judaism · sermon

Whose quarantine?

By this stage in quarantine, you have probably broken down, cried, experimented with an unusual haircut, argued with your partner or room mate, attempted to pick up a new skill, laughed, watched a movie, read all the Corona-related news items, avoided reading all the Corona-related news items, lost your mind, twice, and finally accepted the new reality. Now, it’s time to have breakfast and go through the whole process all over again.

It’s hard to put into words what is happening for us in lockdown right now. Whenever I talk to friends or family about how they’re experiencing this unprecedented life event, we revert to discussing the latest rules or the political ramifications or what they understand of the emerging medical news. We can only really sum up how we’re dealing with the situation in odd phrases, like “getting by”, “finding new meanings”, “struggling” or, “drinking before midday.”

That’s probably why I have trouble finding out what quarantine was like for our ancient ancestors. This week’s parashah is Tazria-Metzora. It is the Torah reading about quarantine. Rabbis rejoice! For so long the processes and rituals around self-isolating for infectious diseases seemed so irrelevant to our lives. Suddenly a pandemic comes along and we can join the ranks of overnight experts with a niche specialism in ancient Israel.

Except, strangely, Leviticus doesn’t really tell me what I want to know. It describes in graphic detail the infectious skin disease our forebearers were trying to prevent – called tzara’at, it resulted in white flaky peeling of the skin and made its sufferers look like the walking dead. It would start as a small patch and gradually expand across the body.1

It also tells me exactly how the priests would deal with it. Anybody with the affliction would have to isolate themselves outside of the camp for 7 days. At the end of these, a priest would come out to inspect the patient. If the patient had been healed, the priest would make ritual offerings of birds to spiritually cleanse him.2 They would be shaved, washed and then readmitted to the community.3 If not, back into quarantine he would go.

Yet for all this detail spread out over chapters of the Torah, it doesn’t answer the question I really want to ask: what were their lives like? How did it feel to have the scaly skin disease in ancient Israel? What did they do when they were isolated from their communities? The Torah provides scarce little information about these questions, and biblical scholars seem surprisingly unconcerned. In fact, the main trend among academics has been to question how much we can even know about the biblical world, shedding great doubt on the texts that have reached us.4

We are told that the isolators were kept outside the camp, or outside the city walls. I wonder whether they had dedicated centres. The harsh desert sun of the Negev must have made simply staying outside longterm impossible. I wonder how they got food. Did people deliver it to them in designated places? Were they expected to scavenge for themselves?

All I can gather from the text is how people were managed, punished, ritualised and redeemed. I cannot work out how the ancient people keep themselves entertained when they had no access to other human beings, nor to Netflix, WiFi, or books to read. I do not know how they loved, supported each other, struggled, found things difficult and ultimately survived. Those positive stories of endurance are hidden between the lines of the text. I do not know how they felt.

But, in this community, I don’t need to just wonder how people feel and how they are managing. Our welfare committee has done an incredible job of checking in on everyone. Our healthy members are going out of their way to ensure that the others get the food and supplies they need. I know that, across this community, people are checking in on each other to find out how they are. This community should be an inspiration to others across the country.

Much is made in the media about people’s acts of selfishness and inconsideration, but for my part I have only seen the reverse. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people reaching out to share in feelings, offering support with shopping and errands, and generally being as supportive as they can in these exceptional times.

When our biblical forbearers wrote about quarantine, they wrote about its rituals. When the scholars wrote about it, they took interest in its medical diagnoses. When the media write about it, they write about everything that goes wrong. These stories of rituals, rules and wrongdoing might make for compelling reading, but they don’t reflect people’s lived reality.

Meanwhile, we are quietly writing a different story through our deeds. We are writing stories of generosity, kindness and self-sacrifice. We are showing every day in little ways how much we care about ourselves, each other and our communities.

One of the surprising facts about crises is that they do not engender selfishness, but altruism. At the time of the last financial crash, I was working in the charity sector, and we were all perplexed when we discovered that, in times of economic hardship, poorer people’s charitable donations went up. This week, a German science journal reported on a significant uptick in people’s compassion in their attitude to others since the crisis began. We see the results of that: thousands of people volunteering for mutual aid groups and the NHS supporters. The more people struggle, the more they care about the struggles of others.

Priests and politicians may want to write one kind of story, but ordinary people write much better ones. May we continue to write those stories, and may they be the ones we pass on to later generations.

Shabbat shalom.

coronavirus-volunteers-list

I delivered this sermon over Zoom on 25th April 2020 for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.

1Milgrom on Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824

2Lev 14:1-6

3Lev 14:9-10

4Watts, Ritual and Rhetoric, pp. 27-32

judaism · sermon · theology

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven. The Tabernacle was built according to the dimensions of the world. And the world was built according to the dimensions of Heaven.[1] This is what the Zohar, our mystical text tells us.[2] What does this mean?

This week’s parashah describes the raw materials of the Tent of Meeting: blue, purple, and crimson yarns; the ephod made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; sheets of gold and cut threads to be worked into designs.[3] The Torah tells us precise measurements for precious metals: 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold; 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver.[4]

In the kabbalistic system of the Zohar, these are not only the dimensions of our Tabernacle, but a blueprint for the universe and a mirror of Heaven. Is this, then, the makeup of the universe? Does it, too, have crimson yarn and twisted linen and talents of silver?

No. That is not the nature of this text. The Zohar is not an Ikea assemblage manual, but a work of Jewish mysticism. Its concern isn’t with the physical arrangement of the world, but with the esoteric secrets underpinning it.

The Zohar was compiled as a commentary on the Torah in 13th Century Spain by Rabbi Moses de Leon and has circle.[5] This text became the central canonical text of Jewish mystical theology, known commonly as kabbalah.

Only within the terms of the text itself can we understand how the Tabernacle had the dimensions of the world and the world had the dimensions of Heaven. First of all, please understand that, by Heaven, it does not mean the cartoon of clouds in the sky where baby-angels play on harps. Nor is it talking about the afterlife. In this context, Heaven is the ‘Upper World’: the place beyond our understanding where God lives. It is not so much a physical space as it is a ‘divine realm’.

The dimensions of Heaven, then, were not physical, but were divine qualities. The Zohar notices a connection between the qualities with which the Tabernacle’s architect was endowed and the qualities God employed to create the world. God appoints a man named Bezalel ben Uri to oversee the creation of the Tabernacle. God tells Moses: “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge.”[6] Elsewhere, in the book of Proverbs, we learn: “The Holy One founded the earth by wisdom; God established the heavens by understanding; through God’s knowledge the depths burst apart, and the skies distilled dew.”[7]

These, then, are the dimensions that the world and the Tabernacle held in common: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The qualities needed to create the world were the same as those needed to create the Tabernacle.

In the context of the Zohar, however, these terms take on an even deeper significance. In this world of mysticism, wisdom, understanding and knowledge are not simply creative faculties, but are part of a divine reality beyond what we can see.[8]

In this view of the world, there is an aspect of God called the ‘ein sof’ – that which is without end; the part of God that is limitless and incomprehensible. From this Infinite Unknowability flow ten sefirot, attributes of God’s self. They filter down into the knowable universe, to the level of the Shechinah – God’s dwelling-place in the human realm.[9]

At the highest levels are three sefirotketer – literally meaning ‘crown’, but fundamentally associated with God’s infinite knowledge; chochmah, meaning ‘wisdom’, which holds the archetypes of all things that must come into being; and binah – ‘understanding’ – in which is held the undifferentiated model of creation.[10] Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding: these are the highest rungs of the emanations of God’s presence. These are the qualities with which Proverbs tell us God created the world. These are the qualities with which Exodus tells us Bezalel ben Uri was endowed when he came to create the Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle, then, was not a physical blueprint of the universe, but a spiritual one. It was comprised of the same mystical dimensions that also went into creating the world. Each of these was some part of God’s creative power. Through these, God’s creative power is manifest in Heaven, the world and the Tabernacle. They are acting as a form of creative power, transcending space and yet utterly active in it. Through this analogy, we understand that the world, Heaven and the Tabernacle are not just created, but are constantly creating, and being created.

That may all sound very difficult to understand, but it has significant implications for us. If the Tabernacle, the world and Heaven share a common creative blueprint, then what was done in the Tabernacle was replicated in Heaven. Thus, the Zohar tells us: “The Temple [the successor to the Tabernacle] was an abode of peace for the worlds […] so that the actions below could be united on the model of the world above.”[11] What they made true in the Temple, God made true in Heaven.

From this, the Zohar makes an even more audacious claim. It tells us that, in Heaven, God studies new interpretations of the sacrifices in the name of Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai. It tells us that, even though God does not need to eat or drink, out of love for the Jewish people, God eats and drinks with us in Heaven.[12] Because of the deep connection between this world and the world above, God is able even to suspend the laws of the universe to replicate what we do on Earth.

What does this mean then for us, modern Jews, for whom the synagogue has permanently replaced the Temple? I would like to think that, just as the Temple was once a mirror of Heaven, our houses of meeting are today, too. When we gather together in community, some profound unity is recreated in Heaven. When we sing in unison on Shabbat mornings, new blessings and prayers are created in the World Above. When we read about the dimensions of the Tabernacle in this week’s Torah portion, those creative faculties that once created the world are the Temple are put into action once more and, through them, entire new worlds are made possible.

Sometimes it is easy to feel like our actions have no impact. The Zohar gives me hope. If what we do on Earth is replicated in Heaven, our actions cannot fail to be meaningful. When, here, we strive for a better world, that same campaign ignites in the upper echelons of the universe. When, here, we celebrate love, birthdays and the lives of our congregants, the Heavenly hosts are brought closer together in solidarity with us. Our kindness, our optimism, our compassion in this world are mirrored on a cosmic level.

The teachings of the Zohar may be complex, but their result is simple: We live in a world that shares its dimensions with Heaven. We are tasked with the spiritual health of the entire universe.

What we make true on Earth, God makes true in Heaven. So let us strive to create Heaven on Earth.

Shabbat shalom.

Kabbalah_Art_-_Diamond_Painting_Kit_grande
Kabbalistic art

I first wrote this sermon as an essay for a class at Leo Baeck College on Kabbalah. I adapted it for use and delivered it at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue on 7th March 2020.

[1] Zohar II, 220b-221a

[2] I have relied for translations and interpretation on Tishby, Isaiah. The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts (Vol III), trans. David Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 909-930

[3] Ex 39:1-3

[4] Ex 38:27-28

[5] Scholem, Gershom G. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Shocken Books, 1946), pp. 156-159

[6] Ex 31:2-3

[7] Prov 3:19-20

[8] Laenen, J. H. Jewish Mysticism: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 46

[9] Laenen, pp. 46-48

[10] Laenen, pp. 48-49

[11] Zohar II 241a

[12] Zohar III, 241b

judaism · sermon

The Tabernacle or The Temple

When Israel Mattuck, Britain’s first Liberal rabbi, went on holiday, he used to spend hours visiting the churches and cathedrals wherever he was. His biographer, Pam Fox, writes endearingly about how much it used to annoy his family.1

I really relate to this. There is something quite wonderful about seeing how others pray. From the mosques in Turkey and southern Spain to the cathedrals in France and Italy, I’ve never found a holiday partner I couldn’t frustrate by dragging them into every little religious building I see.

These buildings communicate messages about what believers make of their religions. The last time I was here in the Three Counties, I sat with my boyfriend in Gloucester Cathedral and we listened to Saturday night evensong. The organ roared through the cavernous building, as if to remind us how terrifying God could be. I went away from the service feeling stirred in a way synagogue services rarely make me feel, and I wondered what parallels there were in our practice.

Perhaps part of the appeal of these spaces is that we have no Jewish equivalent. There is, after all, no such thing as Jewish architecture. What does a “Jewish building” look like? What are its features? Beyond a mezuzah on the doorpost, very little ever identifies a space as Jewish.

In part, that is because of history. Forever a transient people, we have rarely invested in plush buildings, knowing well that our communities were so wont to move and change. In the medieval synagogue in Barcelona’s Calle, the only distinguishing feature is that the wall protrudes slightly onto the cobbled street so that worshippers can face east. It has had no problem being repurposed variously as a home, a factory, a cafe and a museum. The site of the synagogue in Lincoln, dating back over a millennium, was only recently repurposed by its Liberal Jewish community. And, still now, it’s really just a very old room.

Yet even today in modern Britain and the USA, where Jews have lived comfortably for some time, there is little that can be identified as Jewish architecture. The Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood is identifiable by its Greek columns. Temple Emanu-El in New York looks indistinguishable from a Cathedral. Even modern Israel has developed no architectural style for its religious buildings. The places where I have prayed in Jerusalem seem no different to shop front shtiebels. For some reason, we have an aversion to creating Jewish buildings.

This casts an interesting light on this week’s parashah. Here, we read about the Israelites’ instructions for building a Tabernacle. This was a giant portable tent in the desert, where the freed slaves would come to offer sacrifices and experience their God. What a space it must have been! Every precious metal is enumerated; the finest kinds of wood; fabrics dyed in the hardest-to-find colours of crimson, purple and blue; goats’ hair and dolphins’ skins. We read about the incenses and it’s as if we can smell them wafting through the sacred space.2

This Tabernacle in some way must have mirrored the First Temple. In our haftarah, we read of King Solomon’s building of the Jerusalem Temple.3 About 30 metres long and described in glorious detail, this was the central focus of the Israelite cult for around 400 years.4

One of the great debates between Liberal and Orthodox Jews in the last century was which one preceded the other: did the Temple come first, or the Tabernacle? For Orthodox Jews, who treated the Bible as a historical account of the journeys of the Israelites, the Tabernacle must have come first, and been a blueprint for the Temple that would later follow. For Liberal Jews, who accepted the conclusions of the historians of the time, the myth of the Tabernacle was constructed later, when the Temple already stood, as a way to justify the religious centralisation brought about under Solomon.

As it turns out, we might both have been wrong. It is unclear whether Solomon’s Temple ever really existed. We have no archaeological evidence for it.5 There have been attempts to prove that such a space existed, but these have all been exposed as hoaxes. That doesn’t mean it definitely didn’t exist – lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, and Jerusalem is a notoriously difficult place to do archaeological digs. But we can reasonably suspect that Solomon’s Temple may have been a myth.

One of the things that was most missing from these heated debates in the last century was that the Tabernacle and the Temple were fundamentally different places. The Temple had attributes that would have been impossible for the Tabernacle to have: fixed foundations, windows, stone quarries and multiple rooms. The Tabernacle, by contrast, was a mobile, portable space, that had to be lifted and reassembled regularly as the Israelites went about their journeying.

Through their different architectural styles, the two spaces communicated fundamentally different messages about the nature of God. The God of the Tabernacle was transient, travelling with the people as they came out of slavery and wandered in the desert. It had no fixed home and could speak to people wherever they were. The God of the Temple was fixed in one place. It had a home and its worshippers needed to travel from all the surrounding towns to pray there.6 One God was national; the other universal.

At the heart of these debates between Liberal and Orthodox Jews was an issue that was far more theological than it was historical. Orthodox Jews needed to believe that God had pre-ordained the Temple because they wanted to see a Messianic Age in which it was rebuilt. They maintained that our God was still a national God who would one day return to live in Jerusalem. Liberal Jews needed to exercise doubt because, for them, God was transcendental and Judaism had no central home.

This brings me back to the question with which I first began: why is there no such thing as Jewish architecture? Perhaps it is about much more than historical circumstance or artistic predilections. Perhaps it tells us something deeper about how we see God. Our God, like us, is rootless and unchainable. Our God, like us, reveals its nature more through loving deeds than through material accomplishments.

As a community, we move regularly from one place to the next. We spend our services variously in Ledbury, Ross, Up Hatherley, Gloucester and across the Three Counties in each others’ homes. Let us rejoice in this fact. We are, like our forebearers in this parashah, wandering Jews. We are, as our Liberal rabbis would have hoped, physically demonstrating God’s transcendent mobility. Every house and community centre we enter becomes full of the richness of tradition and, for the time that we are there, is transformed.

There is no such thing as a Jewish space because every space where you find Jews is Jewish.

temple emanu el
Temple Emanu-El in New York

 

I gave this sermon on Saturday 29th February 2020 at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Trumah

1 Pam Fox, Israel Mattuck: Architect of Liberal Judaism

2 Ex 25

3 1 Kings 6

4 BT Bava Batra 3a

5 Finklestein and Lieberman, The Bible Unearthed

6 Mishnah Sukkah 4

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

judaism · sermon

My DNA test results

When I sent the sealed tube back to a laboratory in America, I had high hopes for what would come back. My parents were mixed – Scottish Presbyterian and Anglo-Jewish. I had grandparents and great-grandparents from Poland, Portugal, Peru and Prussia. (By Prussia, I mean Germany, but that doesn’t begin with P). Family legends trace our roots to Italy, Spain and North Africa.

I was excited. I hope my DNA results would come back like a scratch map of the entire world. I would proudly proclaim myself a global citizen. I would research my relatives in Tanzania, the Philippines and even more exotic locations like Scunthorpe.

After weeks of waiting, I opened the results with trepidation. Here they were. European: 99.7%.

Breakdown: 47.8% British and Irish. 48.4% Ashkenazi Jewish. Trace amounts of other ancestries: 1.9% ‘Broadly European’. 0.7% French and German.

I was so disappointed. Where was my globe lit up with dots on every continent? Where were my secret ancestors from places I’d never heard of? And what was I going to do with all my ‘We Are the World’ t-shirts? Perhaps all the family narratives were unreliable.

Maybe I’d need to rethink my entire identity. I wondered if I should perhaps just accept my Ashkenazi heritage and start pronouncing tafs as samechs, mumbling my prayers to myself, even letting my sideburns grow into locks. Or perhaps I should celebrate my connection to the British Isles by listening to Gaelic folk music and trying to revive Welsh as a language.

I confessed my confusion to a friend, who is a geneticist. He reassured me: “these tests are 92% nonsense.”

“But what about the other 8%!” I exclaimed, “surely that counts for something.”

He laughed “That 92% is just as arbitrary as all the percentages on your DNA results. DNA testing is like getting your fortune read at a funfair. They pick 100 genes out of a sequence of thousands, run them up against trends they’ve already found, and act like they’ve given you a whole picture. Treat it as a science-based game, not as a guide to your whole history.”

Well, now I felt even more confused. My family history might be unreliable, and the science was probably pretty suspicious too. The pillars I thought I could rely on for my identity were toppling around me.

I thought about this week’s parashah. Here, in Shmini, as part of all the levitical rules on sacrifice and cultic life, were the rules on which foods we could and couldn’t eat.

Although historians once understood these rules to be about health and cleanliness, biblical critics are now less sure. They point to the fact that any of these meats could cause diseases, and raise the issue that almost every neighbouring nation of the Ancient Near East had its own proscribed foods. Rather than taking a rational, medical approach, they suggest that the original purpose of these rules may have been to develop a sense of national unity. When people knew they had to eat the same foods as each other, they bonded as a community, creating an in-group. Kashrut rules were really there to form a sense of national identity.

I wondered if I could apply this to my own life. Perhaps what made me Jewish was my engagement with its food and ritual life. I seek out beigel bakeries, love challah, won’t eat pork or shellfish, and make cholent on Friday nights.

Maybe that was what made me British too. I think the slightest glimpse of sunlight is an excuse for a barbeque. Nothing makes me feel more at home than a pint of cider in a beer garden. I even like marmite.

I lived out my internationalism, too, in all the curries, sushi and pizza I could eat as a Londoner. My internationalism was bound up in important rituals like voting in the most important decisions facing our continent, like who should win Eurovision.

But this answer wasn’t that satisfying either. Rituals and foods can help build communal identities, but they don’t tell us that much about who we really are. These forms of banal nationalism might well create a sense of in-group, but the flipside is they create exclusions. In the wrong hand, any sense of nationhood based on these traits can be turned to nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia. By comparison, DNA results and family legends felt relatively benign.

I came to realise what the founders of Liberal Judaism understood long ago. All ideas of nationhood are myths. Whether we route them in science, history or culture, they’re just stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. They don’t really help us know how to act, and in the globalised world of the 21st Century, they can even be harmful to facing our challenges. What we should really ask ourselves isn’t “who are we?” but “what do we need to do?”

In 1917, in the midst of the First World War, Lily Montagu delivered an address to the West Central Club. In it, she gave a scathing critique of Jewish nationalism, challenging its very foundations. She insisted that her citizenship was British, but her primary allegiance was to the religious goals of Judaism. At its inclusion, she declared: “the Jewish ideals, the ideals of peace and unity and love and righteousness, are for all times and all places. We are to express them to the world. That is our life’s task.”

Reading this again now, I realise that the reason why Liberal Judaism is so embracing of mixed families, of converts and of diversity, is not just a matter of pragmatism or a weak sense of tolerance. It is born out of the firmly held conviction that what makes life matter is what we do with it. What makes a Jewish life matter is how ethically we live, and how hard we strive to apply these values of social justice in our world today.

When Judaism is defined not by nationhood, but by ethical principles, it is open to everyone who shares them. What is at stake in conversations about who belongs is a fundamental question about what being Jewish really is.

Our founders had it right when they proclaimed Judaism’s emphasis to be in its prophetic vision. Today, what makes us who we are isn’t who our ancestors were but what world we create for our descendants. That is our life’s task.

Shabbat shalom.

dna-illustration

I delivered this sermon on Shabbat 30th March for Parashat Shmini at Finchley Progressive Synagogue. I’m still disappointed by my DNA results.

sermon

What I inherited from my grandfather

One of the greatest things I inherited from my grandfather was a tattered red paper folder, containing jokes. I’ll give you a pertinent example: “On the first day of school, a new student hands his teacher a note from his mother. It reads: ‘the opinions expressed by this child are not necessarily those of his parents.’”

My granddad, John Rayner, was the rabbi here for decades. I am now a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, where he once lectured on liturgy and codes. Today is Leo Baeck College shabbat: a chance for congregants to see what the future progressive rabbinate might look like. I’ve been invited to speak here because today the LJS will install a new stained glass window in the room named in my granddad’s honour. Rabbi Alex realised that the coincidence of these two events was too fortuitous to pass up. I am here, then, to speak about both Liberal Judaism’s past and its future.

I am often nervous to speak about my grandfather. Whenever I go to preach or lead services at any Liberal synagogue, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much they loved him. I blush and tell them: “he was a wonderful man.”

I think what worries me most when I talk about my grandfather is that I’ll only disappoint people’s expectations. I don’t have his knowledge of Jewish thought. I can’t even repeat his views on it, because I haven’t read enough of his books. I suspect that most of the people who greet me so enthusiastically know what he thought much better than I did. That’s because I never really knew him as a scholar, or a liturgist, or a homiletician. I only knew him as a lovely man.

So, on this day, in his honour, I’ll share with you something of the lovely man I knew. The John Rayner I knew used to skip along by the brook in a park in Finchley with his two West Highland terriers, Sasson and Simcha. He used to love word games and, when driving along, he used to point out to us the registration plates of the car in front to see who could come up with the best word from the letters on the plate before the car drove off. He used to sing. Really, really badly. He broke into song, because he couldn’t find the key. When we went round for dinner at his house, he always had a stash of jokes that he’d memorised to tell. The rest of us would make sure that we also had new jokes.

That’s why the greatest inheritance I’ve received from him is this red folder containing his collections of jokes. He was so organised that he kept them and catalogued them. Some are hilarious. “Saul Epstein was taking an oral exam, applying for his citizenship papers. He was asked to spell cultivate, and spelled it correctly. He was then asked to use the word in a sentence, and responded ‘Last vinter on a very cold day I was vaiting for a bus, but it was too cultivate, so I took the subvay home.’”

Some are only good in the context of sermons, like this advert he found in a shul newsletter: “Don’t let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help.”

Some just seem wholly inappropriate for sermons: “Where do you find a dog with no legs? Right where you left him.”

Some are completely outdated. Jokes about the pitfalls of this newfangled creation called the internet. Jokes about politicians in the Clinton administration. There are some that seem doubtful whether they were ever funny, some that were probably funny at the time but have since become offensive, and some that I just don’t understand.

This little red folder is a treasured inheritance because it reminds me of my grandfather the man. It isn’t valuable or useful. Nobody else would get much out of it. It’s just a collection of old jokes. But when I look through it, I hear again his sense of humour. I see his yeckerish impulse to organise everything, even joke collections. I remember what his laughter sounded like.

This little red folder stands in for something of what matters most about Judaism. Much of it can be read about in books or understood from watching documentaries on TV. But the essence of Judaism, that part of it that makes it really Jewish, is completely intangible. It is the relationships we have with each other. The feeling of lighting shabbat candles with friends. The shared references. The warmth of sitting in a synagogue together and feeling the gentle strength of community.

That is what I inherited from my grandfather. It is what I hope to pass on. Part of the reason why I decided to pursue this path was because that Jewish world meant so much to me. The experiences that those who gave their time to make Judaism live created for me an oasis in a challenging world. I want to pass on those experiences and create that sanctuary for others.

That little red folder is a microcosm of Jewish inheritance. Just as I filter through these old jokes and find ones I want to pass on and discard, so we modern Jews do with our heritage. In every generation, we look anew at the traditions, rituals and beliefs of the past to see what is relevant in our time. Some of what worked in the past might not work today. Some of what did not work in the past might well work today. Going through that process of filtering through what we have received is what keeps Judaism alive, dynamic and engaging.

Right now, Liberal Judaism is going through just such a process. We are reviewing our old liturgies and customs in the hope of developing new ones. As we go through these changes together, we must of course bring our heads and a sense of intellectual integrity. But we must also bring our hearts. We need to be able to look at the changes our movement needs and ask: how can we make this warmer? How can we make it more heartfelt? How can we be more loving to each other as we disagree and work out new ways of being Liberal Jews?

That is the greatest inheritance I received from my grandfather: a little red folder, reminding me that a good sense of humour, and a desire to share it, matters more than anything else.

Shabbat shalom.

granddad
John Rayner z”l

I delivered this sermon on Saturday 9th February 2019 at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood.

high holy days · judaism · sermon · Uncategorized

Building a home

A young Talmud scholar moves from Lithuania to London. Years later he returns home to visit his family.

His mother asks: “Yossele but where is your beard?”

“Oh, mama, in London, nobody wears a beard.”

“But do you at least keep Shabbat?”

“No, mama, in London people work all the time. We have to make money.”

“Oy vey. But do you still keep kosher?”

“Mum, I’m sorry, kosher food is expensive and hard to find.”

“Yossele…” she says. “Are you still circumcised?”

Coming home from rabbinical school for Rosh Hashanah, I feel like I have my parents asking the same questions in reverse. “Lev you’re laying tefillin now? You’re keeping shabbat now? You’re training to be a rabbi now?! Lev, are you still patrilineal?”

I can confirm with great pride that I am still not Jewish according to the Orthodox beit din. I still have no desire to leave a religious movement that embraces me for one that doesn’t.

Still, anxieties are understandable. I have to admit that I am more than a little daunted coming home for the High Holy Days this year. It is quite one thing to lead services for strangers in far-flung places like Cornwall and Newcastle. But giving a sermon to the community that raised me, in front of my cheder teachers and old friends, adds a whole new level of pressure. It turns out it’s easier to talk to strangers about God than it is to engage with your family. Perhaps Chabad are onto something after all.

Reading Liberal Jewish Community is now celebrating its 40th year. Everybody who attended the birthday celebrations in July fed back what a great time they had, and members of the community who I met at Liberal Judaism’s biennial told me how inspired they were to keep this community going and make it even stronger.

Rosh Hashanah is a good time to take stock of that. We are at the start of autumn and ten days before Yom Kippur. In the time of our ancestors, this was when the harvest season finished, and the Torah cycle came to its end. The days became darker and insecurity about rainfall set in. Farmers and nomads wondered what the new year would bring, whether they would have enough food to feed their families, and what new challenges they might face. So they set this period as a time for reflection on how their lives had gone and where they would go in the coming year.

Rosh Hashanah is a time when we return to the same place as we have always been and look at it again with fresh eyes. This is, then, a poignant moment for all of us, to reflect on where we as a community have been and where we will go. I think then that the best I can offer in this Rosh Hashanah sermon is not so much Torah learning but reflections on the amazing impact this community has had, both on my life and on the life of Judaism in Britain.

This synagogue really has pioneered a future for Liberal Judaism. For such a small community, it is remarkable how many of the children who were in cheder at the same time as I was have gone on to be engaged Jews. Graham has worked for various Jewish charities; Abs has led Limmud; Katherine attends services when she can fit them into her busy schedule as a doctor. (The list goes on, so if anybody has some naches they want to share, do feel free.) This is not, by any means, a coincidence. This synagogue created such an amazing intergenerational community for us. At cheder, we learnt not just the facts about Judaism but how to really engage with it, have opinions on it, and integrate it into our lives.

All that fostered strong relationships between people of all ages. My brother loved being able to go round to Susanna’s house and speak German with her. Across the board, people fostered really meaningful bonds. Today, the buzzword in Jewish circles is “relational Judaism” – the idea that Judaism is not a transaction where congregants purchase a service off a rabbi, but that Judaism is something we build through our relationships with each other. I think we can say with some pride, we were doing that long before it was cool.

Perhaps what made Reading’s community so special was Meir’s farm. When I tell people that this existed, often people barely believe me. One day, we will need to write down the history of this community, or in fifty years the idea that there was a religious community in Berkshire living out a kibbutznik’s dream on a crop farm in Berkshire will be just a strange myth. The experiences of Meir’s farm were unbelievably special. Harvesting rhubarb on Shavuot, building a Sukkah out of real twigs and greenery, seeing how the biblical year lined up with an agricultural cycle. One of my strongest childhood memories is of when we buried the old siddurim, Service of the Heart, at Tu B’Shvat, and planted on top of them a Burning Bush.

This all made such an impression on me that, when I moved to London, I wondered where they went to plant trees on Tu B’Shvat. I thought that perhaps the councils gave them permission to do something in the public parks or that they might link up with one of the city farms. I was shocked to realise that this practice of earth-based Judaism was something special and unique to Reading. I felt like Londoners were really missing out on a proper Jewish experience. How can you live Judaism properly in a big city like London? Apparently, some other people agreed with me, because in the last few years a group of young pioneers have set up Sadeh, a Jewish farm in rural Kent. That farm has become a magnet for young Jews across Europe and restored an important sense of community around agrarian Judaism. We at Reading anticipated that and I am sure there is much wisdom that established members can share with those people if they so choose.

What sticks out for me most, however, was how much this community embraced diversity. I have amazing memories of dressing up as Dana International for Purim here, and performing her Eurovision-winning hit ‘Diva’ on the bimah. This world is not an easy place to grow up LGBT, but this community made it so much easier and created a genuinely warm and accepting environment. As an adult, I have seen many of my friends struggle with their sexuality and gender and wonder if they have a place in this world. I am so incredibly grateful that I never had to doubt that I had a God and a religion that loved me exactly as I was.

Reflecting on all this, and on the wonderful Jewish upbringing I had in this community, what I really want to say is thank you. You enriched my life and have done for so many Jews who come through these doors. Keep going, stick with it, because you never know what great things you are achieving with small gestures. This synagogue is not just my home community, it is a home for everyone who needs it.

As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and a great 20th Century mystic, said: “Through returning home, all things are reunited with God– returning home is, in essence, an effort to return to one’s original status, to the source of life and higher being in their fullness; without limitation and diminution, in their highest spiritual character, as illumined by the simple, radiant divine light.”[1]

I’m pretty sure he was talking about Berkshire.

At the grand age of 40, I say to this Jewish community: may you live to be 120! And then some.

Shanah tovah.

rljc trees

I gave this sermon in the synagogue that raised me, Reading Liberal Jewish Community. It was a very tender and nostalgic experience.

[1] Orot HaTeshuva, 4:2

high holy days · liturgy · sermon · Uncategorized

Is the Kol Nidrei prayer angry enough?

There are two versions of the Kol Nidre prayer. One in Hebrew; one in Aramaic. One ancient; one more modern. One looking forward; one looking backwards.

The original, older prayer in Aramaic, has these words:

All vows, oaths and promises which we make to God from this Yom Kippur to the next and are not able to fulfil – may all such vows between ourselves and God be annulled. May they be void and of no effect. May we be absolved of them and released from them. May these vows no longer be considered vows, these oaths no longer be considered oaths, and these promises no longer be considered promises.

The reformers decided to substitute it for a Hebrew alternative, and you can probably see why. Before we have made any promises, we announce our intention to annul them. We cancel every vow in advance. This was deeply worrying to many rabbis throughout history. The prayer was used as fodder by antisemites to accuse Jews of being duplicitous and untrustworthy.

Many Jews worried that it gave off the wrong impression. More than that, they were worried for their own integrity. One of the most important principles for the earliest reformers was that they would not say with their mouths what they did not believe in their hearts. So they scrapped prayers that talked about their expectations for the Messiah or their desire to build a Temple. They got rid of prayers cursing their enemies or extolling the greatness of one nation over another.

It was inevitable, then, that they would have to remove the Aramaic Kol Nidre prayer. Not only did they not believe in it, the prayer was actually about not believing the words they were saying. So they substituted it for a new version in Hebrew: “Source of Our Being, accept the vows of the children that they will turn away from evil, and walk in the ways of your Law of righteousness and justice.” Our siddur includes a reading from the American Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner to drive home the point about keeping promises:

All vows, promises, and commitments made in Your presence –

May we be given the strength to keep them

[…]

We meant them when we made them,

But distractions were many, and our wills were weak.

This time may we be strong enough;

May our better selves prevail

I want to ask: what do we gain and what do we lose by changing the prayer in this way? I think it is evident what we do gain. These words are so much more comfortable to say. It is so much more credible that we want to keep our promises than that we want to annul them.

But perhaps this very gain is also our loss. I recently ran a retreat for Jewish activists, including some members of this congregation and many from elsewhere. One participant had grown up Orthodox but found she no longer had a home there. She had turned away from Judaism and was now, tentatively making her way back. At the end of a morning prayer service, she said to me: “The trouble is, you’re making Judaism too easy! Liberal Judaism cuts out all the anger and the edge.”

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. Prayer should be comforting and uplifting, but if it is only those things it is incomplete. If our prayers are going to speak to real life, they need to speak to every emotion we experience. They should encapsulate our sadness, our anger and our frustrations, as well as our happiness and joy. This year, I realised how inadequate my prayers were when I looked up at the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower and realised that I did not have the words to mourn such callous loss of life. We need prayers that reflect our anger.

The original Aramaic prayer has something edgy about it. Tonight, we are told, God’s face comes closest to the earth. God’s presence is with us more than any other night. And what do we do, faced with our maker? We set out a list of demands: that every promise we make should be annulled and every vow irrelevant. Not the mistakes we’ve made with other people, but specifically we annul our promises to God. Worse than that, we say we want them all forgiven in advance. We haven’t made a single promise and already we want to annul it. That is a pretty audacious prayer.

The Hebrew alternative, though more honest to the best of what we mean, might be less honest to how we feel. Coming to synagogue on Kol Nidre can feel like a big deal. For many of the people who attend synagogues across the country this evening, this will be only the time they come all year. That’s great, because this prayer was written expressly so that people who had fallen out of participation could join in again. In Eastern Europe, it helped Jews who had fallen out with their friends and family to reconnect with the community. In medieval Spain, it helped Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to keep up a sense of commitment, even if they were too afraid the rest of the year. For those people coming, isn’t there something more honest, more empowering, about annulling vows and expressing that anger than about resolving to be a more faithful person? Don’t we all, no matter our piety, come to prayer with a little bit of frustration and anxiety, especially as we enter Yom Kippur?

As well as a difference in tone, I think there’s a difference in timing. I find the idea of time in the two prayers really interesting. In the Aramaic prayer, we annul the promises that we’re going to make in the future. In the Hebrew one, we repent for our sins and we resolve to be better in the present. But the language was changed to Hebrew by the reformers because they thought that the more ancient language was the more authentic. They reached deeper into the past in order to be better in the present. Between these two prayers, I feel like there is a conflict not just over what we want to say, but over where we are and in what direction we are going. On this most holy night, with God closest to us, where do we really stand in time? Who really are we?

These prayers seem to stand in conflict, but they don’t have to. There are good reasons for the Hebrew prayer and good reasons for the Aramaic one. Perhaps the answer is we need both. We need to be humble and we need to be angry. We need to be faithful and we need to be honest. We need to repent of the sins of the past and annul the vows of the future because, when we do so, we can stand in that Infinite Space where all sins are forgiven and all promises are forgotten. We can greet God with our whole selves, complete with all our emotions, ready to say: I’m sorry. I’ll do better again next year.

Gmar chatima tovah.

kol nidrei

This sermon was originally given for Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Friday 29th September (Erev Yom Kippur 5778) and originally published by Leo Baeck College