sermon · social justice · theology

What do we stand for?

Five years ago, I interviewed to start rabbinic training. Over four days, I went into different rooms, where rabbis, academics and lay leaders quizzed me about why I wanted to be a rabbi. 

It was intense. In one interview, one of the rabbis asked me: “what do you think you most want to learn while you are here?”

I said: “I’d like to learn what we stand for.” 

My interviewers scrunched up their faces. I imagined them thinking, “are you sure you’re in the right place?”

How could I not know what we believe? We are Progressive Jews; we stand for Progressive Judaism. Perplexed, she pushed me: “can you think of any principles of Progressive Judaism?” 

I thought, and said: “informed choice.” We do what we like, in conversation with Jewish tradition.

The rabbi sat back and took notes. I wasn’t sure whether I had given a correct answer, and she was confused how I could say I didn’t know what we stood for if I had that grounding, or if I’d missed something more important.

What I was trying to ask was: surely we don’t just choose whatever we like? A Progressive Jew can’t make the informed choice to commit murder. We don’t look at that central commandment and think: ‘ah, but it was for its time.’ We have a shared assumption that the prohibition on killing applies to every time. So how do we make these informed choices? What decides for us which choices are right and wrong?

Permissiveness is not really a value. It’s something you do out of indifference. There must be something stronger than that motivating our congregants to get out of bed and labour for the welfare of their community. 

Apparently, I am not alone. Throughout my time as a student, going to congregations across the country, people have asked me that very same question in different ways. 

What are the values of Reform Judaism? What does living by Progressive Jewish values actually mean?

After 4 years of study, well… I still don’t have the answer. But I feel much closer to it than I did when I started. And the answer begins with this week’s parashah.

At the end of Masei, we hear the story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. They come forward before Moses and assert their rights to inheritance. Their father, they say, was a good man who had no sons. As it stands, his property will be passed on to nobody, and these women will be left destitute. They argue that they should be the ones to inherit his estate. Moses talks to God. God agrees.

This is a big deal in Torah terms. It shows that a law can change. Decisions are not fixed in stone but can adapt with the times. It fits exactly with the Progressive mindset. We look at the laws again, and work out if they are still relevant. Moses looked at inheritance law, saw that it wasn’t working, and decided it was time to set a new precedent.

This is at the heart of Progressive Judaism. We progress. We treat the Torah and our traditions as our basis, but we are always willing to review it, and find new ways that better suit our reality.

The case of the daughters of Tzelafchad is a great example. It fits with our intuitions about what is right and wrong. Of course these women should inherit.

But does that mean every time a law changes, it’s an improvement? In the course of the Torah, laws also change to take rights away from people. Laws can change that make people’s lives worse. 

The reason why we consider this legal change so praiseworthy is because it makes life better for people. In particular, because it makes life better for women. 

It fits with the feminist lesson we have learnt from history. Through the last century of the women’s liberation movement, our religion learned the importance of giving everyone their full rights and abilities to participate in Jewish life.

We have our own hashkafah: our own way of looking at the world. We see progress in terms of what gives people the most equality, dignity, and justice. 

Other strands of Judaism may give priority to tradition, nationalism, or conservatism. We say that what matters is equity. 

We did not decide to pursue this egalitarian cause because we thought it would make things easier. Quite on the contrary: it made things harder for many people. At the start of our movement, people were disowned by their families and ridiculed by the religious establishment because of their conviction that equality mattered. They took the more difficult course because it was the right one.

Since the early days of Reform Judaism, we have prioritised gender equality. This week, I met with one of the founder members of SWESRS, who said that in their very first days, the community discussed what they wanted from a synagogue. Even in the 1950s, they insisted that equality between men and women would be of the utmost importance.  

This synagogue has gone on to create a legendary legacy. The UK’s first woman rabbi, Jackie Tabick, was raised here. This is a place with a proud history of putting forward that great principle of Reform Judaism: that equality matters.

That is how we approach the question of whether and when to change a law. We are not beholden to tradition, forced to do everything today and tomorrow, just because we did it that way yesterday. Nor will we go along with every change, just because it feels fashionable or convenient. 

At every stage, the question we ask ourselves is: is this right? Is this just?

We seek to make changes that will make people more equal, more empowered, and more dignified. 

So, now, if I am asked what we stand for, I have a much clearer answer.

We stand for equality.

We stand for the emancipation of all of humanity.

We stand up for the oppressed and stand beside the marginalised.

We stand in the footsteps of Moses, who changed laws because he could see that justice mattered.

We stand before God, proud to inherit a tradition; and courageous enough to change that tradition for the better. 

That is where we stand.

Shabbat shalom. 

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, Parashat Matot-Masei, 10th July 2021

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.