sermon · talmud

Can you purify this spider?



Spider season seems to have begun early this year.

It’s that time of the year when we start seeing spiders, climbing up walls, hanging out in sheds, and getting comically stuck in bathtubs. Of course, they live all year round, but in early autumn they are visible everywhere.

I love spiders. I think they’re quite cute. We don’t have any dangerous ones in this country, as far as I know, and they eat the ticks that we really don’t want in our houses.

But I get why other people are creeped out by them. They’ve got eight legs, which is far too many, and they scurry around like they’re up to no good. We’ve been fed media images of terrifying tarantulas and it’s understandable that people would associate them.

The Torah has a word for these beasties. Sheretz. It’s root is resh-vav-tzadi, to do with running around, so most translations render sheretz as ‘creepy-crawly,’ or ‘creeping thing.’ It applies, first and foremost, to mice and lizards, but extends to any scuttling insect or racing rodent. There are also the sheretz bamayim – the creepy-crawlies underwater, like jellyfish, octopus and lobster you might find scampering on ocean floors.

They were created by God on the fifth day. They are mentioned by name. For some reason, God decided that spiders were supposed to exist. God made room for them in the world and dedicated a verse of Torah to celebrating their creation. God made mosquitoes and shrews and chameleons and God saw that they were good. So, if you’re in the camp that loves spiders, you get a point.

God has also banned them. We are prohibited from eating them. They are described as disgusting and as abominations. On some level, we are supposed to revile them. So, if you’re in the camp of people who can’t stand spiders, you get a point too.

(I promise you, this is going somewhere.)

I’ve spent the last week thinking about the sheretz. From Monday to Thursday, this synagogue hosted the Queer Yeshiva. It was a momentous occasion. Never before in Progressive British history have so many people come together to study the Talmud in such an intense way. Everybody talked about how wonderful this synagogue is, and I want to thank you all for opening this space to a bunch of LGBT people to study Torah.

Over the week, we read a sugya of Talmud from Sanhedrin, a tractate that deals with capital crimes. It asks questions about who gets to condemn somebody for the death penalty, and on what grounds.

It contains a list of characteristics expected of Jewish high court judges: tall; wise; handsome; elderly; fluent in at least seventy languages; and, of course, familiar with sorcery.

So, who is eligible? Do we have any candidates for the Sanhedrin in this congregation? I won’t be putting my hat in the ring. It’s tricky to find someone, but I’m sure such people exist.

Then it adds another requirement. Anyone who wants to sit on a Sanhedrin has to find grounds for declaring clean the sheretz. You want to put somebody to death? You’ve got to be able to make lobsters kosher. You have to be able to purify a spider.

Who can make unclean things clean? Who can make what’s treif kosher? If anyone in this room can do it, you will be welcomed with open arms to the Jewish law courts of Babylonia.

But it seems unlikely that will fall within any of our skill sets. It sets an impossibly high standard.

Perhaps that’s the point. You have to be so good at thinking and reasoning that only the highest standards of scholars can join. You have to be of such excellent calibre that you know Torah inside out and can interpret it, even against itself.

Many have understood this edict that way. In fact, elsewhere in the Talmud, we learn that there are as many as 150 ways to make shrimp kosher. There’s not just one secret method of purifying a sheretz – there are a whole bunch of them – and you should be able to work them out.

But the Talmud doesn’t give any convincing explanations as to how this is possible. Even where rabbis have a stab at it, they are soon shot down. Nice try, but no. That’s not how you make mice edible.

As a result, plenty of rabbis throughout the ages have tried to show that they can purify the sheretz. Great thinkers who knew the Torah inside out have tried to show that they are eligible for sitting on the Sanhedrin.

But here’s the thing. You can do all the reasoning you like. A spider will still be a spider. A lizard will still be a sheretz. And a sheretz will still be unclean. You can’t actually change what the Torah says.

So the rabbis have made sitting on the Sanhedrin impossible. It is so restricted that we will never find people capable of achieving it. De facto, the rabbis have abolished the death penalty.

This is a tremendous achievement. Subtly, and without saying so, they have done exactly what they say needs to be done: they have turned the Torah against itself. Except, instead of turning the Torah against itself so that they can kill people, they turn the Torah against itself so nobody can!

Suppose somebody were to come along and actually give convincing proof that spiders are really kosher. OK, then we would have a problem. My hunch is that the rabbis have already thought of this. Anybody who could do so would, by their nature, refuse to implement the death penalty.

A person who can see the kosher in a lobster can see the goodness in a convict.

A person who could cleanse the body of a mouse could cleanse the soul of a criminal.

You have to be able to see people, and creepy-crawlies, the way that God sees them: as good.

This is the rabbis’ genius way of telling us who is allowed to judge others. The only person we would permit the authority to judge others is the one who would judge them favourably.

The spiders are out and about in our houses. We might love them or hate them or greet them with indifference. But who gave any of us the right to kill them? God, for whatever reason, has determined that they have a place on this earth and it is not our job to decide they don’t.

The world is full of people we don’t like. Some of them do detestable things. And we might feel fear and hatred and anger towards them. And sometimes those feelings are justified.

But we don’t have the right to kill them.

We are not worthy to judge them.

Unless you can purify a spider, you have to live in this world with everyone else.

God has made enough room for them in this world and we have to make enough room in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · sermon · torah

That land had neither milk nor honey


“There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese!”

In one of my favourite childhood movies, a gang of mice pranced about the film screen singing these words. There are no cats in America and the streets are made of cheese.

In An American Tail, the protagonist is a seven-year-old Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. In his home country, the mice are terrorised by cats. They struggle to eat and sustain their traditions. His whole family dreams of making the journey across the Atlantic to a new country where they won’t face these problems any more.

In America, they imagine, the cats, which represent persecution or kossacks or fascists or pogroms, won’t exist any more. After years of not eating, America will provide them with every food they have imagined. Over the ocean, even the streets will be paved with cheese.

As the plot unfolds, the mice arrive in New York. Fievel discovers that America’s streets are no more cheesy than the old country’s, and that cats are just as prevalent. In their new land, they will also be hungry, and persecuted, and tired, just as they were in the old. Their dreams could not be realised by moving from one country to another.

In this week’s parashah, Moses sends out scouts to survey the land of Israel. He asks twelve envoys to go into the country they expect to possess and report back on its contents.

I imagine this must have been a moment of great trepidation. We today know what other countries look like. We are able to travel abroad; we meet migrants from foreign places; we have access to people anywhere in the world through media in the palms of our hands.

Not long ago, such journeys were rare. People did not know how expansive the globe was or how similar and different people around the world would be to them. Perhaps travelling merchants brought fantastical tales from places they had never been. Some maps were marked with warnings of sea monsters and dragons. For the Israelites making the journey to Canaan, it would have been their first time leaving their valley in Egypt. Anything could await them on the other side.

When they came back, ten gave their report. The land has fertile soil, with large grapes growing on vines. But the people who live there are numerous and giant. We looked like grasshoppers to them. The cities are walled, fortified, and guarded. We have no chance of taking that land, and, even if we could, it will swallow up everyone who inhabits it.

Caleb and Joshua disagreed. They offered a minority report. We can do it. We can take this land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. As long as you obey God and Moses, you can capture that place and live the life you have fantasised about.

According to our story, the other ten scouts were struck down with plagues and punished for their transgression. How dare they give such a negative report?

Only Joshua and Caleb go on to enter the Promised Land. Rabbinic commentaries make much of how courageous and optimistic those men were. They had faith. They believed in God’s strength and their own.

But here’s the thing. Joshua and Caleb were lying. That land was not flowing with milk and honey. They really were outnumbered. They really were about to take on fortified cities. It really was unlikely that an exhausted band of runaway slaves were going to be able to conquer an entirely new country.

All Joshua and Caleb were offering were politicians’ promises. They were giving false hope to keep people in line and stop them rebelling against Moses.

They say, at this moment, God decided that this generation would not enter the Promised Land. They were too rebellious and stubborn. Only Joshua and Caleb, who actually believed in God, would be permitted admission. This was their punishment: they will not know what the Land of Israel looks like, and they will wander further.

But, if they had entered the land, the whole Israelite people would have seen that the first ten scouts were right. They would have realised that Joshua and Caleb had fleeced them. They would have seen that Moses promised them a land that did not exist.

Preachers often lament how sad it was that Moses never saw the Promised Land. But how much sadder would it have been if Moses had reached it? Imagine if Moses had travelled all those miles, given up everything, fought with everyone, and struggled endlessly, only to see that the much-vaunted land of his ancestors was just another desert.

The lands of Israel are no more fertile than the plains on the east side of the Jordan. They are filled with inhospitable desert. While the Israelites have had to fight with Amalekites and Moabites to reach their destination, in the new country they will battle Canaanites, Philistines and other tribes. For all the promises of peace, the war is not over.

Moses had brought the Israelites away from Egypt promising freedom. In the new country, there will still be slaves. There will still be priests and kings to subjugate them. There will still be debts to pay and unaffordable rents and famines and strife. They will still see death, sickness, and injustice.

How tragic would it have been for Moses to reach that land flowing with milk and honey, where he would find that it had neither. The Promised Land was not as promised.

There were still cats in America. The streets were not paved with cheese.

At the conclusion of An American Tail, the mice eventually band together to defeat the cats. Using their cunning, technology, and finding surprising friends, they build a contraption to scare away their evil persecutors. They learn that there will be cats, but that they have to work in solidarity if they want to defeat them. They discover that streets are not paved with cheese, but that, if they find some, they can share it, and in those moments they will feel sated and free.

None of the spies could really give a report on the land, because it wasn’t a place they were going. It was somewhere they imagined they might build by common endeavour.

They could have said: “That land does not flow with milk and honey. But it could. We could make it feel like it was.”

Maybe we don’t learn those things from speeches and scouts’ reports. We only learn how to work together by doing it. We only discover what we are capable of if we try.

Only by working together can we make a world that flows with milk and honey.

Together, we can free the world of cats and pave the streets with cheese.

Shabbat shalom.