judaism · sermon · social justice

A world without walls

There was a time before there were fences and walls. 

At some point in the distant past, recorded only in our folktales, the world used to grow wild and free. Trees and plants sprouted wherever they wanted. Animals moved at their own will. There were no roads, no houses, no cars, and no banks. 

Back then, human beings were hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors lived in caves, chased down animals with spears, foraged for berries, and moved wherever the weather was best. 

Then, about 10,000 years ago, something changed. In a place that we now call the Middle East, a group of people realised that they did not just have to take whatever nature allowed them. 

They could change their environment to meet their needs. They could plant, sow, grow, cultivate, reap and nurture crops. They could turn entire fields into places where just one thing was grown, like olive groves, barley fields and orchards. 

This was the beginning of civilisation.

It was also the beginning of war. Armies grew. The spears that had been used to hunt cattle were now used to kill people. 

Fences were put up. At first, they were used to keep animal livestock in. Then, they were used to mark out who owned which fields. Then, they were used to keep people in their place.

The people who had control of the fields needed people to work them. The workers, often vanquished or nomadic people, needed a place to stay and a way to get fed when all the food was fenced in. 

So the workers became indebted to the owners. The landowners would feed and house the workers. The workers would labour over the land to make it profitable. The landowners gained more wealth and more land. The workers became increasingly in debt. 

Sometimes, people were born into slavery, and this would be passed down for generations. Their debt to the landowners could never be repaid. 

The owners, in turn, passed on the land to their children.

This presented a big problem. People could become infinitely indebted, with no hope of their descendants ever paying it off. People could become infinitely wealthy, as they conquered more land and made more people work for them. The owning people would have to use increasingly violent measures to make sure the working people did not rebel against them. 

That was the situation in the ancient world. Debt. Wealth. Slavery. Borders. Violence. Revolutions.

And, according to the 19th Century historian Moses Finley, every revolution had the same demand: cancel all the debts and redistribute all the land. 

When you understand this historical background, this week’s parashah, Behar, makes a lot more sense. This week, we read Leviticus 25. It is a remarkable chapter of the Bible in that, on its own, it comprises an entire sidra of the Torah, and all 50 verses deal with the same subject. This whole chapter is dedicated to how the ancient Israelites could break the cycle of debt, slavery and land acquisition. 

It begins with the shmita. Every seven years, you give the land a break. You cannot overwork it. It is like a shabbat for nature, free from human interference. 

Then you count seven lots of seven, seven shmitas, adding up to forty-nine years. In the fiftieth year, you have a Jubilee. Now all the land must be redistributed again. Noone can accumulate all the fields. It is a complete reset. Everyone goes home. Noone exploits anyone else. 

At this time, all the debts are annulled. Nobody can rack up infinite obligations to others.

There is no ancient version of Carol Vordeman advertising that you can consolidate all your debts into one monthly loan repayment.

This means that even slaves can be set free. The law forbids landowners from charging interest to their slaves. They can’t charge them extra for the food they eat or the place where they sleep. They might be in debt, but they have to have a way of getting out of it. 

Every seven years, slaves have the option to go free. Then, in the Jubilee year, all slaves are redeemed. Nobody can remain in slavery forever.

Repeatedly, Leviticus insists:

 לֹֽא־יִרְדֶּ֥נּֽוּ בְּפֶ֖רֶךְ

Do not grind them down. 

Don’t be ruthless.

Leviticus was written in a time of great inequality, when landowners took up huge amounts of land and charged huge amounts of interest. Workers accrued huge amounts of debt and passed on slavery to their great-grandchildren. Leviticus came to offer an alternative. The system of Jubilees means nobody can become too rich and nobody can become too poor.

This system works because there is someone to defend the poor and resist the rich. There is a force stronger than any spear and higher than any fence. There is a being who will advocate against even the wealthiest landowner and the mightiest army.

That being is God. 

Nobody can be a slave forever, because, ultimately, we all serve God. Nobody can own the land forever because, ultimately, the land belongs to God. In this religious system that our Torah creates, nobody can really claim to be better than anybody else.

God tells us something that no ledger sheet can. Whereas debtors can calculate the value of every loan and landowners can weigh up the worth of every harvest, faith tells us about the things we cannot count. 

You can’t put a value on human life. You can’t put a value on freedom. You can’t put a value on social harmony.

This is why the Torah makes such a special contribution to human history. In a world structured by violence, it tells us that people must be set free. In a world divided by inequality, it tells us that everyone has equal value. It calls on us to relieve all debts and free all slaves. 

Ours is a world of fences and walls. Ours is a world of great debt and great wealth. Ours is a world where some are too poor and some are too rich. 

But Leviticus challenges us to remember a world before this was the case. It instructs us to imagine a world where inequality is no longer the case. 

It teaches us to build a world without fences or walls. Let us heed that call.

Shabbat shalom. 

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.

judaism · sermon · social justice · Uncategorized

We build the Temple when we learn its dimensions.

We begin to build the Temple when we learn its dimensions.

Midrash Tanchuma tells us that we begin to build the Temple when we learn its dimensions, and it is in this week’s parasha that we learn about the first Temple’s dimensions.

The Temple it describes sounds gorgeous: gold, silver and brass; blue, purple and scarlet; skins and threads and wood and onyx stones. The parasha lays out what the ark should look like, surrounded by cherubim. Even the smell – that deep rich smell of incense – it describes.

The Temple sounds beautiful, but it is not my Temple.

That Temple is for a world divided up into castes – where cohanim take precedence over Levites, Levites over Israelites, Israelites over low-caste Jews and low-caste Jews over foreigners. The Temple I want to build is one where all hierarchies of race and class are abolished.

That Temple is for a place where women are kept in their own quarters, separate from men and participation in services. My Temple is one where patriarchy is finished.

That Temple is one where countless animals are burnt on furnaces, day and night. In my Temple, humanity and nature work in harmony.

Their Temple is for a centralised cult in Jerusalem – mine is a decentralised, Diasporic, dispersed Temple where people can find God wherever they are.

Like the Sages, who took this parasha and inferred from it the laws of Shabbat, my Temple is not a place, but a time. It is a time for justice, peace and tranquillity.

That Temple is not our Temple, but this week we learn its dimensions. And when we learn the dimensions of the Temple we begin to build it. This idea, that you can create change just by imagining something different, has been central to many revolutionary movements. Last week, we celebrated 100 years since women got the vote, and it is worth reflecting that every major change for democracy was brought about people fighting to change their circumstances and every battle was brought about by a change in consciousness. Through that consciousness, through contemplating a world of women’s liberation, the earliest feminists began to create that world.

Abdullah Ocalan, also known as Apo, the incarcerated leader of the Kurdish resistance in Turkey, pledged in his Prison Writings that weapons should go silent and ideas speak. His idea – of democratic confederalism, where peoples were brought together by collectives that transcended boundaries – he hoped, could be brought about by persuasion rather than violence. He imagines that the Kurdish people might have national liberation without resorting to the authoritarianism and division of their own state, and has made it his task from prison to advocate for a different kind of society. The Kurdish liberation movement has been profoundly different to most other nationalist movements that preceded it, in that it has focused on building greater equality and community while fighting against persecution on all sides, rather than deferring this necessary work until ‘after the revolution’.

During my time in Turkey, I was lucky enough to see some of these ideas in action. In the year I lived in Istanbul, the Turkish government made a rare allowance for the Kurds to celebrate their spring welcoming festival, Newruz. A friend took me out to a giant field in the centre of town where people were selling garlands. Fires burned and people jumped through them. There were a few stages, on which folk musicians performed. The people around me took my pinkies in theirs and danced in a circle in a style similar to the hora.

What was perhaps most remarkable was how politicised this festival was. The very fact that it was taking place at all was a shock to the system. For decades, people had not dared to speak Kurdish openly on the streets. Journalists who reported on the persecution Kurds faced had been imprisoned. But here they were, in their tens of thousands, proudly celebrating their own traditions. After every few songs, a speaker came out. The speaker would spell out a vision for national liberation and international solidarity. I don’t speak Kurdish, but I’ve been to enough Marxist rallies to recognise “down with the capitalist system” when I hear it.

At the same time, a revolution was taking place within the Kurdish community. The national liberation struggle had empowered women, ethnic minorities and queer people to start campaigning for their own rights. HDP, the democratic wing of the resistance movement, had, by far, the most comprehensive policy for gendered liberation, including paid housework, gay adoption rights and closing the pay gap. The party’s candidate for mayor of Kadikoy, a fancy district of Istanbul, was a trans woman sex worker, Asya Elmas, who came close second on a platform of combatting exploitation.

Over the last few years, I have watched with great intensity as that movement for Kurdish freedom has unfolded. In a way, I have done so despairingly. The Syrian civil war has continued and escalated, causing devastation on unprecedented levels, and turning out more and more refugees. In that time, ISIS has spread across the Middle East, destroying Kurdish communities and threatening to destroy every remnant of hope with their own brand of reactionary, fundamentalist dogma.

But, as well as despairing, I’ve watched on with hope. The conflict has, unexpectedly, given Kurdish militants the opportunity to try out the least of their dreams. The Kurdish groups banded together in response to the war and, in 2012, they captured the cities of Efrin, Amuda and Kobani in the northern Syrian territory of Rojava. Having taken control, they tried to implement the ideas of Apo I described earlier. They governed by direct, grassroots democracy. They instituted a constitution that pledged religious, cultural and political freedoms, as well as a bill of human rights in line with the UN’s Declaration.

For the last few years, they have been one of the driving forces in pushing back ISIS. They have now almost completely defeated ISIS in all the areas neighbouring them, despite little support from the international community and active hostility from Turkey and Iran. Turkey, which has so far barely intervened in the Syrian conflict, even to support humanitarian efforts, has in recent weeks got involved only with the intention of destroying Rojava and, with it, Kurdish hopes for their own self-government.

I hope you will understand that I am not frivolously cheering on a side in a war whose outcome will not affect me, but I do believe that the struggle in Rojave is the Spanish Civil War of our generation. It is not a struggle over which ethnic group will govern, but over which ideas will be allowed to dominate. Rojava represents the possibility of a set of ideas that have otherwise been called unrealisable – of a borderless, classless world. They are defending more than a territory; they are defending a dream of a different kind of Middle East.

I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of the Kurdish resistance. There are big problems that have been widely acknowledged, including mistreatment of minorities like Yezidis and the egalitarian values I described are not uniformly shared. I also do not want to give off the impression of glamourising war. I only recognise that the need for violence has come out of necessity, and I find it hard to criticise anyone for using those methods when faced with such violent opponents on all sides.

It is worth knowing that those ideals – of liberty, equality and justice – are being fought for, right now. It is worth supporting the people who are fighting for them, however imperfectly.

Learning about their struggle for a just world, I realise that my Temple may not be as distant as I thought. Knowing that people are struggling against far worse conditions that I can imagine, I feel empowered to fight for the same ideals here.

You may not share my ideals, but I still want to hear yours. I want to have a real conversation about what kind of world we want to build.

We begin to build the Temple whenever we study its dimensions, so let’s look at each other’s blueprints. What is our Judaism really for? Are we just preserving a tradition; just using our religion to serve people’s individual needs now; or are we serious about building a Messianic Age?

We begin to build the Temple whenever we learn its dimensions. Let’s get building.

 

Newroz_Istanbul4

I delivered this sermon on 15th February 2018 for Parashat Terumah at Leo Baeck College.

festivals · social justice · story

Hanukkah is a celebration of resistance

Instead of doing a sermon for the Hanukkah service at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community, I put together a play that drew out the themes of the festival.

NARRATOR 1:

Hanukkah is a festival of resistance. It is a time to celebrate struggle.

The Jews in Palestine are living under occupation. It’s the 1st Century BCE and the Seleucid emperor Antiochus has brought the country under military lockdown. He’s a tyrant. He has banned all the central components of Jewish life: circumcision, Shabbat, kashrut and reading Torah.

His is a mighty army that tortures all dissenters. He ransacks the Temple, then the centre of Jewish life, and sacrifices pigs on the altars to make the whole place unclean.

In an incredible act, a tiny of army of militants manage to drive out the Greeks. They return to their Temple and rededicate it to God. They burn their oil lamps and practise their religion again. This is the miracle of Hanukkah.

NARRATOR 2:

One of the best stories of Hanukkah is of Hannah and her seven children. They are zealots who refuse to bow down to Antiochus. One by one, the children are martyred to defend their religion.

It is a beautiful story of courage and religious conviction that many children grow up with. But there is a problem with it. The Maccabees were religious fundamentalists. They were nationalist extremists. As a resistance army, they used tactics that would make ISIS blush. Once in power, they set up a theocratic dictatorship.

Theirs is a Hanukkah story, but it is not the only Hanukkah story. As a Liberal Jewish community, our stories of resistance are not stories of religious fundamentalism and nationalism, but often of fighting against it. Our stories are of fighting for Disabled access, queer liberation, anti-racism, women’s rights and social justice. At Hanukkah, we need to celebrate stories of struggle, liberation and perseverance that resonate with us. So tonight, we retell the story of Hannah and her seven children from those perspectives. We use the words of people who inspire us.

ANTIOCHUS:

I am King Antiochus and I demand that everybody worship me. There will be no more Jews or religious freedom. Nobody will be free to rest. Nobody will be free to organise. Nobody can have their own opinions. And I will kill anyone who disagrees.

HANNAH:

We have to resist this man. We cannot let him decide our lives. Everybody who cares about freedom must stand up and be counted. Will any of my children resist him?

SOPHIE:

I will.

ANTIOCHUS:

Who dares to defy me?

SOPHIE:

I do. Somebody has to make a start. I will stand up for what I believe in, even if I am standing alone. How can we expect a righteous cause to prevail if nobody is willing to give themselves up for it? I may be the only one to resist you, Antiochus, but there are many others who feel the way I do.[1]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed her. But Hannah had another daughter, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

ROSA:

I will not let you win, Antiochus. Those who do not move do not notice their chains. But my sister has started a movement and now the chains are beginning to break. Being human means throwing your whole life on the scales of destiny when need be, all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.[2]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed her. But Hannah had a son, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

ABRAHAM:

I have a faith in God that is not the clinging to a shrine but the endless pilgrimage of the heart. When I protest, my feet are praying. Prayer is nothing if it is not subversive, and it is time I prayed against you.[3]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed him. But Hannah had another child, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

TANIA:

Perhaps my name will be forgotten and my struggle too. But the cause I fight for, the cause of justice, will continue long after your reign has ended, Antiochus.[4]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed him. But Hannah had a son, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

LARRY:

I am bound to have enemies, but I will not be my own. We will go down if we don’t stand up for ourselves. All of us should have the power and the pride to benefit from what is rightfully ours.[5]

ANTIOCHUS:

Then you will die.

NARRATOR 1:

And with that, he killed him. But Hannah had another son, who was willing to stand up to Antiochus too.

JOE:

Antiochus, you cannot kill all of us. Our tactic of standing up to you is bearing fruit. That process has started and is now irreversible.[6]

NARRATOR 2:

By this time, Antiochus was exhausted. He knew he was losing. Hannah had only one child left, her youngest child of all. Antiochus tossed his ring on the floor.

ANTIOCHUS:

I don’t even want to kill you. If you bow down to me just by picking up this ring, I will let you live. Hannah, convince your child to pick up this ring.

HANNAH:

I carried you in my womb for nine months and I have raised you. I urge you, my child, to look at the sky and the earth. Consider everything you see there, and realize that God made it all from nothing, just as God made all of humanity. Your life is a miracle and your religion is a celebration of it. Do not be afraid of this butcher.[7]

NETTA:

You do not need to convince me, mother. Antiochus, may God forgive you for what you are doing.[8]

NARRATOR 2:

Antiochus killed the last of Hannah’s children, and Hannah herself. But although he killed the people he could not kill their dreams. Ultimately, the small army won and Antiochus’s reign came to an end.

NARRATOR 1:

The words we have used tonight all come from people who struggled for justice in the last century: from Sophie Scholl, anti-Nazi activist; from Rosa Luxemburg, socialist and anti-war campaigner; from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, civil rights activist; from Tamara Bunke, Latin American revolutionary; from Larry Kramer, gay liberation and AIDS campaigner; from Joe Slovo of the South African anti-apartheid movement; and Netta Franklin, British Jewish suffragette. They are all now dead but their dreams live on. Their dreams, our dreams, of a just, more inclusive, kinder world, continue.

At Hanukkah, we remember the resistance of brave people and join our struggles to theirs. The struggle to be Jewish of a thousand years ago becomes part of our stories of trying to build a better world.

At Hanukkah, we commemorate the destruction of the Temple and look forward to the great Temple that is to come – the Messianic age when there will be no more need for Temples because all will know that God is one and everybody will live in peace. As Liberal Jews, we know that we cannot wait for that day to come, but that we have to build it. Over this festival period, let us take inspiration from the pioneers of the past and take steps towards achieving those dreams.

tamara bunke
Tamara ‘Tania’ Bunke, Jewish-Argentinian revolutionary

 

This play was an interesting experiment in alternative ways of doing sermons. I wanted to deal with the reality of Hanukkah with all its violence. Most Jews know that the story of Hanukkah has some horrible undertones, but don’t deal with the reality that stories of violence, struggle and martyrdom in Jewish history are not just a blip from the Second Temple Period. Stories of martyrdom are certainly problematic, but I want to have conversations that deal with those tensions, rather than glossing over them.

[1] Based on the words of Sophie Scholl, 21-year-old leader of the anti-Nazi non-violent resistance in Germany

[2] Based on the words of Rosa Luxemburg, German socialist and anti-war activist

[3] Based on the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, civil rights activist in 1960s USA

[4] Based on the words of Tamara Bunke, Latin American revolutionary

[5] Based on the words of Larry Kramer, USA AIDS and gay rights activist

[6] Based on the words of Joe Slovo, South African anti-apartheid activist

[7] Based on 2 Maccabbees 7

[8] Based on the words of Netta Franklin, British Jewish suffragette