judaism · sermon

Whose quarantine?

By this stage in quarantine, you have probably broken down, cried, experimented with an unusual haircut, argued with your partner or room mate, attempted to pick up a new skill, laughed, watched a movie, read all the Corona-related news items, avoided reading all the Corona-related news items, lost your mind, twice, and finally accepted the new reality. Now, it’s time to have breakfast and go through the whole process all over again.

It’s hard to put into words what is happening for us in lockdown right now. Whenever I talk to friends or family about how they’re experiencing this unprecedented life event, we revert to discussing the latest rules or the political ramifications or what they understand of the emerging medical news. We can only really sum up how we’re dealing with the situation in odd phrases, like “getting by”, “finding new meanings”, “struggling” or, “drinking before midday.”

That’s probably why I have trouble finding out what quarantine was like for our ancient ancestors. This week’s parashah is Tazria-Metzora. It is the Torah reading about quarantine. Rabbis rejoice! For so long the processes and rituals around self-isolating for infectious diseases seemed so irrelevant to our lives. Suddenly a pandemic comes along and we can join the ranks of overnight experts with a niche specialism in ancient Israel.

Except, strangely, Leviticus doesn’t really tell me what I want to know. It describes in graphic detail the infectious skin disease our forebearers were trying to prevent – called tzara’at, it resulted in white flaky peeling of the skin and made its sufferers look like the walking dead. It would start as a small patch and gradually expand across the body.1

It also tells me exactly how the priests would deal with it. Anybody with the affliction would have to isolate themselves outside of the camp for 7 days. At the end of these, a priest would come out to inspect the patient. If the patient had been healed, the priest would make ritual offerings of birds to spiritually cleanse him.2 They would be shaved, washed and then readmitted to the community.3 If not, back into quarantine he would go.

Yet for all this detail spread out over chapters of the Torah, it doesn’t answer the question I really want to ask: what were their lives like? How did it feel to have the scaly skin disease in ancient Israel? What did they do when they were isolated from their communities? The Torah provides scarce little information about these questions, and biblical scholars seem surprisingly unconcerned. In fact, the main trend among academics has been to question how much we can even know about the biblical world, shedding great doubt on the texts that have reached us.4

We are told that the isolators were kept outside the camp, or outside the city walls. I wonder whether they had dedicated centres. The harsh desert sun of the Negev must have made simply staying outside longterm impossible. I wonder how they got food. Did people deliver it to them in designated places? Were they expected to scavenge for themselves?

All I can gather from the text is how people were managed, punished, ritualised and redeemed. I cannot work out how the ancient people keep themselves entertained when they had no access to other human beings, nor to Netflix, WiFi, or books to read. I do not know how they loved, supported each other, struggled, found things difficult and ultimately survived. Those positive stories of endurance are hidden between the lines of the text. I do not know how they felt.

But, in this community, I don’t need to just wonder how people feel and how they are managing. Our welfare committee has done an incredible job of checking in on everyone. Our healthy members are going out of their way to ensure that the others get the food and supplies they need. I know that, across this community, people are checking in on each other to find out how they are. This community should be an inspiration to others across the country.

Much is made in the media about people’s acts of selfishness and inconsideration, but for my part I have only seen the reverse. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people reaching out to share in feelings, offering support with shopping and errands, and generally being as supportive as they can in these exceptional times.

When our biblical forbearers wrote about quarantine, they wrote about its rituals. When the scholars wrote about it, they took interest in its medical diagnoses. When the media write about it, they write about everything that goes wrong. These stories of rituals, rules and wrongdoing might make for compelling reading, but they don’t reflect people’s lived reality.

Meanwhile, we are quietly writing a different story through our deeds. We are writing stories of generosity, kindness and self-sacrifice. We are showing every day in little ways how much we care about ourselves, each other and our communities.

One of the surprising facts about crises is that they do not engender selfishness, but altruism. At the time of the last financial crash, I was working in the charity sector, and we were all perplexed when we discovered that, in times of economic hardship, poorer people’s charitable donations went up. This week, a German science journal reported on a significant uptick in people’s compassion in their attitude to others since the crisis began. We see the results of that: thousands of people volunteering for mutual aid groups and the NHS supporters. The more people struggle, the more they care about the struggles of others.

Priests and politicians may want to write one kind of story, but ordinary people write much better ones. May we continue to write those stories, and may they be the ones we pass on to later generations.

Shabbat shalom.

coronavirus-volunteers-list

I delivered this sermon over Zoom on 25th April 2020 for Three Counties Liberal Judaism.

1Milgrom on Leviticus 1-16, pp. 816-824

2Lev 14:1-6

3Lev 14:9-10

4Watts, Ritual and Rhetoric, pp. 27-32

judaism · sermon

The Tabernacle or The Temple

When Israel Mattuck, Britain’s first Liberal rabbi, went on holiday, he used to spend hours visiting the churches and cathedrals wherever he was. His biographer, Pam Fox, writes endearingly about how much it used to annoy his family.1

I really relate to this. There is something quite wonderful about seeing how others pray. From the mosques in Turkey and southern Spain to the cathedrals in France and Italy, I’ve never found a holiday partner I couldn’t frustrate by dragging them into every little religious building I see.

These buildings communicate messages about what believers make of their religions. The last time I was here in the Three Counties, I sat with my boyfriend in Gloucester Cathedral and we listened to Saturday night evensong. The organ roared through the cavernous building, as if to remind us how terrifying God could be. I went away from the service feeling stirred in a way synagogue services rarely make me feel, and I wondered what parallels there were in our practice.

Perhaps part of the appeal of these spaces is that we have no Jewish equivalent. There is, after all, no such thing as Jewish architecture. What does a “Jewish building” look like? What are its features? Beyond a mezuzah on the doorpost, very little ever identifies a space as Jewish.

In part, that is because of history. Forever a transient people, we have rarely invested in plush buildings, knowing well that our communities were so wont to move and change. In the medieval synagogue in Barcelona’s Calle, the only distinguishing feature is that the wall protrudes slightly onto the cobbled street so that worshippers can face east. It has had no problem being repurposed variously as a home, a factory, a cafe and a museum. The site of the synagogue in Lincoln, dating back over a millennium, was only recently repurposed by its Liberal Jewish community. And, still now, it’s really just a very old room.

Yet even today in modern Britain and the USA, where Jews have lived comfortably for some time, there is little that can be identified as Jewish architecture. The Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood is identifiable by its Greek columns. Temple Emanu-El in New York looks indistinguishable from a Cathedral. Even modern Israel has developed no architectural style for its religious buildings. The places where I have prayed in Jerusalem seem no different to shop front shtiebels. For some reason, we have an aversion to creating Jewish buildings.

This casts an interesting light on this week’s parashah. Here, we read about the Israelites’ instructions for building a Tabernacle. This was a giant portable tent in the desert, where the freed slaves would come to offer sacrifices and experience their God. What a space it must have been! Every precious metal is enumerated; the finest kinds of wood; fabrics dyed in the hardest-to-find colours of crimson, purple and blue; goats’ hair and dolphins’ skins. We read about the incenses and it’s as if we can smell them wafting through the sacred space.2

This Tabernacle in some way must have mirrored the First Temple. In our haftarah, we read of King Solomon’s building of the Jerusalem Temple.3 About 30 metres long and described in glorious detail, this was the central focus of the Israelite cult for around 400 years.4

One of the great debates between Liberal and Orthodox Jews in the last century was which one preceded the other: did the Temple come first, or the Tabernacle? For Orthodox Jews, who treated the Bible as a historical account of the journeys of the Israelites, the Tabernacle must have come first, and been a blueprint for the Temple that would later follow. For Liberal Jews, who accepted the conclusions of the historians of the time, the myth of the Tabernacle was constructed later, when the Temple already stood, as a way to justify the religious centralisation brought about under Solomon.

As it turns out, we might both have been wrong. It is unclear whether Solomon’s Temple ever really existed. We have no archaeological evidence for it.5 There have been attempts to prove that such a space existed, but these have all been exposed as hoaxes. That doesn’t mean it definitely didn’t exist – lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, and Jerusalem is a notoriously difficult place to do archaeological digs. But we can reasonably suspect that Solomon’s Temple may have been a myth.

One of the things that was most missing from these heated debates in the last century was that the Tabernacle and the Temple were fundamentally different places. The Temple had attributes that would have been impossible for the Tabernacle to have: fixed foundations, windows, stone quarries and multiple rooms. The Tabernacle, by contrast, was a mobile, portable space, that had to be lifted and reassembled regularly as the Israelites went about their journeying.

Through their different architectural styles, the two spaces communicated fundamentally different messages about the nature of God. The God of the Tabernacle was transient, travelling with the people as they came out of slavery and wandered in the desert. It had no fixed home and could speak to people wherever they were. The God of the Temple was fixed in one place. It had a home and its worshippers needed to travel from all the surrounding towns to pray there.6 One God was national; the other universal.

At the heart of these debates between Liberal and Orthodox Jews was an issue that was far more theological than it was historical. Orthodox Jews needed to believe that God had pre-ordained the Temple because they wanted to see a Messianic Age in which it was rebuilt. They maintained that our God was still a national God who would one day return to live in Jerusalem. Liberal Jews needed to exercise doubt because, for them, God was transcendental and Judaism had no central home.

This brings me back to the question with which I first began: why is there no such thing as Jewish architecture? Perhaps it is about much more than historical circumstance or artistic predilections. Perhaps it tells us something deeper about how we see God. Our God, like us, is rootless and unchainable. Our God, like us, reveals its nature more through loving deeds than through material accomplishments.

As a community, we move regularly from one place to the next. We spend our services variously in Ledbury, Ross, Up Hatherley, Gloucester and across the Three Counties in each others’ homes. Let us rejoice in this fact. We are, like our forebearers in this parashah, wandering Jews. We are, as our Liberal rabbis would have hoped, physically demonstrating God’s transcendent mobility. Every house and community centre we enter becomes full of the richness of tradition and, for the time that we are there, is transformed.

There is no such thing as a Jewish space because every space where you find Jews is Jewish.

temple emanu el
Temple Emanu-El in New York

 

I gave this sermon on Saturday 29th February 2020 at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Trumah

1 Pam Fox, Israel Mattuck: Architect of Liberal Judaism

2 Ex 25

3 1 Kings 6

4 BT Bava Batra 3a

5 Finklestein and Lieberman, The Bible Unearthed

6 Mishnah Sukkah 4

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

The Fragility of Progress

When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.

The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.

I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”

“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”

She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.

She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.

A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.

Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.

It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.

This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.

Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.

What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.

Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.

History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.

How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?

The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.

The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.

Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”

The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.

But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.

Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.

hopeful sunrise

I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019

judaism · sermon · social justice · theology

Yes, to heal the world

What is the point of Judaism?

Last night, I gave a defence of Judaism for the disengaged. I argued that religion gives us a sense of community, purpose and meaning. I talked about how Judaism is an antidote to many of the greatest problems we face in the 21st Century.

This morning, I want to talk about why progressive Judaism, specifically, ought to be our way forward. Progressive Judaism has, in recent years, come under attack. Last year, Jonathan Neumann released a book entitled ‘To Heal the World?’. Its subtitle – ‘How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel’ – probably tells you everything you need to know about this book.

In it, he argues that progressive Jews have distorted Judaism and created their own denomination, completely divorced from tradition. He pours scorn on one idea in particular, that of ‘tikkun olam’. The basic premise of this idea comes from Jewish mysticism. It argues that the world in which we live is broken, and that through the pursuit of social justice, we can begin to heal it.

For Neumann, this idea is an innovation. It is the ideology of the American New Left combined with some Jewish theology. In a way, he is certainly right. The idea of ‘tikkun olam’ was a new development. It was a rallying cry to bring together many of the issues on which the Jewish community in America was campaigning, particularly black civil rights, women’s liberation and international peace.

While he may be right about the nomenclature, he is completely wrong about the idea. This idea, that Judaism’s core is one of social justice, has been integral to progressive Judaism since its inception. Our founders, like Rabbi Abraham Geiger in 19th Century Germany, argued that the soul of Judaism was not in its laws but in its prophetic texts. The Reformers sought to reposition Judaism from its narrow focus on ritual to the universalist message of justice.

The prophets spoke in a language of justice that would be recognisable even today. In this week’s haftarah, we read of Elijah, arguably the greatest prophet post-Moses. His life was full of miracles: he could split rivers, heal the sick and bring on rainfall. At the end of his life, he was carried away to Heaven in a chariot of fire. All the wonder in Elijah’s life should not gloss over Elijah’s message.

He challenged kings, demanded an end to idol-worship and called on the Israelites to remember their covenant. For Jews the world over, he is the harbinger of messianic redemption. He is the first among our prophets to promise that a messianic age is coming. Subsequent prophets, such as Malachi, prophecy that, when Elijah returns, God “shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents.”

For progressive Jews, this promise of liberation is built into our very understanding of what it means to live a Jewish life. We cannot just wait, passively, for a better age to come up to us, but must participate in building it. We do that through our pursuit of justice, by following our consciences, and by seeking to make the world a more loving place.

While the branding of this idea as ‘tikkun olam’ may be new in Judaism, its message can be found throughout the Tanakh, rabbinic literature, and our liturgy. It is at the core of what Judaism calls on us to do.

This authentic Jewish idea is what Neumann finds terrifying. He argues that this is a deviation from traditional Judaism. Of course, he never defines what precisely that is. In all likelihood, that is because he doesn’t know. In a review of the book in Tablet magazine, Shaul Magid argues that Neumann’s argument falls flat because he doesn’t have the requisite knowledge of Judaism to make his case. Neumann is, after all, not a Torah scholar, nor a Jewish historian. He is an opinion columnist. Magid shows very successfully how Neumann simply doesn’t understand how Judaism, whether Orthodox or progressive, actually works. There can be no more damning critique of a book than that it would have been better if it had been written by somebody who knew what they were talking about.

For Neumann, progressive Judaism must be contrasted with ‘traditional’ Judaism. He seems to have in mind an idea of bearded men in segregated synagogues keeping kosher, observing shabbat and keeping to a very strict set of rules. The first issue with this is that he seems not to understand that Orthodox Judaism is, itself, a modern innovation. It is a response to the modern world, that takes a conservative approach to life and a dogmatic approach to commandments.

It is deeply depressing that, even within our own ranks, many of our members imagine that the black hats have, in some sense, a more authentic version of Judaism than we do. When we look at other religions, we are fully aware that the most compassionate, charitable and honest version is the most authentic. We do not imagine that Christianity is at its most authentic in its belligerent form, nor that Islam is most authentic in its fundamentalist form. We know that they are both closest to God when they are humble, sincere and loving. Why are we so shy about expecting the same standards of our own religion? We are not at our most Jewish when we have the strictest food laws, but when we are sharing that food with others.

Most importantly, Neumann’s idea of traditional Judaism is so narrow and limiting. He never seeks to answer the question: what, then, is the point of Judaism? If our purpose on earth is not to heal the world, what is it? Should we just be slavishly obedient to some rules because we have a mythologised idea of how our ancestors were? Does Judaism have nothing to say to the modern world? If that is all we are, how can we be expected to survive? What would even make us worth preserving?

The truth is that, for we progressives, halachic observance and social justice are not competitors. They complement each other. Our food laws help us because they force us to think ethically about our consumption. Shabbat is a joy because it teaches us about the value of rest and the holiness of God. All our rules and rituals have value because they turn us into disciplined, conscientious people, who will seek out justice when it is necessary. Progressive Judaism sees very clearly that the point of Judaism is not the rules in themselves but the pursuit of a better world through them.

And, yes, all of this points us in a particular direction. You might call it the messianic age, as our prophets did. You might call it progressive Judaism, as our German founders did. You might call it tikkun olam, as the Americans in the ’70s did. Whatever name you give it, the message is clear. We have a short time on earth and we are here with a mission. As Jews, we have been tasked with a sacred purpose of perfecting the world, demanding justice and pursuing peace.

That is the point of Judaism. Let us work to heal the world together.

Shabbat shalom.

tikkun olam

I gave this sermon at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Ki Tisa on Saturday 23rd February.