather than tell them to forgive, Moses establishes systems that mitigate their anger and prevent a cycle of violence.
Moses knew that not everything could be forgiven. That principle follows us through to this day. During the Second World War, Simon Wiesenthal, who was interred in the concentration camps, met an SS officer, who begged his forgiveness. The Nazi, on his death bed, admitted to having killed over 300 Jews by burning down their house and shooting at those who escaped. He said that he needed a Jew to forgive him. Wiesenthal did not.
Over the years, Wiesenthal contemplated whether he should have forgiven the Nazi after all. He wrote to thinkers across the world, including rabbis, philosophers, judges, priests and historians, asking for their view. He collected all their letters back into a volume called ‘The Sunflower’. Of the respondents, not one Jew said he should forgive.
Most of those who said he should forgive replied as Christians, and said they would do as ambassadors for Jesus. Yet there is a more compelling answer offered by Jose Hobday, who was a Catholic priest of Native American descent. He wrote of his experiences as an indigenous person in North America, experiencing genocide and persecution. He explains how those experiences and indigenous spirituality had taught him to forgive, not for the sake of his oppressors, but for the sake of himself. That forgiveness helped him transcend the wrongs that were done to him and his people. That if he did not forgive, it would only make him feel worse.
Yes, if forgiving will make you feel better, then you can do so for your own sake. But believing that you have to forgive when you cannot will only make you feel worse. Sometimes it is necessary for hurt people to hold on to their hurt and not relinquish it through forgiveness.
So, for your own sake, go into this Elul knowing that you do not need to forgive everything. You do not need to forgive those who have not made amends and you do not need to forgive what is beyond your capacity.
Judaism is not about creating perfect people, absolved of blemishes and able to exercise the infinite mercy we expect of God. It is about accepting we are real people, who make real mistakes, learn from them and try to improve. It is about accepting that we are vulnerable people, who are capable of hurting and being hurt, and who might not find resolution in this lifetime.
Work on what you can change in yourself. Apologise for what you have done wrong. Forgive where you can forgive.
But know that not everything must be forgiven. Not everything should be. Not everything can.
A Jewish scientist finds herself at a conference, presenting a paper. A colleague asks her: “what’s your religion?” Nervous of prejudice, she says: “I’m an atheist.” Her colleague answers: “Yes, but is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?”
As everyone knows, the best jokes are the ones you have to explain. And the very best jokes are the ones you spend a whole sermon unpacking, so strap yourselves in, because we’re going to look at the archaeological and scriptural evidence for why that introduction was, in fact, really funny.
It is a basic assumption of religion in the West that there is one God. Even for those who do not believe, they assume that it is one God in whom they have disbelief. Yet our society is filled with different religions and practices. When we encounter Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Hindus, we assume that underlying the diversity of our doctrines and rituals, there is an underlying unity of belief in a single and universal Being.
But it was not always that way. In fact, the idea of monotheism was novel and contentious throughout the entire development of the Hebrew Bible. The insistence on one God is Judaism’s great innovation, and we have built our monotheism up into an obsession. Knowing God’s oneness is the first commandment. Not worshipping other gods is the second. Worshipping other gods can incur capital punishment. It is treated as an unforgivable crime, on par with murder, and a Jew should choose death rather than worshipping another god. The Deuteronomic insistence on one God has become the centrepoint of Hebrew prayer: “hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God; the Eternal God is One.”
In this week’s portion, Moses exhorts the Israelites: “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”
But why? Why is it so important that there be one God? And why is it so important that the ancient Israelites worship no other? What was so bad about the other nations’ religious practices?
Archaeological excavations help us answer that question. Scientists have dug up altars, shrines, coins and amulets to help us make sense of pre-monotheistic religion. The Canaanites, who preceded the Israelites, had a family of gods: Baal the storm god; Asherah, the fertility goddess; Mot the lord of death; Yam, the judge of the sea; and Moloch, the child-eating fire deity.
This is referenced in Scripture: “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Eternal One hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”
In that case, the issue with polytheism is the unethical behaviour it engenders! The old gods of Canaan required evil practices as part of their worship, like ritual human slaughter. But then why not simply abolish those gods, and leave the others? Or just legislate against those practices but keep the rest of the religion intact? In the mind of the ancient Israelites, there must have been something that directly connected any worship of multiple gods with murder.
Here, archaeology can help us further. Digs from different times show us that polytheism wasn’t suddenly abolished, but fell out of favour when the Israelite religion took off. The Canaanite pantheon reduced down to just a few gods. We can find statuettes representing them at most ancient Israelite Temple sites.
This is backed up by text: Jeremiah condemns the Israelites for baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven and making offerings to Baal. Jeremiah explicitly condemns this because these are the ways of the Egyptians, who held them in slavery. Idol worship, says Jeremiah, means keeping up the practices of theft, murder and lying. It is not just that the old gods require ritual murder, but that their whole religion is based on an Empire that was built on it. Idols are the symbols of captivity.
This point was finally hammered home when Jerusalem was destroyed and Nebuchadnezzar took the Israelites hostage in Babylon. After Ezra led the return to the Land of Israel, we can find no more evidence of idols or their shrines. The people abandoned them altogether.
What could have been more convincing that idols were the work of murderous empires than exile in Babylon? The Israelites saw first-hand how looting, murder, war, conscription and sieges were built into imperial expansion. We know that the Babylonians used their pantheon as a way to legitimise their colonisation, as they brought the local gods of conquered people into their own cult and placed them in inferior positions. We know that the emperors turned themselves into gods and made people throughout their lands worship them.
All those gods in Israelite minds became death-gods. The only way to truly abandon the ways of the oppressors in Babylon and Egypt would be to uproot the idolatrous shrines and eliminate the pagan pantheon altogether.
Monotheism was an act of resistance to these corrupt ways.
God’s unity was not a mathematical question but a moral one.
The One true God could not be co-opted into imperialism because it was universal: no one nation could control it. No ruler could declare himself to be that God because God had no flesh or form. And whereas the many gods constructed hierarchies and different customs for different places, with monotheism came ethical universality.
That is why one God was so important then, and why it remains so important now. God’s unity continues to represent the unity of human beings and the refusal of the faithful to be dominated. So, in answer to the question: “is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?” the atheist could happily answer “neither.” And I will gladly answer “both.” They are One.
This is a creative re-translation of Eichah 1 to reflect the current era, where our sacred sites again sit empty and a new enemy feels as if it has besieged us. I have written this partly to distract my mind from fasting on Tisha b’Av, and partly to help process the grief I am feeling around the closures of communal spaces.
How is this possible?
As lonely she sits, this synagogue, where once she thronged with congregants
She has become like a widow;
Great she was among people, a power for the prayers
She has become precluded.
Bawls, in the night and her tears fall on her cheeks
She has no comforter from all her lovers
Her friends have abandoned her
She imagines them as loveless.
The Jews are exiled from her
Caused by inequality and sickness; she sits with the nations
She cannot find rest
The virus trounced her
In the narrow spaces where it traps its victims.
City streets are mourners,
Don’t welcome congregations any more;
All her doors are bolted
Her leaders are grieving, her lay people lament
She sits in bitterness.
Strange are these adversaries
Enemies who carelessly became overlords
A plague pronounced upon a people
That locks toddlers in captivity
Fearing a sickness outside.
The sanctuary’s splendour
Fled away from her
Her wardens scarper like deer to nowhere
From the airborne pursuer.
Grandeur in her grief
All the precious people that made her home at first
Now her people are falling to the power of frailty
And a sickness that ridicules science.
Have become contaminated
Uncleanliness in the air
And all the dangers we cannot see are suddenly laid bare
So she tries to sigh without breathing.
Infection over our most treasured relatives,
So once the problem has entered your body
You are commanded
Not to go out in public.
Everyone is panting
Just trying to once again enjoy taste
To have their good spirits revived.
Does God not look upon us
And see how much we suffer?
Don’t let it happen to you
Know that this is pain unlike all others
It has befallen me
As if God’s nose has flared up
And exhaled sickness in anger.
My bones bind
Like spines sticking together
Feet swell, immovable
I cannot turn around
And spend my days lying in pain.
My body is
Marked by the signs of disease
Neck scrunched up in knots
Whatever strength I had has failed me
As I find I can no longer stand.
The strongest are trampled
Now, God calls out to me, the time has come
To destroy the youth,
Stamping on brides and crushing down grooms
Like grapes in wine presses.
My eyes, my eyes
Over these I cry
Droplets fall without a refuge
Even our physicians are dying,
So powerful is our adversary.
Love extends her arms
Parting only to find no one there
Such unclear instructions
God of Jacob, this fear is surrounding me
Every centre is infected.
God, you take
Revenge against rebellious and uncovered mouths.
Please listen, all peoples,
Won’t you see the pain
Caused by endless captivity?
I keep calling my loved ones
So they know I still care
I seek out my elders
And bring food to the vulnerable
That they will not be forgotten.
I call out to God
To tell You: ‘I am in distress!’
My heart is turning round
Abroad the people are devastated by statistics
And we see death at home.
They can hear
Ululating outcries from loneliness
This indifferent virus listens
Knowing that no matter what you do
That appointed day will come.
Let all evil stand before God
Vanquisher and vanisher
Who knows all
Examines every dead
Your saving grace may one day come to those
Zealous attendants awaiting You.
Return us to You, O God, and we will return to you. Let us have back the times we had before.
‘Tell your children that this land will be theirs to hold in custody,’ cried out Moses to the Israelites on the precipice of the Promised Land.  ‘Tell them to guard it and look after it because you could not. Tell them we brought them here that they would love and care for every plant and tree, but we were not allowed to enter because we were too accustomed to slave mentality. We were too mistrusting and selfish. But our children, we hope that they will have faith. We hope that they will be strong. We hope that they will look after this earth.’
‘Tell your children to tell their children,’ Joel wailed to the elders. ‘Tell them about the environmental destruction we witnessed. Tell them how we saw droughts and crop shortages. Tell them how we saw fertile land turn barren. Tell them how we saw everything devoured and nothing remain. Tell them how we saw famine lead to war and war lead to plagues. Tell them that we knew it was our fault.’
‘Tell your children,’ the prophets said, ‘not to make our mistakes. Tell them to treat every part of the earth as if it is sacred. Tell them to care for the planet because if they destroy it, nobody will come to repair it after them. Tell them that there is only one world and it is precious and it must be sustained. Tell them not to pillage it but to work in harmony with nature.’
And the elders wept. The religious leaders cried before their altars. Even the animals cried out for salvation from God. And the chieftains sulked in their tents and asked: ‘does this mean that God hates us? What have we done to deserve this?’
Scripture records the words of the prophets and elders, but we do not learn how the children responded. What did they say when their elders told them these lessons? History rarely records the words of the young, even on issues of intergenerational justice. Especially on issues that affect the youth more greatly.
During the last uprising of Extinction Rebellion, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg preached to his congregation. He said: “in the synagogues, the elders are asking ‘where are the youth?’ But in the streets, the youth are asking ‘where are our elders?'”
Young people are calling on us to take action for the environment. Their voices matter deeply, especially when the issue is the future of the planet. Climate change presents us with an unprecedented threat, and we are positioned as the elders scorned by the prophets.
I know that the people of my generation and older are not individually responsible for the climate crisis, but that it is a matter of systemic inequality and exploitation of natural resources.
Nevertheless I am increasingly conscious, as a parent, of what the next generation will inherit. Winona LaDuke, a Jewish-Native American activist from an indigenous reservation in Minnesota, urges us: “Be the ancestor your descendants would be proud of.”
We cannot become such people if we don’t heed the call of the greatest call to intergenerational justice facing us. We cannot simply hide our faces in our homes like the elders confronted by Joel.
Of course, this congregation cannot take sole responsibility for ending economic reliance on oil or for replenishing the earth’s devastated ecosystems. But J and S have come to us with practical and necessary actions that we can take.
These students in our bar mitzvah programme have come to encourage us to take serious action. After only a year of teaching them, I have been so impressed by the intelligence, integrity and sensitivity of these young men. They will both become bnei mitzvah at Pesach time. As part of their studies, they have each taken on social action programmes.
J is asking you to recycle your plastic by making eco bricks. I hope that over this summer, every household in the Three Counties will return at least one eco brick to J in support of his project. J will also be appealing to the synagogue council, to ask them to make eco bricks part of the Mitzvah Day project this year.
S is asking you to plant trees and sponsor his work with the Woodland Trust. I encourage every member of the community to support S in some way, either by offering financial support or a place to plant. These projects are practical, necessary and helpful.
Joel tells us that the old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions. In the future he prophesied, the generations were not adversaries in blame and despair, but companions in hope. The young people are offering us an opportunity to join them in healing our damaged planet. Let us take up their call.
I gave this sermon on Saturday 25th July at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Devarim. This was my last sermon for the community. The names of the children are redacted for obvious reasons.
By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and there we wept as we remembered Zion.
Why did we weep by those waterways? Some times are harder than others to find songs inside your lungs. Faced with a strange land and held captive by a power you do not understand, it is hard to find the music within.
Some say that we could not sing because we could not stop crying. Every time we imagined we had run out of tears, new wailing broke out of our chests. Panting, we could not hold a note.
Midrash teaches that the rivers of Babylon were the industrial canals of the imperial capital. Where once we had drunk from freshwater springs, we now sat by sewage works and polluted channels. Our choleric lungs heaved and choked the psalms we wished to sing.
There on willow branches we hung up our violins.
Stringed instruments hung on stringed trees. If we cannot make music, maybe these old branches will play our lyres on our behalf.
Maybe we will sing again, so we won’t lay our tools on the ground, but gently tie them up in knotted bark. We will return to you, violins.
Maybe we hoped that the long leaves of willows drooping in layers would provide cover so that nobody would know we once used to play such melodies in our religious buildings. Maybe if they don’t know how joyous we once were, they won’t expect us to be joyous again. Pray they don’t ask us to sing.
For the wicked carried us away to captivity, and required of us a song.
We are in a strange land of captivity. We live in times that people keep calling unprecedented. Six months ago, few of us would have imagined we would be in the midst of a response to a global pandemic. None of us have lived through mass government responses to a pandemic in Britain. It is unusual to realise we do not have the freedoms we once knew.
Even though governments around the world have announced easing of restrictions, we cannot yet return to activities we once knew. We have to be careful, because the captor, Covid, still exists. We have to make choices about how we respond.
The Israelites lasted 70 years in Babylon. We could endure 3 months in our homes.
But in some ways, those 70 years were easier than the ones that followed. In captivity, Jeremiah told us to make the most of where we were because we would not be coming out any time soon. But when Jerusalem reopened, we did not know whether to stay or leave, and every option seemed like it would be the wrong choice.
In some ways, lockdown was easier. We knew what the parameters were and how to operate within them. Now, we are confused about what is the right thing to do is, as the conflicting needs of our mental health, our physical security and our economic livelihoods clash.
And somehow we are supposed to sing.
How can we sing the song of God in a strange land?
No, we cannot sing. It is one of the highest risk activities. The virus is airborne and transmitted when people dig deep in their lungs and project droplets from their diaphragms into someone else’s mouth. The collective singing involved in synagogue services, music concerts and sports matches is the greatest threat to overcoming the pandemic.
We enter a strange land where, for the first time in many decades, most progressive synagogues will be closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Once, Zoom felt like alien soil, although we have come to comfortably inhabit it for our Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Maybe it won’t feel like such a strange land by the time we arrive.
But how can we sing? Didn’t we try collective singing over Zoom? Everyone goes at a different tempo, completely out of synch, creating disharmony and awkward clangs. The first time we tried to sing together in disunity I felt like I had to go back and patch over all the cracks in our voices.
But in captivity, the Israelites learnt that even in the unprecedented land of Babylon, they had to find a way to sing. The Psalms are testament that even when we felt we could not make music, we still composed new material.
For centuries, the Hassids have rejoiced in singing out of sync. The nign, a wordless song intended to elevate the spirit, finds its strength in discordance and repetition. These mystics sing the same note sequence repeatedly, without aiming for harmony. They trust that, however it is arranged, the tune will reach God.
Perhaps we, too, can learn to enjoy singing out of sync.
That challenge feels even more pertinent now in a country whose rhythms have fallen out of sync. Some worry about losing their jobs. Some worry about losing their health. Some worry about losing their minds. And, with these concerns, everyone is making different decisions based on their comfort levels.
It is hard to feel like we are not singing in time with our neighbours. Some wish that everyone would just stay inside until we find a cure. Some wish that everyone would relax and go out. We look at each other with confusion, and struggle to find acceptable social norms.
Like the Israelites in Babylon, we have to find ways for sore lungs to sing out of sync. Anyone in the community who does not feel ready to go out yet should be supported to stay home. Anyone who feels they need to see their loved ones should be encouraged. And people who just need to get their hair cut or buy a coffee from a cafe should feel empowered to do so responsibly.
There is nothing wrong with feeling unease. The terrain we stand on is unfamiliar and there is much we do not know. But of all the things we can sacrifice, trust in the other members of our community should not be one of them.
The reason the Israelites survived their exile was because they knew they could depend on each other. They had different experiences and different aspirations, but knew they were created by the same God.
As we sit by these rivers in a strange land, let us trust each other to sing out of synch, and know that one day, we will return home, and sing together in harmony once again.
I gave this sermon on Friday 10th July 2020 for Three Counties Liberal Judaism. I thank my housemate, Joanna Phillips, for her support with the audio recording.