judaism · social justice · story

Welcome to the Queer Yeshiva

Hello and welcome to the Queer Yeshiva.

My name is Lev. I’m one of the teachers here, with Jo, Hava and Daniel.

A month ago, I was ordained as a rabbi. One of the things that most made me want to be a rabbi was bring gay. I wanted to be part of a religious life that made being queer feel as empowering and magical as it really is.

I love being queer. I love queer people. One of the things I love most about us is that no matter what life throws at us, we always rebuild.

I think about the lives of queer people. Everyone I know has had to struggle with who they are, face down violence, and out of adversity, rebuild themselves as someone stronger than anyone could have imagined.

When I was a kid, I was already too fabulous to be contained. All I wanted in life was to wear dresses and do Spice Girls dance routines. I knew I was different and I didn’t care.

But the rest of the world did. I grew up in a small town with few opportunities. For most of my teens, I was beaten up on a near daily basis. I was attacked at school, walking home, in the shops, and outside my front door. That was only the other kids. The adults were worse: at best they ignored it; at worst they encouraged it. At the school leavers’ assembly, the teachers gave me an award for “most likely to have a sex change.”

But I’m not bitter. I’m proud. I came out of all that knowing who I was and willing to fight for others. That’s why we have parades. That’s why we stand up celebrate our community, because we have withstood discrimination and violence and built out of it fantastic cultures. All that queer art, queer music, and queer innovation- that came out of queer struggle. We are who we are because of who we were.

And that’s not limited just to us here. That’s something queer people have to do in every generation. Think how many times we have been destroyed, and think how many times we have rebuilt.

Consider only the last century. At the beginning of the 1900s, our people were dealing with criminalisation, as many had been imprisoned. Against that backdrop, Magnus Hirschfield created the Institut for Sexualwissenschaft, pioneering the understanding of queer people.

His work was burned by the Nazis. Queers were turned into pariahs and murdered in te death camps. Even once the Second World War was over, many homosexuals were forced to stay in prison to complete their sentences.

In the aftermath, our ancestors picked themselves up again. They built the Gay Power movement. They formed the Lavender Menace. They created the ballroom scene in the nightclubs of New York.

Once again, they were decimated by the AIDS crisis. Government indifference and vengeful homophobia killed a generation of queers.

And still, we could not be destroyed. We came back stronger, demanding legislative changes and pushing for a transformed world. We recreated community to fight for our liberation.

In every generation, people have tried to destroy us. In every generation, they have failed. We will always rebuild. We will always imagine a greater future. We will always reappear.

We are indestructible.

In that sense, we are the heirs to the rabbinic tradition.

Judaism, as we know it, is the product of people who saw their world crash around them repeatedly and, every time, rebuilt it.

Our Judaism was born out of a time of fundamental crisis. At the start of the last millennium, the Jews were a nation. They had their country, the land of Israel. They had their capital, Jerusalem. They had their cultic centre, the Temple. They had their religious leadership, the priests. And they had their religious practices, sacrifices.

Then, they faced catastrophe. The Romans came and waged an aggressive war, killing off the leadership, and starving the people of Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple and abolished its customs.

Yesterday was the fast of Tish BAv. It was, for many religious Jews, a day of weeping and despair. We recalled the genocide, the disruption, the pain. We remembered the destruction of the Temple in the context of all the times that Jews have been destroyed.

But, in that act of ritualised remembering, we also remember that we have survived. Jews and Judaism have kept going, even two thousand years later.

Let us remember why.

Faced with annihilation, the Jews had three choices. One: they could dig their heels and pretend nothing happened. They could decide that they were going to carry on with the Temple and the priesthood, even though they were gone.

Two: they could abandon their old religion altogether. That was what normally happened to ancient peoples when they were conquered: they gave up their old traditions and gave in to colonisation.

Three, the third option: they could retell their story for the sake of their contemporary situation. They could look at everything they had been, and use their history to reimagine their future.

Our rabbis chose option three.

Put yourself in their position.

Imagine you were there, not just in the aftermath but right in the thick of it. Jerusalem is under seige. Your family are starving. Your people are fighting the Romans, but mostly they’re fighting each other. You can see your world on fire. You don’t even know if you will survive.

What would you do?

That’s how it was for Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai. He was alive then. That was what he saw.

He told his students to put him in a coffin, pretend he was dead, and smuggle him out of Jerusalem. Once out of the besieged city gates, he got out and demanded to speak to the Roman emperor, Vaspasian.

As it happened, Vaspasian was willing to compromise. He said: “OK, tell me you want.”

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai said: “Give me Yavne and students of Torah.”

What was Yavne? It was a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. It was filled with displaced people. Who were the students of Torah? Just a bunch of people who remembered what the old religion used to be like.

Why? Why would you ask for such a thing? If the commander of the imperial Roman army is willing to negotiate, why not find a way to get the troops to leave?

Because a people that knows who they are cannot be destroyed.

Sure, the colonisers might go, and the Jews might live, but Judaism could end. The only way for anyone to live on after facing near annihilation is to look at where they’ve been. They have to take a long look at their story and reimagine it for a new era.

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai and his students learnt everything. They committed to memory their whole history so that they could recite it by heart.

Then, they revolutionised it. They said: we don’t need the land of Israel or Jerusalem any more. From now on, we’re going to be spread across the whole world. We’re going to make our religion portable so that it can be sustained in any nation.

They looked at their Temple and its sacrifices and said: we’re not going back to that. We’re going to reinvent our practices. We will replace them with prayer and study. As long as people keep our words alive, we won’t need for animals to die.

They looked at the priesthood and said: that’s done. From now on, we have no hierarchy.
From hereon out, we are equals. The measure of Jewishness won’t be who your father was but how imaginative you can be in reexamine your tradition.

They looked over their old systems of justice, and interrogated them. Who is included here, and who is left out? What is justice going to look like for us now? They were so radical that they tried to work out how they could turn the Torah against the Torah.

And that instantly transformed Judaism. Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples weren’t from the elites. They were blacksmiths and peasant farmers and outsiders. They saw, from that vantage point, how their people could creatively rebuild. And that is why we have our Judaism today.

And here’s the thing. Rabbi Yochanan had, maybe, ten students. There were fewer people in his beit midrash than there are in this room.

You only need a handful of visionaries to spark a revolution.

Be in no doubt, that is what could happen here this week.

We are, as always, facing catastrophe. Queer people are under attack once more. The planet is burning. Capitalism is in crisis. The old ways of doing Judaism are floundering.

Do you think that the future of Judaism is going to be secured by happy people in their comfortable homes? No way. They have nothing to lose from the current situation. They don’t have the imagination to see how things could be different.

The future of our people lies with those on its margins. Its the queers. It’s the weirdos. It’s the radicals. It’s you.

That’s why we’re here. We’re going to do what queers and Jews have always done. We’re going to rebuild while our world is on fire.

We’re going to learn everything we can, internalising the words of our ancestors so fully thar they will travel with us everywhere. We’re going to re-analyse them in light of our own circumstances, seeing how these traditions bear on our own lives and struggles. And, out of that, We’re going to completely retell our story.

This is where the future of Judaism starts again.

I love being queer. I love queer people. And I can’t wait to see what we achieve.

This talk was based on the Crash Talk by Rabbi Benay Lappe, used for Queer Yeshiva Summer Intensive 5782 in Essex

judaism · sermon · social justice

You are not sick

Imagine if I stood up here on a shabbat and I told you I could fix you. 

Imagine if I said there was something fundamentally wrong with you. That some property intrinsic to you, about your soul, was fundamentally wrong. Sinful.

Imagine if, when we read out the names of people in need of healing, your name was on there. You hadn’t asked to be placed there and you felt fine. But somebody in the community had decided that who you were, as a person, was contrary to their religious beliefs, and that made you sick.

Imagine if your child or grandchild came to see me at the synagogue and ask for rabbinic advice about their personality. Instead of offering them love and support to be happy with who they were, I told them that they needed to repent. I told them that God thought they should feel guilty. I told them they should pray and fast until the wickedness in them was gone.

Imagine it. Imagine any preacher in any religious building doing such a thing.

You don’t have to imagine. It happens today, here in Britain.

It is called conversion therapy. 

Conversion therapy is when queer people are told, often by a religious leader, that prayer, exorcism or counselling can change their gender or sexuality. It is when somebody tells a gay person that they can be made straight, or a trans person they can be made cis.

It happens in the British Jewish community. One survivor of this practice, Joe Hyman, spoke out about how a religious Jewish group tried to counsel him out of homosexuality. At first, it involved telephone appointments where he was told he could be healed. He sat round in a room and was forced to examine every homosexual thought he experienced through a lens of judgement and shame.

Another British-Jewish woman, Maya, went through conversion therapy classes that told her that her parents hadn’t nurtured her enough and that she must have been abused as a child. 

There are Jewish retreats in New York and Israel, where participants are made to do psychologically damaging activities including stripping naked and berating themselves while staring at a mirror.

You might well wonder why such an abhorrent practice has not yet been banned. For that, you would have to ask Boris Johnson. 

This week, his government leaked reports that they have abandoned plans to stop conversion therapy. They have bowed to pressure from conservatives and fundamentalists. 

When the various LGBT charities expressed their outrage, and the public followed suit, the government back-pedalled, but only slightly. They said they would ban conversion therapy for sexuality, but not for gender identity. They have decided that lesbian, gay, and bi people should not be subjected to this psychological torture, but that they will keep it up for trans people. 

Not content to only permit the practice, the government has decided to get in on bullying trans people. Boris Johnson used a recent speech to mock trans people. A public discourse has emerged that pathologises and humiliates people who do not conform to gendered expectations. 

Trans women, in particular, are the subject of a horrible narrative of hate. I don’t think it would be helpful or responsible to repeat the things I’ve heard, even from respectable platforms like the BBC. You have probably heard it too, and speaking it from the pulpit would only lend this hate speech legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

The pathologisation of sex and bodies is as old as the Bible. In ancient Israel, when a person’s genitals seemed emitted an unusual discharge, or found they could not ejaculate, a priest would declare them a zav. This meant they were ritually impure, prohibited from entering holy places and forbidden from engaging in acts of worship. 

This was not just recognising the existence of genital problems or sexual diseases. It was making them into signs of defilement. It was saying that the people who had them were in some way sinful. It turned the body into something shameful. 

By the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis were conscious of how problematic this system of stigmatising people was. They announced mitigating circumstances for when somebody might not be considered a zav: if they had jumped; lifted something heavy; been unwell; seen something arousing; thought about something sexual; had eaten or drunk something unusual. If they had done any of these things, even if they had symptoms of a zav, they were not considered a zav. They were exempt from being treated as sick.

To this already expansive list, Rabbi Akiva added two more categories: if somebody had eaten or drunk anything at all, they were not a zav. His students were astonished. They said: “if that’s the case, there will be no more zavim anywhere any more!” Rabbi Akiva responded: “it is not your job to make sure people are considered impure.”

Rabbi Akiva understood something profound. Nobody should be considered sick. Nobody should be stigmatised for who they are. So, to combat the stigma, he found a way to make sure everyone was exempted.

That is what is needed today to combat this senseless hatred against trans people. That is why we so desperately need to ban conversion therapy and stop treating people as if there is something wrong with them.

All we are asking is that people can access non-judgemental support to talk about their gender. We are asking that people can be free to explore it, open to the possibility that their gender might not be the one they have always been told it was. We are asking for people to have the freedom to go on a journey with their gender, open to the possibility that this might mean changing their name, or their pronouns, or the way they dress, or the way their body looks. 

I understand that perhaps that might sound frightening to some. But what truly terrifies me is that people can’t. Young people exploring their gender currently cannot feel safe turning to authority figures to talk about their gender when there is so much vitriol emanating from the country’s highest offices of power. And they are even less safe when leaders continue to have the power to tell trans kids that they are sick and can be cured.

From this pulpit, there is only one message you will get. You are not sick. You are loved. You are supported by this community. You are safe to be whoever you want to be. 

In this synagogue, we believe in a loving God. In this religious movement, we affirm that you have a unique journey to find your own way with your Creator. And we will never try to change you.

Shabbat shalom.

With massive thanks to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner for helping me think through how to talk about this when the issue makes me so emotional

social justice · talmud

Support our Queer Yeshiva

I am so excited to share this.

For years, I have harboured a dream of setting up a queer yeshiva. Now, we are launching a crowdfunder to get it started.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

The Talmud is the most beautiful work of Jewish thought. It was what inspired me to train as a rabbi and got me through some of my most challenging times. It has so much to offer queers. Can you help fund it?

Since launching less than a week ago, we have raised over £4,000. We need your help to bring us up to our total goal of £5,000. Whatever you can give will be immensely welcome.

I hope you will join me in supporting this cause and sharing it with anyone you know who might be interested.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

Our mission

We want to bring queer, radical Talmud learning to the UK. We are asking for your help to fund us. 

The Talmud is a beautiful and subversive text at the heart of traditional Judaism. 

Created by radicals who wanted to reinvent their religion, it teaches people how to think outside of binaries and assumptions. 

But for years, this sacred knowledge has been kept locked up by elite straight men. We want to break it open.

Our goal is to learn Talmud in a way that centres marginalised people. 

We are upending hierarchy and empowering queers with the tools and knowledge to bring these texts to life. We are here, we are queer, and we are ready for shiur.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

The project

In the summer of 2022, we hope to launch a ‘Queer Yeshiva’: Four days of intensive rigorous learning. 

Based in East London, this will be an empowering experience of accessing traditional Jewish wisdom.

We need to be in a fully accessible venue, meeting the learning needs of everyone. We need this space to be open to single parents, unemployed people, and Jews who have never studied before.

This is a big undertaking, and it costs money. That is why we are asking for your help.

Within a year, we hope to be fully self-funding and sustainable, but first we need a cash injection to get this project off the ground. 

Can you help?

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

Who we are

For seven years, Babel’s Blessing has been London’s leading grassroots language school. We teach Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and Sylheti so that Londoners can communicate with each other. We run a bnei mitzvah programme so that Jews can connect with their traditions on their own terms. We provide ESOL classes for migrants to the UK, including working as the only teachers of English as a foreign language in arrival centres.

Svara is a traditionally radical yeshiva in the United States. It teaches queer-centred Talmud pedagogy with methods designed to help oppressed people feel empowered within their tradition. Our educators have learnt from them and in their methods. 

Please donate and share now. We can’t do this without you.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

halachah · sermon · social justice

My objections to euthanasia

I try not to broadcast disagreement with the rabbinate, especially when many colleagues are very senior, and I am still a student. It is even more cavalier, then, to express opposition to something advocated by the two Progressive movements, both Liberal and Reform Judaism. This issue, however, has been brewing for some time, and I feel compelled to speak out on it.

I do not agree with the current responsa coming from the movements on euthanasia. In fact, they make me deeply uncomfortable. I know that wading into such a morally complex discussion will undoubtedly upset people. Please know that my position is, almost certainly, a minority one. Please also understand that it is very sincerely and deeply held.

In June of this year, Liberal Judaism became a founding member of the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, a collection of multi-faith groups that campaigns for the rights of terminally ill people to determine how, when and where they die. 

This signaled the movement’s support for euthanasia, or assisted dying: when patients with incurable diseases are legally killed by their doctors. At the time, the decision caused some consternation in the Liberal rabbinate. Only a handful of people had made the decision with very little consultation. Dissidents objected that this was not a morally cut-and-dry decision, but one that needed much more careful thought than had been given. 

Nevertheless, the movement celebrated the media coverage they had received. They proudly displayed their reporting in The Sunday Times, Politics Home, and The Jewish News. Bold stances certainly grab headlines, and this was as bold as they could get.

This week, Reform Judaism took a more measured approach. After a great deal of consultation and discussion, the movement effectively arrived at the decision not to pick a side. Their responsum, published on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle this week, says we “will not campaign either in favour or against efforts to change the law on the issue.” 

Nevertheless, the decision garnered media attention because, for the first time, Reform Judaism promised it would provide pastoral care to patients who did choose to end their lives. In itself, that might not have been newsworthy. Since our founding, we have endeavoured to provide compassionate care to everyone who sought it, regardless of beliefs or life choices. 

It is uncontroversially the right choice that we should support individuals, regardless of our personal beliefs, and stay neutral on the law, when we are so patently divided. It would have been far more surprising if Reform Judaism had announced it was not going to provide pastoral care to terminally ill people. That would have resulted in much greater outrage.

Clearly, the “landmark” decision received the attention it did because it sent a subtle message of support for euthanasia. It suggested, while of course doing everything possible to argue to the contrary, that the movement endorsed such decisions. This responsum was consequently followed up by much media coverage, including an opinion leader in The Times.

The two movements are certainly leading a conversation in this country on assisted dying, but are they leading it in the right direction? I think not. 

This is not because I am in any way a conservative on this issue. In general, Jewish religious law up to this point has stood against the principle of assisted dying. The traditional Jewish response has been that life comes from God, belongs to God, and only God can take it away.

As such, the Mishnah rules that even closing the eyes of a dying person is tantamount to murder. The Shulchan Aruch says that a dying person must be given all the rights of a living one, and the Mapa adds that it is forbidden to do anything to hasten death.

These halachic rulings form the backbone of Orthodox objection to euthanasia. Most Progressive Jews share the Orthodox belief in the sanctity of life. Since at least the 1980s, however, we have had internal debates about what that means and how it should be implemented. Some have argued that, with necessary safeguards, relief of pain should be prioritised over unnecessary prolongation of life. 

As Progressive Jews, we are not bound by the decisions of the past, but seek to draw on them in conjunction with the best medical and moral reasoning of our age. We move with the times.

My objection is not to the abstract principle of euthanasia, but to the political context in which these decisions are being made. We never legislate in a vacuum, but have to consider what we advocate in the context of what is happening in the context of society at large. 

Yes, we can move with the times, but let’s look at where our times are heading. Right now, there is a wholesale assault on the rights and dignity of disabled people. Successive governments going back many decades have vilified disabled people as scroungers, leeching off the state, taking more from society than they give to it. 

With the introduction of fiscal austerity in Britain, the greatest burden fell on disabled people, who had their services, welfare, and jobs cut. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many ministers have made it clear that they see the lives of clinically vulnerable people as disposable. They have shown that they would prefer to prioritise the economy over the lives of people in hospitals and care homes. It is little wonder that some disabled people want to die, when they have been deprived of so much in life.

What message does it send out now if we say that we support assisted suicide? We may have been silent on the great attacks on disabled people’s lives, but, don’t worry, we are liberals, we will let you die. Just to show how caring we are, we’ll let you commit suicide, with support from the very state that has made your life so difficult.

If we are moving with the times, we are moving very much in the wrong direction. Coming out as pro-euthanasia now puts us on the side of those who are currently dehumanising the elderly and disabled. Publicly championing euthanasia is not defending the vulnerable, but attacking them.

Yes, as Progressive Jews, we do advocate choice and personal autonomy. But not all choices should have our enthusiastic support. The actor and disabled rights  activist, Liz Carr, has rightly said that, if someone is going to kill themselves, it is hard to stop them, but “that does not mean when a fellow human being – disabled or abled – expresses the wish to die because their life is shit, that we should agree with them.”

Some disabled people already feel that they are too great a burden on others. This is because we live in a system that reinforces that message: focusing on a person’s ability to be “economically productive” as their sole source of value, rather than loving them unconditionally for the fact of being alive.

That system, and the ideological apparatus around it, tells disabled people that their lives are not worth living. If we join in as cheerleaders for assisted dying, we are sharing the message that we agree with them. No wonder every disabled rights charity in the country opposes euthanasia liberalisation.

If we want to send out the right messages, I suggest we need to go in a different direction entirely. Rather than campaigning on people’s right to die, we should put the weight of our movements on campaigning for the right to live.

That means channelling our energy in campaigning for jobs for disabled people; proper welfare provision; decent and accessible social housing; the restructuring of our cities and public transport networks so that everyone can access them; investment in clubs and societies people can actually reach.

Yes, all of these things cost money. But the way we are going now costs lives.

I want you to know that, whatever you decide to do in life, I will absolutely support you and be there with you. But I will do that because I believe, on a fundamental religious level, that your life is precious and worth living. I believe in making that it is the duty of religious people, and of the government, to make people’s lives on earth as good and fulfilling as they can be.

We should absolutely support people at every stage of their lives, but the build up to someone wanting to die matters far more than enabling them to do it. We ought to assist people to live, not to die.

Shabbat shalom.

story · torah

A rock-eating worm built the Temple

This is the story of how the Temple was built.

This story comes to us from the Talmud. It was copied from the Mishnah. It belongs to the folk legends of King Solomon that may have predated it by some centuries. This is an old story. I sincerely doubt whether any of it ever happened, but I assure you it’s all true.

This is the story of how the Temple was built by a rock-destroying worm. When King Solomon decided to build the Temple, he brought up entire stones from the quarry. He wanted to carve those stones without swords. He knew there was only one way.

Somewhere in his kingdom there was a rock-destroying worm called Shamir. This monster was created at the very beginning of time, during the six days of creation in which light and darkness were separated and the first trees were planted. 

Some say the Shamir ate stones for breakfast; chewed through the hardest granite, making passageways like the holes in Swiss cheese. Some say it could cut through the rocks with only its gaze: a laser-like stare that sliced solid metal. Whatever were its methods, Solomon knew he had to have it.

In fact, the only way to catch this creature was to find something really soft. You had to wrap it up in cotton wool and barley bran. These materials would be too gentle and the Shamir would have no way of chewing through them.

Yes, this is all in the Talmud. This is our tradition. And if you feel like this rock-gobbling worm is far-fetched, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that Solomon captured this creature by tricking the King of the Demons.

Solomon knew that Ashmedai, the world’s greatest demon, lived in the bottom of a pit on the top of the world’s tallest mountain. And the pit was filled up with gallons of rainwater that the demon swallowed whole every day, then waited for it to refill. 

Solomon sent his servant up that mountain and into that pit. The servant drained the pit of its rainwater and filled it again with fortified wine.

You might think that the King of the Demons would not fall for such a simple trick, and you’d be right. Ashmedai scoffed at the wine-filled pit and refused to drink from it. But days passed and the monster missed his gallons of water. Oh, he became so parched. Eventually, he gave in and took several enormous mouthfuls of the wine. 

Within moments, he fell fast asleep. Solomon’s servants tied him up and carried him back to Jerusalem. When Ashmedai woke up on the Palace floor, he roared at Solomon: “is it not enough that you have conquered the whole world, but now you must imprison me too?”

“I promise you,” said Solomon. “All I want is one creature. The shamir. The worm that eats through stone. I need it to build my Temple for God.”

Ashmedai sighed, and he replied: “I do not own the shamir. It belongs to the ministering angel of the sea, who has entrusted it to the wild rooster. Together they hide in the uninhabitable hills, where the rooster guards his eggs.” 

I’m quoting to you from the Talmud directly here, so you know that what I’m telling you is true. 

When Solomon knew where to find the wild rooster, he covered its nest with transparent glass. Seeing that it couldn’t get in, the rooster brought over the shamir to bore through the rocks. As soon as he’d seen the monster, Solomon knocked the chicken off of the nest and ran to collect his prize.

According to our tradition, that is how the First Temple was built. Overseen by Solomon, the King of the world, accompanied by Ashmedai, the King of the Demons, a stone-chewing worm carved out every brick. It snaked through all the pillars and ate at every rock. After years of winding through the granite, Solomon’s Temple was complete.

So, why did the Talmud come up with such a tall tale? Can it be that our rabbis really believed the Temple was built in such a fantastical manner? Somehow I doubt it. But nevertheless, I am adamant that this story is true. At least, I think it tells us something important we need to know.

Our rabbis were answering a textual problem. The Bible told us that King David was not allowed to build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. He had fought too many wars, subjugated too many peoples and built too much of his empire on the labour of others.

Only Solomon, whose name in Hebrew is cognate with peace, was able to overcome the violent tendencies of his father and build a Temple that would truly be fitting for God. How could he build such an edifice without getting blood on his hands?

When our rabbis imagine the construction of the Temple, they picture it as it ought to have been. No wars are fought to secure land. No natural resources are exploited to gain the raw materials. No workers are hurt in the making of the building. All that happens is a natural process, where a worm that would eat rocks anyway works its way through the stones to build God’s home.

The only people vaguely harmed are a demon who got drunk and a rooster that was knocked off its perch. This is the dream of how the Temple should have been made. It was created in complete peace and harmony with nature. 

By encouraging us to inhabit this fantasy, the Talmud draws our attention to the harshness of reality. Even the greatest and most noble civilisations are built on violence. Cities, skyscrapers and the highest cultures are all products of real graft. Human beings do interfere with nature. We do exploit workers. We do plunder natural resources and we do secure territories through war.

When we imagine a world where rock-destroying worms can carve out our accomplishments for us, we know that we are imagining something impossible. But the nature of Talmud is to challenge us to do impossible things.

The Talmud asks us to picture a different relationship between human beings, nature, and civilisation. In a world where the climate is being damaged in unspeakable ways, such imagination is required of us again. Humanity is at a juncture when we must completely rethink how to use resources and what kinds of civilisations we build.

That is what makes it true and that is why it still speaks to us today. The Temple was built by a rock-eating worm. Perhaps one day, we will build the world that way again.

I gave this sermon for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Terumah, on 20th February 2021. For the sources, look at Sotah 48b and the sugya beginning in Gittin 67b

festivals · judaism · sermon

How to survive the rainy season

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was a Hassidic rabbi who left behind his Orthodox community to join the American hippies in the 1960s. He wound up founding the Renewal Movement, combining traditional Judaism with New Age meditation and spirituality.

He used to tell this story of an encounter he had with Brother Rufus, a Native American medicine man. Reb Zalman and Brother Rufus were attending a conference of psychologists and mystics; the psychologists were studying the mystics. As Reb Zalman was explaining the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which occurs at the autumn equinox, and the holiday of Pesach, which comes at the spring equinox, Brother Rufus lit up! “Oh,” he said, “in the autumn you teach your children the shelter survival, and in the spring you teach them the food survival.”

This answer makes a lot of sense of what Sukkot is actually about. Disconnected from the rural desert living of our ancient ancestors, the practice of erecting temporary shelters and covering them in fertility talismans might seem incomprehensible. But for those who are connected to the earth’s agricultural cycles, Sukkot makes a lot of sense. It’s about learning to survive the rainy season.

The Torah portion commands us to spend eight days in temporary shelters to recall our wandering in the wilderness. For the ancient Israelites, this probably wasn’t just recollection of a mythic past. In a world where entire years could be upended by flash flooding, droughts and unexpected ecological malfunction, being able to move must have been a necessity. Any young person would need to know how to build shelter and brave the elements. Considered in this light, Sukkot feels more like a biblical precursor to Scouts and Guides.

By the time of the Mishnah, Jews had migrated away from nomadic agricultural living towards inhabiting larger settlements and cities. Yet even this 2nd Century text seems to capture something of the necessity of surviving the rainy season. It talks about which building materials and supporting structures are appropriate. It instructs us to make sure there are holes in our roof – a sure indicator that we’ll really experience everything the Heavens can throw at us. The Mishnah maintains the survival lessons.

And then, suddenly, the Mishnah seems to strike an altogether different note. Out of nowhere, it tells us about all the different ways to conclude the festival celebrations. The text stops being about surviving and starts being about how to be joyful. Harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets. Psalms and songs and dancing. Shofar blasts. Meat. Banqueting. Carnival. In fact, the Mishnah tells us: “if you haven’t seen a party like this, you’ve never seen joy before in your life.”

Why would the Mishnah jump from teaching us the survival methods of our ancestors to talking about all this revelry? Perhaps the answer is that they’re not so distinct after all. Joy isn’t an add-on to survival: it’s integral to it. If you really want to get through the rainy seasons and the darkness of winter, you’ve got to have the right mindset. Cosy homes and well-stocked cupboards matter a lot, but attitude counts too.

The health psychologist Kari Leibowitz reckons she can back this up with science. She studied the mental health of people living in the polar regions of Norway, when winter brings exceedingly long nights and disrupted sleep patterns. Amazingly, she found that Norwegians were just as happy in the winter as at any other time of year. This was because many Norwegians approached the long nights as a challenge that excited them. The more people saw winter as a fun time, the more fun they actually found it.

Maybe that’s what our forebears of Torah and Mishnah knew from years of experience. If you want to get through the rainy season, you have to actually want the rain to come. You have to be a little bit thrilled by the idea. Surviving is not just about keeping our bodies intact – it’s about having mental determination to get through. 

Some of that is about what you imagine when you think of the rainy months. I’ve already started picturing hot chocolates, roast vegetables, games of Scrabble and complicated jigsaw puzzles. I’m imagining arts and crafts while sitting under piles of rugs with the baby in a handmade jumper. 

Of course, not everybody has access to the luxuries I’m describing. Some people are legitimately worried that autumn could bring tighter finances, struggles heating their houses and even homelessness as recession kicks in. These are serious issues, and it’s not fair to expect people facing such challenges to feel joy. So why not start easing their minds now?

Our food banks, mutual aid societies and housing shelters need your support. Get down now to donate what you can, and give what you can through their websites. If you want to practice feeling joy, helping others is a great way to start. 

So that’s how we’re going to survive the rainy months. By knowing our history. By learning traditional skills. By experiencing joy. By helping each other. 

After all, there’s only one way we can get through all this: together.

I gave this sermon for Sukkot 5781 on 3rd October 2020 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.