sermon · spirituality

In defence of large groups of people

The great sage of the Mishnah, Ben Zoma, once exclaimed:

How hard must the first ever human being have worked before he had bread to eat! He plowed, sowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated the grain from the chaff, ground the grain into flour, sifted, kneaded, and baked… and only then did he get the chance to eat. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.

He added:

How hard must the first human being have worked before he had clothes to wear. He sheared, laundered, combed, spun and wove… and only then could he put on a shirt. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.

And, of course, he is right. How many hands must have touched everything we enjoy. Ben Zoma knew this was true 2,000 years ago. How much more true is it now that we live in a globalised world with food, clothes and technology Ben Zoma could not even have fathomed.  Anything that anyone in this world does is because many people have worked together to make it happen.

But Ben Zoma also says something ridiculous. He imagines that Adam, the first human being, did all this alone. We know that is patently false. First of all, at the very minimum, Adam was accompanied by Eve in Eden. And, if we follow the biblical story, God provided that first couple with everything they needed. They could pick fruit off the trees without trouble and never bothered with bread. They didn’t even need clothes until they had left their paradise garden.

When Adam and Eve did leave Eden, they immediately found wives for their male children. The Torah doesn’t explain how they got there, but any other explanation for how humanity came about would be very troubling. The Torah knew that it was impossible for human beings to ever achieve something on their own.

And, in fact, the Talmud, where this saying from Ben Zoma is quoted, knew this too. This imaginary world where individuals only do things for themselves comes as part of a sugya that speaks in celebration of groups of large people. The Talmud marvels at the diversity of human beings, where every face and mind is completely different. It speaks in praise of migration, hospitality, crowded marketplaces and huge throngs flocking to the same place.

Human beings are social animals. From the off, we have done everything in groups. Before civilisation, we hunted and gathered in packs. When we first set up farmsteads and villages, we did so together, in groups. The modern world was built by people sharing technology, innovation, resources, and working together to develop them. The only evolutionary advantage that human beings really have is that we can organise in ways that no other animal can.

For the last year, some forms of collectivity have been permitted, and some have been forbidden. People have been allowed to meet each other in warehouses, factories, and takeaways, where they make and distribute things to those who can afford them.

People have not been allowed to encounter each other in parks, or houses, or community centres, or gyms. They have rarely been able to accompany the sick at their bedsides, or celebrate births and marriages, or share ideas in public forums. 

Now, as things ease, people are permitted to gather, but only if they are spending money. We can meet in shops, pubs, and restaurants, and even sit indoors without masks on. But very few of the community activities for children have returned. Older people in hospitals and hospices are still rarely seeing their families. 

Certainly, almost every form of protest or public demonstration remains criminalised, and it may stay so for a very long time. Like last summer, even with a nearly completed vaccination programme, the government is keen to rush people back to work, but reluctant to allow people time to just be together and heal. 

Still fearing the virus, despite minimal risk of transmission to the vulnerable, many people have given up on public transport. There is more regular car use in the UK now than at any previous point in history. I see people avoiding each other, avoiding making real contact, even though the option is there.

I look at this so-called ‘recovery’ from Coronavirus and wonder if anybody has considered what actually makes life worth living. We are not automatons, created to work like robots. The best part of being human is other human beings. We are social creatures, whose purpose is derived from what we can do together. 

And there is a place where people are supposed to be able to meet for just that purpose. Its name in Greek is ‘synagogue,’ which means ‘shared path.’ In Hebrew it is called a ‘beit knesset: ‘a house of meeting.’ In Yiddish, we call it ‘shul,’ which just means ‘school.’ This. This is it. This thing where we come together to sing in unison and study communally and hear how people are really doing, this is what life is supposed to be about. 

This. This place where babies are blessed, bnei mitzvah celebrated, weddings solemnised, healing recognised and deaths memorialised. This is how people recognise the humanity in others, and in themselves. 

This is my last service with you. I have absolutely adored working with you. I have got to know so many of you in such depth, without even leaving my home. I have heard about your families, your fears, your hopes, your dreams, and your life stories. I cannot wait to do that with you in person again.

We have weathered an entire year together through a pandemic. That much is remarkable. I have been so impressed by the ways you have continued to pastorally support each other online, and to provide essential services to the vulnerable. 

The next stage is going to be hard. It means meeting people face to face again. It means taking risks, being brave, and trusting each other. It means accepting compromises and imperfections. But above all, it means truly building a community that is loving and generative. 

I look forward to returning to Newcastle to see you all again in the building, in person, shaking hands, embracing, and catching up on the things that matter. I sincerely hope it will not be long before this community sings in harmony once more and natters over homemade foods at kiddush. 

At no point in our history has anyone managed to go it alone. The future sees us together.

Shabbat shalom. 

sermon · theology

Why do people get sick?

Why do people get sick?

In a year when so many have experienced ill health, it is worth asking why this has happened. Throughout the pandemic, we have been reminded that some will get the virus with no symptoms; some will get the virus and recover; some will get the virus and will not recover. But what determines who gets sick and who gets better? Who decides who has to suffer and who will not?

There are plenty of medical professionals in this congregation who can answer part of that question much better than I can. Statistics, underlying factors, mitigating circumstances, health inequalities, access to medicine. All of these things certainly play a role. 

But they don’t answer the fundamental question that animates us: why? Why my loved one? Why me? That is not a medical question but an existential one. It is about whether there is a God, whether that God cares, and what a religious Jew might do to change their outcomes. 

For that, we look to the Jewish tradition. Let’s start with this week’s parashah. Here, we read one of the earliest examples of a supplicatory prayer. Moses sees his sister, Miriam, covered in scaly skin disease. He cries out: “El na rafa na la.” God, please, heal her, please. We hear the desperation in Moses’ voice as he twice begs: “please.” Don’t let her become like one of the walking dead. 

In this story, there is a clear explanation for why Miriam gets sick and why she gets better. Miriam’s skin disease is a punishment. She insulted Moses’ wife, talking about her behind her back with Aaron. 

When she gets healed, it is because she atones for her sins and Moses forgives her. She goes to great lengths of prayer and ritual to have her body restored. Sickness is a punishment and health is a reward.

In some frum communities, you might still hear this explanation. All kinds of maladies are offered as warnings for gossiping. When people get sick, they’re encouraged to check their mezuzot to make sure their protective amulets are in good working order. 

In some ways, these are harmless superstitions. When everything feels out of control, why not look for reasons and things you can do? But hanging your beliefs on this is dangerous. Plenty of righteous people get sick and plenty of wicked people lead long and healthy lives. 

If you follow the logic of this Torah story, you run the risk that, when your loved one’s health deteriorates, you might blame them for their ethical conduct, when really there is nothing they could do. It is a cruel theology that blames the victim for their sickness.

In the Talmud, the rabbis felt a similar discomfort. They decided that skin diseases were an altar for atonement. When people got sick, it was God’s way of testing the most beloved. The righteous would suffer greatly in this world so that they would suffer far less in the next.

When Rabbi Yohanan fell ill, Rabbi Hanina went to visit him at his sick bed. He asked him: “Do you want to reap the benefits of this suffering?” Rabbi Yohanan said he did not want the rewards for being sick, and was immediately healed. 

We hear these ideas today, too. People will say that God sends the toughest challenges to the strongest soldiers. But I don’t think this theology is any more tenable. How can anyone say to a child with cancer that their sickness is an act of God’s love? Who could justify such a belief?

No. The truth is that these theories of reward and punishment should leave us cold. We live in a world full of sickness and suffering, and it’s attribution is entirely random.

Maimonides, a 13th Century philosopher, saw that these explanations for sickness did not work. He was a doctor; the chief physician to the Sultan in Egypt. He had read every medical textbook and saw long queues of people with various ailments every day. How could he, with all his knowledge, think that sickness was a punishment or a reward?

Maimonides taught that God has providence over life in general but not over each life in particular. God has a plan for the world, but is not going to intervene in individual cases of recovery. He disparaged the idea that mezuzot were amulets or that people could impact their health outcomes with prayer. 

I feel compelled to agree with Maimonides’ rationalist Judaism. Sickness is random and inexplicable. So is health. The statistics and medical knowledge that I set aside at the start of this sermon have much better answers than I can muster.

So, what do we do? We, who are not healthcare professionals or clinicians seeking a cure? 

Like Moses, seeing the sickness of Miriam, we pray. We pray with our loved ones, not because we think it will make God any more favourable to them, but because it is a source of comfort to those who are sick. Praying with someone shows that you love them and care about their recovery. We do it for the sake of our loving relationships.

Like Rabbi Hanina, seeing the sickness of Rabbi Yohanan, we visit the sick. We attend to people, not because we imagine we can magically cure them with words, but because company is the greatest source of strength in trying times. We go to see people in hospital, not for their bodies, but for their souls.

And, like Maimonides, we approach the world with humility. We refuse to believe in superstitions that are false or harmful. We accept that we live in a mystery and there is much we do not know. 

In this time of sickness and difficulty, it is very Jewish to ask: “why do people get sick?” The Jewish response to questions is to ask more questions. And the most Jewish question we can ask here is: “when people are sick, how can I help?”

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Behaalotchah on 29th May 2021.

sermon · social justice

Support the care home strike

Once, Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, visited a new matzah bakery in order to check its work practices and level of kashrut. He reviewed all the manufacturing procedures extensively and observed the intense labor and toil of the employees. At the end of Rabbi Salanter’s visit, the bakery owner proudly asked him, “What does the rabbi say?” He answered, “The Gentiles accuse us, God forbid, of using the blood of Christian children in matzah. While this is not the case, from what I have seen here, there is indeed a violation of the prohibition on blood in food. The blood of the workers is mixed with the matzah! I will not certify this bakery as kosher.”

For me, my proudest moment of 2020 came in the middle of a Torah shiur. Early on into the lockdown,  I was teaching a class over Zoom. 8pm was nearing and one teenage girl in attendance interrupted. “We have to go clap for the carers!” she said. At once, almost the entire class got up and walked away from their screens. I did the same. We whooped and cheered, then, ten minutes later, returned to our studies. Clapping for the carers became part of our weekly Torah study. 

That, I thought, was real Judaism. It is not in our texts or our rituals, although those are important. Judaism lives in the dignity and respect we show to each other. It is in the solidarity and love we demonstrate to each other, even when we cannot physically be together. 

This year, for the first time that I can remember, care workers received the recognition they deserved. In this pandemic, we learnt who really keeps the country ticking. It is the nurses, the cleaners, the teachers, the nursery workers, the porters, the social carers and home support. So often, this work, which constitutes the majority of work, is ignored or made invisible.

In this parashah, we get a rare insight into that kind of work. Jacob and Joseph both die. We hear of how the dignitaries and officers of Egypt mourned them. But we also hear, just in passing, of the physicians who embalmed their bodies. Or, rather, as Rabbeinu Bachya points out from the grammar of the sentence, that the physicians instructed others, who were lower-ranking and skilled in the matter, to embalm the bodies. We glimpse, if only momentarily, amidst the hullabaloo of important people wailing, what care work looked like in Ancient Egypt. 

Care for the elderly must have been one of the hardest jobs to do this year. The Coronavirus pandemic spread fastest and with most deadly impact in the elderly care homes. The workers, without adequate protective wear, on low wages and with few rights, went in to care for older people. These workers had to return to their own vulnerable family members, potentially infected. 

For many older people, their care workers were the only human contact they received, as families were prevented from mixing in the homes to prevent the spread of the virus. Care workers have done an amazing job this year, and everyone is forever indebted for their service.

So it should be a cause for absolute disgrace, for moral outrage, that a care home within the Jewish community should be spotlighted for its abhorrent treatment of elderly care workers. 

That’s right. I’m talking about The Sidney and Ruza Last Foundation at the Yehoshua Freshwater Centre, better known as Sage Care home, in Golders Green. The staff there have been asking for fair wages, full sick pay and union recognition since September. These domestic and maintenance staff are paid well below the London Living Wage, denied fully paid time off if they are sick, and their grievances have been brushed aside and ignored. The management have flatly refused to have any meaningful negotiations with them, or made the workers any offers. 

What an insult, then, that this care home calls itself Jewish, and says it serves the Jewish community! Who in the Jewish community is it serving? It certainly does not serve the care workers in this congregation. It definitely does not serve our elderly and vulnerable family members if it puts them and their carers in danger. Above all, it does not serve our Jewish God and our Jewish values if it exploits people.

The great conservative rabbi and posek Jill Jacobs, says that a Jewish company must meet certain labour standards to be considered kosher. It must treat workers with respect; pay a living wage; protect workers’ living conditions; and recognise their trade unions. Needless to say, the owners of Sage Care Home have failed on every single one of these fronts. 

Moreover, the elderly are not safe from the pandemic if staff cannot be open about when they are sick to get necessary time off. The elderly cannot receive high quality care if employees don’t feel like when they complain about risks to health and safety they will be taken seriously. This is a grave issue for residents and staff alike.

As a result, the staff at this care home have now ballotted to strike. Unless the management intervenes swiftly to meet the carers, the whole workforce will walk out this month. The strike is scheduled to begin on 15th January.

It should never have reached this point. Many care homes manage to look after their residents and staff, by focusing on the human beings they are, rather than just profit. By ignoring the workers’ legitimate requests, the owners are endangering both staff and vulnerable older people. They must be held to account.

I know that the elderly people in these care homes and their family members want to know that their care workers have safe and fair working conditions. I know the Jewish community in London has high ethical expectations of its communal institutions.

The care workers are calling on the Jewish community to give them support. I know you will. The same community that came out to applaud care workers in the spring will surely stand by them in their struggle for a livelihood through winter. 

If you have family at this care home, please write to the management to let them know your concerns. Express to them your concern for the welfare of the workers and your family. 

Alternatively, take action by signing the petition or donate to the strike fund.

Let us join with the elderly and their carers to demand more from our communal institutions. May we be able to take pride in our care homes. May we truly be able to call every Jewish space kosher.

I am giving this sermon on Saturday 2nd January 2021 at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.

festivals · sermon · social justice · theology

Those who attack the weak

Purim is such a strange time. It is a time when everything is turned upside down. In our story, the oppressed become the oppressors; the ones who wanted to slaughter become the slaughtered; Jews become Persians; Persians become Jews.

We act out the topsy-turviness of it all by dressing up in costumes, getting drunk, and generally living as we normally wouldn’t. Somehow this grand inversion festival is one of my favourites, but I’m never really sure what it was about until it’s over. In fact, every year for the last year, I’ve preached about Purim after it happened, rather than before. I suppose that fits with the overall back-to-front-ness of the whole celebration.

This year, what struck me most was the connection between the Torah portion and the Megillah reading.1 In our Megillah, the story of Esther, the enemy is the evil Haman. Haman sets himself up as a god, demanding that people bow down to him, and when they do not, he seeks to wipe out the Jews. The Jews, in this antique Persian context, are already the most vulnerable people. They are the smallest minority, unarmed, and completely powerless. Haman decides to wipe them out.

In the Torah reading, taken from Deuteronomy, the enemy is Amalek. We are enjoined to remember him and what he did to the Israelites in the wilderness.2 The Amalekites had attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest, dehydrated and suffering without water.3 According to our commentators, Amalek attacked from behind, killing the weakest first.4

The Megillah tells us that Haman was a descendant of Amalek, via their king, Agag.5 We do not necessarily need to believe that Haman had any genetic connection to Amalek. What they had in common they showed through their actions. Both attacked the weak. Both went for the most vulnerable first. They are not only symbols of antisemitism, but of all tyrants. This is how the cruel operate: by doing first to the weak what they would like to do to the strong.

It is deeply distressing to see in our times that the ideas of Amalek still prevail. At this moment, the world is closely watching the Coronavirus. My rabbinic colleagues in Italy are on complete lockdown. Many services have been cancelled. I am giving this sermon, for the first time, over the internet, rather than in person with my regular congregation.

That there is a pandemic should not be too alarming. There are often diseases going around the world – some are more contagious and more deadly than others. This one, it seems, is much less deadly than bird flu, but is more contagious than regular flu, and we do not yet have immunity to it.

In these times, maintaining calm and supporting each other is of the utmost importance. We should all, I am sure you already know, be meticulous about following NHS advice to wash our hands regularly, avoid touching our faces and not get too close to each other. If you exhibit symptoms, like a dry cough, shortness of breath, or fever, you should stay home for 7 days. Don’t go to the hospital or the GP.6

Yet there are those who have not helped maintain calm, but who have almost revelled in the potential death toll. Jeremy Warner, a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote in his column that the death of the weak from Coronavirus could be good for the economy. He said:

Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.7

With this one sentence, the Telegraph reminded me that Amalek’s ideology never ceases. It is in the idea that the weak are disposable, that the strongest survive, and that the strength of the economy or the nation matters more than the lives of the vulnerable.

The idea espoused by Warner might be called ‘social Darwinism’. It is a theory of evolution that sees all species as rugged individuals, fighting over resources. Sickness and death are nature’s way of weeding out those who are unnecessary. If people survive, it is because they deserved to. This was the logic that allowed the weak to be killed by the Nazis. It is the theory that underpinned government inaction to HIV as it killed off gay and black people.

It must be opposed. No idea could be more antithetical to the Jewish mind. We affirm that every human being is created in the image of God, and every life has intrinsic value. The disabled, the elderly and the immuno-compromised are not valuable because of how much they can contribute, but because God has placed them on this Earth. The Creator’s purpose for humanity far exceeds what any stock market has in mind.

We must oppose it not only because it contradicts religious truth, but also because it contradicts scientific truth. In 1902, the biologist and Russian Prince, Piotr Kropotkin, wrote his major work, ‘Mutual Aid’.8 In it, he argues that the survival of the species is due as much to cooperation as it is to competition. In the animal realm and throughout history, the major reason for life’s continuity has been its ability to work together.

Different species depend on each other and selflessly help each other. Most of all, human survival is intrinsically linked up with our social nature. Our skill lies in our ability to communicate complex ideas with each other. We are, by nature, dedicated to the preservation of our young, our elderly and our neighbours.

That is the message we must take away today in this time of sickness. We must support one another. For some, this means staying home so that they do not infect others. For some, this means checking in on our neighbours to see how they are and what they need. For others still, it means making donations to charities and mutual support organisations.

Purim was a time of inversion, when old habits were reversed. Let us shake off the old traditions of individualism and greed, to replace them with the Torah values of love and support.

In the face of those who attack the weak, we will be the ones to make them strong.

Shabbat shalom.

mutual aid animals

1 Mishnah Megillah 3:6

2 Deut 27:17-19

3 Ex 17:8-16

4 Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael 17

5 Esther 3:1

 

I donated to Queercare, who are doing work for at-risk LGBT people. I encourage you to give to the charity of your choice.