festivals · sermon · theology

Falling in Love is a Choice

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about falling in love. Maybe it’s the spring heat of May. Maybe it’s the newborn baby delighting me with his first smiles. Maybe it’s my boyfriend moving down from Manchester. Or, perhaps, it’s because it’s Shavuot.

The model of a loving relationship in Tanach is of Ruth and Naomi. It may sound strange to think that two women could be such an example even in Orthodox Judaism, but Ruth’s words are used in wedding liturgies to this day, as well as recited by proselytes upon their conversion to Judaism. Why is it that this text connects falling in love, joining a faith and receiving the Torah at Shavuot?

After Ruth’s husband dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, begs her to leave. But Ruth responds:

Entreat me not to leave you, nor to turn back from following you. Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May God do so to me, and more, if anything but death parts you from me.

When Ruth tells Naomi she will never leave her, Naomi puts up every possible objection. It would leave her without a husband or income. Her sister has gone. Anybody would leave her. Be sensible. Go. 

But Ruth refuses to see sense. Her choice to stay with Naomi is irrational. She could never explain it in a way that makes sense to anyone else. Something more powerful than reason must have gripped Ruth’s heart. Surely it was love. Messy, confusing, irrational love.

Is that not how falling in love really feels? For anyone who has felt it, is love not completely illogical and nonsensical? Nobody could reason it. It runs not just contrary to reason but is almost its opposite.

And yet, somehow, love is also a choice. Ruth stayed with Naomi because she wanted to. She could have stopped up her heart, grieved and left her mother-in-law. But she stayed. Because love is nothing if it isn’t freely given.

At first it feels like the lapping of an emotion at your insides. And then the waves of longing seem to get bigger as they ask to be allowed to grow. And then you make a choice. If you are not ready to fall in love, you can walk away from its shores. But if it feels right, you will dive in and let its waters subsume you. 

Whether with a first partner or a best friend or a newborn baby or a brother or a mother or a spouse to whom you have been married for years. Love, when it comes, is a choice. But it is a choice we cannot help but make.

I think the same is true of faith. It is not something that can be reasoned or explained, but only felt. Religious belief starts as a nagging feeling of suspicion that there might be something greater than what our senses perceive. After that, we have to make a choice. As Einstein put it, either everything is a miracle or nothing is. 

And so, faced with a latent sense of wonder, the faithful make a choice about how to see the world. For those who believe, God is manifest in everything that exists. Every facet of nature is a revelation of God’s truth and a calling to accept it.

This, to me, was the true miracle of Sinai. It is that, like those who fall in love, the Israelites made an irrational choice that changed their lives and stuck with it. Shavuot is the celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is the renewal of our wedding vows with God. Whereas anniversaries between human beings celebrate the date of falling in love, Shavuot is the anniversary of our falling in faith.

We are told so much about the fanfare that greeted the Israelites when Moses received the Torah. Thousands of people gathered round and all witnessed exactly the same thing. Thunder and lightning. A giant cloud descended over the mountain. A horn blast sounded loudly from the air. The whole mountain became cloaked in smoke and shook on its foundations.

But a cynic could have looked at all this and said: these are just natural phenomena. Thunder and lightning on the desert are rare, but they happen. It wasn’t really a shofar blasting from the sky, but the sound of sonic shock waves from the lightning. The mountain didn’t really move, it just felt like it from all the noise.

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites were not interested in reason. They were falling in faith.

When Moses came down the mountain, his face was radiant and shining out beams from his cheeks. He carried with him two tablets, inscribed with the laws that would govern the nation for generations. The Ten Commandments. 

Some say that, as he descended, the desert mountain erupted in blossoming flowers. Some say the Commandments were written in black fire on white fire. Some say the mountain was upended and suspended over the Israelites’ heads.

And, of course, any sceptic could have said: this is trickery. God did not write those laws, but Moses made them himself while he was hiding up that mountain. These flowers and fires are just sleight of hand by an adept magician. 

And that would be the rational position. But the Israelites had made a choice to accept faith over reason. Thousands of them, huddled together in a strange place, made the decision to accept a beautiful belief over a plausible one. And nobody objected. Out of the many hordes assembled, nobody suggested that it was all a lie or a collective delusion. They let faith dictate to them.

And what did that faith say? That God is personally interested in the lives of people, even in those of refugees and runaway slaves! That the moral fate of the universe rested in the hands of a persecuted people, who were singled out to be light unto the nations. That love, truth and justice mattered more than could be calculated.

As Liberal Jews, we place a great deal of emphasis on reason, and rightly so. Reason keeps us from blind submission to antiquated and offensive ideas. It helps us keep Judaism alive in our own time. But we must also celebrate faith. Sometimes we hold beliefs that cannot be pinned down by logic, but can only be felt. Sometimes our irrational choices are so compelling that we live our lives by them.

Like having faith. Like seeing beauty. Like believing in miracles. Like falling in love.

Chag Shavuot sameach. Shabbat shalom.

love in the mountains

I gave this sermon for Shavuot on 29th May 2020 over Zoom for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.

 

 

judaism · theology

God will reign forever

Tonight, at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community, I won’t speak much, in order to give everyone a chance to express their sadnesses, fears and hopes. The Jewish community is still reeling from shock at the shooting at Eitz Chayyim synagogue in Pittsburgh. I know I am not alone in fearing the rise of fascists in Brazil, Italy and Hungary. People will need to name their fears and have them heard. But I will say a few words before we daven to set the tone. I share them here.

I have a secret love, perhaps unbecoming of a Liberal Jew. I love Chassidic house music. Shwekey, Nachas, Beri Weber… I love the upbeat, pop-py, happy tunes with Jewish liturgical slogans chanted over them.

A couple of months ago, a housemate came in to find me singing along to it as I cleaned the kitchen. I spritzed the table and mopped it up, chanting “Hashem melech! Hashem malach! Hashem yimloch le’olam va’ed!” The song’s lyrics mean “God reigns, God has reigned, and God will reign forever.”

My housemate, who had grown up in Habonim Dror, a secular socialist Jewish youth movement, was horrified. “How can you say that? You of all people?”

I reflected on his question. Of all the Chassidic house music I’ve sung along to, this seemed the least offensive lyrics I could think of. These were words that we say regularly in prayer.

I think the problem is that we have different views about what God is. What he thought I was singing for was theocratic tyranny. If I imagined that God was that bearded, judgemental man in the sky, I would do everything possible to stop Him from reigning anywhere. Indeed, we have all seen what happens when religious people that do believe such things take power.

For me, God is not that judgemental man, but the force of love and justice that gives morality meaning. God is an indescribable binding power, an energy of love that hums beneath the chatter of man-made hate.

And yes, I believe that force reigns, has reigned, and will reign forever.

Today, when we see the rise of fascists and we mourn murdered Jews, the underlying force of love and justice is still there, and still has power.

In our darkest moments, when we have witnessed personal tragedies and collective atrocities, the power of morality still reigned. Our lives still possessed a deeper meaning.

And God – our God – the God of love – will outlive every antisemite, every president, every nation, every empire. No matter how dark things seem, I know that God will reign forever.

Let us pray.

candlelit vigil

 

high holy days · judaism · story · theology · torah

Jonah is a story about suicide

We know that life is sacred. I have mentioned it a few times over these Holy Days and we hear it all the time in our religion. Yet there is one question on which it seems almost silent. It is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year. Throughout the Tanakh, suicide is not mentioned. No tractates are written against it, no stories are written about it. Where could I turn to provide an answer? It seemed like a glaring oversight, and one that needed an answer more than ever for a generation where issues of anxiety and depression have never been so pronounced. And then, as I turned to the Yom Kippur readings, I realised that the answer had been staring me in the face.

The story of Jonah ends on an anti-climax. After hauling Jonah out of his home, sending him miles away into the heart of empire, drowning him, having a giant sea-monster swallow him, made him chastise his foreign enemy to give up on evil and actually convinced them to do so, God tells Jonah: “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

Put yourself in Jonah’s shoes for a moment. All that, that whole mission, only to tell him that he cared about ignorant people and cattle. All that, when Jonah had thought he’d watch a city, ten times bigger than Manchester, burn to the ground, only to be told that God likes the animals in the city just like Jonah cares for a plant. What a disappointment.

It’s the kind of ending that leaves you scrambling back over everything you’ve read, wondering what the point of it all was. Did I miss something?

And here’s the real kicker: when God tells Jonah that he’s not going to destroy Niniveh, he’s also telling him that he’s not a prophet. In Deuteronomy we learn: “When a prophet speaks in the name of God, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that God has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”[1]

Jonah has prophesied and he’s gone big. He’s told everyone in the capital city of the biggest empire on earth that they’re all doomed to die because they’re sinners. It’s a bit like getting on a boat from Southport, journeying to New York, pitching up in Time Square and announcing to everyone there that they’re about to die. In fact, it’s worse than that, because in this scenario, Jonah’s people and the Americans are sworn enemies. He’s gone through all of that, only to find that his prophesy did not come true. He was wrong. He was not a prophet.

But what was it that God actually told Jonah to prophesy? Was he told that Niniveh was going to be overthrown in forty days? No. At the very beginning, God says: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”[2] Not tell them they’re going to be destroyed. Not tell them they’re all going to die. Not tell them to fast and weep. Just – tell them they’re going wrong.

Here’s what I want to suggest. That anti-climactic ending is much more profound than we might initially realise. The message given to Jonah was so much bigger than that. That prophecy was not about the wrongdoing of a city – it was about suicide. The story of Jonah is a story about a man contemplating suicide, rebutted over and over again by God’s message: choose life.

Today’s Torah portion announces that message. Moses stands on the edge of the Promised Land, knowing he will not be allowed to enter it, and gives the Israelites his final words: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”[3] This message is so profound. Life, it says, is not an accident. It is a choice, and it is a choice we must make. We must decide whether to truly participate in this world.

The prophet Ezekiel says: “Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”[4] This is God’s message to Jonah: choose life, for why would you die? Let’s read the story again, this time assuming the prophecy is different. We’ll realise that the story was not about whether the people of Niniveh should die, but about whether Jonah should live.

Several times throughout the story, Jonah threatens suicide. Sometimes those threats were so imperceptible you might not notice them. At the very beginning, when Jonah flees from Jaffa to Tarshish, he pays the fare before he gets on the boat. That might seem a reasonable enough thing to do now. But in the Ancient Near East, you didn’t pay your fare before travelling, you paid it afterwards. You paid it afterwards because otherwise you’d be at the mercy of sailors, who’d already have everything they needed from you, and could chuck you overboard so they wouldn’t have another mouth to feed. Paying your fare upfront is tantamount to a death-wish.

It doesn’t stop there. Once on the ship, God sends a mighty storm over the seas. Jonah could pray to have his life saved, but instead he curls up in the bowls of the ship, falls asleep and waits for the end. God has other plans, and Jonah will not die yet.

The captain of the ship and the rest of the sailors find him, realise that he’s the cause of the storm and ask him what they should do. Jonah could say: “take me to Niniveh so that I can do what God asked me.” He could say: “help me convince evil-doers to repent from what they’re doing.” Instead he says: “Heave me overboard!”[5] That’s right. Once again, Jonah tries to die. The sailors, who already have his money, who have never met Jonah before, who have a different religion and tribe to Jonah, beg God that they won’t have to kill Jonah. Jonah is insistent.

So the sailors heave Jonah overboard and it’ll take all but a miracle for him not to die. Thankfully, God is in the business of providing such things. God sends a giant fish, which swallows Jonah whole, leaving him able to survive. Jonah sits in the belly of the fish and sings: “I sank to the base of the mountains; The bars of the earth closed upon me forever. Yet You brought my life up from the pit, Eternal One, my God! When my life was ebbing away, I called God to mind; And my prayer came before You.”[6] Finally, it seems like Jonah’s getting it. Finally, brought to the very brink of death, it seems like Jonah is ready to choose life. God commands the fish to spit out Jonah on the land.

This time, Jonah does what God tells him. He heads out to Niniveh, that great city, to prophesy against them. Are his enemies, the overlords of the world’s biggest empire, rife with sin and iniquity, angry at him? Do they try and kill him? No, they’re horrified. It’s as if they’d never even considered what they were doing was immoral. They throw on sackcloth and ashes and prepare themselves for death. They even put sackcloth on the animals, so ready they are for utter annihilation. But God’s intention is not for them to die. As Ezekiel reminds us, God takes no pleasure in the death of them that die, but that they turn from their ways and live.[7]

Jonah is disappointed. He scolds God: “Please, Eternal One, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”[8] Has Jonah learned nothing? Close to death in the belly of the big fish, it seemed like Jonah was finally getting it that all God wanted was for him to live. Yet here he is again, begging to be allowed to die, threatening suicide once more.

God tries a different tactic. Instead of heavy-handed miracles and big displays in Niniveh, God tries out a gentle parable. God allows a gourd to grow over Jonah’s head, then allows it to die. Perhaps this will teach Jonah the precious, fragile sanctity of life. Quite the opposite. Jonah begs for death, saying: “I would rather die than live.” God asks Jonah: “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.”[9]

Finally, we get to the prophecy that had been meant for Jonah all along. God says: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”[10]

That’s why the story finishes by telling us about all the animals. God is saying: “Don’t you realise how much I care about you? I care even about the cattle in this city. I care even about a single plant in the desert. I love even your enemies, who are persecuting you, who do not worship me, who don’t follow my laws. How much do you think I care about you? Can’t you see how important you are? Choose life, Jonah. I’m begging you, stop with these thoughts of suicide. Give up on all that anger and hate you’ve been bottling up. Choose life, Jonah, why would you choose death?”

That’s what this whole story has been about. It was never about sin and death and punishment. It was so much simpler than that. It was about life. “Look Jonah,” says God. “I know you don’t think your life is worth living, but I do. To me, your life has meaning. To me, you are worth everything. Yes, even you. You with your stubbornness, your bitterness, your rage. You with all your unhappiness, your imperfections and mistakes. You mean so much to me that I will perform miracles. I will turn the world on its head to keep you alive. I will send you to the ends of the earth just to tell you I love you. Choose life, Jonah.”

That’s what this whole day has been about. Sometimes in prayer, especially deep in the fast of Yom Kippur, we can get so caught up in recounting our sins and holding onto our guilt, that we forget the whole point of the day. This day is not for wallowing in misery, it is to be thankful for life. We have been called here because our lives have meaning. By dint of being human, we are not just special, we are holy. To be a Jew means to affirm that life matters. It means to be willing to live a life that shows the best of what humanity can achieve. Of course, we may not succeed, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to try? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to choose life?

On the question of suicide, I think that Judaism has an answer. Judaism has only one answer, in fact, to every question, which is that life is holy. We are here to manifest the sacredness of life in everything we do. So today, let’s ask ourselves: are we doing that? Are we holding on to sadness and rage or are we thankful for another day? Are we dwelling on all that we’ve done wrong, or will we embrace the chance to get it right? Won’t we remember today that God wants for us to live?

Today God has put before you two choices: blessing and curse, life and death. Choose life, for why would you choose death?

jonah whale

This sermon was originally delivered on Yom Kippur 5778 at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community.

[1] Deut 18:22

[2] Jonah 1:2

[3] Deut 30:19

[4] Ezek 33:11

[5] Jonah 1:12

[6] Jonah 2:7-8

[7] Ezek 33:11

[8] Jonah 4:3

[9] Jonah 4:8-9

[10] Jonah 4:10-11