high holy days · sermon

A life without regrets

If today were your last day, what would you make of the time you have had? Would you be satisfied that you’d lived your life right? Would you feel like you had left much undone or unresolved?

If today was your last day, would you feel confident in your end? Would you know for certain what had made your life worthwhile?

These are the uncomfortable questions Yom Kippur pushes us to consider. And they are indeed uncomfortable questions. Without even mentioning God, morality, or religion, I know that some will feel affronted by the line of questioning. I know that if I were the one being asked, I would feel affronted. I would be raising objections to the questions. 

But everything about the rituals of Yom Kippur forces us into that way of thinking. 

We dress in the clothes in which we will be buried. A kittle, or cassock, for Ashkenazim. A simple tallit for Sephardim. No jewellery, no perfumes, no fancy shoes. We are dressed not too differently from how we expect to leave this world.

We pray.  We pray that we will be allowed to live. We recount the many ways in which we might die: by fire, water, beast, sickness, ordeal. We recite vidui: the final words we expect to say on our deathbed.

We fast, afflict, and deprive ourselves. All of this is supposed to make us reckon with our mortality. It is a death rehearsal. Yom Kippur asks us whether or not we are ready for death.

Today is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While some of our readings are special to the occasion, the Torah continues where we last left it before the High Holy Days, with Moses proclaiming his last speeches of Deuteronomy. 

At this stage, Moses knows that he will die, and he contemplates his coming end. His life is over, and so is his mission. He will not reach the Promised Land to which he has travelled, and he must handover power. God tells Moses: “The time is coming close for you to die. You will soon lie down with your ancestors.”

God offers Moses no reassurance that he has succeeded in his life’s task. Quite the opposite, God tells Moses that the people will now chase after false gods, neglect the holy laws, and forget their covenant with God.

After all that. Plagues and miracles in Egypt. Signs and wonders and an outstretched hand to deliver them. They had seen the sea part and bread fall from the sky. They had received the commandments from a thunderous mountain. Now, God tells Moses, they will forget it all and ignore what they learned.

Moses must have wondered in that moment if his life had been worth living at all. His projects may not be continued. His beliefs might not be upheld. Everything he did may have been for nought. 

Yet, somehow, Moses seems to have achieved a kind of calm. He no longer protests against his Creator. He does not challenge the decree. He hands over to Joshua and lets him take the reins.

Perhaps, by this stage, Moses has learned that what matters in life isn’t whether your work succeeds, but whether you perform it with integrity. What matters isn’t whether you find out all the answers, but that you seek to learn. And what matters isn’t whether you perfect the world, but that you treat the world as if it can be improved. In short, what matters is that you do your best.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rava tells us that, upon dying, Heaven will ask of us six questions:

  • Did you have integrity in your work?
  • Did you make time to study Torah?
  • Did you care for your family?
  • Did you try to make the world better?
  • Did you welcome new ideas?
  • And did you have reverence for your Maker?

Our task on earth is not to be wealthy or famous or powerful. It is to be honest, studious, caring, supportive, optimistic, inquisitive and loving. It doesn’t matter so much what we do with life, but how we do it.

Heaven doesn’t ask what our job was. It asks if we did it faithfully. Did we conduct our working lives in ways that we could be proud to give account of ourselves before God? Did we act as if how we treated others in business mattered for the sake of our own souls?

Heaven doesn’t ask if you can recite the whole of the Mishnah by heart. It doesn’t ask whether you mastered some sacred texts. It doesn’t even ask if you learnt your aleph-bet. Did you try? Did you take an interest in your traditions and heritage? Did you actually look to the past to see if it had any bearing on your own life?

Heaven doesn’t expect you to have had only one marriage of the right kind. It asks whether you actually looked after people. Did you care for those around you? According to palliative nurses, the most common regret among the dying is that they did not spend enough time with those they loved. At the end of life, God also challenges you with the same question. 

Heaven does not ask if you brought about salvation of all humanity. It asks tzafita lishua? Were you on the look out for redemption? Did you search for chances to make the world better? Did you hold onto hope that the world could be changed?

And Heaven does not ask if you arrived at the right answers. It asks whether you asked wise questions. Were you curious? Were you inquisitive? Were you interested in what others have to say?

Above all else, the question we are asked is whether we had yirat Hashem, awe of God. Without this, all the other questions are irrelevant. The Talmud compares someone without reverence for Heaven to someone who only has the keys to the door inside the house, but can’t actually get into the house.

Ultimately, what matters is that we treat our lives like they have meaning. You have to actually care about how you live, and believe that it really matters.

When Moses reaches the end of life, he doesn’t wonder whether it was worth it. He is faced with the far more fundamental question of whether he really lived right. 

Integrity. Curiosity. Kindness. Justice. Effort. Love.

These are the things that really matter in the end. We will get to the end and our only regrets will be the attitude we took towards life itself. 

Yom Kippur is, indeed, a preparation for death. But above all else it is a calling to live. It demands of us that we look at our lives and resolve to conduct them better, with fewer regrets.

Shabbat Shalom

sermon · spirituality

In defence of large groups of people

The great sage of the Mishnah, Ben Zoma, once exclaimed:

How hard must the first ever human being have worked before he had bread to eat! He plowed, sowed, reaped, sheaved, threshed, winnowed, separated the grain from the chaff, ground the grain into flour, sifted, kneaded, and baked… and only then did he get the chance to eat. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.

He added:

How hard must the first human being have worked before he had clothes to wear. He sheared, laundered, combed, spun and wove… and only then could he put on a shirt. But I wake up and find all of these prepared for me.

And, of course, he is right. How many hands must have touched everything we enjoy. Ben Zoma knew this was true 2,000 years ago. How much more true is it now that we live in a globalised world with food, clothes and technology Ben Zoma could not even have fathomed.  Anything that anyone in this world does is because many people have worked together to make it happen.

But Ben Zoma also says something ridiculous. He imagines that Adam, the first human being, did all this alone. We know that is patently false. First of all, at the very minimum, Adam was accompanied by Eve in Eden. And, if we follow the biblical story, God provided that first couple with everything they needed. They could pick fruit off the trees without trouble and never bothered with bread. They didn’t even need clothes until they had left their paradise garden.

When Adam and Eve did leave Eden, they immediately found wives for their male children. The Torah doesn’t explain how they got there, but any other explanation for how humanity came about would be very troubling. The Torah knew that it was impossible for human beings to ever achieve something on their own.

And, in fact, the Talmud, where this saying from Ben Zoma is quoted, knew this too. This imaginary world where individuals only do things for themselves comes as part of a sugya that speaks in celebration of groups of large people. The Talmud marvels at the diversity of human beings, where every face and mind is completely different. It speaks in praise of migration, hospitality, crowded marketplaces and huge throngs flocking to the same place.

Human beings are social animals. From the off, we have done everything in groups. Before civilisation, we hunted and gathered in packs. When we first set up farmsteads and villages, we did so together, in groups. The modern world was built by people sharing technology, innovation, resources, and working together to develop them. The only evolutionary advantage that human beings really have is that we can organise in ways that no other animal can.

For the last year, some forms of collectivity have been permitted, and some have been forbidden. People have been allowed to meet each other in warehouses, factories, and takeaways, where they make and distribute things to those who can afford them.

People have not been allowed to encounter each other in parks, or houses, or community centres, or gyms. They have rarely been able to accompany the sick at their bedsides, or celebrate births and marriages, or share ideas in public forums. 

Now, as things ease, people are permitted to gather, but only if they are spending money. We can meet in shops, pubs, and restaurants, and even sit indoors without masks on. But very few of the community activities for children have returned. Older people in hospitals and hospices are still rarely seeing their families. 

Certainly, almost every form of protest or public demonstration remains criminalised, and it may stay so for a very long time. Like last summer, even with a nearly completed vaccination programme, the government is keen to rush people back to work, but reluctant to allow people time to just be together and heal. 

Still fearing the virus, despite minimal risk of transmission to the vulnerable, many people have given up on public transport. There is more regular car use in the UK now than at any previous point in history. I see people avoiding each other, avoiding making real contact, even though the option is there.

I look at this so-called ‘recovery’ from Coronavirus and wonder if anybody has considered what actually makes life worth living. We are not automatons, created to work like robots. The best part of being human is other human beings. We are social creatures, whose purpose is derived from what we can do together. 

And there is a place where people are supposed to be able to meet for just that purpose. Its name in Greek is ‘synagogue,’ which means ‘shared path.’ In Hebrew it is called a ‘beit knesset: ‘a house of meeting.’ In Yiddish, we call it ‘shul,’ which just means ‘school.’ This. This is it. This thing where we come together to sing in unison and study communally and hear how people are really doing, this is what life is supposed to be about. 

This. This place where babies are blessed, bnei mitzvah celebrated, weddings solemnised, healing recognised and deaths memorialised. This is how people recognise the humanity in others, and in themselves. 

This is my last service with you. I have absolutely adored working with you. I have got to know so many of you in such depth, without even leaving my home. I have heard about your families, your fears, your hopes, your dreams, and your life stories. I cannot wait to do that with you in person again.

We have weathered an entire year together through a pandemic. That much is remarkable. I have been so impressed by the ways you have continued to pastorally support each other online, and to provide essential services to the vulnerable. 

The next stage is going to be hard. It means meeting people face to face again. It means taking risks, being brave, and trusting each other. It means accepting compromises and imperfections. But above all, it means truly building a community that is loving and generative. 

I look forward to returning to Newcastle to see you all again in the building, in person, shaking hands, embracing, and catching up on the things that matter. I sincerely hope it will not be long before this community sings in harmony once more and natters over homemade foods at kiddush. 

At no point in our history has anyone managed to go it alone. The future sees us together.

Shabbat shalom. 

sermon · theology

Why do people get sick?

Why do people get sick?

In a year when so many have experienced ill health, it is worth asking why this has happened. Throughout the pandemic, we have been reminded that some will get the virus with no symptoms; some will get the virus and recover; some will get the virus and will not recover. But what determines who gets sick and who gets better? Who decides who has to suffer and who will not?

There are plenty of medical professionals in this congregation who can answer part of that question much better than I can. Statistics, underlying factors, mitigating circumstances, health inequalities, access to medicine. All of these things certainly play a role. 

But they don’t answer the fundamental question that animates us: why? Why my loved one? Why me? That is not a medical question but an existential one. It is about whether there is a God, whether that God cares, and what a religious Jew might do to change their outcomes. 

For that, we look to the Jewish tradition. Let’s start with this week’s parashah. Here, we read one of the earliest examples of a supplicatory prayer. Moses sees his sister, Miriam, covered in scaly skin disease. He cries out: “El na rafa na la.” God, please, heal her, please. We hear the desperation in Moses’ voice as he twice begs: “please.” Don’t let her become like one of the walking dead. 

In this story, there is a clear explanation for why Miriam gets sick and why she gets better. Miriam’s skin disease is a punishment. She insulted Moses’ wife, talking about her behind her back with Aaron. 

When she gets healed, it is because she atones for her sins and Moses forgives her. She goes to great lengths of prayer and ritual to have her body restored. Sickness is a punishment and health is a reward.

In some frum communities, you might still hear this explanation. All kinds of maladies are offered as warnings for gossiping. When people get sick, they’re encouraged to check their mezuzot to make sure their protective amulets are in good working order. 

In some ways, these are harmless superstitions. When everything feels out of control, why not look for reasons and things you can do? But hanging your beliefs on this is dangerous. Plenty of righteous people get sick and plenty of wicked people lead long and healthy lives. 

If you follow the logic of this Torah story, you run the risk that, when your loved one’s health deteriorates, you might blame them for their ethical conduct, when really there is nothing they could do. It is a cruel theology that blames the victim for their sickness.

In the Talmud, the rabbis felt a similar discomfort. They decided that skin diseases were an altar for atonement. When people got sick, it was God’s way of testing the most beloved. The righteous would suffer greatly in this world so that they would suffer far less in the next.

When Rabbi Yohanan fell ill, Rabbi Hanina went to visit him at his sick bed. He asked him: “Do you want to reap the benefits of this suffering?” Rabbi Yohanan said he did not want the rewards for being sick, and was immediately healed. 

We hear these ideas today, too. People will say that God sends the toughest challenges to the strongest soldiers. But I don’t think this theology is any more tenable. How can anyone say to a child with cancer that their sickness is an act of God’s love? Who could justify such a belief?

No. The truth is that these theories of reward and punishment should leave us cold. We live in a world full of sickness and suffering, and it’s attribution is entirely random.

Maimonides, a 13th Century philosopher, saw that these explanations for sickness did not work. He was a doctor; the chief physician to the Sultan in Egypt. He had read every medical textbook and saw long queues of people with various ailments every day. How could he, with all his knowledge, think that sickness was a punishment or a reward?

Maimonides taught that God has providence over life in general but not over each life in particular. God has a plan for the world, but is not going to intervene in individual cases of recovery. He disparaged the idea that mezuzot were amulets or that people could impact their health outcomes with prayer. 

I feel compelled to agree with Maimonides’ rationalist Judaism. Sickness is random and inexplicable. So is health. The statistics and medical knowledge that I set aside at the start of this sermon have much better answers than I can muster.

So, what do we do? We, who are not healthcare professionals or clinicians seeking a cure? 

Like Moses, seeing the sickness of Miriam, we pray. We pray with our loved ones, not because we think it will make God any more favourable to them, but because it is a source of comfort to those who are sick. Praying with someone shows that you love them and care about their recovery. We do it for the sake of our loving relationships.

Like Rabbi Hanina, seeing the sickness of Rabbi Yohanan, we visit the sick. We attend to people, not because we imagine we can magically cure them with words, but because company is the greatest source of strength in trying times. We go to see people in hospital, not for their bodies, but for their souls.

And, like Maimonides, we approach the world with humility. We refuse to believe in superstitions that are false or harmful. We accept that we live in a mystery and there is much we do not know. 

In this time of sickness and difficulty, it is very Jewish to ask: “why do people get sick?” The Jewish response to questions is to ask more questions. And the most Jewish question we can ask here is: “when people are sick, how can I help?”

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon at Newcastle Reform Synagogue for Parashat Behaalotchah on 29th May 2021.

judaism · ritual · spirituality

Sacred skinny-dipping

It was midsummer in a basin in the Welsh valleys. I found myself completely naked with a friend in a lukewarm tub of rainwater. We were supposed to wait for it to properly heat up over the log fire, but I was in a hurry to go from teaching Torah there to preaching in north-west London. The sunshine compensated for us. 

All around there were huge green trees, rolling hills, a babbling brook. Hippies not far away chanted in Hebrew while banging on drums.

“OK,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“So I’m going to tell you my practice,” she said, “but you can come up with your own.”

Her practice, I later discovered, was the same one as you would find Orthodox Jews performing on Friday afternoons, as sanctioned by rabbis and law books. She had a way of making every tradition feel New Age.

She dunked fully underwater three times, twice emerging to recite a prayer.

Al hatvilah – thank you, God, for making me holy by commanding me in immersion.

Shehechiyanu- thank you, God, for keeping me alive to see this day.

On the third dip, she came up, smiled and said: “That’s all there is to it.”

I copied her every move. And that was it: my first mikveh.

I had previously associated this ritual with Orthodox women washing off the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic. 

The only other people I knew of who did it were converts, undergoing a form of Jewish baptism to initiate them into the religion. I had thought, cynically, that these new Jews were washing off the goy.

But here was my teacher, Yael Tischler, far more radical than I was in terms of religious innovation and transgressive liturgy; a witchy feminist affiliated to the Kohenet movement in America – a bohemian collective for women-centred spirituality. 

With her, the act of immersion didn’t feel problematic. It felt like my whole body was wrapped up in Jewish history. It felt connected to the earthy, fleshy customs of long-gone ancestors.

This was strange, because I know that none of my recent ancestors would have done such a thing. Liberal Jews were, by and large, decidedly opposed to many embodied rituals. 

Like their reforming Christian counterparts, many of the early Progressive Jews felt that religion should be a matter of intellectual faith. It should be stripped down to its essential meanings, devoid of excessive piety or symbols. 

In the great platforms decreed from Germany and the USA, Reform Jews repudiated circumcision, abandoned kashrut and denounced tallits. They ridiculed shockeling, the Eastern Ashkenazi prayer movements, as “bowing and scraping.” One British Liberal rabbi called kippot “the eccentric trappings of the Orient.”

As you can imagine, mikvaot did not get much of a look-in. For decades, ritual immersion was not a requisite part of conversion at the Reform beit din. Today, very few progressive Jews will attend the mikveh before their wedding. It is almost unheard of that a progressive Jew will have a regular toiveling practice as the Orthodox do.

This week’s parashah probably provides a good explanation as to why progressives are so uncomfortable with it. This week, we read Tazria-Metzora, a portion dedicated to defiling skin diseases, leprous houses, sexual infections and menstrual impurity. 

To escape the uncleanness that falls upon people by contact with these things, ancient Israelites would ritually immerse in a mikveh. The Torah describes mayyim chayyim – running water – in which people would wash themselves. We know that in the period after the Great Exile, the mikveh was likely an enormous bath at the entrance to the Second Temple. 

In the biblical world, the mikveh does seem troubling. It exists for a people obsessed by physical purity, who want to remove their blemishes before they enter sacred spaces. I would not feel comfortable advocating immersion to congregants on the grounds that their bodies are unclean and carry associations of sin. 

But my teacher, Rabbi Debbie Young Somers, argues that our rabbis fundamentally transformed what mikveh meant. She did her rabbinic thesis on mikvaot and has taught about their virtues in numerous study sessions. When I asked her for sources for this sermon, she immediately sent me detailed source sheets and tweeted her glee that the subject matter was being discussed in our synagogue. 

Impurity, Rabbi Debbie argues, is not the same as defilement for the rabbis. It is what happens when you come close to something holy. Touching religious texts, having sex, giving birth and changing to a more holy status, are acts that require immersion. Faeces, urine and vomit, which are more obviously disgusting, do not require any religious ritual. When we wash ourselves, we are not scrubbing away sinful dirt, but acknowledging sacred contagion.

In a post-Temple world, nobody can be clean or unclean. The mechanisms for such processes are gone and the need to do so – so that one might perform an animal sacrifice in the correct state – thankfully no longer exists. 

The Talmud records that, nevertheless, Jewish women took the obligation of ritual immersion upon themselves. It was a choice that antique ancestresses made as part of their covenant with God. When they did, the rabbis largely trusted women to self-regulate and organise their own mikvaot. It might well be that they already had very little authority over this aspect of life.

Today, feminists are returning to these practices. Led mostly by religious women, efforts to reclaim the mikveh are popping up all over the world. Scholars and lay people are extolling the virtues of immersion for both men and women.

People take these ritual baths before life-changing events, like trying for a baby, getting married, starting a new job and completing a course of study. They also use the mikveh to process life’s trials, like miscarriage, recovery from illness, divorce and redundancy. 

That was how I ended up, a few summers ago, doing sacred skinny dipping in the countryside. I am now convinced that it is a deeply moving spiritual practice, and I commend it to anyone who is interested. 

The Sternberg Centre in North London has a functioning mikveh. There is also a programme underway called the Wellspring Project, which hopes to soon create a mikveh-oriented wellbeing centre. In Manchester, the new building for Jackson’s Row is planned to have a mikveh.

And the wonderful thing about mikveh is that you don’t have to travel far to do it. You can toivel in any naturally occurring water, like seas, lakes and rivers. Just turn up, jump in, and dip your head underwater. 

And thank God for the commandments. 

And thank God for your body.

And thank God you’re alive.

And thank God that we can take these ancient practices and make them our own.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 17 April 2021 for Parashat Tazria-Metzora at Newcastle Reform Synagogue

story · torah

A rock-eating worm built the Temple

This is the story of how the Temple was built.

This story comes to us from the Talmud. It was copied from the Mishnah. It belongs to the folk legends of King Solomon that may have predated it by some centuries. This is an old story. I sincerely doubt whether any of it ever happened, but I assure you it’s all true.

This is the story of how the Temple was built by a rock-destroying worm. When King Solomon decided to build the Temple, he brought up entire stones from the quarry. He wanted to carve those stones without swords. He knew there was only one way.

Somewhere in his kingdom there was a rock-destroying worm called Shamir. This monster was created at the very beginning of time, during the six days of creation in which light and darkness were separated and the first trees were planted. 

Some say the Shamir ate stones for breakfast; chewed through the hardest granite, making passageways like the holes in Swiss cheese. Some say it could cut through the rocks with only its gaze: a laser-like stare that sliced solid metal. Whatever were its methods, Solomon knew he had to have it.

In fact, the only way to catch this creature was to find something really soft. You had to wrap it up in cotton wool and barley bran. These materials would be too gentle and the Shamir would have no way of chewing through them.

Yes, this is all in the Talmud. This is our tradition. And if you feel like this rock-gobbling worm is far-fetched, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you that Solomon captured this creature by tricking the King of the Demons.

Solomon knew that Ashmedai, the world’s greatest demon, lived in the bottom of a pit on the top of the world’s tallest mountain. And the pit was filled up with gallons of rainwater that the demon swallowed whole every day, then waited for it to refill. 

Solomon sent his servant up that mountain and into that pit. The servant drained the pit of its rainwater and filled it again with fortified wine.

You might think that the King of the Demons would not fall for such a simple trick, and you’d be right. Ashmedai scoffed at the wine-filled pit and refused to drink from it. But days passed and the monster missed his gallons of water. Oh, he became so parched. Eventually, he gave in and took several enormous mouthfuls of the wine. 

Within moments, he fell fast asleep. Solomon’s servants tied him up and carried him back to Jerusalem. When Ashmedai woke up on the Palace floor, he roared at Solomon: “is it not enough that you have conquered the whole world, but now you must imprison me too?”

“I promise you,” said Solomon. “All I want is one creature. The shamir. The worm that eats through stone. I need it to build my Temple for God.”

Ashmedai sighed, and he replied: “I do not own the shamir. It belongs to the ministering angel of the sea, who has entrusted it to the wild rooster. Together they hide in the uninhabitable hills, where the rooster guards his eggs.” 

I’m quoting to you from the Talmud directly here, so you know that what I’m telling you is true. 

When Solomon knew where to find the wild rooster, he covered its nest with transparent glass. Seeing that it couldn’t get in, the rooster brought over the shamir to bore through the rocks. As soon as he’d seen the monster, Solomon knocked the chicken off of the nest and ran to collect his prize.

According to our tradition, that is how the First Temple was built. Overseen by Solomon, the King of the world, accompanied by Ashmedai, the King of the Demons, a stone-chewing worm carved out every brick. It snaked through all the pillars and ate at every rock. After years of winding through the granite, Solomon’s Temple was complete.

So, why did the Talmud come up with such a tall tale? Can it be that our rabbis really believed the Temple was built in such a fantastical manner? Somehow I doubt it. But nevertheless, I am adamant that this story is true. At least, I think it tells us something important we need to know.

Our rabbis were answering a textual problem. The Bible told us that King David was not allowed to build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. He had fought too many wars, subjugated too many peoples and built too much of his empire on the labour of others.

Only Solomon, whose name in Hebrew is cognate with peace, was able to overcome the violent tendencies of his father and build a Temple that would truly be fitting for God. How could he build such an edifice without getting blood on his hands?

When our rabbis imagine the construction of the Temple, they picture it as it ought to have been. No wars are fought to secure land. No natural resources are exploited to gain the raw materials. No workers are hurt in the making of the building. All that happens is a natural process, where a worm that would eat rocks anyway works its way through the stones to build God’s home.

The only people vaguely harmed are a demon who got drunk and a rooster that was knocked off its perch. This is the dream of how the Temple should have been made. It was created in complete peace and harmony with nature. 

By encouraging us to inhabit this fantasy, the Talmud draws our attention to the harshness of reality. Even the greatest and most noble civilisations are built on violence. Cities, skyscrapers and the highest cultures are all products of real graft. Human beings do interfere with nature. We do exploit workers. We do plunder natural resources and we do secure territories through war.

When we imagine a world where rock-destroying worms can carve out our accomplishments for us, we know that we are imagining something impossible. But the nature of Talmud is to challenge us to do impossible things.

The Talmud asks us to picture a different relationship between human beings, nature, and civilisation. In a world where the climate is being damaged in unspeakable ways, such imagination is required of us again. Humanity is at a juncture when we must completely rethink how to use resources and what kinds of civilisations we build.

That is what makes it true and that is why it still speaks to us today. The Temple was built by a rock-eating worm. Perhaps one day, we will build the world that way again.

I gave this sermon for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Parashat Terumah, on 20th February 2021. For the sources, look at Sotah 48b and the sugya beginning in Gittin 67b

theology · torah

Stop doubting. Start doing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The integrity of the upright will guide us.

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

And we will vanquish fascism for good.

Shabbat shalom.


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

[1] Job 1

[2] Job 40

[3] Job 41

[4] Job 42

[5] Job 11

[6] Ex 3

[7] Ex 3:11-12

[8] Ex 3:14

[9] Ex 4:1-9

[10] Ex 4:11-12

[11] Ex 24:7

[12] BT Shabbat 88a

[13] Prov 11:3

[14] BT Shabbat 88b

judaism · theology

We are not our past mistakes.

We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir was the greatest rabbi of his generation. He learnt from both the great masters of Mishnah, Akiva and Eliezer. He was ordained a rabbi by his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, younger than any of his contemporaries and gave more rulings than any of them.[1]

Meir was a great rabbi, but his wife, Beruriah, was even greater. She once learnt 300 rulings from 300 different sages in one day.[2] She was the only woman to be credited with making religious decisions. Sometimes she even overruled her husband. 

One day, Beruriah came in on her husband and heard him praying. He had been harassed by local hooligans. Rabbi Meir cried out in supplication to God: “Sovereign of All Worlds, I wish You would kill those bandits!”

Beruriah was shocked. “What are you thinking?!” she demanded. Meir looked surprised: “I am only asking for what it already says in the Psalms – let sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more.”[3]

“That’s not what the verse says,” retorted Beruriah. “It says: let sins disappear from the earth, not sinners. The wicked won’t just disappear because someone wishes them away. They will only disappear because they will repent and give up their sins. The wicked do not disappear because God takes vengeance on them, but because God has mercy on them.”

From then on, Rabbi Meir changed his prayer. Instead, he said: “May God have mercy on them and may they change their ways.”[4]

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes only that they will turn from their evil ways and live.[5]

That is the message at the heart of this season. This is the last Shabbat in Elul, opening the last week of this month of repentance. Tonight, in Ashkenazi custom, we begin the practice of Selichot – reciting penitential prayers in the evenings. They are intended to help us acknowledge where we are going wrong so that we can correct our ways. 

As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the end of the Torah. We have been on a journey through the wilderness, and God has journeyed with us. 

When our story began, God wanted to destroy humanity. At the start, God flooded the world in anger at our violence. At Babel, God struck down the nations for our defiance. At Sodom, too, God destroyed a city for failing in its moral obligations. 

Now, at the end of the narrative, God no longer wishes to destroy us, but instead promises to rescue us. We are told that if we try to return, God will bring us back in love. No matter how far we think we have gone, God can find us and return us. No matter how much of an outcast you imagine yourself to be, God will be in your corner.[6]

That is the essence of teshuvah. Although often translated as repentance, it really means returning. It is the practice of becoming who you already are. At core, you are good, honest and faithful. If you do wrong, you are departing from your natural state. 

Contrary to the Christian doctrine that preaches we are born in a state of original sin, Judaism teaches that we are constantly reborn in a state of moral purity. Each morning, God sends us back our soul, renewed and ready to do good.

God has already given you the greatest gift you could need to face up to your flaws: you have another day. You have the chance to get up this morning and correct what you did wrong. You have the opportunity to be better than you were. You can revert to your initial state of holiness.

Teshuvah is the process we undergo to turn away from doing wrong. We look inside ourselves. We acknowledge where we have gone wrong. We announce that we will not make the same mistakes again. We make amends for what we did. And then, faced with the same situation again, we do not repeat our old errors.[7]

At this time of year, we are forced to face up to our mistakes. The more we look at them, the more we realise how many there are. Faced with our own inadequacies, we might despair. We might think that our lives our not worth living or that we are better off destroyed. This week’s parashah teaches us: it is not too late. We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir only truly learnt this much later in life. His teacher, Elisha ben Abuya, had given up on Judaism entirely. He had stopped believing and stopped pretending to believe. He was acting immorally. Meir came to find him. He said to him: “Come back, rabbi, make teshuvah.”

But Elisha replied: “I cannot. Because I have heard the divine voice reverberating: “Return, O backsliding children,”[8] except for Elisha ben Abyuah, who knew My strength and yet rebelled against Me.” Meir’s teacher, Elisha, believed he was beyond redemption. He believed he had gone too far for God to still love him.

At the end of Elisha’s life, he fell ill, and Rabbi Meir went to visit him. He said: “Return!” Elisha asked: “Having gone so far, will I be accepted?” Rabbi Meir replied: “The Torah teaches: “God will allow a person to return, up to their being crushed,”[9] even up to the time that life is being crushed out of them.” In that instant, Elisha ben Abuyah began to weep, and then he died. Rabbi Meir rejoiced, saying: “My master departed in a state of repentance!”

But the story doesn’t end there. After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven to burn his grave. The other rabbis came and told Meir: “The grave of your master is on fire!” Rabbi Meir went out, spread his cloak over the grave, and prayed that God would redeem Elisha. “But if God is not willing to redeem you, then I, Meir, will redeem you.” Then the fire went out.[10]

When he was young, Meir learned that he should pray for sins to be destroyed, not sinners. And when he was old, Rabbi Meir learned that he should pray for people to make teshuvah, even when he believed it was too late.

And his prayer for others, that God have mercy on them and they change their ways, reverberated and affected his teacher in his tomb. God’s mercy extended beyond the grave.

Yes, God can bring us back even in our dying moments. God can help us make teshuvah even after death.

Our mistakes do not define us.

We are not our past mistakes.

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 12th September 2020, Parashat Nitzavim, for Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 14a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 62b

[3] Psalms 104:35

[4] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a

[5] Ezekiel 3:11

[6] Deuteronomy 30

[7] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:2

[8] Jeremiah 3:14

[9] Psalms 90:3

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiga 77b

sermon · social justice · torah

The soul of a stranger

 

1998 is imprinted in my mind as a critical turning point in Jewish history. 

Those who remember it are already nodding sagely in recollection of this key moment of reconciliation between Jews and others. It opened up the Jewish community to being more accepting of difference and showed that Jews had been visibly and publicly embraced.

It was, of course, the year Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest. Like many families across Europe, mine stayed up late watching the results come in. They were as expected – Dana had stormed the public vote. 

Dana. Jewish. Yemeni. Israeli. Glamorous. Melodious. Trans. 

Dana was a trans woman who had already made her name in the underground gay clubs of the Mediterannean and the Middle East. In some places, her albums had been sold illegally and discreetly. 

At that time, trans people had no legal protections in any country. In popular media, they were exclusively the butt of jokes or objects of fear. There were very few public pundits who were trans or even willing to advance their cause. 

But now, all of a sudden, she burst onto television screens to accolades, as if the world might finally be ready for latent queer liberation. Her victory wasn’t just a win for a pop star; it was a statement about what could be. 

For me, it was mostly a watershed moment in Jewish history because it transformed the communal discussion about LGBT acceptance. British Jews celebrated Dana’s win as a win for Jews and a sign of our integration in Europe. At Purim that year, aged 10, I dressed up as Dana and danced around on the bimah.

This snapshot in LGBT Jewish history stands in sharp contrast to this week’s Torah portion. Here, we read: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Eternal One your God detests anyone who does this.” This has become known as one of the ‘clobber verses’ – words from Torah quoted at lesbian, gay, bi and trans people to oppress them. 

In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov warns that men will dress up as women in order to sneak into their private women-only spaces. This is precisely the argument used today to exclude trans women, presenting them as sexual predators and imposters. 

If anything, today’s discourse is far worse, since the Gemara ultimately rejects this argument, but such bigotry is often allowed to stand unchallenged in our newspapers, radio call-ins and TV debates. In fact, in the last few weeks, Members of Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Piers Morgan, JK Rowling and a number of other high profile figures have banded together to criticise what they term ‘transgender ideology.’

Defendants of trans women have spoken up to insist that they are not ‘men masquerading as women,’ but simply people seeking to live their own authentic lives. 

I think, however, this defence is too constricting. There is nothing wrong with men dressing as women or women dressing as men. One of the strongest messages of the trans movement has been that gender need not be a prison. I personally have built on my childhood success imitating Dana by dressing up as Amy Winehouse and Lily Montagu for the last two Purims. 

Trans people belong to a broad spectrum of people who don’t feel like their gender identity matches with what society assigned them at birth. They have diverse ideas about who they are, but shared experiences of people trying to force them to conform to a mould they do not fit.

I hope that by promoting those who do not fit the mould we can reconsider the mould altogether. There are so many ways to be a man, to be a woman, and to sit in the spaces in between.

Our communities should be strong enough to include everyone, regardless of gender presentation and identity. We should be able to accept and celebrate the myriad of gender variance today, as we did for Dana twenty years ago.

It is disappointing that what, in the late nineties, seemed like the inevitable advancement of trans rights, is now being pushed back by a toxic alliance. While other parts of society can have their own arguments, I feel it is important that Progressive Jews position ourselves firmly on the side of inclusion. 

Thankfully, I am not alone. Last month, Reform Judaism’s outgoing senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, wrote alongside a leading Anglican bishop: “We believe that trans people, like every other person, have every right to be cherished, and protected by society and in the gender in which they choose to live. Our faith compels us to speak up for those on the margins, those whom others would seek to silence or misrepresent.”

This, you must understand, is not simply a matter of our liberalism trumping our Judaism, but is deeply rooted in our understanding of what Judaism requires of us. We do not believe that the Torah is God’s infallible word, but that it is a text, written by men, aiming to understand how best to live an ethical life. As a human work, it contains human biases, including sexism and what we would today term ‘transphobia.’

Instead of living by the letter of ancient words, we use them as the basis to interpret, through our own limited human experience, what morality requires of us today. Joy Ladin, a trans woman and Jewish biblical scholar, argues that while the verses criticising gender non-conformity are sparse, the commandment to know the soul of a stranger is repeated throughout Tanach.

She writes: “The commandment to know the soul of the stranger is more than a summons to social justice or a reminder not to do to others the evil that others have done to us. Knowing the soul of the stranger is part of the spiritual discipline required for a community to make a place for God. […] God commands the Israelites to hitgayer, to identify with the experience of being strangers so that they will know the soul of the stranger – the stranger who dwells among them, the strangers they are, the stranger who is God.”

It is on this deeply Jewish basis that we seek trans inclusion in our Jewish communities. We are commanded to know the soul of the stranger. We are called upon to make our synagogues not just places where words of Torah are heard, but where they are lived, so that our buildings are homes for people of all genders. 

May we all know the soul of a stranger, and may all strangers know that our hearts are with them.

Shabbat shalom. 

dana-international.jpg.750x400_q85_box-0,35,431,265_crop_detail

I will give this sermon on Saturday 29th August for Parashat Ki Teitzei at Newcastle Reform Synagogue.