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.

article · spirituality

A Letter to God

Hi Judy,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Judy. I know Lionel Blue used to call you Fred. I remember reading about it in one of those compilations of Thought for the Day segments he put out. He said we should talk to you like an old friend, with the same degree of familiarity. He called you Fred and addressed you like you were his conscience; a kind voice coaxing him to do better. I picture something approximate to Jiminy Cricket.

So I’ll address you as a friend and call you Judy. I want to call you Judy because I don’t know anyone who goes by that name, so I can invent an image from scratch without knowingly projecting my ideas of others onto you. I want to talk to you as a woman, maybe because I’m just sick of having religion dictated to me by older men. I imagine you queer, because Judy only you truly know how much I need my God to be non-conforming. 

So I’ll picture you, if I may. Pixie dyke haircut and hooped earrings. Comfortable trainers. A flowing blouse. Sitting on one of the chairs in my back garden, any back garden I’ve ever had. And you smoke a rolled-up cigarette, or maybe it’s a joint, and you don’t offer it to me because you know I quit smoking a long time back. But you are immortal and immutable, so you don’t need to worry about what impact all that tar will have on your health. 

Judy, I hope you don’t mind that I say “you” and not “You.” If I were writing high liturgy or biblical translations, I think I would have to capitalise you. But I’m following a theology that Rabbi Blue picked up from Martin Buber, who adopted it from German Protestants. I’m supposed to speak to you unguarded and as my full self, without illusions of grandeur, neither yours nor my own. 

I have to ask forgiveness just for talking to you this way, because I know it is heretical. Even imagining you is an affront to who you really are. Maimonides long ago instructed us that you had no physical form nor anything resembling one. Like the Rambam, I admire the austere iconoclasm of philosophical Islam. It pushes us to realise that you are incomparable to a human being. You are more akin to a force, like gravity or entropy. You are like the moral vibrations of the universe. We only can say what you are by saying what you are not.

But I can’t talk to a vibration or an equation. I can’t make friends with an abstraction. The truth is, Judy, I need you, and I need you to be a relatable human being, because I depend on your guidance for change. I need to picture someone who believes in me and my capacity for goodness, especially on days when I feel like I have nothing to give. I try hard to be someone better than I am, I honestly do, and imagining a slightly stoned lesbian can help with that.

I’m writing this because I want to connect to you, truly and faithfully. I want to reflect on what you mean to me. I want to try and develop morally and spiritually. So I talk to you like you’re here.

I don’t need you to say anything back. I don’t have any illusions about what role you play in the universe. I just need to feel that somehow you are there; listening to me; encouraging me. I just imagine a warm smile and a gentle hand on my shoulder. Jonah’s God. Shechinah. Someone intimate and loving.

If I have to accept that you are beyond comprehension, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you. I would feel like I’m shouting into a silent void. Elijah’s God. The God who isn’t there.

And there are few things I find more frightening than silence. Part of what prompted this letter was a series of exercises where I had to keep quiet for long periods because it was supposed to be spiritually enriching. I get that it is supposed to be enlightening. That’s the popular image of Orientalist postcards showing gurus meditating on the Ganges and fully-robed Buddhist monks sat for hours in silence. It is a significant part of the imagination of Westerners who can’t connect with their own traditions.

That’s not fair. That’s not (the only reason) why it makes me so uncomfortable. It’s also part of English religious history. There is so much I admire about the Quakers. I normally find myself chiming with their politics; impressed by the way they turn anti-militarist protest into acts of religious service. I admire that. I have felt deeply connected to you when in their presence. In your queerness and hunger for justice, I imagine that you blockade arms fairs too.

But I don’t feel your presence when in their silences. I feel anguished and frustrated when I’m forced to contend with silence. I once walked into a retreat happening in the home where I lived. The people weren’t talking or engaging with each other. It reminded me of hospices and retirement homes I had visited where the patients were so drugged up or afflicted by dementia that they had no idea what was going on. I left instantly. 

Later, I returned to sleep. While the more enlightened sat in the living room experiencing their quiet contemplations, I washed the dishes with a friend. She talked about her own discomfort, that these practices were stripped from their original contexts of social justice movements and anti-colonial practices, then re-packaged into the medicalised language of “wellness” or the neoliberal politics of “self-improvement.” I had not considered that such a practice could be radical, because I understood silence to be entirely isolating and alienating.

That comes from my own experiences. So much of being gay has, for me, been about deciding what to share and when. In nearly new spaces I wonder whether I can be camp, or if it will put people off. I wonder if I can tell the stories of who I am and who I love and the small queer family I am building, or whether it will invoke new anger from people. In most circumstances, I have to kill part of myself in order to fit in. Coming out isn’t a one-time event, and nor is being in the closet. It is a constant process of ascertaining whether somewhere is safe, and how much. That is why being coerced into silence affects me so much. It’s why I need to be able to talk to a God like you, Judy; someone who is an outsider too.

When I construct my own gay deity, I don’t feel like my queerness is the problem. I feel like it’s part of the solution. Growing up in a world made by other people to suit their own hierarchies has made me empathetic to the struggles of others. I don’t claim to understand what it is like for black men in Chicago or Palestinian children in Sheikh Jarrah or women working in Bangladeshi sweatshops. But I care about it because I know how I have felt when faced with injustice. And that burning rage against oppression feels holy. 

It doesn’t just feel like endless anger when I’m with you, Judy. It feels like it means something so much bigger. It is not just politically expedient solidarity or, worse, bleeding heart liberalism. The combined grief and anger of all persecuted people feels like it is deeply spiritually meaningful. It is the foundation for divine justice. It is proof that all of humanity is connected by something bigger than ourselves: a sense of righteousness in resisting iniquity. I think that is what the Latin American liberation theologians are getting at. I feel like they have sat in the back garden with you too.

Judy, it matters greatly that you are there at those barricades and back gardens. Without you, as a real and personal presence, all my fears about the world and desires to change it are misplaced. There is no right and wrong. Oppression is just something that happens. We are alone on a burning planet in an empty universe. There is nothing we can do to change that and, even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. I have to believe you are real. And that you are really real, not just as a story that I have chosen to believe, like existentialists who are nihilists with self-deception. I have to believe that moral statements mean something and a greater tomorrow can come.  I have to believe you are real or life will not be worth living. 

There are so many who want to treat you like you don’t exist. Some of them claim the Holocaust as a reason to deny you. God abandoned them at Auschwitz, so they will abandon God in turn. Or: if God were real, God would have intervened. I was asked this last year by Shoah survivors at a Tu Bishvat seder. I just listened. I told them they did not have to believe anything. Because my instinctive reaction is to say: what did you think would happen? Did you imagine God would strike Hitler down with a thunderbolt from the sky? Did you think God should just swallow up the camps into pits before they piled the Jews into the gas chambers? How would that work? But, faced with living survivors, I had nothing to say. Albert Friedlander taught that any theology had to be able to be repeated in front of a million murdered Jewish children. Faced with them, I had no answer.

I think that’s why I have to imagine you silent, just listening, and refusing to intervene. If I thought you could respond or intervene, I would be so angry at you. So I imagine you calmly reflecting, nudging me on, reminding me with your eyes that you did not kill all those people, Nazis did. You remind me with your smile that human beings are responsible for our own actions. Above all – that I am responsible for mine.

Because of that, I do look upon some atheism with cynicism. There are people whom it suits very well to deny that there is a God or that morality has any meaning. The world created by Thatcher and Reagan is one where everyone is an individual atom, compressed to its smallest form, seeking nothing but the maximisation of its own wealth and happiness. If there were some great force holding us all together, their entire project would be at an end. If there were such a thing as love or justice or retribution, they would have nowhere to turn. So they pretend not to know you. When they sit down and feel your presence beside them, they shut off the part of them that knows what it means. They are no different to those who thank you for their success, as if you would ever hand out rewards like cookies to children. 

I think I heard you once. I was in intense pain and struggling with life, around seven years ago. I was standing on top of a roof, smoking a cigarette. (I wasn’t looking to kill myself instantly, just slowly with tobacco.) I looked up at these overpowering grey clouds and I asked what I should do. And I heard this voice saying “forgive yourself.” It said “forgive yourself” over and over again, quietly at first, and then louder and louder. At that time, I felt like I had always been hearing those words; I’d only just paid attention to them for the first time. I felt like you were there with me, and that was your message for me. And once I’d heard it, truly heard on it, I no longer heard it, because I no longer needed it. Suddenly, I felt ten stone lighter and like I had a message for the whole world. 

Judy, you might be imaginary. I might have had a moment of insanity. We might be alone in a meaningless universe. There are so many scientific explanations, and I’m sure there could be so much wonder in the world even without faith. Maybe justice doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Maybe. Maybe all kinds of things. But I’ve chosen a story that makes sense so I can live a life that feels right.

I have to believe. So I talk to you and write to you and call you Judy. I only ask one thing of you, Judy. Please don’t answer. Please don’t tell me what you think or what I need to do. The only thing worse than silence would be to hear your voice. I couldn’t bear your judgement, or your love. Either would be too much. Let me remain in doubt, that’s all  I ask. 

You take the last drags on your roll-up. You stub out the fag end on the ground. You put a hand on my shoulder and use my body to lift yourself upright. And you leave me again, for a while.

Thanks for listening, Judy.

Thanks for being here.

I love you.

judaism · ritual · spirituality

Sacred skinny-dipping

It was midsummer in a basin in the Welsh valleys. I found myself completely naked with a friend in a lukewarm tub of rainwater. We were supposed to wait for it to properly heat up over the log fire, but I was in a hurry to go from teaching Torah there to preaching in north-west London. The sunshine compensated for us. 

All around there were huge green trees, rolling hills, a babbling brook. Hippies not far away chanted in Hebrew while banging on drums.

“OK,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“So I’m going to tell you my practice,” she said, “but you can come up with your own.”

Her practice, I later discovered, was the same one as you would find Orthodox Jews performing on Friday afternoons, as sanctioned by rabbis and law books. She had a way of making every tradition feel New Age.

She dunked fully underwater three times, twice emerging to recite a prayer.

Al hatvilah – thank you, God, for making me holy by commanding me in immersion.

Shehechiyanu- thank you, God, for keeping me alive to see this day.

On the third dip, she came up, smiled and said: “That’s all there is to it.”

I copied her every move. And that was it: my first mikveh.

I had previously associated this ritual with Orthodox women washing off the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic. 

The only other people I knew of who did it were converts, undergoing a form of Jewish baptism to initiate them into the religion. I had thought, cynically, that these new Jews were washing off the goy.

But here was my teacher, Yael Tischler, far more radical than I was in terms of religious innovation and transgressive liturgy; a witchy feminist affiliated to the Kohenet movement in America – a bohemian collective for women-centred spirituality. 

With her, the act of immersion didn’t feel problematic. It felt like my whole body was wrapped up in Jewish history. It felt connected to the earthy, fleshy customs of long-gone ancestors.

This was strange, because I know that none of my recent ancestors would have done such a thing. Liberal Jews were, by and large, decidedly opposed to many embodied rituals. 

Like their reforming Christian counterparts, many of the early Progressive Jews felt that religion should be a matter of intellectual faith. It should be stripped down to its essential meanings, devoid of excessive piety or symbols. 

In the great platforms decreed from Germany and the USA, Reform Jews repudiated circumcision, abandoned kashrut and denounced tallits. They ridiculed shockeling, the Eastern Ashkenazi prayer movements, as “bowing and scraping.” One British Liberal rabbi called kippot “the eccentric trappings of the Orient.”

As you can imagine, mikvaot did not get much of a look-in. For decades, ritual immersion was not a requisite part of conversion at the Reform beit din. Today, very few progressive Jews will attend the mikveh before their wedding. It is almost unheard of that a progressive Jew will have a regular toiveling practice as the Orthodox do.

This week’s parashah probably provides a good explanation as to why progressives are so uncomfortable with it. This week, we read Tazria-Metzora, a portion dedicated to defiling skin diseases, leprous houses, sexual infections and menstrual impurity. 

To escape the uncleanness that falls upon people by contact with these things, ancient Israelites would ritually immerse in a mikveh. The Torah describes mayyim chayyim – running water – in which people would wash themselves. We know that in the period after the Great Exile, the mikveh was likely an enormous bath at the entrance to the Second Temple. 

In the biblical world, the mikveh does seem troubling. It exists for a people obsessed by physical purity, who want to remove their blemishes before they enter sacred spaces. I would not feel comfortable advocating immersion to congregants on the grounds that their bodies are unclean and carry associations of sin. 

But my teacher, Rabbi Debbie Young Somers, argues that our rabbis fundamentally transformed what mikveh meant. She did her rabbinic thesis on mikvaot and has taught about their virtues in numerous study sessions. When I asked her for sources for this sermon, she immediately sent me detailed source sheets and tweeted her glee that the subject matter was being discussed in our synagogue. 

Impurity, Rabbi Debbie argues, is not the same as defilement for the rabbis. It is what happens when you come close to something holy. Touching religious texts, having sex, giving birth and changing to a more holy status, are acts that require immersion. Faeces, urine and vomit, which are more obviously disgusting, do not require any religious ritual. When we wash ourselves, we are not scrubbing away sinful dirt, but acknowledging sacred contagion.

In a post-Temple world, nobody can be clean or unclean. The mechanisms for such processes are gone and the need to do so – so that one might perform an animal sacrifice in the correct state – thankfully no longer exists. 

The Talmud records that, nevertheless, Jewish women took the obligation of ritual immersion upon themselves. It was a choice that antique ancestresses made as part of their covenant with God. When they did, the rabbis largely trusted women to self-regulate and organise their own mikvaot. It might well be that they already had very little authority over this aspect of life.

Today, feminists are returning to these practices. Led mostly by religious women, efforts to reclaim the mikveh are popping up all over the world. Scholars and lay people are extolling the virtues of immersion for both men and women.

People take these ritual baths before life-changing events, like trying for a baby, getting married, starting a new job and completing a course of study. They also use the mikveh to process life’s trials, like miscarriage, recovery from illness, divorce and redundancy. 

That was how I ended up, a few summers ago, doing sacred skinny dipping in the countryside. I am now convinced that it is a deeply moving spiritual practice, and I commend it to anyone who is interested. 

The Sternberg Centre in North London has a functioning mikveh. There is also a programme underway called the Wellspring Project, which hopes to soon create a mikveh-oriented wellbeing centre. In Manchester, the new building for Jackson’s Row is planned to have a mikveh.

And the wonderful thing about mikveh is that you don’t have to travel far to do it. You can toivel in any naturally occurring water, like seas, lakes and rivers. Just turn up, jump in, and dip your head underwater. 

And thank God for the commandments. 

And thank God for your body.

And thank God you’re alive.

And thank God that we can take these ancient practices and make them our own.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 17 April 2021 for Parashat Tazria-Metzora at Newcastle Reform Synagogue

liturgy · sermon

What makes a life worth grieving?

The advent of Eurovision on Saturday reminded me of another anniversary I needed to mark. A year ago, at this time, many of us assembled in Parliament Square to publicly grieve the killing of Palestinians at the Gaza border. At the time, I wrote this sermon. While I shared it with friends and colleagues, the climate felt far too hostile to publish this. Perhaps I should have done. A year on, here is the sermon I never delivered at the time.

We tell ourselves that the grave levels all distinctions. Kittels don’t have pockets. You can’t take any of it with you when you’re gone. In death, all are equal.

Anybody who has ever lost somebody knows that is untrue. The grave shines a light on differences that we could otherwise ignore. As we scramble together the funds for a funeral, often several months’ wages, we realise how much class mattered in life. The poorest families cannot even attend the funerals of their loved ones, as councils bar them while they dispose of the body. People find out how much they were worth in round figures.

Grieving rituals reflect strongly on a person’s life. At the graveside, you can see what a dead person valued, and what people valued about them. You find out how many people their lives touched, and how much. Even early in our roles as rabbinic students, my classmates and I have begun to see what a profound impact a person’s death can have on the people who loved them. You find out what value gets placed on a life.

Jewish mourning rituals help us to make sense of such loss. The kaddish prayer is a blessing for the living; an Aramaic chant in praise of the Almighty; an appeal to Whoever is Up There to intervene and give us peace in every sense of the word. Conducting Yizkor services at Yom Kippur, I have seen how just the fact of reciting those words once a year can alleviate pain and bring healing. Its rhythm has its own power.

But the rules around these rituals can hurt as well as heal. Judith Hauptman, a Talmud scholar, has recorded how the limits on who can be mourned have narrowed over time in Orthodox halachah. A shorter version began as a blessing for any learning experience. From there, it became a graveside prayer one could say for all family members and teachers. Over time, it has been slowly whittled down to include only a mourners’ own parents. Hauptman points out that this system poses a problem in the modern world, where parents regularly re-marry and families are often cobbled together in ways that don’t match up with normative expectations.

I feel like limiting who can be ritually mourned poses a much deeper, existential question: what makes a life worth grieving? How do we decide what makes a death worth commemorating? What does it say about the value we place on somebody’s life when they were living, if we can’t remember them when they die?

In the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, Liberal Jews began saying kaddish weekly, independent of who was in the synagogue. There were too many people left behind who had nobody to mourn for them. There was too much unspeakable suffering to moderate who could be mourned and how much. It was a way to affirm the dignity of Jewish life against a racist movement who sought to wipe it out completely.

That was how I was raised: reciting a blessing every week for members of my family I never knew, and people I’d never met, to sanctify their memories lest they should be forgotten. We prayed, too, for earthquake victims, people dying in famines, those killed in school shootings and terrorist attacks. Whenever there were people whose names needed to be remembered, we remembered them.

Perhaps, my more conservative friends suggest, that ritual expands the bounds of mourning too far. I do not know what it is like to grieve for a parent. I haven’t had that experience. I don’t know how it compares to the loss you feel when you lose a friend, or another family member. I only know what it is like to have somebody die and wonder whether I can grieve for them, and how much I’m allowed to do it.

I know that feeling too well. The gay community is famous for its statistics. Alcohol, drugs, suicide, homelessness, murder, depression, loneliness. I have had friends die and wondered whether I could pray for them. And wondered what I could pray for them. In that moment, I have found out the uncertain value that I myself place on a life. We cannot mourn everyone equally, but we surely can mourn. Somehow. The kaddish is the only vocabulary I have for sanctifying death, so I have said kaddish for people who were not my parents; who were not Jews; who I did not know.

That is the question of deep religious significance behind the conflict in the Jewish community over the recitation of kaddish for those the IDF killed in Gaza last month. Everybody has their own views on who is responsible for violence in the Middle East and how it can be resolved. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has changed their mind significantly on that front. My views on the matter are well-known, and I won’t go into them here. But I do want to talk about the halachic and spiritual concerns that this issue has raised.

I want to affirm, without reservation, that I believe we were right to say kaddish for the Palestinians. Reciting that prayer said something that no other kind of protest or placard or petition could. It said that the souls of those killed were worth grieving. It said that their lives were worth living. In a world beset by war and injustice, that prayer, for those people, at that time, reminded the whole world of the existence of a loving Creator, Whose ways are peace.

They were not the parents of anyone present there. Nobody davening in Parliament Square knew any of the Palestinians who were killed. In a sense, that might make the prayer inappropriate. But only if you accept that we can only grieve for the people who gave birth to us. If that is your position, I respect it, but I don’t agree with it. I think we are right to mourn people with the only religious language we have when we are moved to do so.

None of the people killed in Gaza were Jews. Like most Palestinians living in that area, most of those who died were Muslims. There are some who claim that kaddish should be a prayer reserved only for Jews. If that is your position, I cannot even respect it. Kaddish does not make any religious claims about the status of the person being mourned. It does not have any impact on their metaphysical state. It is a prayer for the living, to help them cope with the trauma of death. If we limit that prayer only to other Jews, we limit ourselves and our capacity to care for others. We send out the horrifying message that only ‘our own’ deserve to be remembered. We suggest that only ‘our own’ led lives worth living.

Perhaps they were members of Hamas. It is, after all, the largest political organisation in Gaza, acting both as an armed militia against Israel and as the primary provider of welfare services to Palestinians. It is a reactionary, fundamentalist, sexist and homophobic party. It is not a group I would ever support or join. But even its members led lives worth living. They had deaths worth mourning. They were created in the image of the Holy One, Whose will brought the Heavens and the Earth into being. No amount of political disagreement can detract from that.

Hamas’s views on Jews are unconscionable. If they ruled the world with the views they hold now, the lives of all Jews would be a misery. But they do not rule the world. They barely have control over a small strip of land, locked in by Egypt and Israel as a military buffer zone. They do not have any control over their neighbouring Mediterranean Sea, where Israel, Cyprus and Turkey police what goes in and out. Even how much food and aid enters the land is rationed by the United Nations. Their skies are not their own. However horrid their ideology, they have no power to enact it. They are, by far, the weaker party.

Perhaps the very fact of how vulnerable they are makes them less worthy of being mourned. In Frames of War, Jewish academic Judith Butler writes about what makes life grievable. She looks at how a media culture that showcases war as a daily occurrence has desensitised people to its unimaginable suffering. She shows that the people whose lives are most precarious – that is, those who we already don’t expect to live very long – are treated as if they are most disposable. Their lives are hardest to completely mourn.

Intuitively, we know this is true. We are so used to hearing about people there dying, or so accustomed to the idea that war is normal in ‘places like that’ that they don’t induce international horror any more. But they should. If we were fully human, living up to the highest values taught in our Torah, we would live in a permanent state of distress. But we don’t, because we have to survive. We treat precarious lives as if they are disposable.

Critics of the kaddish for Gaza have pointed out that the protesters didn’t pray for people killed in Syria, Congo, Central African Republic or Yemen that week. We didn’t. We should. If they are criticising the protesters for not grieving enough, I extend a wholehearted invitation to cry with me about the state of our broken world. There are too many tragedies left ignored. But they want people to hurt less, or not at all, how can we possibly accept? How can anyone agree not to feel rage and sadness at unjust killing and remain human? And call themselves Jewish?

Despite all desensitisation, when Israel gunned down the Land Day protesters in Gaza, suddenly we could not ignore it any more. Only the day before, Netta had won Eurovision. President Trump was in Jerusalem, opening an embassy. All eyes were on Israel. And Israel shot 63 people in one day. Israel, that declares itself the Jewish state, a body politic that has taken up the mantle of our sacred task on earth to be a light unto the nation and spread the message of ethical monotheism, shot down 63 people in one day. They sent out one message about what value they placed on certain lives. The Jews in Parliament Square sent out an alternative message.

I don’t know what makes a life worth grieving. I don’t know who should mourn for whom and how much. I don’t know where to place the limits. But I know that when people do decide to grieve, they decide that a life was worth living. Those Palestinians’ lives were worth living. Their deaths were worth grieving. Their mourners were worth supporting. They did not deserve to die.

By making the decision to pray for the Palestinians, the people in Parliament Square did the most Jewish thing we could. We sanctified life in the name of the Holy One. We recognised that the bonds of faith that bind together humanity are stronger than the bonds of blood that bind together one people. With our words, we gave each other hope for a redeemed world, saying:

“May the Almighty’s Sovereignty be established in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire Jewish people, speedily and soon.”

And let us say: Amen.

kaddish for gaza

The fallout from this action can still be felt, and many in the community are hurting. I hope that publishing this does not reignite flames but helps demonstrate that we were coming from a place of heartfelt Jewish religious feeling, even for those who disagree.

article · judaism · liturgy · theology

Praying for Today

Becoming disabled made me question everything I thought I knew about Judaism. Then it brought me back to the religion in a way I’d never thought possible.

When I was 19, I woke up one morning and found that I couldn’t get out of bed. My hips were stiff, my back was sore, and my arms just weren’t strong enough to sit me upright. Something was wrong. I called out to my housemate, who helped lift me out of bed. That was the first time I needed help standing up. There would be many more.

It had been building for a while. I’d sat in university lectures and on buses feeling tremendous pain around my neck, shoulders, and lower back. I stared blankly at the doctor when she told me I had ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the spine. In a normal spine, the bones in the back are buffered by cartilage. In my spine, the bones were fusing together.

Back then, aIl I knew about the disease was that there was no cure. I didn’t know how much my back would come to hurt, or much I’d struggle with fatigue, or how little I might be able to move.

All I could do was focus on making changes to get better. I took up exercise, having studiously avoided it since school. I cut back on smoking and drinking. I changed my lifestyle and resolved to look after my body better. But the biggest change of all wasn’t in my body; it was the unexpected transformation of my religious beliefs. Getting sick made me doubt the Judaism that had been such an integral part of my life.

***

I grew up in a Liberal Jewish community, the U.K. sister of the American Reform movement. My Marxist parents had initially resisted raising me religious, but even as a child I’d been so drawn to Judaism that I insisted on dragging them to synagogue. Our community, based in a large commercial town surrounded by countryside just outside London, would meet weekly in a small shared chapel. We’d head out to a local farm for the pilgrim festivals. We’d plant trees at Tu B’Shevat and harvest fruit at Shavuot. We even camped out in the chilly English autumn for Sukkot. I adored getting to go out to the countryside. I loved cheder and getting to spend my weekends with other Jewish children. But more than anything else, I loved prayer.

There was something in Jewish prayer that filled me with joy. From the collective singing of “Mah Tovu” at the start of the service to the barn-storming shouting of “Adon Olam” at its end, I felt like I was part of an amazing community. Our liturgy, especially, filled me with hope. It spoke with such certainty about the sureness of progress. People whose lives were difficult now would get better. Society, though broken, would be perfected. The whole world was on one unfettered journey toward a messianic age of truth and righteousness.

I can still recite by rote the words from the siddur: “You support the fallen and heal the sick; you free the captive and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.” This, I believed, was a G-d who actively intervened in everybody’s lives to make them better. I learned to say in English: “We hope soon to behold the glory of your might when false gods will vanish from our hearts and idolatry cease forever.” This, I thought, was an unabashedly optimistic religion.

I found that optimism everywhere. At home, my parents were convinced that the workers’ revolution was just around the corner and a new age of peace and equality would soon come to replace our capitalist system. At school, I learned that I could achieve anything if I worked hard enough. All of us could become astronauts or prime ministers, if only we put our minds to it. No matter who was right—the religious, the Communists, or the aspirational—the future was going to be great.

As I child, I held tightly to that view of the world.

***

There was never exactly a moment I stopped believing. I drifted away. I went to synagogue for the major holidays. Then I went back to living my life. But as that life became more complicated, so did my relationship to Judaism.

Dealing with chronic pain meant I had to question everything I thought I knew about the world. People’s lives were supposed to be stories of progress. We’d start out from a difficult place, we’d struggle, but as we went on, things would get better. G-d would support us. How could I believe that now, knowing that my health would gradually deteriorate?

Every year, autumn brought cold rain and my condition would flare up anew. Each time, it got worse. I found myself in more pain, struggling to cope with daily tasks. I could no longer sit cross-legged, and it hurt to sneeze. Each time my disease got worse, my religious questions came back to the fore. I needed to understand how I could get so sick and have my life derailed so badly.

I went to work in Turkey, fearing that if I didn’t get out and see the world before my spine fused any more, I might lose the chance. I persisted with my questions about faith. But I resolved to start going to synagogue regularly again—to look for the answers I couldn’t find in my daily life. I sat each week in an old Sephardi synagogue on the Bosphorous, where old men struggled to make a minyan, wondering if there was anything G-d could do. I started bargaining, praying to have my disease taken away. I quit smoking. I quit drinking. I took my painkillers. I did yoga every day.

I ached in my muscles, and I ached in my soul, heartbroken by every answer I could think of. Had I done something wrong to be exempted from the linear, progressing life everyone else was meant to get? Was G-d not interested in people’s lives enough to intervene and relieve suffering? Was G-d not even there at all? The thought crushed me, but I didn’t want to let go of the optimistic theology that had filled me with such wonder as a child.

At 25, I lost the ability to walk properly. I could only push my limbs outward in robotic movements. I didn’t have enough time to cross roads in the time it took for the lights to turn from red to green and back again. I couldn’t sleep because with the slightest turn I woke myself up with the sound of my own screams. Every muscle in my body was tensed up. I lost more than 25 pounds.

Dealing with pain, it was hard to think at all, let alone to think positively. I absorbed all the books on Jewish thought I could find, searching for answers. If I wanted to hold on to the view of G-d I’d had as a child, I needed to come up with alternative solutions. Perhaps I was being tested—eventually I’d do enough mitzvot and I’d be relieved of the pain. Perhaps I was being punished. Maybe this was G-d’s plan after all.

***

Last year, I came back to the U.K. Doctors put me on regular doses of ibuprofen, then naproxen, then coxibs, none of which did anything. Unable to focus because of pain, I lost my job. I felt like I was no longer useful. But just as I was giving up hope, I followed a friend along to a weekend of non-denominational Jewish study in London.

This was Jewish study like I’d never encountered it before. We pored over Aramaic texts, guided by incredible scholars, to consider life’s big questions. We sat in small groups studying passages from Torah, Talmud, and modern Jewish theology. We were led by rabbis and academics, but mostly we were led by our own desire to see the world differently. One of the major themes we discussed was why people suffer.

There were people looking for answers in just the way I was. An emergency nurse who’d seen too many children come in mangled from car accidents. A community worker who felt like she was losing her faith. A student, grieving for his recently lost parent. All of us encountered Jewish texts afresh.

We read Ecclesiastes, that beautiful poem, bordering on atheistic, which says: “The righteous get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked get what the righteous deserve. This is all meaningless.” We read Job, afflicted with diseases and losing everything, crying out to heaven: “Withdraw your hand far from me, and stop frightening me with your terrors,” to which G-d replies: “Will the one who contends with the almighty correct me?” We read, too, from the Talmud, where Rav Johanan goes to see Rav Hiya bar Abba, lying in bed and unable to move. Rav Johanan asks him, “Are your sufferings dear to you?” and Rav Hiya replies, “Neither them nor their reward.” Only then is he able to stand up.

I realized that all the problems I’d had—both physical pain and existential doubt—weren’t just mine. They’d all been experienced before. Rabbis, prophets, and Hebrew poets had all struggled with the same sicknesses and questions I had. They couldn’t answer by promising some great progression of life. Nobody would tell King Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, that everything would be fine. Nobody would tell Job that his suffering had meaning. The Babylonian rabbis wouldn’t let their friends make martyrs of themselves for hurting, either. Instead, they just expressed their worries and let the questions stand. Suddenly, I felt much less alone.

People throughout history managed to go on being Jewish in the face of far worse suffering than mine. They’d stuck together, prayed together, and asked life’s most difficult questions together. They hadn’t answered with hope. They’d answered by being there for each other. And now, through their words, they were here for me, too. Through their words, Jews from generations past reached out through time, took my hand and said: “I’m hurting, too.” Through prayer, I try to answer them: “I’m with you.”

***

Over the last year, I’ve taken to prayer with new vigor and meaning. Jewish prayer doesn’t have to be about senseless faith in a better future. It can be a way of feeling radical empathy and solidarity with everyone else who is struggling. It can give me the strength to get through a day. It can give me a sense of gratitude when I don’t feel any. It can help me feel despair when I just need space to grieve.

I’m not waiting for a better future anymore. I’m praying for today. Whether we’re in synagogue together or I’m mumbling away in Hebrew at home, I’m part of an international community of people who are giving one another strength.

I think about everybody else hurting, grieving, questioning and learning. There are millions of us. People having their welfare cut and people who never had it. People struggling to pay bills and people struggling to get up in the morning. Through prayer, I can offer up some empathy and solidarity. I can feel like I’m having it returned.

Right now, I’m in a much better place, both physically and mentally. I know that wouldn’t have been possible without prayer. A sense of faith, of community, of support, can make more difference than people realise. It’s not that an invisible hand has reached down from the sky to take away my afflictions. G-d doesn’t work like that and never has. The miracle of prayer isn’t that it takes sickness away—it’s that it makes it bearable.

tefillin

This article was originally published in Tablet Magazine in November 2016.

high holy days · liturgy · sermon · Uncategorized

Is the Kol Nidrei prayer angry enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we be given the strength to keep them

[…]

We meant them when we made them,

But distractions were many, and our wills were weak.

This time may we be strong enough;

May our better selves prevail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gmar chatima tovah.

kol nidrei

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