Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight, as we open the haggadah, we will tell the children they are free to ask. We will lay out plates of display foods, including an egg, a bone, and a mushy mixture of fruit and nuts, so that people will ask questions about our exodus from Egypt.
In “mah nishtana,” the lovely song chanted by the youngest at the table, we hear four questions about why tonight is different from every other. Why do we lean to the left when we drink? Why do we dip things in salt water? Why do we eat that tear-jerking horseradish, maror? And why have we had to substitute delicious bread for mediocre matzah?
So highly valued is questioning at this season that Judaism has been described as a religion of questions. Ask us a question and we’ll answer with another question. A decade ago at this season, the American businessman Edgar Bronfman declared “to be Jewish is to ask questions.” This festival, with all its questioning, he said, proves that Judaism permits plenty of doubt and openness to many answers.
I have a problem with this approach. The trouble is… these questions have answers! They’re not open-ended speculations to which we’ll dedicate the rest of our lives pondering.
We lean to the left when we drink our wine to show that we are free. We dip parsley in salt water to remind us of the taste of tears that came from enslavement. We eat the bitter herbs in commemoration of the bitterness of slavery. We eat matzah to recall that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry, because we can waste no time in pursuing freedom.
These are the answers. They tell us what the festival is all about and what Judaism really means. It’s about how freedom tastes good and oppression is painful. It’s about the moral message of a God who saw the difference and decided to redeem the Israelites. These questions have a purpose, to provoke us into contemplating justice.
This idea that Judaism is all about questioning and doubt has taken such a hold that people have hung entire theologies on it. There is a story in the Talmud that the two great founding houses of rabbinic Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, were in a conflict for three years. Eventually, a divine voice announced from the sky: “these and these are the words of the living God.”
It is a beautiful story, but it has been repeatedly cited by Jewish educators to justify a relativism that firmly believes nothing. Everything is true. All views are valid.
These teachers always conveniently omit the subsequent words from that divine voice: that the halachah is in accordance with Beit Hillel. They both may have valid viewpoints, but only one can be implemented. The Talmud asks why it was that Hillel’s house won. It answers that they were עלובין – a word often translated to mean ‘modest’ but which really means ‘wretched’ or ‘poor.’
The House of Hillel really were comprised of the poor. Their judgements consistently advocated for the slaves against the masters and the peasants against the patrician class. They strove to make Judaism more accessible to the downtrodden and more just for the oppressed. In other words, God may be able to speak through many voices, but ultimately the one that champions moral truth is still the correct one.
I do understand why people might want to advocate for doubt and questioning. It is an antidote to dogmatism. It stops people becoming fundamentalists, Imagining that they alone can speak for God.
But there are real problems with leaving everything open to debate. Surely it is not just an open question whether or not to hurt people. The words of oil barons and indigenous climate activists are surely not equally ‘the words of the living God.’ We can’t give equal weight to every view or only question without seeking answers.
My very favourite philosopher was a British-Jewish woman called Gillian Rose. She wrote with such beauty about things that really matter. She saw the problems of only questioning and allowing every viewpoint quite clearly. She also agreed that we couldn’t just assert answers. If either everyone is correct or only one answer is correct, there is no room for discussion.
So, Gillian Rose says, you have to pick a side. You have to decide what you think is right. You have to look at what your conscience tells you and aim for meaningful justice. You might be wrong, so you have to keep your mind open to nuance and debate. But you also have to know right from wrong.
Pesach is indeed a time for asking questions. But it is, above all, a night for seeking answers.
Pesach invites us to ask about freedom so that we will fight for it. Pesach invites us to ask about oppression so that we will vanquish it.
We must ask these questions because Pharaoh was not just a man who lived a long time ago and the exodus was not a one-time event. These are words of a living God because they speak to struggles that are still very live.
Tonight is a night for asking questions. Tonight is a night for seeking answers.
The great question of Pesach is: what are you doing to bring about justice today?
I am not making any claims about how God made me or what plans God had in store. I have no idea whether my personality was predetermined. I do not have any opinion on whether I am gay because of nature or nurture. I stopped caring about that a long time ago.
But I still say that God is the reason I am gay. Because God is the reason that, if I were given the choice whether or not to keep being gay, I would stay exactly as I am. God is the reason I am proud to be open.
Growing up, there were many reasons I ought to have felt shame. In the 1990s, there was widespread public panic about gay men. I remember as a child opening up a ‘dictionary of new words.’ On one of the first pages was AIDS, whose entry redirected to ‘Gay-Related Disease.’ News stories proliferated about gay men grooming children, having sex in toilets and ruining families. The public image, only 20 years ago, was that gays were dirty, lived in sewers, and spread disease.
Synagogue was a place where I felt safe. In the small shul in my provincial town, I found serenity. And I heard religious leaders and cheder teachers speak about the innate dignity of all human beings; the Divine spark that permeated through everyone; the obligation to protect the stranger and the vulnerable.
The first time I ever heard an adult defend gay rights was in a community member’s living room. I must have been 11. Recently, a local parliamentary candidate had been outed after he was found having sex in a public toilet. Someone said something homophobic – I don’t remember the details.
A middle-aged Jewish woman leapt to the gay man’s defence. She spoke with absolute passion. She laughed when one of the homophobes said he had a gay friend. She was a grown-up telling off a bigot, and she rallied the rest of the room behind her.
As a young queer boy questioning who I was, I looked up to her and thought that was what Judaism looked like in practice. That was what it meant to defend the marginalised. I had permission – from her, and from the God in whom she believed – to be gay.
Gradually I came to realise that I was one of the people that the Jewish woman in the living room had been defending. I didn’t meet many other people like me until I got to university. When I did, I heard from many of them how religious hatred had hurt them and made them reluctant to be open about who they were.
I was grateful that I had known the true God. Progressive Jews worshipped the Source of love and justice, the universal God who did not judge, and who always stood beside the oppressed, and never sided with the oppressor. I thanked God for making me gay.
Later still, I looked around for role models. I wondered what gays could become. I knew a few celebrities existed, like Graham Norton, Elton John and George Michael. But my greatest comfort was knowing that there were gay rabbis. Rabbis like Lionel Blue.
As I looked for purpose in my twenties, I had an inspiring lesbian rabbi. I realised how much strength and joy a synagogue could give, especially to future LGBT kids. I decided I had to create that safe space for others. So God made me gay and, in turn, being gay made me seek out God.
That is the power of religion. Done right, it can affirm people when they are weakest. It can give hope to children that people like them deserve defending. It can be the champion of all who are suffering. It can be the cause of their liberation.
And that power can be profoundly abused. There are those who wield religious power to scare gays into submission. There are those who sit down with queer children and tell them that they need to seek forgiveness for their sinful thoughts. That they have been brainwashed by transgender ideology. That they are mentally disturbed. That they are possessed by demons.
Apparently it is called ‘conversion therapy.’ In this practice, authority figures tell LGBT people that they can stop them being trans or turn them straight. They convince them that if they suppress their personalities, conform to rigid gender roles and only love who they are told, they will be healed. And they do so in the name of God.
And this practice is legal. In Britain. Today.
It is even practised within the British Jewish community. Recently, LGBT people have come forward to share their traumatic stories of how they were manipulated into believing they could be ‘cured’ of non-conformity. They were convinced that if they failed, they would lose their family and community for having let down God.
If queer-affirming religion can make me the person I am today, imagine the damage it can do to teenagers struggling to work out who they are.
As the possibility was raised that this cruel practice could be stopped, a coalition of evangelical churches comprising thousands of members published an open letter saying that banning conversion therapy would effectively outlaw their religion.
At Easter, Labour leader, Keir Starmer, went to one of those very churches to give his festive address. In response to the consternation this provoked from LGBT people, Stephen Timms, a Labour MP, tweeted in support of the homophobic church.
The two most recent prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, had both visited this church too, causing outrage. The former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, recently accepted a donation of £75,000 from an evangelical church that lobbies in defence of conversion therapy.
When politicians spend their time and take money from homophobic religious institutions, they send out a clear message. They tell religious lesbian, gay, bi and trans people that they are, at best, indifferent to homophobia.
When public figures choose to attend these places of worship that claim they can cure gays, rather than any of the mainstream faith houses that embrace gays, they send a message about what they consider to be proper religion, and which God they think matters.
But it is possible to send a different message. We can say that conversion therapy is unacceptable. While banning the practice won’t stop it happening, it lets everyone know that it is not OK. Young people will still talk to their rabbis about how they’re feeling, but religious leaders should not be able to answer LGBT children by promising to take away their gayness or transness.
Instead, they can give them a better message. Young LGBT people can grow up to see that their lives are sacred and deserve to be protected. They can know that they are wonderful as they are and do not need to be changed.
God is the reason I am gay, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Once, in a plausible past, a scientist built a machine. It was so powerful it could handle complex reasoning. It could calculate absolutely anything.
The scientist programmed the machine so that it could work out the optimal outcome for any decision. If she asked it whether to eat porridge or cornflakes, this contraption would measure up the nutritional value of each cereal against her personal health, exercise and needs.
It would even factor in how happy each breakfast choice could make her, short term and long-term. This machine would crunch those numbers until it spurted out the best possible result. Porridge this morning. Almond milk. No salt or sugar.
This scientist discovered she could put her instrument to use with every daily task. Before long, she had completely optimised her life. She went to sleep and woke up at exactly the right time. She did the perfect amount of exercise. She worked a job that maximised her fulfilment, income and skill set.
She used it to work out where to do her charitable giving: finding the cause that would save the most human lives for the least amount of money. The machine told her which purchasing choices would have the least impact on the environment for the fairest price to consumer, labourer and business owner.
Such a fine apparatus! Of course, it was only a matter of time before she realised this could have implications far beyond her own life. She brought her machine to the capital city and presented it before the benevolent president.
“Ma’am,” she intoned as she bowed, “this machine will help you make the perfect decision at all times.”
“Let me try,” said the president. She lifted herself from her seat and walked over to the metal block. “For the longest time, I have wondered if I need more advisers to increase the wisdom in my country. Perhaps this machine can tell me how many more I should hire, and what sort of person I need?”
The scientist typed in the numbers, and you have already worked out what happened next. The answer was so obvious! The machine told the president that she did not need any advisors, because all her decisions could be rationally calculated by the computer. Immediately the president dismissed all her advisors.
Now the real work could begin. The computer informed the president of all the best crops that could be grown in the best soil for the best results. It told her what land to capture and which pastures to disregard. It explained which industries would be most cost-effective. Within a matter of months, the country was transformed.
Then the computer updated the president with which workers were most efficient, and which ones consumed more than they produced. The machine enumerated which people were most likely to disrupt social order. It showed how the population would be healthier and happier if it were smaller and more homogenous. The president gleefully implemented its dictats.
The machine calculated who to imprison. Who to promote. Who to ignore. Who to starve. Who to execute.
Because a machine can count absolutely anything. Except the value of a life.
No. The worth of a human being cannot be accounted for by any mathematical system. Life comes from something that is infinite and belongs to that Infinity. As such, it is indivisible, indefinable, immeasurable. No machine can capture God. No machine can understand those inviolable precepts that we call ‘human rights’.
The idea that there is such a thing as human rights is, fundamentally, a religious ideal. It can only be understood by reference to something holy. The rights of human beings are inviolable because they are given by God. Philosophy’s great atheists – Bentham, Marx, Singer – also explicitly rejected the discourse of human rights.
Conversely, Tom Paine grounded his rights of man in the biblical account of God having created us equal in Eden. When Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence, he explained that human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” When the colonised and enslaved people of the Americas answered back that they, too, had such rights, they appealed to the same Divine Source. When Wollstonecraft vindicated the rights of women, she insisted that “God brought into existence creatures above the brutes so that they would have incalculable gifts.”
In this week’s haftarah, God tells the prophet Zechariah: “not by might, nor by power, but only by My spirit” can the Jewish people truly live. All the force and wealth in the world cannot compare to the sacred truth of God’s infinity. We are nothing if we abandon God’s message.
More than a religious value, human rights are a Jewish value. Hanukkah is underway. It is a festival that celebrates an oppressed minority’s achievement of religious freedom in the face of colonial oppression. It remembers how the Seleucids once tried to violate Jews’ every right, but were ultimately defeated. Above all, we are told, it was God who safeguarded their rights.
A testimony to the Jewishness of human rights comes from the author of their Declaration. This week is Human Rights Shabbat, commemorating 72 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among its composers was a French-Jewish jurist named Rene Cassin. Cassin was keen to ensure that there was some legal framework for guaranteeing people were protected, no matter where they were from; what minorities they belonged to; or what they believed.
In particular, in the shadow of a genocide perpetrated against Jews, the Declaration of Human Rights sought to ensure that never again would a group be systematically eradicated. Human rights were supposed to be a counterpoint against genocide.
Genocide, like the choices described in the story of the morality machine, is the result of mechanical thinking. It is something that can only be justified when human beings are reduced to statistics and social consequences only measured in terms of order or prosperity.
You see, the machine that could calculate anything except the value of a life did not exist only in fiction. It is already a part of our daily reality.
Before genocide can be carried out in camps, it is developed on spreadsheets and planned on computers.
Before people can commit atrocities, they have to switch off the part of themselves that connects with their infinite source and plug in only to the finite equations of capitalist mentality. If we are not careful, we can become the machine. We become the automatons that punch out numbers and make calculations and rationally process every evil.
Our media asks us how many people should be permitted into Britain, and we churn back answers into the polls. We are challenged to decide how many people should die of Coronavirus, and how many should be imprisoned to stop their deaths. We are told to weigh up which tools of warfare our country should have to capture the greatest resources for the least sacrifice.
We are asked the most unconscionable questions and, barely processing the implications, return answers like amoral computers. If we permit ourselves to think like robots when we weigh up the values of other people’s lives, we truly do destroy the humanity in ourselves.
We will only break free from such finite thinking when we put it into the perspective of Infinity. It is the infiniteness within someone that makes them holy. It is their Infinite source that makes their purpose sacred.
For the sake of humanity, we embrace human rights.
This year is unlike every other in so many ways. In order to keep people engaged with the services, I am delivering sermonettes between prayers, as two-minute reflections on the meaning of the festival. The four drashes for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 follow.
On lighting candles
The world stands balanced between darkness and light. Just as the day comes, night will surely follow. And when night falls on a night like tonight, on a holy night, we light a candle.
Adam was afraid of the dark. When the first human being witnessed the sun start to fall on his first evening on the planet, he cried out because he thought the sun would never return and the darkness marked his death. Throughout the night, he and Eve cried, until dawn came, and he realised that God had made day to follow night.
As night falls, we too can feel fear. But we know something that Adam did not. We know that the day will come. We know that even in the midst of utmost darkness, light will surely come.
This year, celebrating Rosh Hashanah may inevitably feel bittersweet. We are dipping our apples in a honey that has tasted pandemic and economic collapse. Many of us are facing uncertainty about our health, finances and relationships. It is natural that we should wonder how much we can go on.
But by coming here tonight, we affirm that we will go on. We remember the thousands of years we endured since the first human being looked upon the first night sky. We acknowledge that we do not only pray that day will come, but that we can work to bring on the day. And we know that no matter how dark it may seem, we can always light a candle.
“You’ve got to have hope. To some people the only thing they have to look forward to is hope.” These were the words of Harvey Milk, a gay Jewish immigrant in California; an activist who transformed politics in defence of minorities. As he sought election to office, he told his captive audience: “You have to give them hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that all will be alright.”
And it wasn’t alright for Harvey Milk, who was assassinated 40 years ago. But it was alright for many others. Because of his fight, I grew up in a better world than I otherwise would have done. Because of the sacrifices he made, I live in a world that gay people of the past could only have imagined. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up hope now.
We are all here because of the optimism of previous generations. The immigrants who packed their bags, believing they could make a better life here. The survivors who made it through the camps because they had the strength of will. The feminists who insisted that women had a place in the synagogue, not just as spectators but as leaders. Every Jew who decided that showing up was worthwhile and kept the faith of our people alive through the centuries. We owe it to them, and to the generations who will follow us, to keep hope alive.
The psalm that Howard and Fiona just read for us teaches: “When the wicked flourish, they are only like grass […] but the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, growing tall like a cedar in Lebanon. Even in old age, they will bear new fruit and shine green in the courtyards of our God.” Remember this. Remember that the wickedness we see in the world is only grass that will wither, but that righteousness plants firm roots in the soil and refuses to be moved.
Know that just as we live in the dialectic of night and day, so too do we live in an unending struggle between right and wrong. As Jews, we will hold on to our faith in what is right. And in pursuit of it, we will remind the world of the holiness of hope.
There was a time in King Solomon’s life when he was given over to nihilism. He wrote Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, in which he declared: “Everything is vanity.” He said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”
His advisers tried to console him, but Solomon only retorted with a challenge: “tell me something that will always be true.” Many days and weeks passed, but no one could respond. One day, a jeweller came in holding up a ring. On it, she had engraved three words: גם זה יעבור – this too shall pass.
Yes, the only certainty is change. We recite hashkiveinu – cause us to lie down and let us rise up to life renewed. We go to sleep only to wake up. We wake up, and we go to sleep. We live in this constant cycle.
In a moment, we will recite the blessing for the new moon. The moon, like us, like life, exists in a constant state of flux. It waxes only to wane and fills out only to diminish again. Note that is not the full moon we bless, when the night sky is brightest and the moon appears most whole. It is the new one, when only a slither hangs in the night sky, promising only potential.
When the rabbis blessed the moon, they used to gaze up at it and say: “David, king of Israel, long may he live.” David was, of course, long dead. He, the father of Solomon, was for them the prototype of the messianic age. He represented an imaginary perfect society of the past. And he stood in as the harbinger of the future utopia. We do not live yet in a perfected world, but we can look up at the sky and see the moon as our model. Just as the moon starts out as a tiny crescent and expands to its fullest form, we too can live in the darkest of times and know that completeness will follow. Whatever this pandemic throws at us, we know that it will pass, and a brighter future awaits us.
We live in the balance between sweet and bitter; darkness and light; completion and absence; justice and iniquity. Above all, this year, we live in the balance between sickness and health.
Let us take time to reflect on sickness. On all those who have died of Covid. The 40,000 who died in the UK and over 900,000 who have died worldwide. We think of all those who have survived Covid but still live with its scars – those who still have trouble walking, breathing and carrying out daily activities. We think of all those suffering with sicknesses unrelated to the pandemic, often marginalised and ignored. We contemplate the mental health of everyone in our society, as we face anxiety, depression and trauma. We pray for everyone whose bodies, minds and spirits need healing.
But in the dialectic of health, we are also able to celebrate the vitality we still possess. We show joy at all those who are alive. We are grateful that we who sit here tonight are counted among them. We can think of the community we have built, the solidarity we have engendered and the strength we have found in each other. Let us pray, then, not only that we will be healed, but that we will be active in helping others to heal.
Because this crisis will end. Every catastrophe there ever was has been brought to closure at some point.
Wars have begun with shots fired on foreign shores and ended with neighbours kissing outside their front doors.
Our scientists have conquered tuberculosis, leprosy, HIV and polio. It may take months and it may take years, but they will find a cure and people will recover.
Humanity has survived ice ages, famines and nuclear meltdowns. And it will survive this. This crisis will, one day, be over.
And when it is… how will we know?
The ancient world had rituals for bringing every ordeal to a close. When the sick returned from their quarantine, they were ritually bathed seven times, given new clothes, and shaved from head to toe.1
We, too, will wash ourselves anew. We will look at water and soap differently. We will cry in the shower to produce as much water as possible, knowing that those cleansing droplets are the secret to life itself.
And we still won’t know whether the crisis is over.
The priests of the bible would perform ceremonies to indicate that closure had occurred. On recovery from sickness, they would give offerings of unleavened cakes, fine flour, oil and animal blood.1 They would thank God for their health with their sacrifices.2 They would wave their hands in the air, bringing the ingredients together, embodying their wholeness.3
We, too, will make offerings. We will return to reopened pubs and put our glasses in the air and celebrate our survival with pints of cider and drams of whiskey and we will say ‘l’chaim’ like we never knew what it meant to say ‘to life’ before.
We will be grateful. We will thank God that we were among those who survived. We will thank God that even those who did not survive would be proud to see the continuity of the world they built. We will realise that a day when you can drink surrounded by friends and family should never be taken for granted. We will truly understand that life is a gift.
And still we will not know whether the crisis is over.
Our rabbis knew how to mark transitions with words. When good things happened for the first time in a long time, they instituted that we should say “blessed are you, Eternal One our God, Creator of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and allowed us to reach this season.”4
We will do old things for the first time. We will play in parks with our children again. And they will meet new children for the first time. And we will leave our houses without a purpose just to knock on old friends’ doors and see their faces for the first time. And we will hug. And we will kiss. And we will go to cinemas and nightclubs and gyms and synagogues. Yes! we will most certainly pack out our synagogues again. And we will treasure those moments and thank God that we lived to see them.
And we won’t know whether the crisis is over.
Our rabbis knew how to mark the bad with the good. They knew that not every transition was a recovery. They knew that sometimes people died and it felt like the whole world had been destroyed. They knew how to mark it. They told us to rip our clothes and let our hair grow long.5 They knew that sometimes so many loved ones would die that we would have to shred our whole wardrobes.6
We will grieve. We do not yet know how many we will grieve. It may be only the thousands who have already died. We will learn not to call thousands of deaths ‘only’. We may lose a person whom we love. We may lose many people whom we love. We will grieve for all of them.
We will cry in the streets in funeral processions for all those who never had the chance to mourn properly on lockdown. We will wail without abandon for every life taken too soon. Every life that will be taken will have gone too soon. We will huddle together in houses and let out all our sadness and anger.
We will feel guilty. Because, after all, feeling guilty is a part of grieving and surviving isn’t always such a cause for celebration. And although we will not believe it at first, we will recover. And we will move on.
And we still will not know whether the crisis is over.
Because the crisis will not yet be over.
If we leave our houses and go back to our old jobs to pay rent and mortgages in the same houses to barely survive in the same cities, Coronavirus will not have been defeated. We will only have signed an armistice with sickness, knowing that another plague will face us again. This will not be the last virus. Any effort to return to normality will only exacerbate the problems that have gone before.
Never again will we fight each other for dried pasta and toilet roll and sanitary pads and formula milk. Never again will we stare into our cupboards and wonder how long our tinned food will last us. We cannot ever return to the days of scarcity.
Before we can begin to move on, we have to be assured that all of humanity’s basic needs will be met unconditionally. Healthcare, food, water and clean energy will be considered human rights. When we struggle for them, we will struggle for everyone to have them. We will insist on it the way that world leaders pledge at the end of wars never to pick up weapons again, only this time we will mean it.
And still that will not be enough for us to say that the crisis is over.
Never again will people carry on working when they are sick because dying of starvation sounds worse than dying of disease. Never again will people live one pay cheque away from homelessness. Never again will family homes be foreclosed. Never again will people worry how they are going to self-isolate when they have nowhere to live. Housing will be provided universally on the basis of need, so that these crises can never be repeated.
And that won’t be enough for us to say it’s over.
Because there are today vulnerable, elderly and disabled people who are saying that self-isolation was already their standard practice, and that they did not choose it voluntarily. Because there are sick people who already feel like they are a burden to society when their lives are a gift from God. Because there are families torn about by borders and there is escalating racism that makes people feel even more afraid and we know that loneliness and bigotry and fear make life unbearable. We will judge our society not by the strength of its economy but by the strength of its weakest members. Only when we are assured that the value of human life is unquantifiable will be able to draw a line under the past.
And that day will come. This crisis will end. Ever crisis that ever was has come to an end.
And we will mark it. Every human being who is alive will sign a new international constitution, swearing allegiance only to each other and to God. And we will swear to protect everything that lives and the precious planet that sustains it. And on that document we will enshrine rights we never thought possible. And it will be the benchmark for everything that comes afterwards.
And everyone, all around the world, will subscribe to it.
We will not know the crisis is over because everything goes back to being the same. We will know the crisis is over when we are certain that everything has changed.
Then we will know beyond all doubt that this crisis is over.
I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College, Parashat Tzav. I then decided to publish it early because I have too much free time.
Purim is such a strange time. It is a time when everything is turned upside down. In our story, the oppressed become the oppressors; the ones who wanted to slaughter become the slaughtered; Jews become Persians; Persians become Jews.
We act out the topsy-turviness of it all by dressing up in costumes, getting drunk, and generally living as we normally wouldn’t. Somehow this grand inversion festival is one of my favourites, but I’m never really sure what it was about until it’s over. In fact, every year for the last year, I’ve preached about Purim after it happened, rather than before. I suppose that fits with the overall back-to-front-ness of the whole celebration.
This year, what struck me most was the connection between the Torah portion and the Megillah reading.1 In our Megillah, the story of Esther, the enemy is the evil Haman. Haman sets himself up as a god, demanding that people bow down to him, and when they do not, he seeks to wipe out the Jews. The Jews, in this antique Persian context, are already the most vulnerable people. They are the smallest minority, unarmed, and completely powerless. Haman decides to wipe them out.
In the Torah reading, taken from Deuteronomy, the enemy is Amalek. We are enjoined to remember him and what he did to the Israelites in the wilderness.2 The Amalekites had attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest, dehydrated and suffering without water.3 According to our commentators, Amalek attacked from behind, killing the weakest first.4
The Megillah tells us that Haman was a descendant of Amalek, via their king, Agag.5 We do not necessarily need to believe that Haman had any genetic connection to Amalek. What they had in common they showed through their actions. Both attacked the weak. Both went for the most vulnerable first. They are not only symbols of antisemitism, but of all tyrants. This is how the cruel operate: by doing first to the weak what they would like to do to the strong.
It is deeply distressing to see in our times that the ideas of Amalek still prevail. At this moment, the world is closely watching the Coronavirus. My rabbinic colleagues in Italy are on complete lockdown. Many services have been cancelled. I am giving this sermon, for the first time, over the internet, rather than in person with my regular congregation.
That there is a pandemic should not be too alarming. There are often diseases going around the world – some are more contagious and more deadly than others. This one, it seems, is much less deadly than bird flu, but is more contagious than regular flu, and we do not yet have immunity to it.
In these times, maintaining calm and supporting each other is of the utmost importance. We should all, I am sure you already know, be meticulous about following NHS advice to wash our hands regularly, avoid touching our faces and not get too close to each other. If you exhibit symptoms, like a dry cough, shortness of breath, or fever, you should stay home for 7 days. Don’t go to the hospital or the GP.6
Yet there are those who have not helped maintain calm, but who have almost revelled in the potential death toll. Jeremy Warner, a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote in his column that the death of the weak from Coronavirus could be good for the economy. He said:
Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.7
With this one sentence, the Telegraph reminded me that Amalek’s ideology never ceases. It is in the idea that the weak are disposable, that the strongest survive, and that the strength of the economy or the nation matters more than the lives of the vulnerable.
The idea espoused by Warner might be called ‘social Darwinism’. It is a theory of evolution that sees all species as rugged individuals, fighting over resources. Sickness and death are nature’s way of weeding out those who are unnecessary. If people survive, it is because they deserved to. This was the logic that allowed the weak to be killed by the Nazis. It is the theory that underpinned government inaction to HIV as it killed off gay and black people.
It must be opposed. No idea could be more antithetical to the Jewish mind. We affirm that every human being is created in the image of God, and every life has intrinsic value. The disabled, the elderly and the immuno-compromised are not valuable because of how much they can contribute, but because God has placed them on this Earth. The Creator’s purpose for humanity far exceeds what any stock market has in mind.
We must oppose it not only because it contradicts religious truth, but also because it contradicts scientific truth. In 1902, the biologist and Russian Prince, Piotr Kropotkin, wrote his major work, ‘Mutual Aid’.8 In it, he argues that the survival of the species is due as much to cooperation as it is to competition. In the animal realm and throughout history, the major reason for life’s continuity has been its ability to work together.
Different species depend on each other and selflessly help each other. Most of all, human survival is intrinsically linked up with our social nature. Our skill lies in our ability to communicate complex ideas with each other. We are, by nature, dedicated to the preservation of our young, our elderly and our neighbours.
That is the message we must take away today in this time of sickness. We must support one another. For some, this means staying home so that they do not infect others. For some, this means checking in on our neighbours to see how they are and what they need. For others still, it means making donations to charities and mutual support organisations.
Purim was a time of inversion, when old habits were reversed. Let us shake off the old traditions of individualism and greed, to replace them with the Torah values of love and support.
In the face of those who attack the weak, we will be the ones to make them strong.
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.
I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019
When Keir Hardie set up the Labour Party, he broke with many of the radicals who had preceded him by trying to organise his efforts where working class people really were: in the trade unions and the low church. He reached out to people in both their chapels – the ones where they organised their workplaces, and the ones where they organised their communities.
Since that time, both the trade unions and religious organisations have greatly declined in British public life, and in both cases we’re worse for it. Those traditional ways for people to meet, share culture, build up solidarity and envision a better future have been completely eroded. We’ve been left open to the worst austerity, neoliberal privatisation and attacks on the rights of marginalised people that we’ve ever known. Our lack of organisation and community has meant we’ve been constantly on the back foot, struggling against forces much stronger than us.
On the left, everyone acknowledges the decline in trade unionism for what it has been: a massive setback for working-class organising, an onslaught that has left us weaker, more divided and more isolated. But, to listen to some on the left talk, you’d think that the decline of religion was somehow a victory for our side. Millions of Britons no longer know their neighbours, no longer have any idea about the births, deaths, illnesses, tragedies and joys that are going on in their communities. Young people grow up without any access to traditional songs, stories and culture that was central to previous generations and instead only get the official versions of history. They learn that Churchill and Thatcher were heroes, but they never hear about the religious movements that shaped the country they live in, like the Chartists, Levellers and Quakers. People have completely lost connection to their community, and we’re supposed to somehow celebrate that as an accomplishment.
Absolutely not. Religion isn’t the dark force that it’s been painted, but has been one of the greatest forces for progress and radical change. Keir Hardie recognised that. Socialists of previous generations were able to see the positive role religion could play because they were able to draw a necessary distinction. I say that Kier Hardie organised in the low church, because that’s where he was. He didn’t go out to the priests and the bishops and the high-ranking officials who’d latched on to state power. He was interested in the lay preachers. And that’s because there is a crucial difference between religion as it is imposed from above and religion created from below.
Like with all forms of culture, religion can go one of two ways: it can be a bourgeois, reactionary force that bolsters the forces of power, or it can be an emancipatory, proletarian force that empowers people to challenge systemic violence. I am not here to defend Iranian morality police, Bush’s crusader Christianity, the violent Islamophobia of India’s BJP, still less Kahanists in Israel. I do not want to defend religion’s connection to that kind of politics in any way.
But we need to be clear: the problem with connecting those politics to religion isn’t with religion itself, but with the politics we connect them to. I don’t want religion to play a role in the state – I want to abolish it. I don’t want religion to play a role in war – I want to abolish war. I don’t want religion to play a role in capital, the police, imperialism or the structures that uphold patriarchy, because in every case I want to abolish them.
The politics I’m interested in is politics from below – the struggles of working-class people, women, LGBT people, colonised, enslaved and massacred people to realise their own destinies and take control over the world. I think religion can play a very positive role there. It has done throughout the ages, and religion can continue to be a source of strength for all oppressed people.
When I talk about this religion for oppressed people, this isn’t an innovation. I’m not taking the message of religion and twisting it to meet my own ends. Quite to the contrary: combating oppression has been built into the meaning of religion since its inception. The earliest written religious texts, the Hindu Vadics, bring together a worldview that opposes all forms of systemic violence, from state warfare to animal consumption. The Torah is the story of rebel slaves turned refugees trying to build a just society. The prophet Amos denounced the ruling class of ancient Judea for stealing the spoils of the poor and hoarding them. The prophet Isaiah tells the rich that their prayers are worthless because they exploit people while they deliver them. Jesus comes to take direct action against money-lenders and the hypocrites that collaborate with a colonising army. The Talmud is a lengthy exegesis in how to bring anti-oppressive practices into every part of a person’s life. The Prophet Muhammad comes to affirm the unity and dignity of all of humanity, and to insist that people are treated as if they all contain the spark of the divine. Sikhism tries to break down all the barriers that differentiate religions, genders and ethnicities into one universalising faith. Religion, at its core, is anti-oppression. Don’t the politicians know that the God they claim to believe in despises them and their prayers?
Holy texts are brimming full of admonishments against the ruling class. Reactionaries leap on passing references to sexuality and gender difference, separate them from all context, and use them as a pretext to persecute people. They take what is a radical idea, focused on bringing about the kind of change socialists want to see, and they manipulate it to suit their own ends.
But everyone needs to see that the religious tradition of speaking truth to power is much better represented by our heroes than by our enemies. It’s represented by all the religious activists who worked to end slavery, the ones who fought for democracy and debt relief, the anti-colonial fighters and the indigenous revolutionaries. They represent that prophetic tradition.
Two key people from the Black civil rights movement come to mind here: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Malcolm X – a Muslim minister in the slums of Chicago and New York, Martin Luther King Jr, a Christian reverend in America’s deep south. Both of them built their organising around their religious institutions and the deep network of Black faith communities across the USA. They based their activism around their religious buildings, religious texts, and religious traditions. Are you going to tell me that they didn’t play a positive role in politics?
It’s not like they could have done what they did without their religions either. Certainly they couldn’t have turned to the unions. At that time, the white-run unions were mostly fighting against black inclusion in workplaces and were trying to uphold segregation in places. They could be racist, reactionary lobbies, and their record of beating up protesters against the Viet Nam war and siding with anti-miscegenation politicians shouldn’t be quickly forgotten. That’s the context in which they were organising, and it was the religions that gave them the strength as a group to fight for their rights.
More than that, the turning point in the struggle for civil rights was when the white religious leaders from across the country came down to join the Black protesters in Selma, Alabama and showed that the weight of public opinion and that the moral voice of the country was firmly on the side of those protesters. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was on the frontlines, alongside the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said “when I marched, I felt that my feet were praying.”
When religion is in the hands of the working-class, and when it is used as a fountain for oppressed people to draw strength from, it is a powerful and challenging force. But if you pour scorn on religion, and you say that it’s irredeemable, you hand over religion to the bigots. If you say you don’t want anything to do with it, then you’re leaving that source of power to be controlled by reactionaries. No wonder people wind up believing that God is a homophobic, misogynistic, capitalist demon if you completely disavow religion and leave it in the hands of the right.
Socialists who have engaged with religions have seen incredible success. When the Latin revolutionaries, the Sandinistas, started out with atheistic, anti-religious Marxist arguments, they remained an isolated minority who had no relationship at all to the people. The ultimate success of the Nicaraguan revolution only came about because of the rise in liberation theology and the willingness of socialists to engage with the church.
Vatican II of 1959 wanted to see the church more closely aligned with the poor and, as part of implementing this, Catholic activists set up “Christian base communities” rooted in poor favelas. These were the first platform from which poor communities could start organising against the capitalist authoritarian Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and it was not an accident. Church theologians of Latin America wrote explicitly about their need to bring their religious beliefs to a political mission. Liberation theology saw that the things most despised by Christianity: individualism, competition, materialism and greed were, in fact, integral to capitalism.
High-ranking bishops and the papacy were, of course, hostile to the work of these low-level bishops and sided with the regime. The upper echelons of the church had to come into direct conflict with their own members initially, but by 1977, the grassroots Catholic activists had been so successful in transforming the church that when Somoza’s newspaper Novedades asked the church to clarify its position, even the high-ranking officials were forced to side with the bishops against what they called institutionalised violence and inequality.
These are not just interesting facts from history – they have a strong bearing on the present day. In my own organising in the Jewish community, I’ve seen how religions can play such a powerful role in activism. Synagogues have preserved the memory of what it meant to be refugees, how Jews came to this country hidden in the bowels of boats and rushed out on the last trains from Germany. This memory has been preserved so well in our religious institutions that, when the migrant crisis came to public attention, the Jewish community was at the forefront of offering help and refuge. Every synagogue in the country had collection points for aid to refugees. Key shuls in every area now have drop-in centres that provide free help and legal aid to asylum seekers. Young congregants drove out to deliver these aid packages and came back embolded and enlightened. I attended a service at an Orthodox synagogue where one such member came back, agitating in her community to lobby for rights and safe passage for refugees. South London Synagogue has organised for over 200 child refugees to be brought over from Calais and housed here. The Jewish community is not alone here. Religious institutions have played a powerful role in demanding an end to poverty, quality council housing and opposing racism. This is the reality of what religions in Britain today do.
I’ll say it again because it needs stressing: I’m not here to defend the religion of the ruling class – whatever form it takes. I’m here for radical religion that stays true to the message of fighting for justice. There is no doubt that awful things can be carried out in the name of religion, but just a cursory glance at history tells us that people are perfectly capable of carrying out the same atrocious acts without religion.
Religion has been associated with violence when it’s been connected to state power and reactionary movements. There’s no doubt about that, but to suggest that it has some kind of connection to religious belief itself is completely ahistorical. Haven’t Stalinist gulags, Maoist terror and the genocides of Cambodia and Nazi Germany shown us that people are perfectly capable of committing the utmost evil without religion? The modern states of France and Turkey are perfect examples of how secularist ideology can be just as violent, colonialist and corrupt as any state that calls itself religious. The problem is capital. The problem is the state. The problem is the military. The problem is certainly not God.
The task of religions is to keep alive that moral, prophetic voice that insists on radical equality and seeks to transform the world. It would be a disaster to throw out all that religion has done to transform the political sphere for the better, solely because fundamentalists and puritans have hijacked it. Religion belongs to all those who practice it – and the faith of left-wing revolutionaries is far more sincere than that which connects itself to state power, capitalism and authoritarianism.
The central message of religion – of all religion – is a radical one that every socialist can support. It is that there is a force much greater than anything we can conceive; that though we are small in the grand scheme of the universe, our lives have meaning. Every one of us is indowed with a spark of the divine. The existence of God makes us all equal – in a profound and spiritual way. Religion challenges us to see that all of humanity is one, everyone deserving of dignity, and to bring that claim to life in the world. It is a call to action – to overthrow the Pharoahs of the world as Moses did; to cast out the demons of legions as Jesus did; to demand rights for widows, orphans and disabled people as Mohammed did; to resist sectarian violence as Guru Nanak did.
Faith can give us the courage to fight for a better world. Thank you.
I gave this as a speech at Ideas for Freedom, the annual conference of Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a Marxist-atheist sect, back in July 2016. There were two other panelists, arguing that religion could not play a positive role in politics. My speech was not well received.
I doubt I could get away with making the same speech today. My teachers would definitely chastise me for over-simplifying matters, making sweeping generalisations, going off on random tangents, and flattening out history. I stand by, however, the central idea, that religion has a radical core, rooted in resistance. I doubt any of my teachers would question that this was a legitimate and necessary expression of religion.
I was moved to upload it by my brother, with whom I spent a long time discussing this topic over the winter holidays. He asked that I write up some of my ideas, and I remembered that I already had. I will speak on a similar theme, albeit to a very different audience, when I preach this coming Shabbat in Newcastle.