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 It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic.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

festivals · sermon

Reform Judaism – or Revolution Judaism?

There was a seder that lasted all night. We talk about it every year.

It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak. They were discussing the Exodus from Egypt all that night until their students came and said to them: “Our teachers, the time has arrived to read the morning Shema.”

How could it be that five rabbis could talk all night and not know that the time had come to say Shema? We might imagine them engrossed in animated conversation, but even the best dinner party guests can identify when the sun has come up. The Shema is to be recited at dawn, and surely five great sages would know when the dawn has come.

Unless, of course, they couldn’t possibly know whether it was dark or light. Perhaps, our commentators now speculate, the rabbis were deep underground in a cave. You see, these rabbis lived through the great revolt against Rome, the Bar Kochba Rebellion. During this time, Jews hid out in caverns, as armed conflict raged between Judean zealots and Rome’s imperial armies.

The year was 132 CE. The great Temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed 60 years earlier. The wicked emperor Hadrian, who was also responsible for the Wall less than an hour from this synagogue, had overtaken the entire region. He erected a new temple to the Roman god Jupiter, renamed the capital city after himself, and persecuted the inhabitants.

Hadrian further antagonised the Jews by introducing new taxes and prohibiting certain religious practices. Shimon bar Koseva, better known as Bar Kochba, emerged as a military leader, determined to wage war against Rome. He gathered troops and summoned the entire Jewish diaspora into revolt. He called on our sages: “get armed! Get ready to reclaim Jerusalem!”

Every single one of the rabbis had an opinion on the matter. The core question facing them was whether they, the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, should get behind the armed struggle. Do they join with the ranks of the militants, or seek to make compromises with the Empire? Do they risk dying on their feet, or concede to live another day on their knees?

The new Reform Haggadah stages a debate between these five thinkers. Throughout rabbinic literature, we have statements attributed to each sage, many of which may have been directly connected to the struggle against Rome. Haggadateinu stitches them together into a dialogue, where each rabbi advocates his position.

Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Joshua tried to persuade the others of pacifism. The Torah teaches peace, so that was what they should pursue. The Jewish mission, after all, was to beat swords into ploughshares.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer countered them. The Jewish mission was to declare victory for God by opposing tyranny. This was, after all, the festival of Pesach, the celebration of freedom from Pharaoh, when the Jews had brought down the greatest empire of the age. They could relive their former glory, with swords in their hands and God on their side. A messianic fervour took hold of them, and Akiva even concluded that Bar Kochba must be the Messiah, ready to lead the Jews to ultimate salvation.

They continued the debate all night. They didn’t realise that dawn had come.

We do not know whether any of the sages changed their mind. But we do know what happened next. The Jews joined en masse in the revolt against Rome. And they lost. Hadrian persecuted them and destroyed an entire generation of rabbis. Akiva was flailed to death as he recited his prayers. Tarfon joined him as one of the ten martyrs.

So, with hindsight, which one of them was right? A cynic would dismiss Rabbi Akiva’s passion, saying he was foolhardy to take on the empire. But there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t have suffered just as much if they hadn’t resisted.

Maybe collaboration with Rome would have secured their survival. Our ancestors could have gone down Rabbi Tarfon’s route. They could have negotiated and compromised. Perhaps he would have permitted them to stay under his rule in Palestine and they would have lived there.

Then who would we have been? We would never have spread across the Diaspora as a light unto the nations. We may never have composed the Mishnah, the Midrashim, the Talmuds, or any of the subsequent generations of rabbinic literature. Quite possibly, if every Judean of the time had survived, the people would have lived, but there would be no Judaism. We needed the revolutionary spirit, that sense of injustice, and that determination to fight for what was right, in order that we could truly pass on a tradition.

Our Judaism is the Judaism of Rabbi Akiva.

But it is also the Judaism of Rabbi Tarfon. After the failure of the revolt against Rome, our rabbis had to regroup and reconsider what Judaism would mean. They re-made their religion as a movement that was not tied to any country or Temple, but that could live everywhere in the world. They did away with ancient sacrifices and replaced them with universal prayers. They found a way to make an accommodation with reality.

And they held onto Rabbi Akiva’s dreams, too. For two thousand years, Judaism has sustained its hope for a messianic age. At the end of the seder, we still declare ‘next year in Jerusalem!’ We are not making a plan to buy plane tickets. We are talking about the Jerusalem that Akiva had hoped for – the time of the Messiah. The age when tyranny is destroyed and war abolished.

We are, therefore, a religion of both revolution and reformation. We are still holding that tension, between working within oppressive systems, and seeking their abolition. We continue to recite the words of all five sages, holding their ideals alive.

And, as we recall their seder in Bnei Barak at our sederim in Newcastle, we join them back in those caves. We are with them, asking the same questions. We still want to know: how will we get free? What must we do? When will we know that the time has come?

We are still, in many ways, in Mitzrayim. The messianic age has not arrived. But every year we raise our glasses and welcome Elijah. We eat our symbols of liberation. We pray for the coming of a new day.

Yes, although we may feel that we are in darkness, we know that the dawn will come.

The dawn will surely come.

Chag Pesach sameach vkasher.

theology · torah

Stop doubting. Start doing.

Job was a man of complete integrity. According to his eponymous book of the Tanach, no matter what happened, Job was the epitome of Jewish righteousness. Then hardship fell, and Job began to doubt God’s justice.

This was hardly surprising. God had stripped him of everything, ridden him with disease, killed his children and destroyed his livelihood to test whether or not Job would remain faithful.[1]

As it turned out, Job could only endure so much. His friends comforted him with explanations of how God must be righteous after all, but they were insufficient. Finally, Job began to snap. What if God was not just?

Just then, God burst out through the clouds. “Who are you to question Me?” demanded God.[2]

After a lengthy excursus from Job’s inadequate interlocutors, we might expect a more thorough explanation. God has arrived and will explain the nature of justice.

Instead, God goes off on one about mythical beings. God talks about the Behemoth, an enormous bull-like monster that can rampage fields. God describes Livyathan, a fire-breathing dragon that cannot be killed.[3]

And this, apparently, satisfies Job.[4] Well, I’m not satisfied. I don’t know about you, but if I’m having doubts about my faith, “have you heard about the monsters God tamed?” won’t really cut it for me. You can’t respond to rational concerns by piling on ever more improbable legends. Now I’m filled with even more doubts.

But perhaps that’s the point. The author of Job, arguably the most philosophically complex text in our Tanakh, probably knew that these myths weren’t really an answer to the question posed.

The real answer, hidden within these poetic arguments, is that we don’t know. Whatever God is, it is beyond our comprehension.[5] Whatever justice is, we cannot fully reason it enough to grasp it. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ is what God is really saying.

Similarly, our parashah this week concerns Moses’s doubts. We have come to the book of Exodus, and Moses has already run away into the wilderness. Out of a flaming thicket, God summons Moses to rescue the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.[6]

Just as God answered Job from the clouds, so too does God answer Moses. But the answer Moses receives is no more comforting. ‘You don’t need to understand,’ says God, ‘you need to get going.’

“What if I’m not good enough?” asks Moses. “You will be,” says God.[7]

“Who even are you?” asks Moses. “I will be whatever I will be,” God roars back. “Tell the Israelites ‘I will be’ sent you.”[8]

“What if nobody believes me?” asks Moses. “They will,” says God.[9]

“But what if I can’t find the words?” asks Moses. At this point, God loses patience. “I gave you your mouth, I will give you the words! Now get yourself down to Egypt and set those slaves free!”[10]

Miracles might be convincing to some. Logic and reason might work some of the time. But, ultimately, you have to act. When faced with injustice, there is little time to contemplate the nature of sin and perfection and God’s role in it. You have to get out and do.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Conservative theologian and civil rights activist, famously pictured alongside Martin Luther King Jr at the march on Selma. He said that Judaism does not require a leap of faith, but a leap of action. We are called upon, first and foremost, to act. Whatever we think about it can come later.

This might sound strange to us, educated in a Western thought system that teaches us to calculate and reason before making choices. But it was not strange to the Israelites. When God called on them at Mount Sinai, they replied “we will do and we will hear.”[11]

According to the Talmud, a heretic accused Rava using this verse. Rava was sitting, so engrossed in study, that he didn’t notice he had trapped his finger in a chair leg and it was spurting blood everywhere. “You impulsive people!” the heretic said. “You still bear your impulsiveness of acting before you think. Listen first, work out what you can do, then act.”[12]

Rava responded with the verse from Proverbs:[13] “The integrity of the upright will guide them.”[14] We trust in our integrity. We trust in our conscience. We can be moved by our faith that we know right from wrong.

I think, over the last few years, progressives have done a great deal of doubting. We have been introspective and thoughtful. We have wondered, internally and out loud, whether we are right after all. Perhaps, as nationalist ideas return and religious conservatism gains strength, we might be able to make compromises on our ideals and find a middle-ground with others.

This week, fascists marched on the White House. They carried Confederate flags into Congress. A Nazi showed up among the rioters wearing a shirt that said: “Camp Auschwitz” on the front, and “staff” on the back, as if taking credit for the mass murder of Jews. They proudly displayed nooses, the symbol of anti-Black lynchings. Every brand of far-right conspiracy theorist and white supremacist descended on Washington, and video evidence shows that the police not only tolerated them but let them in.

Where has all our doubt and consideration left us? In our desire to find common ground and engage in reasoned discourse, we now come across as morally ambiguous and uncertain in our principles. We have left an ethical vacuum, and fascists have stormed into it. Intellectual curiosity is little use against the blunt force of white supremacists seeking to violently cease power.

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield has pointed out that our uncertainty is what differentiates us from fascists. Fascists are, by definition, absolutists. They do not interrogate their views or consider other perspectives. Our advantage over fascists comes from the fact that we give arguments due consideration and approach our own convictions with humility.

He may be right. Doubt might separate us intellectually from fascists. But it is action that separates fascists politically from power. There is no joy to be had in feeling superior if white supremacists gain power in government.

This week’s events may have been a terrifying climax to Trump’s presidency. But it is equally likely that they are a prelude to worse events. American white nationalists are emboldened and convinced that they can seize power through either ballots or bullets, depending on whichever method suits them. The situation in Britain is scarcely different, where racists have not felt so confident in decades.

Whether Trump now recedes into the background or his racist ideas come to dominate the world will depend on how we act. It will not depend on what we think, but on what we do. Events are calling us to action. If we want to eradicate fascism, we must be willing to fight it.

By all means, have doubts. Moses doubted. Moses was unsure. But God said to him, ‘go anyway. Get down to Egypt and free those people.’

We must be willing to face the Pharaohs of our time with the same vigour. We must be able to say: “I have come to act because God sent me. I am standing for justice because I know it to be right and true. I am standing against racism because I know it to be wrong. I will free these people. I will uproot tyrants. I will defend democracy and advance the cause of the oppressed.”

The integrity of the upright will guide us.

Although we may not fully understand these monsters before us, we will slay them.

And we will vanquish fascism for good.

Shabbat shalom.


I am giving this sermon on 9th January 2021 at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Shmot.

[1] Job 1

[2] Job 40

[3] Job 41

[4] Job 42

[5] Job 11

[6] Ex 3

[7] Ex 3:11-12

[8] Ex 3:14

[9] Ex 4:1-9

[10] Ex 4:11-12

[11] Ex 24:7

[12] BT Shabbat 88a

[13] Prov 11:3

[14] BT Shabbat 88b

high holy days · sermon

Being holy

These are the short sermons I am giving at Glasgow Reform Synagogue for Yom Kippur afternoon 5781.

Being holy

This afternoon’s Torah service instructs us: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal One your God, am holy.” But how do we live holiness? An answer to this comes from the great tradition of mussar. This was a movement that emerged in 19th Century Vilna for promoting Judaism as an ethical movement. The musarnikes, or moralists, argued that study alone was not enough, but that it had to be directed towards making Jews into better people.

The heir to that movement is the Mussar Institute in the USA. Earlier in the year, its leader, Alan Morinis, gave a four-day virtual conference at Edgware Reform Synagogue, advocating its ideas. In the musar system, people have attributes, called middot, that we must cultivate in order to be a holy people. Qualities like faith, modesty, willingness, and joy. In these short divrei Torah for the afternoon, I will give stories and quotations from the mussar tradition that reinforce our liturgical readings.

At every stage of this Torah reading, the reason for each commandment is “because I am the Eternal One your God.” It is repeated at the end of almost every verse. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, taught: “Do all you can to internalise faith and live with it daily.”

I know faith will mean many different things. For some, it is in God.  For others, it is in our fellow human beings. And for others still it is in the possibilities the future holds. Wherever your faith lies, cling to it, strengthen it, and build it into every decision you make.

Being simple

Our next Torah reading comes from Deuteronomy. It tells us: “These teachings are not too baffling for you, nor are they beyond your reach. It is not in the Heavens […] nor is it over the sea.” The Torah, we understand, is a simple text with a simple message. That message is summarised by Micah in the dictum: “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

This simple message is reinforced by the mussar tradition. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a leader of the Orthodox community in 20th Century Britain, taught: “Human beings pursue worldly pleasures because they have a subconscious urge to still the pangs of spiritual hunger. Everyone has this nameless inner yearning: the longing of the soul for its state of perfection. Earthly indulgence is only an illusory substitute for this.”

In these trying times, we have to enjoy the simplicity of what we have. We may not be able to enjoy the luxuries of previous years, and even many essentials may seem out of reach. But this provides us with an opportunity to get in touch with what really matters. With our souls, with ourselves, with each other. To walk humbly with our God.

Being willing

Jonah ran away from everything he was supposed to do. He ran away to Tarshish to get away from Nineveh. He hid in the boat rather than face the other sailors. He sat in the belly of a giant fish before he accepted his responsibility. 

On Yom Kippur, we pray about the sins we have committed willingly and unwillingly. I think this year, we might also reflect on the good deeds we have done willingly and unwillingly. What has been a challenge to us to do right? 

Sometimes, for many, even getting out of bed in the morning feels difficult. The first line of the first part of the major law code, Shulchan Aruch, teaches: “One should strengthen herself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve her Creator, so that it is she who awakens the dawn.” 

The greatest challenge facing us this year is not to give in to futility. Whatever we can do, we must be full of enthusiasm. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of 18th Century Italy taught that we have to be self-motivated and not abandon ourselves to heaviness so that we come to merit divine service.

Even when the days can take their toll, may we approach winter’s tasks with willingness. May we pursue the needs of our community with enthusiasm, and hurry to do more for our loved ones.

Being joyous

We must be joyous. Of all the attributes to strive towards, joy might seem the strangest to mention in between the death bed confession and the recitation of sins. But it is, by far, the most important.

Rabbi Dovid Bliacher taught: “when faced with trouble, do not see it as a punishment for a past lapse, and do not be filled with guilt and despair. Rather, rejoice in this new opportunity to rise up by the medium of the test you now face.”

Even in the hardest times, we have to approach them with joy. Yes, we live in a crisis, but this is also an opportunity. Out of the rubble of Coronavirus, we can build back a better society, where people care for each other, where intergenerational communities support each other’s health and happiness, and where the needs of every human being on the planet are met.

Let us not delay for a moment in seeking to achieve that. And, as we go, let’s take joy in all that we have. This community. These friends. These bodies. This earth. This one precious life, in which every moment is a gift from God. Let us greet every day with joy.