As human beings, we are constantly carrying stories with us of who we are, what we have done, and how we should be in the world. On top of those stories, we build edifices: whole structures and personalities to serve those narratives. But, when those structures are forced to face up to reality, they can come crumbling down completely. And then we are left with only our stories, and we have to reconsider whether they were ever true.
That is what happened to the Israelites when they built the Golden Calf.
Moses went up Mount Sinai and spent time with God. There, on the precipice, God’s finger inscribed in stone the two tablets of the Law, as Moses watched in awe.
Meanwhile, down below, the Israelites grew restless. They didn’t know where Moses was or when he would be back. Under Aaron’s instruction, they built for themselves a Golden Calf, which would serve as their God. Now they could have something to worship.
When Moses returned, he found the people prostrating themselves before the calf, singing praise to the idol that it had brought them out of Egypt. Immediately, in a fit of rage, Moses threw the tablets on the ground and shattered them.
Those stone slabs were not the only thing destroyed that day. Moses also took the calf the people had made and burned it in fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
This is perhaps one of the strangest things that happens in the whole Torah. Two questions have really animated commentators on this passage. The first is: how is this possible? Can gold really be ground to dust and consumed with water? What sort of process would enable Moses to break the idol down so fine and feed it to the Israelites? Is such a thing actually potable? Wouldn’t it injure or kill the Israelites to drink it?
The second question is why? Why would Moses do such a thing? What is the value?
Rashi, following the Talmud, suggests that this was similar to the Sotah ritual. Elsewhere in Torah, we read of a custom for wives suspected of being unfaithful to their husbands. They are required to drink soot mixed with water. If they are guilty, they will miscarry. If not, they will survive.
There are obvious parallels in terms of procedure: both involve drinking water mixed with soot. It is also true that, in much of biblical theology, the Israelites are understood to be God’s faithless wife. Whenever the Israelites worship other gods, they are described as philanderers who have rejected their loyal husband. Here, then, the ritual would be testing the adulterous people to see whether they had broken their marriage vows. Based on this, says Rashi, God would determine what punishments were appropriate for their misconduct.
While I like the elegance of the solution, it doesn’t quite sit right. It’s not just because of the obviously misogynistic undertones. It’s also because it doesn’t make sense. The Sotah ritual is for wives suspected of adultery. A Sotah ritual might find its victim guilty, but, more likely, it would clear them of wrongdoing. Here, there is no doubt. They have been caught in the act. You don’t need to check whether something has happened if you saw it happening and talked about it.
Nachmanides was obviously also perturbed by this explanation. He offers an alternative suggestion: Moses was trying to humiliate the Israelites. He was turning their god into something loathsome and disgusting, that they would be forced to excrete. Once the Golden Calf had come out of them as dung, they would surely recognise that it wasn’t really God.
This is actually an argument that Nachmanides had used in the infamous Barcelona Disputation. Nachmanides was brought to the Spanish palace and ordered to defend Judaism against the Christian official, Friar Pablo Christiani. He said that the eucharist, the bread given at Catholic masses as a body of Jesus, could not possibly be God, because the Christians disgraced it by excreting it. Nachmanides’ interpretation, then, seems more motivated by his theological proofs against Christianity than by the matter of the text itself.
But Nachmanides has a point. The Israelites really needed to understand that the Golden Calf was not God. It was not enough for them to know that idolatry is a sin. They had to really feel, emotionally and physically, that what they had been worshipping amounted to nought.
Thus, the question of how the Israelites could drink the calcined Golden Calf is intimately bound up with why. Sure, it is possible to reduce and grind up gold, but there is no way of consuming it without getting sick. No matter how diluted, oxidised metal is a dangerous concoction.
Moses is saying to the Israelites: if you really think this is God, see how it tastes. Drink it. Is it alive? Is it helping you? Can it really do anything for you?
As the Israelites drank their mixture, they were forced to reckon with the reality that they had built themselves a structure that did not serve them.
They had told themselves a story. We need a God we can see to worship. We need physical things to feel secure. If we make something magnificent, we can tell ourselves that this is what saves us. When those stories were confronted by the hard truth of fire and water, it was evident they weren’t true.
So, they had to rebuild, this time with new stories. The Golden Calf could not be recreated, and nor could their narrative that idols would serve them.
The only thing left to do was to return up the mountain and rebuild the other thing that was broken: the Two Tablets of the Law. They had to tell a new story: of an invisible God, whose proof was in deliverance. They had to build a new structure: the moral laws that would build a harmonious society.
I feel like this is part of the human condition. So often, I have caught myself telling internal stories that keep me on guard and afraid. If I allow such narratives to take hold, I will build up edifices that I imagine will defend me, like anger, resentment, and a victim mindset. I will build up walls so others cannot get in.
But, like the Golden Calf, are serving these structures more than they are serving us. When the walls we build are tested by the fire and water of real life, they amount to nothing. They are just toxic substances that will destroy us. And, when they crumble, all we can do is go back and rebuild the structures that are actually secure: the moral laws that bind us to each other in obligation.
So, this is the challenge. When you find yourself building up a defensive story, pause and ask yourself how it tastes. If you were to drink what you are telling yourself, would it taste like the freshwater of a living God, or would you be imbibing the toxins of an idol?
The stories we tell ourselves are no different to anything else we allow in our bodies. They can either keep us alive, or they can destroy us.
Choose life. Shabbat shalom.
Tag: ki tisa
The tribes that broke apartheid
We are all members of tribes. Human beings are tribal creatures. We organise into packs and stick together. We identify into groups.
You are probably a member of more than one tribe. You are a member of this synagogue, which binds together hundreds of families into a community. You might also have your workplace, neighbourhood group, union, political party, youth movement, charity association.
Tribes are a core part of life. And it is this week, as we receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, that the Israelites become a tribe. When we left Egypt, we were slaves. We were a mixed multitude escaping persecution. Now, as we stand in the wilderness, we form into something stronger. But what kind of tribe do we become?
In 2008, a group of researchers got together to study different tribal cultures. David Logan and his team looked at hundreds of workplaces and social groupings to see how they operated. While all these groups formed tribes, they found that there could be very divergent kinds.
These researchers divided up the tribes into five kinds, based on their cultures. At the lowest level, Level One, were those tribes that functioned worst and, at the highest level, Level Five, were those that functioned best.
Interestingly, as we look at the stages, it seems like exactly the progression the Israelites go through as they form as a tribe. They begin low on these researchers’ scale and, as the story continues, they advance to higher levels of performance.
At Level One, tribes take the attitude that life is awful. They systematically sever relationships with other tribes and pool with people who think like they do. They are entire groups of angry misanthropes. These are the kinds of people who say “everyone is horrible, so we’ll be horrible, too. People will attack and rob us, so we’re going to get them first.” People who think life sucks will be toxic towards themselves, their own group members, and anyone they consider an outsider.
This is the Israelites at the start of the Exodus narrative. They are crying out for help under tyrannical persecution. They are a mixed multitude of all the lowest classes of Egypt, and have no concept of anything but toil. They don’t even trust Moses when he tries to start setting them free.
At Level Two, tribes say “my life is awful, but there is better stuff out there.” The world might be a good place, but I don’t have access to the goodness in it. These are the kinds of people who will bemoan how persecuted they are. They will complain that other groups have better jobs, or get taken more seriously, or produce better culture, or have more influence. These tribes don’t believe in themselves enough to make positive changes for their own tribe, let alone others.
This is the next stage for the Israelites. They decide that there is a better world out there. Their lives are horrible but, if they left Egypt, they might get a taste of something better. They get up and go, seeking to find a new life as they leave through the Sea of Reeds.
In a Level Three tribe, the mantra is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Here, people are competing for prestige, wealth, and honour. These are groups where everyone wants to compare notes about how much better their kids are doing in school, or how much better their careers are going. The tribe can do good things, but only because it creates cultures where individuals flourish.
That’s the level we reach at the start of this week. Betzalel emerges as a fantastic architect and interior designer, showing off his skills at the Tabernacle. Aaron and his family come forward to be priests. They show how well they can perform religious rituals. But, because they have no defining values, they end up worshipping a golden calf and recreating the same systems they knew in Egypt.
Stage Four is where really impressive tribes begin to emerge. These are groups where people are united by something greater than their individual competences. They turn from small groups into something large and meaningful. They are actually conscious of being a tribe, and united by values. They extend their reach by connecting with other tribes and finding points of value alignment.
Only now, as Moses presents the Ten Commandments, can the Israelites reach Stage Four. They are a conscious tribe, united by shared values. We, these freed slaves, have one God. We reject idols. We honour our families. We hold time sacred. We refuse to engage in murder, theft and lies. We are one people joined by a shared vision of what a just society could be. Anyone who shares that dream can join us.
But that is not the end of the journey. The highest level is rare, and most groups never get there.
The fifth level is when a tribe is united by values that affirm life, each other, and the future. We only see glimpses of this kind of tribal behaviour in Tanach – on those incredible occasions when the prophets extend their message full of joy about who humanity is and hope of what it could be.
The researchers who ranked the groups only offered one example of a tribe that reached such a high level. That was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
This was convened in 1996. With Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of formal apartheid, nobody knew which direction the country would go in. Some anticipated civil war, or resurgent racist nationalism.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought together thousands of tribes from all across South Africa. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would aim to restorative justice between all people. Victims and perpetrators faced each other, to speak honestly about what had happened during apartheid, and how they could make amends.
He united people on a programme that they could be better than they had been. He coalesced people around a vision that they could be honest with each other and foster a future based on cooperation.
Consider what courage and moral fortitude that must have taken. For decades, black, Indian, and Coloured South Africans had been subjected to segregation, poverty and violence. The anti-apartheid activists had faced imprisonment, state abuse, and separation from their families.
After all that, Tutu took these tribes to a level we almost never see. He created a culture where people believed in themselves, in each other, and joined by a vision of joy and hope.
When Desmond Tutu died just over a month ago, it reminded people of what a giant he had been for religious people worldwide. His theology was one that still intimidates many. He preached true universalism, arguing that God was not a Christian, but belonged to every religion. He advocated sincere justice, never shrinking from social issues. And he believed, despite all he saw, that people were capable of fantastic things.
That was what made his assembly of tribes exceptional. Only those who see the best in people and hold the greatest of values can take people beyond what they know. If we are to defeat the racism, segregation and division that plague us today, we need to muster similar attitudes.
So, which tribe will we Jews be today? Will we sit at the bottom rung, only believing the worst about the world? Will we be like those who complain that we don’t count but others do? Will we create a culture where individuals can flourish but don’t cohere as a whole group? Will we unite around clear values and come together consciously with pride? And can we achieve that rarest of things: a level where we affirm what is wonderful in ourselves and the world, and foster unity around a joyous vision of the future?
The faith that inspired us at Sinai tells us today: we can achieve remarkable things. If we believe in ourselves, we will.
Moses kept wearing a mask
This year has changed us forever.
When Moses came down Mount Sinai, his face was radiant. He had horns of light emanating from his head.
He had, in fact, been on the precipice for 40 days and 40 nights. During that time, he did not eat food or drink water. Some say he did not sleep. What was it like for him up there? What did he see and feel during that intense period at God’s side?
The Torah only records snippets. A moment where God passed in front of his face. The midrash suggests vignettes: that Moses watched God placing crowns on the letters of the Torah and saw Jewish future. Maimonides imagines Moses acquiring true knowledge, suddenly enlightened by philosophical and scientific truth about how the world was kept in order.
But we have to speculate. It is not just because the Torah is sparse, but because whatever happened on Sinai must have defied explanation. A period of complete solitude. A time when nobody else was there to corroborate events. A time of deep spiritual introspection. Moses saw something he could not fully communicate.
So the only real evidence of Moses’s experience was how it transformed him. Set aside the commandments and the miracles, Moses himself was internally and externally changed by the experience at Sinai. Everyone could see that, from now on, Moses’s face shone with rays of light.
In Jewish terms, it has been a year since lockdown began. A year ago, I attended Leo Baeck College’s Purim party. At the start of our revelry, Principal Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris warned that we should enjoy ourselves because it might be the last time we met for a while. I remember thinking how unnecessarily pessimistic she was being. A week and a bit later, around Shabbat Parah, the government instructed everyone to stay home except for essential travel.
Today is, once more, Shabbat Parah. Happy anniversary.
It will be hard to explain afterwards what happened in this year. Perhaps we will remember echoes of the rituals that sustained us. Clapping for carers. Zoom services. Calls with family. But if future generations ask me what this year was like, I will struggle to give a coherent answer.
Our experiences over this last year have not been uniform. Some have shielded at home for the full year, only seeing a small circle of people, if that. Others have gone to work in essential services but nevertheless been unable to visit family. Some have had to learn how to homeschool children. Others have been prevented from meeting grandchildren.
When we doing emerge, I suspect we will struggle to explain even to each other what this year was like. The only proof that we ever went through it will be in how we are changed.
After Sinai, Moses kept on wearing a mask. Now that Moses’ face had those shiny horns, his appearance frightened people. Even his closest relatives found it difficult to look at him. He kept hold of a special veil, which he wore at all times, and only removed to communicate with God.
I suspect we will probably do the same. We will keep wearing masks on public transport now for years to come. We will probably also maintain some of the technology to which we have become accustomed. I’m sure many synagogues will still stream services and do online study sessions long after the pandemic is over as a way to include more vulnerable members.
But the real evidence of what we went through will be in how we are changed. And that is something we will have to decide for ourselves.
When the lockdown began, I imagined the great societal changes that might come about as a result. Greater respect for key workers. A commitment to tackling climate change. New rights and protections for the vulnerable.
I still have hopes that those dreams will be realised. But when Moses came down the mountain, he did not only carry with him the moral law. He also brought his own metamorphosis. His shining face and altered insides.
As the end of lockdown is in sight, I wonder how we will be different as individuals. Will be more focused on family, or more keen to befriend strangers? Will we live carefree, or with more caution? Will we focus more on community or on individuality? And now, after this year, will we feel closer to God, or further away?
Those aren’t questions anyone can answer for anyone else. They are the product of soul-searching.
We now have a road map out of lockdown. If everything goes well, we could be back to having large gatherings again in the summer. But that doesn’t mean we will go back to being the people we were before. This year has transformed us forever.
Who we will now be we have to decide.
Only we can determine how our faces will shine.
This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon and Reform Synagogue on Saturday 6th March 2021, Parashat Ki Tisa.
Yes, to heal the world
What is the point of Judaism?
Last night, I gave a defence of Judaism for the disengaged. I argued that religion gives us a sense of community, purpose and meaning. I talked about how Judaism is an antidote to many of the greatest problems we face in the 21st Century.
This morning, I want to talk about why progressive Judaism, specifically, ought to be our way forward. Progressive Judaism has, in recent years, come under attack. Last year, Jonathan Neumann released a book entitled ‘To Heal the World?’. Its subtitle – ‘How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel’ – probably tells you everything you need to know about this book.
In it, he argues that progressive Jews have distorted Judaism and created their own denomination, completely divorced from tradition. He pours scorn on one idea in particular, that of ‘tikkun olam’. The basic premise of this idea comes from Jewish mysticism. It argues that the world in which we live is broken, and that through the pursuit of social justice, we can begin to heal it.
For Neumann, this idea is an innovation. It is the ideology of the American New Left combined with some Jewish theology. In a way, he is certainly right. The idea of ‘tikkun olam’ was a new development. It was a rallying cry to bring together many of the issues on which the Jewish community in America was campaigning, particularly black civil rights, women’s liberation and international peace.
While he may be right about the nomenclature, he is completely wrong about the idea. This idea, that Judaism’s core is one of social justice, has been integral to progressive Judaism since its inception. Our founders, like Rabbi Abraham Geiger in 19th Century Germany, argued that the soul of Judaism was not in its laws but in its prophetic texts. The Reformers sought to reposition Judaism from its narrow focus on ritual to the universalist message of justice.
The prophets spoke in a language of justice that would be recognisable even today. In this week’s haftarah, we read of Elijah, arguably the greatest prophet post-Moses. His life was full of miracles: he could split rivers, heal the sick and bring on rainfall. At the end of his life, he was carried away to Heaven in a chariot of fire. All the wonder in Elijah’s life should not gloss over Elijah’s message.
He challenged kings, demanded an end to idol-worship and called on the Israelites to remember their covenant. For Jews the world over, he is the harbinger of messianic redemption. He is the first among our prophets to promise that a messianic age is coming. Subsequent prophets, such as Malachi, prophecy that, when Elijah returns, God “shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents.”
For progressive Jews, this promise of liberation is built into our very understanding of what it means to live a Jewish life. We cannot just wait, passively, for a better age to come up to us, but must participate in building it. We do that through our pursuit of justice, by following our consciences, and by seeking to make the world a more loving place.
While the branding of this idea as ‘tikkun olam’ may be new in Judaism, its message can be found throughout the Tanakh, rabbinic literature, and our liturgy. It is at the core of what Judaism calls on us to do.
This authentic Jewish idea is what Neumann finds terrifying. He argues that this is a deviation from traditional Judaism. Of course, he never defines what precisely that is. In all likelihood, that is because he doesn’t know. In a review of the book in Tablet magazine, Shaul Magid argues that Neumann’s argument falls flat because he doesn’t have the requisite knowledge of Judaism to make his case. Neumann is, after all, not a Torah scholar, nor a Jewish historian. He is an opinion columnist. Magid shows very successfully how Neumann simply doesn’t understand how Judaism, whether Orthodox or progressive, actually works. There can be no more damning critique of a book than that it would have been better if it had been written by somebody who knew what they were talking about.
For Neumann, progressive Judaism must be contrasted with ‘traditional’ Judaism. He seems to have in mind an idea of bearded men in segregated synagogues keeping kosher, observing shabbat and keeping to a very strict set of rules. The first issue with this is that he seems not to understand that Orthodox Judaism is, itself, a modern innovation. It is a response to the modern world, that takes a conservative approach to life and a dogmatic approach to commandments.
It is deeply depressing that, even within our own ranks, many of our members imagine that the black hats have, in some sense, a more authentic version of Judaism than we do. When we look at other religions, we are fully aware that the most compassionate, charitable and honest version is the most authentic. We do not imagine that Christianity is at its most authentic in its belligerent form, nor that Islam is most authentic in its fundamentalist form. We know that they are both closest to God when they are humble, sincere and loving. Why are we so shy about expecting the same standards of our own religion? We are not at our most Jewish when we have the strictest food laws, but when we are sharing that food with others.
Most importantly, Neumann’s idea of traditional Judaism is so narrow and limiting. He never seeks to answer the question: what, then, is the point of Judaism? If our purpose on earth is not to heal the world, what is it? Should we just be slavishly obedient to some rules because we have a mythologised idea of how our ancestors were? Does Judaism have nothing to say to the modern world? If that is all we are, how can we be expected to survive? What would even make us worth preserving?
The truth is that, for we progressives, halachic observance and social justice are not competitors. They complement each other. Our food laws help us because they force us to think ethically about our consumption. Shabbat is a joy because it teaches us about the value of rest and the holiness of God. All our rules and rituals have value because they turn us into disciplined, conscientious people, who will seek out justice when it is necessary. Progressive Judaism sees very clearly that the point of Judaism is not the rules in themselves but the pursuit of a better world through them.
And, yes, all of this points us in a particular direction. You might call it the messianic age, as our prophets did. You might call it progressive Judaism, as our German founders did. You might call it tikkun olam, as the Americans in the ’70s did. Whatever name you give it, the message is clear. We have a short time on earth and we are here with a mission. As Jews, we have been tasked with a sacred purpose of perfecting the world, demanding justice and pursuing peace.
That is the point of Judaism. Let us work to heal the world together.
I gave this sermon at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Ki Tisa on Saturday 23rd February.
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.
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.