sermon · social justice

A peasant farmer was my father

A peasant farmer was my father

When my mind wanders, I like to think about where I would go if I could travel in time. Have you ever considered this? When you would want to visit?

Personally, my first thought is Paris in the 1890s. In my higher moments, I project myself into medieval Andalus, the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Spain. 

And, of course, I’d love to go back to biblical times. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to see the First Temple in all its glory? What would it be like to inhabit that world of prophets and visionaries?

But this time travel thought experiment always comes with a corollary. I’d have to be a rich man. No matter what spot of history I got dropped in, the only way to enjoy it would be to be part of the elite.

If I were sent back to biblical times without that condition, I’d probably be a peasant farmer. We like to imagine our ancestors as great kings and high priests. In reality, they were less than a small fraction of the ancient Israelite population.

95% of people in the biblical period worked the land. Dropped back to the time of David and Solomon, we probably wouldn’t be in their courts, but in the fields. 

I take a perverse pride in this knowledge.

Think how hard they must have worked to bring that ancient society into being!

As a peasant farmer in the ancient world, you would have about 3 acres, growing different crops, including grains, fruit trees, and olives. You would, almost certainly, have a chicken run and a small herd of goats. 

If you were really fancy, you might also have a cow.

Your home would be a collection of huts and tents, stretching out to include your extended family. Each would be a bustling, cramped place, with pots and pans and a fire stove. Your animals would potter in and out of your sleeping quarters. 

I am not trying to paint a romantic vision of any of this. Your life would be hard. You would pull a plough with your own hands and sow seeds with your back hunched over. You would cultivate and cut and glean your trees in the searing heat. 

You would spin your own wool, stitch your own clothes, bake your own bread, build your own dwellings, subsist on whatever you needed to survive.

Yes, all that is true for women, too, with an additional burden. You would give birth to ten children and breast feed all of them. You would count yourself incredibly lucky if all of them lived past the age of 5. If they did, they would likely be married off in their teens. 

No, there is nothing romantic about the lives of our real ancestors. 

But we should be proud of them. 

Peasants, labourers and serfs might not be the subject of great poetry and sagas, but without their efforts, nothing exists. There could be no food, no shelter, no community, and no culture, without their graft. That gruelling work made civilisation possible.

This week’s parashah tells us something of how they built ancient Israelite society.

If they had just stuck to their own homesteads, they would have had to survive on the paltry gains of subsistence farming. In a bad year – if rains failed to fall or crops failed to grow – they would simply perish.

So, our family, the farmers of the ancient world, signed up to participate in the agrarian state. 

The agrarian state was responsible for distributing food and creating common irrigation and transport systems. In ancient Israel, the centre of that state was the Jerusalem Temple. 

Our parashah explains the criteria for participating in its systems. You must not glean your fields right to their edges, so that you leave enough for travellers and strangers. You must donate a tenth of your grain and livestock to support those in the community who are most vulnerable, like widows and orphans. 

In some ways, this is the foundation of the earliest welfare state. 

But the poor are not the only beneficiaries of this redistribution. 

In fact, they were not even its primary targets. 

Our parashah begins with a ritual that Israelites must undertake each year. At each harvest of the year, you must collect your first and best fruits. You must bring these, the choicest of all the crops you worked so hard to create, and give them to the priests.

You must lift them above your head and say: “A wandering Aramean was my father. He was enslaved in Egypt, but God brought him out into this land of milk and honey. Now, I bring before you, the first fruits of the soil that God has given me.”

The priest will sacrifice it, perform closed rituals, and eat it in front of you.

That priest did not work to produce those fruits. He did not share in the exhausting work of raising children in a hovel, or run ploughs over the land. In fact, he wasn’t responsible for any land.

The priest’s sole job was to be the leader of the ancient cult. He was in charge. He profited from your work. 

That great Temple in Jerusalem, with all its priests and writings and rituals, only existed because the poor majority paid in and made it happen. That entire society functioned on the basis of our ancestors’ labour. How could they have done it without the work of the people who harvested the grain, built the bricks, and cared for the sick? 

I don’t resent the ancient priests. 

That work made possible great cultural developments. At that time, we couldn’t have had literary culture, organised society, music or scientific discovery without a class who had the leisure time to devote to such pursuits.

We then wouldn’t have benefited from the innovations in agriculture, technology, transport and trade that makes our lives today less horrible than they were in ancient times.

But, while resentment for ancient figures might not be productive, we should feel entitled to be critical.

After all, their world is our world. For all the social progress we have made, the divisions that defined civilisations millenia ago are only greater than they were then.

Far fewer people profit far more from the work of the majority than ever did in the biblical period. 

Almost all of us, I know, are worried about how energy price gouging, interest rate rises, and higher costs of living will affect us. Some are already feeling the effects of an economy where wages won’t rise but prices keep going up. 

Meanwhile, the energy companies and their shareholders are making record profits. These last few years, which have been so frightening for most people, have been a period of great abundance for the world’s richest. 

This is not accidental. The rich are not rich in spite of the poor. They are rich because of the poor.

Perhaps those inequalities were essential to create our current world. But how much greater would society be if we decided to eradicate them? Just imagine what we could accomplish if nobody had to worry about heating their home or feeding their family.

We could unleash the great talents of everyone, whether priest or pauper; shareholder or sharecropper; king or taxi driver. We could enjoy this world, with all its bounties, without the constant friction of struggle.

On reflection, if I could travel in time, I don’t think the past would be the place for me. I would prefer, instead, to make my way to the future.

I want to go to the time when technology is harnessed to benefit everyone in the world, regardless of who they are and where they live. An era in which it is not just a small minority that creams off the profits of the many, but when everything is redistributed between everyone. One in which the gains of civilisation are shared with all humanity. 

We can’t change the past. We can’t go back and rescue our ancestors from the harsh realities of peasantry. But we can build a different future for the next generation. We can make it so that the future is not defined by the same problems of the past.

Let us travel to that point in time together. 

Shabbat shalom.

Ki Tavo 5782, South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

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