judaism · sermon · torah

Whose hearts will turn?

A scorpion asked a frog to carry it across the river on its back. The frog said: “Absolutely not. If I carry you, you will sting me.” The scorpion replied: “If I do that, we will both drown. It goes against my interests.” Reluctantly, the frog agreed and let the scorpion onto its back. They began swimming without a problem. Then, midway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog anyway. The dying frog asked the scorpion: “Why would you do that? Now we’re both going to die.” The scorpion replied: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

This famous animal fable, originally from 20th Century Russia, speaks to something both familiar and uncomfortable about the world. We know that people, no matter how much they want to change, often end up hurting others and themselves as if motivated by a fundamental nature.1 But the story is also problematic. It suggests that people have fundamental characters that cannot be overturned. Such a perspective is incompatible with religious Judaism, which teaches that everyone can change.

It is with this in mind that I read the opening of our parashah: “God hardened Pharoah’s heart. God hardened the hearts of everyone around him.”2 Literally, God made their hearts heavy, weighted, immovable.

In most places where we read this, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but here, God hardens it.3 This poses a fundamental question for us about free will. Could Pharoah not have repented? Could he not have turned around and told the Israelites they could leave?

The Torah tells us God did this “in order to show these signs among them”.4 Those signs included locusts that swallowed up all the crops, darkness that blinded everyone in Egypt and, ultimately, death to the firstborn. Were these signs, then, unavoidable? Did the ordinary people of Egypt have no choice but to endure these “miracles”?

Ibn Ezra, the great Spanish exegete, reverses the concern. He points out if somebody wants to do wrong, the opportunities will be available to them.5 In other words, God does not prevent people from doing good, but neither does God prevent them doing evil. On this reading, God did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, but simply allowed it to happen. That answer sits well with us theologically: free will must mean the freedom to do wrong. And, partly, this fits with our historical memory. In this week of Holocaust Memorial, we are painfully reminded that God’s gift of free will can be outrageously abused.

But that conclusion seems too ready to resolve discomfort. It glosses over something else we know about history: that when hearts are hard, they stay so. No dictator has ever willingly given up power; no slavemaster has ever freed their slaves without significant pressure.6 Indeed, the price of ending slavery in America was a civil war. In Britain, the slave-owners were paid heavy compensation for their loss of income after more than a century of struggle.

That is not simply because slave owners are evil or dictators are wicked. In truth, every one of them could turn away from their wrongdoing and choose the path of righteousness spelled out by God. But they do not. In Germany, not every Nazi believed in the racist ideology, but all became complicit in its atrocities.7 Like the scorpion who stung the frog even knowing they would both die, the wicked continue in their wickedness, even if they know it is ultimately destructive. And that is because, while they are free, they are fundamentally constrained.

If Pharaoh were to turn around and say that the Israelites were free, he would have every Egyptian landowner at his door demanding what had happened to their possessions. He would have to answer to the Egyptian poor who, despite having nothing, at least had their superiority over the Israelites. There would be immediate chaos and revolution. It is not only people that create immorality, but systems that engender them. Once a system is in place that enables slavery, it is very difficult for any individual to decide they no longer want to own slaves. Pharaoh’s heart is hard, then, not only by choice, but by necessity. It is in Pharaoh’s nature that he must uphold the oppression he has created.

Interestingly, we learn from the Torah portion that the contrary can also be true. As the slaves prepared to leave Egypt “God placed favour in the eyes of the Egyptians” towards the Israelites.8 The Egyptians, the Torah tells us, encouraged the people to leave, handing over to them food, money and clothes.9 While Pharaoh and his courtiers can do nothing but harden their hearts, the ordinary Egyptians are compelled to be supportive. If we remove the possibility that God literally interfered with their freedom, the lesson may well be that there are people who, by their very position in society, find themselves becoming allies in struggles against oppression.

This side of the Shoah is also true. Most places under Nazi occupation handed over their Jews willingly, sometimes enthusiastically, as in Poland. Where Bulgaria’s Jews survived it was not because of the goodwill of the government or their leaders’ unwillingness to participate in the slaughter. Much historical evidence suggests that the contrary was the case. It was because the ordinary people of Bulgaria, their non-Jewish neighbours, decided to show them compassion. These citizens worked against their government and occupying powers to stop the persecution and deportation of Jews.10

If we learn anything from this parashah, it is not that we do not have free will but that some hearts are easier to turn than others. Some people are more naturally our allies than others. Over the last few years, much of the Jewish community has engaged in its campaigning against antisemitism by focusing on the people at the top of the political pyramid, making enemies and allies. It is now becoming clear to most that some of those enemies were not as hostile as imagined, and some allies were not really so friendly.

It is a healthy reminder of the saying from the Mishnah: “Be careful with the powerful for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they will not stand by you in the hour of your distress.”11 This dictum may, unfortunately, reveal itself to be true.

But that should not cause us to despair. While the top of the pyramid may be unstable, we can count on the strength of its base. Our allies are the same people they have always been. They are our neighbours, our colleagues, the people who we see every day. They are the people who stand up to racism when they see it on public transport and on the street. They are the ordinary citizens of Britain, with whom we have built strong relationships over many years. Through our solidarity and interactions with them, we can build up the strength not only to overcome the prejudice against us, but against everyone. Together with Muslims, immigrants, foreigners, disabled people, LGBT people, Black people and all those who face discrimination, we can work together to defeat intolerance. And we will succeed. It’s in our nature.

pharoah prince of egypt

I gave this sermon for Parashat Bo on Saturday 1st February at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue

1 cf Lasine, Weighing Hearts

2 Ex 10:1

3 Rashbam to Ex 10:1

4 Ex 10:1

5 Ibn Ezra to Ex 10:20

6 cf Frederick Douglas: “power concedes nothing without a demand”

7 cf Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichman in Jerusalem’

8 Ex 11:3

9 Ex 12:33-36

10 cf Todorov, the Fragility of Goodness

11 Pirkei Avot 2:3

article · theology

A Tale of Two Gods

In the time of the First Temple, in the world of the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Israelites brought sacrifices to the cultic centre in Jerusalem. One of these was the korban o’la – an offering of burnt animal fat. Every part of the sacrificed animal was burnt on the altar, except for its skin. The Hebrew word o’la, meaning rising up, referred to the pungent smoke released twice daily when the sacrifice was made.

Many centuries after the destruction of the First Temple, in the time of the Second, a group of pious believers came to translate the text into Greek. This early translation of the Bible became known as the Septuagint. Greek had no direct translation for the term o’la, so the editors chose a word meaning ‘completely burnt’ – holo kauston. Holocaust.

That is the word that has come to represent the ritual slaughter of 17 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish, in the middle of the 20th century. Like the animals of many millennia before, the people in the concentration camps were burnt throughout the day so that nothing remained of them.

It is perhaps for this reason that many of the victims were reluctant to use the term Holocaust. Jews called it by the Hebrew word shoah, meaning ‘disaster’ or churban – ‘destruction’. Roma people called it Porajmos – ‘the devouring’. For historians it was simply called by its Latin name ‘genocide’ – the killing of a people.

Something sinister lurks behind the very word ‘Holocaust’. The Jews, forever seen as relics of the Christian Old Testament, were murdered in the manner described by their book as a tool for expiating sin.

The word calls us to ask: to whom were these Jews sacrificed? On whose behalf? For what sin were they intended to atone? And was the God that received these offerings satisfied?

In the time of the First Temple, minor transgressions were deemed to pollute the land. The o’la served as a way to ritually cleanse ancient Israel of its impurities. Priests appealed to the national god for mercy and knew their petitions had been answered by the arrival of regular rainfall.

In the world of the Third Reich, ethnic impurities and social deviations polluted Europe. Germany and its empire was in breach of its duty to be thoroughly white, Christian, patriarchal and heterosexual. Isolating the minorities was not enough to recompense for their transgressions. The minorities had to be destroyed in their entirety. Devout Nazis played their part to remove and destroy every blemish in their land.

Of course, such blemishes can never be fully removed. The sin of non-whiteness is too volatile and its terms too expansive. The god of nationalism is thoroughly empty, so no amount of flesh will ever fill him. He is insatiable. Modern fascists remind us that the nationalist god is still hungry for blood.

The God of the ancient Temple, by contrast, no longer requires burnt meat. That Temple was destroyed and its people forced into exile. God fled with the refugees and, with them, became transnational. Prayers replaced sacrifices. The God of Israel became the God of the Jews, who wanted good deeds, social justice and piety. It mutated into the God of Love and could be found on every continent.

The god of nationalism, paradoxically, is now no less international. He permeated borders through colonialism and found a home on every soil. In every country, he can be seen represented by each flag. His priests can be found adorned in military uniforms of every stripe. His followers proclaim his word from pulpits the old preachers could never have imagined, reaching millions.

And he still requires blood. His altars are the lynch ropes for Muslims in India. His followers ritually parade through Charlottesville, Belfast, Rangoon, London and Sao Paulo. And, yes, the god of nationalism is worshipped in Israel too. The very land that birthed the universal God now hosts nationalism in its gates. In every place, his offerings are returned in coffins. And, no matter how many die, it will never be enough.

As the god to whom fascists make their sacrifices ascends, the universal God of the Jews withers. In Auschwitz, our God stood trial. The pious Jews who prayed in the camps convened a court and charged God with breach of covenant. God had abandoned them. Or forgotten them. Our rabbis had no choice but to pronounce: God is guilty. And when they knew that divine help was not coming, they did the only thing they could. They prayed.

After the camps were liberated, the remnant survivors had to face a new reality. They wondered whether their God was dead. A bitter irony. For centuries, the Jews had been accused of deicide against Jesus. Now they witnessed their own God burned in the flames of fascism’s altars. Only later did the quiet Christian witnesses realise that their God had been the same one, and was dying too. Their doctrine of goodwill and universal love was no less weakened. And only then did they realise they had killed the wrong God.

Is it too late? Can the old religion of truth and humanity be revived? Certainly, its followers are rebuilding. Synagogues are emerging anew in places where sceptics imagined that God was buried: in Córdoba, Warsaw and York. True believers congregate in mosques, chapels, gurdwaras and living rooms. Those who hold the greatest hope are unafraid to protest in God’s name against violence. They refuse to sacrifice to the new gods. They are the source of my faith.

As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we must remember not only the millions of human sacrifices, but the deity for whom they were killed. We must rededicate ourselves to destroying its idols and exposing them for the false gods that they are. In memory of the murdered, we must destroy fascism today.

Yet just because we oppose one god does not mean we must give up the One God. The Force of hope, solidarity and justice cannot be abandoned, even if we feel as if it has abandoned us. So, in memory of all those who were martyred professing a faith in that religion, I ask you to do something normally unthinkable in a radical publication like Novara Media – and pray.

burning smoke columns

I wrote this article for Novara Media for Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday 27 January 2020.

sermon · theology

A chosen people

You are a chosen people.

Singled out from every other people on the planet and selected by the one true God to have a unique and special relationship spanning generations into the past and future. You are among the chosen people, because you are a Jew. And you, particularly, have been chosen. As a Jew.

How do you feel?

Well, bloody uncomfortable, I expect. The very concept of chosenness is quite toe-curling. It has so many airs of superiority. It sounds smug at best and racist at worst. It feels incompatible with everything else we think about ourselves and about God. 

But it’s there. It’s there in this week’s parashah. God calls out to Moses and tells him:

I am the Eternal One. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my ineffable name I did not make myself fully known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. And now I have heard the wailing of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.

This is the holy relationship between us and God. It was laid down to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was repeated to Moses, where it grew stronger. It was on the basis of this special relationship that God drew us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand so that we would be a holy people and God would be our God. God, universal and everlasting, would be a God to us, personal and special. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

In the mouth of God, it certainly does. It sounds like a real and loving relationship that we can sustain together. In the mouth of another Jew, it sounds slightly narcissistic. The idea of being a ‘chosen people’ is something rarely discussed among Jews. It features little in our understanding of ourselves. Which means we hear it most commonly in the mouth of antisemites. In their mouths, it sounds like either an accusation or a taunt. 

As an accusation, it is recriminating. How can you believe you are so special? Does this status give you the right to do whatever you want? What must it mean for the rest of us, we whom you have decided are unchosen? How can you hold by such an insulting theology? As a taunt, it is a reminder of our weakness. Is this God’s chosen people? Is this dispersed and tiny group supposed to be somehow special? Is this deeply flawed group, so easy to criticise for our conduct, supposed to be exemplary?

Many of us would have a hard time agreeing with the idea of chosenness when it is framed in this way. Some have sought to downplay or erase the idea. When the Enlightenment came and we moved out from the ghettos, many Jews began to resist the idea of chosenness, saying that we were not chosen at all. But this seems to turn external hatred into self-hatred. Yes, it is hard to maintain an idea of chosenness when you have to explain it to others. But in doing so it may feel like we are also giving up some of the richness of Judaism.

An alternative approach has been to neutralise the claim. In our liturgy, Liberals will often say “על ישראל ועל כל בני אדם” – for all the Jewish people and for all of humanity. We universalise this theology – affirming that we have a special relationship with God and asserting that others can do so too. This was summarised by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks when he was going through his postmodernist phase. He said

God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims . . . God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.

These words were met at the time with anger and ridicule. Rabbi Sacks was forced by the Conservative wing of Orthodoxy to rewrite the book. In the second edit, Sacks suggested that with the coming of the messiah, eventually everyone would be Jewish. At the time, most progressives came to his defence on the matter, and understandably so. He was vilified for holding a position that most believers in a universal God would say was intuitively true. Yet, with hindsight, it is also right to probe this position. What does chosenness even mean if everyone is chosen? The word loses any of its value.

So we have three positions, none of which feel particularly palatable. We can either dig our heels in and insist that we are, in fact, the chosen people, and that everyone else is not. Alternatively, we can scrap the whole business and say that we are not chosen and neither is anyone else. Or we can insist that we are chosen and so is everyone else. All of them are valid. All of them are somehow disappointing.

I want to propose another way of thinking about chosenness. Let us return to the text and ask instead: why were the Jews chosen? God says: “I have heard the wailing of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving.” In this narrative, we were not chosen because we were great. We were not chosen because we had any special skills or qualities. We were chosen because we were oppressed. 

This carries a different meaning entirely. It suggests that God stands with those who suffer. And that God continues to stand with us in memory of our suffering. Being chosen, in this context, does not mean having priviliges, but being heard. We are recognised by our Creator for our suffering. And when we remember that suffering, we experience the chosenness again as we realise the moral consequences of the cries of others. God, the voice of morality in every generation, stands by the side of the victims of injustice, even when they do not experience miraculous interventions. 

We are approaching Holocaust Memorial Day. This somber time is a reminder to us of the divine help that never came for the 6 million Jews and 3 million others who died in the Nazi genocide. In the face of such tragedy, it is hard to sustain a theology that says that God protects us. But we must nevertheless affirm the belief that God stood by our side. Through the horrors of Auschwitz no less than slavery in Egypt, God heard the cries of the oppressed.

If being chosen means anything, it should mean being obligated to hear those cries. We should hear the wailing of those who went before as reminders to us of who we are. We should hear the oppression of all those who still cry, and whose oppression goes on, often in the face of indifference. 

Marek Edelman, a fighter in the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis said: “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.” May we, like God, always count ourselves among those who stand by the oppressed.

Shabbat shalom.

 

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vaera on Saturday 25th January 2020 at 3 Counties Liberal Judaism

sermon · torah

Are we supposed to like Joseph?

Are we supposed to like Joseph? Are we supposed to find him endearing?

Are we supposed to cheer for him as the story progresses? Because, honestly, I find it hard.

He is the protagonist for more than half of the Book of Genesis. Other than Moses, nobody in the Torah gets as much airtime as Joseph. So you would think that the hero of our story would be a bit more, well, heroic. Instead, in this week’s parashah, Joseph comes across as pretty conceited.

It is one thing that his father made him a colourful coat to show Joseph that he was the favourite. He can’t help that. Such blatant favouritism is probably bad parenting on Jacob’s part. It’s not something that Joseph had any control over. But did he have to wear the coat? Did he have to wear it all the time?

The very first thing we hear about Joseph is that he snitches on his brothers to Jacob. He follows them around while they’re working and then runs back to their dad to tell on them. When we hear that Joseph’s brothers wouldn’t talk to him, we can hardly be surprised. What did he think would happen?

And then he has his dreams. He tells his brothers that they were harvesting wheat in the fields, when his sheath stood upright, and theirs all bowed down to his. ‘What could it possibly mean?’, he asks them? Perhaps, Joseph, it means some dreams are better kept inside your head.

Then he has another dream, where he is the shiniest star in the sky, and all the other stars, plus the sun and the moon, all bow down to him. Jacob wastes no time picking up the suggestion that not only are his brothers bowing down to him, but that his mother and father are prostrating themselves too.

Honestly, I know we know how the story ends, and yes it all turns out OK, but it really is hard to sympathise with him. I’m not saying he deserved to be sold into slavery. Nobody deserves that. It was definitely an overreaction on the part of his brothers. I’m just saying that he didn’t really make life easy for himself.

And does he even change? His brothers go on a sincere journey of self-discovery. They learn to feel remorse, to repent, and not to make the same mistakes again. That’s why, when Joseph sets up a test at the climax of the story to see whether his brothers will stand up for Benjamin, they do. Judah even volunteers himself as a slave to defend Benjamin. The brothers learned their lessons.

What does Joseph learn? He endures slavery, false accusations and imprisonment. But in the end he becomes vizier for all of Egypt. And, having reconciled with his brothers, he reassures them that this must have been God’s plan all along. Joseph started out the story believing that he was destined for greatness, and ended it by finding out he was right.

What is the moral lesson we are supposed to gain from Joseph, then? Or, rather, what could Joseph have done differently that I might give a more favourable sermon on him?

The answer, I think, comes from a man who was very similar to Joseph, and yet separated from him by many thousands of years: Oscar Wilde. Like Joseph, Wilde was a youngest brother. Like Joseph, he wrongly spent a long stint in prison. Wilde even had a multi-coloured coat. While other Victorian gentlemen wore drab black suits, Oscar Wilde pioneered the aesthetic movement with purple velvet outfits, colourful corsages and impressive top hats. Most importantly, like Joseph, Oscar Wilde was an individual. He was different, and he knew it.

What differentiated Wilde from Joseph was that Wilde had a much better analysis of his situation. Wilde knew that he was an individual, and he did not try to change that. But he also knew that the hostility to his individualism came from inequality.

In 1891, inspired by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde wrote his only major political work, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’. In it, he rails against the reality that individual expression, through art, poetry and philosophy, is only the preserve of a privileged few, while the poor are required to toil in repetitive drudgery. This inequality, he argues, means that most people never access their individualism, and so despise those who are privileged enough to be able. In a startling polemic, he calls for the abolition of private property altogether.

I think his analysis is really correct. We know that groups need individuals. But it is equally true that the individual needs the group. Human beings are pack animals, and we need to find some collective expression if we are to have any chance of standing out as individuals.

Perhaps, then, Joseph wasn’t so bad. He was a product of his circumstances. Had Jacob treated all the brothers with equal love and nurtured what was special in all of them, there might not have been such a need for bitterness and jealousy. Joseph may have been able to dream his dreams in a position of humility, and fulfil his destiny without infuriating everybody else. Granted, it wouldn’t have made such a good story, but I’m not aiming for good literary tension here.

And yet what we have really is a good story. Part of the reason why I find Joseph so objectionable is because I find him so relatable. I know I am prone to all the same behaviours for which I have criticised Joseph. I know that I can just as easily bluster my way through life and try to stand out. The Torah tells us this story because it is telling us something honest about ourselves.

And yet Oscar Wilde is also right. The problem is not that one person should want to express themselves, but that not everyone should feel able. As Liberal Jews, we prize the individual and we give great value to people’s personal expression. 

As a community, Harrow is now in the process of deciding who to recruit as your new rabbi. Like every community in a similar position, you are faced with an impossible task. You will want to find someone who is energetic, but experienced. Traditional but innovative. And, as in the protagonists of this story, individual but able to be part of a collective. 

Often conversations about this focus on who the individual should be and what they should do. The truth, as we learn from this story, is that it’s never just about one person. It’s about the culture we build as a community. It’s about how people work and grow together.

Let us not only ask that everyone feel able to live their own Jewish journey, but go further and ask how we collectively empower each other to journey together.

Shabbat shalom. 

Wilde

I gave this sermon for Parashat Vayeishev on Saturday 21st December at Harrow Mosaic Liberal.

sermon · torah

Children are a blessing

Children are a blessing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

kids and animals

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

1 Gen 18:11-15

2 Gen 15:1-6

3 Gen 25:21-22

4 Gen 25:27-28

5 Eichah Rabbah, 1:33

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

8Malachi 3:24

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

The Fragility of Progress

When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.

The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.

I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”

“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”

She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.

She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.

A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.

Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.

It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.

This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.

Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.

What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.

Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.

History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.

How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?

The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.

The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.

Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”

The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.

But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.

Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.

hopeful sunrise

I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019

sermon · social justice

Whose responsibility is climate change?

Whose responsibility is climate change?

For years, climate change has been in the corner of my peripheral vision. It has been like a mould growing in my bedroom. Every time I’ve seen it, I’ve quickly turned away and pretended it wasn’t there. Acknowledging the problem would mean I have to do something about it. But what? I don’t know how to deal with it. Isn’t there somebody professional that can sort it out?

It’s not that I haven’t been aware of climate change. At university, many of my friends campaigned on it so enthusiastically. They understood the problems. They campaigned for fossil fuel divestment, transition to renewable energy, commitments to meet carbon emission reduction targets. And I pretended to understand what they were saying. I cared about it, but only because they cared about it.

One of my first jobs was working for an amazing charity called People & Planet. This organisation supported activists to campaign on issues of political import. The campaigners in the office were split into two teams: those focused on people, and those focused on the planet. You can guess which side I was on.

I was campaigning against sweatshops and labour rights violations. The other team campaigned on… something to do with the environment. Wind turbines maybe? I honestly don’t think I ever knew. The planet campaigners had graphs and maths and scientific facts. Our campaigns team had people crying out for solidarity as they took on their bosses. It was easy to identify with factory workers. It was much harder to identify with changing global temperatures. I didn’t understand it, so I took it to be somebody else’s responsibility.

If the goal of Extinction Rebellion was to give people a wake-up call, in my case they have succeeded. Over Pesach, London was suddenly disrupted. Cars pulled to a standstill. Every day they were on the news as old ladies got arrested and carted off in police cars. They forced me to think. If these people care so much to take on that level of responsibility, there must be something important happening.

I decided to do my research. Like any good rabbinic student, I started with a sacred tradition: watching Netflix. It turns out there are a lot of documentaries about nature if you’re not actively avoiding thinking about the death of the planet. There was a show about coral. An easy start, I thought. Corals are pretty and everyone loves the ocean.

It turns out that most of the ocean’s coral are now dead. Overheating of the ocean has caused the coral to bleach and die, leaving white skeletons along the seafloor. This means that the natural habitat for so much of our sealife has been destroyed, possibly beyond repair.

That mould I talked about in my bedroom suddenly looked a lot bigger. I’ve ignored it for so long that it’s taken over the house and the foundations are at risk.

Somebody has to do something, I thought. If the oceans have been so depleted, how much more damage is being done unseen to our forests, fields and wildlife? I don’t want to think about it. I know I must. Extinction Rebellion warns us that humanity itself may become an endangered species if we do not act.

Somebody has to do something. But who? One of the critiques of the climate movement has been that it puts too much responsibility onto individual consumers and not enough onto the biggest perpetrators of pollution and destruction: corporations. The CEOs of the world’s biggest gas, oil and coal companies have a lot more to answer for than individuals who use plastic straws or take baths instead of showers.

But if the world’s top richest exploiters of the environment disappeared tomorrow, what would happen? New CEOs would emerge in their place. Mining would not stop, nor would oil extraction. People would continue to fill up their cars with petrol. Loggers would keep chopping down rainforests. As long as our global economic system is predicated on constant growth, expansion and exploitation of natural resources, our living planet will remain under threat. Only systemic change of how the world’s resources are distributed and consumed will fundamentally help save the planet.

This isn’t a call to revolution. Although I am hardly opposed to such a thing, revolution does not answer the question I am posing. I am not asking what must be done, but who must do it. Whose responsibility is climate change anyway? By putting the onus onto global system change, it can make the much-needed action feel too abstract and inaccessible. In his groundbreaking book on Jewish messianism, Gershom Scholem observes the paradox that the more grand and utopian Jewish visions of the future have been, the less likely people have been to act on them. If we set the bar too high for the change we want, people will fall into the despondency of inactivity. We will end up waiting on God to fix the problems that are incumbent on us.

Saving the planet should not be considered a radical, messianic idea. It should be plain common sense that if we want to live to old age and hand over a healthy world to  our grandchildren, we have to reverse climate change and restore our natural world now.

None of this is to let the big companies and governments off the hook. They may well be the biggest cause and have the most power to affect change, but the responsibility has to lie with us. All of us.

This week’s parashah is Kedoshim. It is the Torah’s greatest hits, bringing together laws concerning sacrifice and ritual purity with moral rules about respect for the elderly, empowerment of the Disabled and justice for the poor. “A holy people you will be,” it begins. “For I, the Eternal One, am holy.” It does not ask to be responsible because we are capable, nor because we are at fault, nor because we understand. It tells us to take responsibility because that is what God does. Every one of us is tasked with the moral welfare of the world, for no less reason than that doing so is a holy act.

It goes further, teaching us not to show deference to the rich or favour to the poor. Everyone is liable. Everyone must do justice. We may not be able to do everything, or fundamentally change society on our own, but we have to act as if the responsibility falls on us personally.

The Talmud teaches us that every Jew is responsible for every other. The midrash teaches us that humanity has been granted stewardship over the earth. While Judaism is a profoundly collective religion, it is also a call to every individual to do justice. My responsibility to tackle climate change comes, then, not as a citizen, consumer, worker or even as a human being, but as a Jew commanded by God to be holy.

With all that in mind, I have run out of excuses. I can no longer ignore climate change. I cannot plead ignorance. I cannot hope that people more expert will sort it out. I cannot blame CEOs without doing anything to hold them to account. I cannot say we need system change without working to bring it about. I cannot wait another day.

The responsibility for climate justice lies with me. I am still very uneducated and will need a lot of guidance, but I know I must make a start. I have joined Extinction Rebellion Jews. And I hope you will too.

coralbleaching
Bleached coral

I gave this sermon on 11 May at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community. As it stands, the lectionaries of the Liberal and Orthodox movements, as well as of Israel and the Diaspora, are out of synch. In the land of Israel, Pesach traditionally has seven days, while in the Diaspora it traditionally has eight. This means that for Diaspora Jews there is an additional Shabbat that falls on Pesach, while for Israelis, the lectionary resumes one week earlier. For the next few weeks, then, different synagogues will be out of synch. The early Jewish reformers felt that there should be no difference between Israel and the Diaspora, since we no longer laid a religious claim to Israel, so ordained that our calendars would align. As a result, most progressive synagogues would have been reading Emor this Shabbat, while most Orthodox ones read Kedoshim. I chose to read Kedoshim not to make any theological or political point, but simply because I prefer that parashah.

judaism · sermon

What is the point of Judaism?

What is the point of Judaism?

It might seem a strange question to ask. Do we even need to justify ourselves? In the shadow of antisemitism, and still reeling from the atrocities of the Holocaust, the fact that we exist at all is cause for celebration. It might seem egregious to even ask for explanation. We exist, and live our lives. Isn’t that enough?

But, I feel, it is exactly against this background that we have to ask this question. Many of the people we would expect to see here on Shabbat have become disillusioned with the religion. They might feel Jewish in their heart, and maintain a sense of Jewish culture, and even speak out with a moral voice in the name of their Jewishness. But our synagogues, our rituals, our traditional practices and our religious beliefs seem to have no meaning to them. To them, we have to answer the question: what is the point of Judaism?

At the same time, we progressive Jews are beset by a confrontation from the Orthodox. For them, Judaism’s point lies in its adherence to mitzvot: a total commitment to law codes laid down in the Middle Ages. Certainly, most would acknowledge that Judaism has an ethical and spiritual character, but the observance of law codes comes foremost.

To those who are Orthodox and to those who are disengaged, we have to be able to explain who we are and why Judaism holds such relevance to us. Tonight, I want to begin by addressing the first group. I want to spell out why, I think, Judaism should matter to somebody, even who does not believe in God, or who sees our practices as irrelevant to their world. Tomorrow morning, I will address the second question, and explain why I feel the progressive approach to Jewish religion is the best one for the 21st Century.

So what relevance does Judaism have to the people who feel it has no bearing on their lives? Let’s start with what people’s lives today are really like. Despite great advancements in time-saving technology, we seem to work harder than ever. Despite greater communication tools than we’ve ever known, people feel more lonely and disconnected. Although we are told that our economy is one of the greatest in the world, work is more precarious; housing more unstable; basic needs harder to meet.

Against this backdrop, religion might feel like an unnecessary burden, or a relic from a time when life was simpler. For many disconnected Jews, adding synagogue life to their commitments might well feel like another responsibility when all they’re looking to do is decompress.

Yet Judaism is precisely the antidote to this world. Whereas the secular world insists on work as the greatest virtue, Judaism elevates the highest form of life to rest – our Shabbat. Whereas the secular world seems to promote a life where everything can be reasoned and categorised, Judaism asks us to suspend all that in wonder at the fact that we exist. Whereas the secular world leaves people feeling lonely and disconnected, Judaism is, at its core, an effort to create a community.

That is exactly what happens in this week’s parashah. Having last week built the physical structures of their religion – the tabernacle in the desert – this week the Israelites create the community for which the space was intended. People volunteer. They pay subscription fees. They turn the tabernacle into more than a house for God, but into a home. This is the beginning of a lived community. We may see this is the start of an organised Jewish religion.

The idea of organised religion can make people bristle. People associate it with hierarchy, abuse and financial profiteering. If I thought that was essential to the idea, I would oppose it as vigorously and militantly as the most obsessed New Atheist. But what does it mean to be organised? Organised religion means religion that is made up of people working together. It must be contrasted with the isolated, individualised ‘spirituality’ that treats people as atoms with no connection to each other. Organised religion insists that people need each other. We are interdependent, strengthened by our relationships, and part of a community that goes way beyond our own homes.

It is true that, when people get organised, they can do terrible things. I do not need to list for you the crimes that have been committed in the name of religion. But it is also true that religion spurs people to do the most wonderful things for each other. I have never seen such good pastoral care of the elderly as I have here at Newcastle Reform Synagogue. I have never seen a place give children such a sense of pride and dignity as our synagogues do. In our synagogues, we bring together people from different classes, communities, backgrounds and ages to build truly integrated communities. Without the synagogue, how would that be possible?

You might object that this is just an argument in favour of community, not of religion itself. You might say, yes, but I can get community like that anywhere. To that, I have to ask: where? Where else is providing community of this kind? Where else has sustainably managed to bring people together like this for centuries and millennia?

The great Marxist-Jewish thinker of the last century, Gerry Cohen, reflected on this question when he wrote about his upbringing in the communist kibbutzim of Montreal. He acknowledges that the secular socialist Jewish community that had sustained him only managed to continue because the religious world on which they depended trundled on too.

This is the point of Judaism. No other community can sustain people in the way that religion can. That is not just because it is ancient and adaptable. It is because religion asks of us to put our faith in something greater than ourselves. We cannot live just by our self-interest. That is a lie of the 21st Century. The truth is that we need to believe that we are working towards something greater than this material world. For a community to truly function, we need God. We need hope in a world to come.

Tomorrow, I will talk about why progressive Judaism has the best answer to what the world we are building should look like.

diversity

I had intended to deliver this sermon on Friday 22nd February at Newcastle Reform Synagogue. In the end, however, I facilitated a discussion that yielded similar questions and conclusions.

judaism · sermon · theology

The importance of not respecting different opinions

This is Interfaith Week, and many of my religious buildings across the country are holding similar services to this one. In most places, I suspect people will talk about the importance of respecting differences of opinion. You have your views, I have mine, but we can all get along. All religions have their own truths. It might be customary to say it, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Not all ideas have the same value. Some ideas are wrong. Some ideas are dangerous. Some ideas must be challenged as soon as we encounter them.

This week, we read a passage in the Torah with a violent history. In it, Jacob and Esau fight over who gets their father Isaac’s birth right. Jacob, the younger brother, tricks his dad into giving him his blessing. He dresses in his brother’s clothes, puts hair on his arms so that he’ll feel rougher, and puts flour on his tongue so that his voice will sound deeper. With the help of his mother, Rebekka, he kills an animal, makes some sweet meats and cons his father into giving him a blessing that was meant for his brother. When Esau comes in, Isaac is distraught to realise that he has given the blessing to the wrong son. Esau begs him to bless him, but Isaac insists that he can’t retract his blessing from Jacob. Instead, he gives him a new blessing: “You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”[1]

This story became more than a tale of sibling rivalry. It became the basis of bloodshed lasting centuries. Jacob took another name: Israel. As a person, he stood in for the whole of the Jewish people. Esau had another name: Edom. As a person, he became a symbol of Christianity and Rome. For centuries, that was the optic through which Jewish-Christian relations were viewed: as a struggle between two brothers for a blessing that could only be held by one of them. The Jews, Israel, insisted that they were the sole bearers of the blessing from God. Christians insisted that they had broken off the yoke of Torah when their Messiah came, and that they had replaced Jews as God’s chosen people.

This had real consequences for people’s lives. If Christians had replaced Jews, then Jews were a stubborn remnant of a bygone age; a people destined to be destroyed. St Augustine of Hippo, one of the Founders of the Church, argued that Jews should be allowed to live only as evidence, in their degraded state, of the superiority of Christianity. This story of Esau replacing Jacob was so influential on European thinking that, some argue, it helped to legitimate the Nazi genocide.

This month saw the five hundredth anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five these to the church door, demanding reformation of the Catholic Church. His ideas were so important. Luther was somebody who realised that ideas are powerful. He was responding to a time when the established Church used people’s fear of death to pay for a better place in the afterlife. The abuse of religion was creating a deeply hierarchical and unequal society. Luther wanted to challenge that. He realised that not every religious idea had to be respected. Sometimes they need to be resisted.

Luther was also a notorious antisemite. In his later life, he used his power as an academic to incite race riots against Jews. His ideas were adopted for centuries in justifying racist violence. When the movement he founded, Protestantism, gained the upper hand in Western Europe, his ideas were used to attack Catholics. Unfairly caricatured as automatons doing the bidding of the Pope, Catholics were denied access to citizenship, and imprisoned as foreign infiltrators, in many countries. Luther’s great idea – that religion should not be used to wield power – became subverted to serve its opposite purpose: of entrenching power.

Still, his ideas gave birth to our own religious movements. The Unitarians here draw their roots from Protestantism, wanting to take Luther’s best ideas to their radical conclusion of a religion grounded in equality and acceptance. Liberal Judaism, too, was inspired by Protestant reformation. Our forbearers wanted to create a Judaism without sexism or nationalism. Since then, we’ve tried to also create Judaism that embraces LGBT people and champions just causes like the rights of migrants and workers. I know that many of our Christian friends here share that ambition.

This leaves us with a question: how do we know if an idea is any good or not? If we’re not going to automatically respect differences of opinions, what grounds can we have for disagreeing without creating exactly the kind of competition between Jacob and Esau, that caused so many generations of suffering? I’d like to propose a test for conversations in interfaith dialogue: do our ideas support existing power structures, or do they resist them? Do they bolster the powerful or diminish them? There are questions on which we can agree to disagree – none of us knows for certain what God really is, or what the afterlife is like. But we can challenge our ideas about this world: do they make our world more just, more equal, more compassionate, and more peaceful? If not, can we really sanction them?

This, I would hope, could be the basis of a better model of interfaith. Rather than accepting differences, let’s challenge each other to live up to the best of the values we share. In the spirit of the prophetic tradition that has inspired us, let’s push each other to speak truth to power. The reformation brought about the idea that religion should not be wedded to power. Let’s take it to the next stage, and insist that religion be used as a weapon against power. Let’s work together to fulfil a religious mission of eradicating inequality, championing the cause of the oppressed, eliminating hunger and poverty, bringing about a world where all people are treated with the dignity they deserve. That would be a world that truly respects difference.

[1] Gen 27:40

ipswich church
Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House

This sermon was given as part of an interfaith service organised by Suffolk Liberal Jewish Community, and held in the town’s beautiful Unitarian Meeting House. After the service, an Anglican minister pointed out that I had not made clear that current Christian doctrine had tried to rid itself of its supersessionist ideology. I think it is important to note that much of the work challenging offensive ideas in Christianity has been done by Christians themselves, especially by Catholics at Vatican II. I am grateful to him for this constructive feedback.

high holy days · judaism · sermon · story · torah

The binding of Isaac… and Ishmael

Life is sacred. It is not just meaningful, though it is that. Nor is it simply beautiful, although it can be. Life is sacred. Given by God, uniquely to everyone in existence, with a specific purpose. Our lives – the lives of everyone in this room, and everyone we know, and everyone we don’t – are loving gifts from our Creator. With them, we can either repair or destroy the world.

I hope that we’ll be able to come out of this Holy Day season more aware of the sanctity of our own lives and of everyone else’s. spiritual ideals to the fore. But whose lives are sacred? Whose lives do we truly value, and whose lives do we treat as disposable? It can be harder to see the sanctity in some lives than it is in others. It is harder – perhaps hardest – to see sanctity in the lives of people we don’t know. There are people we forget and erase before we’ve even had the chance to see God’s spirit in them.

The Torah portion for this week, the Aqedah, is an example of such a problem. One line sticks out for me in this parashah. In this story of the patriarch Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son on the altar, it is perhaps the most troubling. It seems innocuous at first. But I keep coming back to it, and the more I come back to it, the more it bothers me. The text says:

Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah.[1]

Take your son, your only one… The text says that same phrase three times. When the angel intervenes and speaks to Abraham, we hear:

Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For I now know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.[2]

Your only son…

After Abraham sacrifices a ram in the place of Isaac, the angel speaks again:

Since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…[3]

Again and again, ‘your only son.’ But that’s impossible! Abraham does not have only one son. Isaac is the younger of two children. Abraham has an older son, Ishmael. In only the immediately preceding parashah, Abraham sent away Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Has he forgotten them already?

This problem has bothered rabbinic commentators too. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, offers up a story:

“But I have two sons,” Abraham said.

“Your only one,” was the reply.

“But each is the only one of his mother!”

“Whom you love,” he was told.

“But I love both!”

“Even Isaac.”[4]

The conversation he puts in Abraham’s mouth is really the conversation of the reader with the text: doesn’t Abraham have another son whom he loves? How can Ishmael be erased so flippantly and insensitively from the text? Rashi suggests a number of solutions:

Perhaps lest Abraham’s mind reeled under the sudden shock. Further, to make his command more precious to him. And finally, that he might receive a reward for every word spoken.[5]

Yes, God is speaking like this to calm Abraham down. If he just blurted out: “Go and kill Isaac!”, Abraham might not have had the strength to do it. So God breaks the commandment down, gently feeding him each bit. But Rashi’s answer doesn’t tell us the most important detail: what on earth has happened to Ishmael?

Some rabbinic commentators have tried other approaches. Some suggest that we could translate יְחִֽידְךָ֤ not as your only one, but as your favourite one.[6] But the root of the word יְחִֽידְךָ֤ is אחד – one, and it doesn’t mean favourite in any other context. We can only really translate it that way if that’s what we want it to mean. And is that what we want it to mean? Do we want to think of Abraham, the father of all nations, as choosing a favourite between the children that will create Judaism and Islam? Does it actually make the text that much better?

Not only is God asking Abraham to kill Isaac, but God has already erased Ishmael. Can that really be true? Is that the God we believe in and worship?

It bothered me so much I went for lunch with a Muslim friend to ask him what he made of it. How did his tradition, that holds Ishmael in such high regard, deal with this troubling passage? I asked: “what does your tradition say about the binding of Isaac?”

“You mean Ishmael?” he said.

“No, no,” I said, “Isaac, who Abraham takes up Mount Moriah to sacrifice.”

“Ishmael,” he countered, “who Abraham takes up Al-Haram…” He grinned at me. “I know your tradition says something different…”

It was so funny. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the Islamic story might be different. We took out a Quran and read the story as it appears:

Abraham said, “Indeed, I will go to where I am ordered by my God; Who will guide me. My God, grant me a child from among the righteous.”

So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached the age of exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.”

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, You have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, And We left for him favourable mention among later generations: “Peace upon Abraham.”[7]

It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it? But there’s a new problem: this text doesn’t mention Ishmael either. It doesn’t mention Isaac, but it doesn’t mention Ishmael. In fact, it turns out that in the early days of Islamic jurisprudence, the interpreters were undecided. 135 authoritative readings said it was Isaac; 113 said it was Ishmael. But gradually the weight shifted, and by the 10th Century, everyone agreed that it was Ishmael.[8]

So here we have two contradictory traditions: a Jewish tradition that erases Ishmael and an Islamic one that erases Isaac. What do we do with this? How can we reconcile these stories?

I think the Tosefta, that first text of rabbinic commentary, offers a compelling answer. The sages were dealing with a problem of two contradictory schools of thought – the House of Shammai said that a room was unclean and the House of Hillel said a room was clean. The Tosefta reaches this conclusion:

Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.[9]

David Hartman, a rabbi from the Bronx in New York, suggests this means we need to be able to hold multiple contradictory ideas at once. Whereas Western philosophy tries to drive everyone to one conclusion at the expense of all others, Jewish thought teaches that all words about God are words of God. Judaism teaches us to sustain and embrace contradiction.[10] We learn to build a heart big enough that it can include all voices, especially the voices that we might want to drown out.

So perhaps that’s an answer to my problem. We need to reconcile these two contradictory stories: Isaac was offered up as a sacrifice, and so was Ishmael. Isaac was Abraham’s favourite son, and so was Ishmael. Both a source of blessing, both blessed, both their lives sacred, both our traditions sacred, all stemming from one God.

The Torah says that Isaac was Abraham’s only son because, in a way, there only ever was one son. That one son was both Isaac and Ishmael. Some Christians say that the sacrifice of Isaac prefigured the crucifixion of Jesus, or represented it.[11] Yes, let us include that truth too. Rather than try to erase difference, let’s embrace the tension of contradiction and recognise what is sacred in every story. The message is the same in all of them: a rejection of violence, opposition to the sacrifice of human life, reverence for the God who created us all.

I think this religious analysis has some important political implications. Two years ago, the former Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, published a book called ‘Not in God’s Name’. The theology of it was subtle and beautiful. He used stories like those of Isaac and Ishmael to suggest that all people were meant for their own blessings. He extrapolated this to thinking about religion: that nobody should make an exclusive claim to truth – that Jews, Muslims and Christians should all be able to respect one another.[12]

But from this solid foundation, Jonathan Sacks went in a troubling direction. He said that people should not try to make exclusive claims to truth, and then focused most of his book on criticising Muslim terrorists for doing that. Of course, I agree with his opposition to such terrorism. But given that his book was inevitably going to be read almost entirely by Jews, shouldn’t he have said more to challenge his own community? In the way he set it out, it felt very much like he was accusing everyone else of carrying out violence, without acknowledging that we, too, are imperfect. Such rhetoric only encourages division and continues the cycle of hate.

It turns out that Jonathan Sacks did not just make a rhetorical error. Earlier in the year, he recorded a film for Mizrachi Olami, a far-right religious nationalist party in Israel, where he encouraged Jews all over the world to join the organisation on a march through Jerusalem.[13] This is an annual march, drawing thousands of people, who run through the Palestinian part of the city in the east, intimidating residents and shouting racist slogans. On this day, shops close and streets clear as people prepare for violence.[14] Under pressure, Jonathan Sacks eventually agreed that he would not actually march with the group, but continued to produce promotional material for them.[15] I have to seriously question what this does to suggest that different religions can be blessed, or that all lives deserve respect.

I think that if we are going to build a heart of many rooms, it must at least be big enough to accommodate the grievances and frustrations of Palestinians. We must be able to see how we can be oppressors, as well as victims. We must confront all the contradictions that living in this modern world involves.

I spent August studying Hebrew in Jerusalem. It is a place that really confronts you to deal with contradictory truths. I spent my days in a university where I learnt so much and met so many exciting people. On my breaks, I’d stare out over the garden. That university overlooks a refugee camp, full of high-rise buildings, crowded with people who have been stateless since the War of 1948, and surrounded by a concrete separation wall.

I found myself feeling safer wearing a kippah than ever before, and at the same time so much more uncomfortable. I quite like wearing the kippah in England, where it feels like a symbol of difference, personal piety and a reminder to live up to the best expectations of others. In Jerusalem, where the religious-right are in power and wield religious symbols to trample on the rights of various people, my clothes took on a new meaning I didn’t like. I know of one rosh yeshiva, a rabbi heading up a study-house in Jerusalem, who wore only half a kippah, to reflect the conflicted place he felt, torn between the religious and secular worlds, externalising his inner turmoil.

I want to be able to live with these tensions, but it is not an easy feeling. Maybe that’s necessary. Dealing with contradictions means being uncomfortable. There is something frightening about truly believing that life is sacred. It means knowing that we are special, unique and placed here by God. But it also means acknowledging that this is true of everyone, including of people whose stories might contradict ours.

This year, may we build hearts large enough to include those stories, and all stories of struggle. May we learn to see the sanctity in all lives and, above all, may we find a way to peace.

Shana tovah.

ram

[1] Gen 22:2

[2] Gen 22:12

[3] Gen 22:16-17

[4] Soncino 108

[5] Soncino 108

[6] Sefaria; JPS

[7] Qur’an Surah As-Saffat 37:99-111

[8] Reuven Firestone, ‘Journeys in Holy Lands’, pp. 153-151

[9] Tosefta Sotah 7:7

[10] David Hartman, ‘A Heart of Many Rooms’

[11] e.g. Jung, ‘Answer to Job’

[12] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZr_lsT6vkE

[14] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.791549

[15] http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.789728