judaism · sermon

The tribes that broke apartheid

We are all members of tribes. Human beings are tribal creatures. We organise into packs and stick together. We identify into groups. 

You are probably a member of more than one tribe. You are a member of this synagogue, which binds together hundreds of families into a community. You might also have your workplace, neighbourhood group, union, political party, youth movement, charity association. 

Tribes are a core part of life. And it is this week, as we receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, that the Israelites become a tribe. When we left Egypt, we were slaves. We were a mixed multitude escaping persecution. Now, as we stand in the wilderness, we form into something stronger. But what kind of tribe do we become? 

In 2008, a group of researchers got together to study different tribal cultures. David Logan and his team looked at hundreds of workplaces and social groupings to see how they operated. While all these groups formed tribes, they found that there could be very divergent kinds. 

These researchers divided up the tribes into five kinds, based on their cultures. At the lowest level, Level One, were those tribes that functioned worst and, at the highest level, Level Five, were those that functioned best. 

Interestingly, as we look at the stages, it seems like exactly the progression the Israelites go through as they form as a tribe. They begin low on these researchers’ scale and, as the story continues, they advance to higher levels of performance. 

At Level One, tribes take the attitude that life is awful. They systematically sever relationships with other tribes and pool with people who think like they do. They are entire groups of angry misanthropes. These are the kinds of people who say “everyone is horrible, so we’ll be horrible, too. People will attack and rob us, so we’re going to get them first.” People who think life sucks will be toxic towards themselves, their own group members, and anyone they consider an outsider.

This is the Israelites at the start of the Exodus narrative. They are crying out for help under tyrannical persecution. They are a mixed multitude of all the lowest classes of Egypt, and have no concept of anything but toil. They don’t even trust Moses when he tries to start setting them free.

At Level Two, tribes say “my life is awful, but there is better stuff out there.” The world might be a good place, but I don’t have access to the goodness in it. These are the kinds of people who will bemoan how persecuted they are. They will complain that other groups have better jobs, or get taken more seriously, or produce better culture, or have more influence. These tribes don’t believe in themselves enough to make positive changes for their own tribe, let alone others.

This is the next stage for the Israelites. They decide that there is a better world out there. Their lives are horrible but, if they left Egypt, they might get a taste of something better. They get up and go, seeking to find a new life as they leave through the Sea of Reeds.

In a Level Three tribe, the mantra is “I’m great, and you’re not.” Here, people are competing for prestige, wealth, and honour. These are groups where everyone wants to compare notes about how much better their kids are doing in school, or how much better their careers are going. The tribe can do good things, but only because it creates cultures where individuals flourish.

That’s the level we reach at the start of this week. Betzalel emerges as a fantastic architect and interior designer, showing off his skills at the Tabernacle. Aaron and his family come forward to be priests. They show how well they can perform religious rituals. But, because they have no defining values, they end up worshipping a golden calf and recreating the same systems they knew in Egypt.

Stage Four is where really impressive tribes begin to emerge.  These are groups where people are united by something greater than their individual competences. They turn from small groups into something large and meaningful. They are actually conscious of being a tribe, and united by values. They extend their reach by connecting with other tribes and finding points of value alignment. 

Only now, as Moses presents the Ten Commandments, can the Israelites reach Stage Four. They are a conscious tribe, united by shared values. We, these freed slaves, have one God. We reject idols. We honour our families. We hold time sacred. We refuse to engage in murder, theft and lies. We are one people joined by a shared vision of what a just society could be. Anyone who shares that dream can join us.

But that is not the end of the journey. The highest level is rare, and most groups never get there. 

The fifth level is when a tribe is united by values that affirm life, each other, and the future. We only see glimpses of this kind of tribal behaviour in Tanach – on those incredible occasions when the prophets extend their message full of joy about who humanity is and hope of what it could be.  

The researchers who ranked the groups only offered one example of a tribe that reached such a high level. That was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. 

This was convened in 1996. With Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of formal apartheid, nobody knew which direction the country would go in. Some anticipated civil war, or resurgent racist nationalism.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought together thousands of tribes from all across South Africa. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would aim to restorative justice between all people. Victims and perpetrators faced each other, to speak honestly about what had happened during apartheid, and how they could make amends.

He united people on a programme that they could be better than they had been. He coalesced people around a vision that they could be honest with each other and foster a future based on cooperation. 

Consider what courage and moral fortitude that must have taken. For decades, black, Indian, and Coloured South Africans had been subjected to segregation, poverty and violence. The anti-apartheid activists had faced imprisonment, state abuse, and separation from their families.

After all that, Tutu took these tribes to a level we almost never see. He created a culture where people believed in themselves, in each other, and joined by a vision of joy and hope. 

When Desmond Tutu died just over a month ago, it reminded people of what a giant he had been for religious people worldwide. His theology was one that still intimidates many. He preached true universalism, arguing that God was not a Christian, but belonged to every religion. He advocated sincere justice, never shrinking from social issues. And he believed, despite all he saw, that people were capable of fantastic things.

That was what made his assembly of tribes exceptional. Only those who see the best in people and hold the greatest of values can take people beyond what they know. If we are to defeat the racism, segregation and division that plague us today, we need to muster similar attitudes.

So, which tribe will we Jews be today? Will we sit at the bottom rung, only believing the worst about the world? Will we be like those who complain that we don’t count but others do? Will we create a culture where individuals can flourish but don’t cohere as a whole group? Will we unite around clear values and come together consciously with pride? And can we achieve that rarest of things: a level where we affirm what is wonderful in ourselves and the world, and foster unity around a joyous vision of the future?

The faith that inspired us at Sinai tells us today: we can achieve remarkable things. If we believe in ourselves, we will.

sermon · social justice

Were our prophets crazy?

There was once a magician, a wicked magician, who constructed a mirror whose purpose was that everything good and beautiful, when reflected in it, shrank up almost to nothing, whilst those things that were ugly and useless were magnified, and made to appear ten times worse than before. The loveliest landscapes reflected in this mirror looked like boiled spinach; and the handsomest persons appeared odious, so distorted that their friends could never have recognised them. 

This is the opening of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen. I begin with this story because there was a time when this was how the world looked to me. I once saw the world as full of threats, violence and despair. 

I received a diagnosis of anxiety and was placed on medication. I began talking therapy, which I have now done on and off for many years. I changed my diet and began regular exercise. For what felt like the first time, beautiful landscapes looked like beautiful landscapes, instead of boiled spinach. Friends looked like friends instead of enemies. The world looked… normal. I felt like I could finally think.

Today is Mental Health Shabbat. Across the Jewish community, we are encouraged to spend this day reflecting on our own mental health and that of those around us. 

Sometimes, today, preachers will come up with prescriptions, about how everyone can just sort themselves out. Like how everyone needs to talk more, or we could all do with being kinder, or perhaps we just need more walks in the woods. I find these sermons quite patronising, oblivious to people’s individual circumstances, and insensitive to the realities of psychosis and personality disorders. Not everything can be so easily solved. 

One of the problems with advocating for everyone to be more well-adjusted is, well, adjusted to what? Do we not live in a world that really does pose depressing realities? Do we not see around us a society gripped by isolation and defeat? 

If we want to seriously think about mental health, we need to ask much more probing questions. I want us to think about what sanity and madness really means. I want us to ask real questions about how anyone can be sane in a society gone so wrong. 

That, I think, is part of the question our Prophets were trying to answer. Since the dawn of biblical criticism, scholars have asked whether our prophets were crazy. These great men and women of ancient times saw visions nobody else could see; wept in the street when everyone else went about their daily lives; shouted angrily at a deity that nobody else believed would listen. If they were alive today, they would surely be committed, imprisoned, or put on some very strong drugs.

The greatest of these crazy prophets was Jeremiah, whose haftarah we read today. He is so associated with depression that, as a noun, the word ‘jeremiad’ means “ a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress.” His very name conjures images of sadness and despair; of a tortured soul who saw unfolding doom and was ignored in his predictions.

He was, in his time, treated like a madman. For the crime of speaking his prophecies, Jeremiah was placed in stocks and ridiculed. When his visions came true and Babylon besieged Jerusalem, he was imprisoned by the Judean King in the courthouse. Rulers even tried to kill him. Mocked, assaulted, tortured and imprisoned, Jeremiah was treated as a crazy menace throughout his life, and ended it weeping over the destruction of his city.

We should not be surprised that others saw him as mad. From the moment he received his first prophecy, Jeremiah was assaulted by visions of mundane objects revealing hidden messages to him. In the branch of an almond tree, Jeremiah saw the fulfilment of God’s promises. In a steaming kettle, he envisioned warmongering enemies descending from the north. Modern psychologists might interpret these as paranoid hallucinations, and perhaps it is only the holiness of the ancient text that stops us from agreeing with them.

To meet in public, Jeremiah would have been a frightening sight. He stood at the gates of the city. He ranted at the perceived sinners of the city, telling them that their carcasses would be eaten by birds; that their graves would be dug up and desecrated; and their wives handed over to their enemies.  If you heard such things from someone standing outside a train station, you, too, would likely conclude that the speaker was mad. 

But, perhaps, Jeremiah saw his society more clearly than the sane people who surrounded him. Jeremiah saw widows and orphans attacked; the wealthy hoarding all the resources; the privileged living in luxury while refusing to support those in need. 

If Jeremiah had looked upon such a society and accepted it, or tried only to tinker with it and reason with it, who would he be? We might well accuse him of being callously indifferent.

Yet that is how most of us get by. The way most of us function in this sick society, surrounded by exploitation and greed, is to ignore it. If we truly reflected on all the injustice in the world and saw how complicit we were in its continuity, we would all join Jeremiah in going mad.

So, where does this leave us? I know I’m not going to give up my medication or all the tools I have found to live a better life. I actually want to participate in society, and love that I am no longer gripped by anxiety. 

But I also don’t want to impose a world where everyone sees the same reality. People with mental health issues are often detained and restrained, rather than understood. 

The message of Mental Health Shabbat cannot only be talking more, but also listening more, especially to people who have been labelled as insane. 

I want us to hear people in their depression, in their anxiety, and in their psychosis. I want us to truly listen to what everyone has to say, even if it doesn’t conform to the worldview we know.

That doesn’t mean agreeing with everything others say, or never challenging it. It just means taking it seriously. Just as when we approach sacred texts, we can oppose them while recognising their holiness, so we can do with people. 

So, on this Mental Health Shabbat, I urge you: if you can listen to the Prophets, you can listen to your neighbours in their distress too.

Shabbat shalom. 

sermon · social justice

When did Moses stop being Egyptian?

When did Moses stop being an Egyptian?

When Moses was born, he was decidedly Hebrew. This fact was dangerous. The Hebrews were living under oppressive rule, enslaved and oppressed by hard labour. Fearing the Hebrews’ strength in numbers, the Pharaoh had decreed that all first-born Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the Nile. Staying Hebrew would have meant certain death for Moses.

So, he was raised Egyptian. His mother put him in a basket and sent him down the river, where he was picked up by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the central palace. He was given an Egyptian name and raised as if he was a member of the Egyptian aristocracy. 

But, at some point, Moses ceased being an Egyptian. One day, he saw a slavemaster beating a Hebrew. Seeing the Hebrew as his brother, and the Egyptian as his enemy, Moses struck back and beat the slaver. He killed the Egyptian. Moses fled into exile in the Midianite desert. He knew he was no longer Egyptian. 

There are varying accounts of how Moses ceased being Egyptian. In the classic Dreamworks film, Prince of Egypt, Miriam and Aaron bump into him in the street, reveal to Moses his history, and persuade him to join the slaves’ revolt. The film is so ubiquitous that many imagine this is the Torah’s version of events.

This version makes for fantastic cinema, but doesn’t quite fit with the narrative presented in Exodus. In our story, Moses’s mother, Yocheved, and his sister, Miriam, put themselves forward to care for Moses in the Pharaoh’s palace. Surely his own family, having stayed with him since birth, who look more like him than Pharaoh’s daughter, would have raised him to know his history, even if only secretly. 

As Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet astutely notes, the text suggests that Moses held onto both identities. In the same verse where Moses rises up against the slavemaster, he calls both the Egyptians and the Israelites his “brothers.” He goes out to join his brothers the Egyptians in surveying the building works, then beats the slaver in solidarity with his brothers the Hebrews.

Moses could have quite easily continued living as an Egyptian while knowing he was a Hebrew. Many people throughout history have held multiple nationalities without contradiction. The useful question is not when Moses became Hebrew, but when he stopped being an Egyptian. 

Perhaps, as some of our commentators have suggested, the key lies a few verses before. There, it says that Moses grew up. Rabbis of the past have wondered what this growing up could mean. Surely it can’t refer to weaning or early childhood, because he has the strength to hit back against a fully grown adult wielding a whip. It must refer to a deeper maturity: Moses reaches the age where he can question the lies of Egyptian society. He reaches the emotional maturity to put his heart with the oppressed and rebel against injustice.

Moses was always a Hebrew, but he stopped being an Egyptian once he refused to identify with their system. As soon as Moses was willing to rebel against Egypt, he not only lost his identification with his enemy, but he lost the protection of being part of the elite family. He had to flee into exile. The only circumstance in which he could return was to lead the mass exodus of his people, the Hebrews.

It may seem surprising that Egypt and brutal slavery were so entwined that Moses could not remain Egyptian while opposing the evils of its system. How can it be that this country was so repressive that the slightest opposition made him stateless? How can it be that even a member of the elite, raised in the palace of the most powerful man in the land, could be rendered an exile just by standing up against the cruelest possible thing one human can do to another?

Of course, today we live in more enlightened times. We now live in a society where citizenship is awarded as a birthright, not as a reward for good behaviour. We have systems of international law that guard against making people stateless. Our government in Britain would never behave as Pharaoh’s did. 

Or would they? Two weeks ago, the government passed a law through the House of Commons called ‘The Nationalities and Borders Bill.’ According to this new law, anyone who is entitled to claim another nationality can be stripped of British citizenship without warning. 

This builds on the hostile environment initiated by Theresa May, which makes it harder for immigrants to reach Britain and easier to deport them. Similar policies have already been used to send away Carribeans who have lived in Britain their whole lives and to make refugees in this country stateless.

This new law expands these powers. And it affects us. 

How many members of the Jewish community have held onto second passports in case antisemitism becomes destructive again? How many Jews do you know who are also dual nationals with Israel, South Africa, Canada, or a European country from which they were once exiled? 

My dad and brother claimed German citizenship as part of post-Holocaust reparations. Now, this very fact makes them vulnerable to have their British citizenship revoked at a moment’s notice, without them even being informed. 

Indeed, every one of us could be subjected to similar treatment. A study for the New Statesman indicates that 6 million Britons – a tenth of us – could now be deported by Priti Patel. 

This law may not have been intended for us, but it could easily be applied against us. There is plenty of historical precedent. When governments want to issue repressive measures, they begin by attacking foreigners. Anne Frank was a German until the Nazis decided she was a Jew. Moses was Egyptian until the slavers decided he was a Hebrew.

Our community should be deeply concerned by these draconian measures. Whether out of solidarity with those who have already been deported from this country, or for fear that we, too, could fall victim to these new powers, we must be willing to speak up against it.

But there is reason to be hopeful. Earlier this year, when a Home Office van came to remove two asylum seekers from their home in Glasgow, their neighbours fought back. Two hundred local people surrounded the van and refused to move until their friends were freed. The immigration authorities were forced to capitulate and let the refugees free.

Our parashah teaches that the Hebrews could not be contained by the Pharaoh’s repressive measures. “The more they oppressed them, the more they rebelled.” Like our ancestors, we must be willing to do the same. 

The more this government treats foreigners as enemies, we must be willing to accept them as friends. The more this government declares that people do not belong here, we must be willing to assert that they do. The more they say that people are illegal, we must be willing to loudly assert: nobody is.

No one is illegal. Everyone who is here belongs here. You cannot deport our neighbours and friends. You cannot take away our passports.

Shabbat shalom.

South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue; Parashat Shmot; Saturday 25th December 2021

social justice · talmud

Support our Queer Yeshiva

I am so excited to share this.

For years, I have harboured a dream of setting up a queer yeshiva. Now, we are launching a crowdfunder to get it started.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

The Talmud is the most beautiful work of Jewish thought. It was what inspired me to train as a rabbi and got me through some of my most challenging times. It has so much to offer queers. Can you help fund it?

Since launching less than a week ago, we have raised over £4,000. We need your help to bring us up to our total goal of £5,000. Whatever you can give will be immensely welcome.

I hope you will join me in supporting this cause and sharing it with anyone you know who might be interested.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

Our mission

We want to bring queer, radical Talmud learning to the UK. We are asking for your help to fund us. 

The Talmud is a beautiful and subversive text at the heart of traditional Judaism. 

Created by radicals who wanted to reinvent their religion, it teaches people how to think outside of binaries and assumptions. 

But for years, this sacred knowledge has been kept locked up by elite straight men. We want to break it open.

Our goal is to learn Talmud in a way that centres marginalised people. 

We are upending hierarchy and empowering queers with the tools and knowledge to bring these texts to life. We are here, we are queer, and we are ready for shiur.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

The project

In the summer of 2022, we hope to launch a ‘Queer Yeshiva’: Four days of intensive rigorous learning. 

Based in East London, this will be an empowering experience of accessing traditional Jewish wisdom.

We need to be in a fully accessible venue, meeting the learning needs of everyone. We need this space to be open to single parents, unemployed people, and Jews who have never studied before.

This is a big undertaking, and it costs money. That is why we are asking for your help.

Within a year, we hope to be fully self-funding and sustainable, but first we need a cash injection to get this project off the ground. 

Can you help?

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

Who we are

For seven years, Babel’s Blessing has been London’s leading grassroots language school. We teach Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and Sylheti so that Londoners can communicate with each other. We run a bnei mitzvah programme so that Jews can connect with their traditions on their own terms. We provide ESOL classes for migrants to the UK, including working as the only teachers of English as a foreign language in arrival centres.

Svara is a traditionally radical yeshiva in the United States. It teaches queer-centred Talmud pedagogy with methods designed to help oppressed people feel empowered within their tradition. Our educators have learnt from them and in their methods. 

Please donate and share now. We can’t do this without you.

https://chuffed.org/project/queer-yeshiva

interfaith · sermon

Where Abraham came from

Once there was, and once there wasn’t. In the long-distant days of yore, when haystacks winnowed sieves, when genies played jereed in the old bathhouse, fleas were barbers, camels were town criers, I softly rocked my baby grandmother to sleep in her creaking cradle…

So begin Turkish folk stories. And this is a folk story, although whether it is Turkish, you will have to decide.

This is the story of our common ancestor, Abraham. For as long as there have been followers of his mission, there have been people telling his story. Across trade routes and migratory passages, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Samaritans and Druze exchanged legends of the man who made monotheism. 

These stories could be more valuable than coinage because they allowed people to connect across boundaries of language, ethnicity and religion. He could be called Avraham, Ibrahim, and everyone would know who you were talking about. There weren’t right or wrong versions of the story – only different iterations of the same truth.

That story, as we know it, begins today. It starts when a man named Avram sat in his ancestral home in Ur. He heard a God he did not know call to him and say: “Lech lecha! Go! Get out.”

“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

Avram pilgrimages from there to many places: through Canaan, Jordan, and Egypt. He meets many people: friends, enemies, family, and angels. To mark his changed status, Avram receives a new name: Avraham. The father of many nations. God promised him that he would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. He would have as many children as there are grains of sand on the shore.

And, indeed, just as God had promised, Avraham’s spiritual descendants now comprise over a third of the globe. Those who affirm monotheism and lay a claim to this spiritual tradition started in his name call themselves “Abrahamic faiths.” Their stories and beliefs, although disparate, fall under the banner of a single prophet who taught of a single God, revealed through history, known by good deeds.

Because of his great international fame, many places claim to be his hometown. There are various cities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon named “Ur,” or with variant names, that say they are Abraham’s father’s house, from which he went out on his mission. 

One such city is named Urfa. It is located in the modern-day state of Turkey, in a southeastern corner inhabited largely by Kurds, and bordering Syria. It has been Akkadian, Armenian, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman. About seven years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the place.

It is stunning. The entire city is built around a cave where, the locals say, Abraham was born. According to their legends, Abraham was birthed there in secret to avoid the wrath of the wicked king Nimrod. 

Around the cave, there is an incredible mosque complex. Beautiful off-white stones form curving arches, high ceilings, and expansive courtyards.

There are carved streams with carp in them. A local told me that these had been there since the time of Abraham. The Pagans had attempted to burn our prophet alive, but God intervened. As they set alight a bonfire with Abraham at the centre, the flames became water and the logs became fish. Today, if you eat any of the fish in the surrounding streams, you will instantly go blind.

I was certainly not going to test this superstition.

I went during the month of Ramadan, as pilgrims wandered around the site. It remains one of the most blissfully spiritual places I have ever been. I went through the mosque and into the cave. 

Around me, some men were doing the raqqas of Muslim prayer. I prayed as a Jew, mumbling Hebrew verses as I faced the spot where our patriarch was allegedly born.

Nobody batted an eyelid. We were all praying to the same God at the site of a shared prophet. I felt on some level that Abraham himself would have approved. This was the movement he had spawned. Uniting people in love of their One Creator. 

That unity, however, is threatened. Overhanging my time in Turkey was the heavy weight of nationalism. Over the last century, Turkish authorities have attempted to homogenise the country – transferring their Christian population to Greece; imposing taxes specifically on Jews to push them to move to Israel.

The country today has a virulently ethno-nationalist government that only briefly allowed the Kurdish minority some relative freedom to speak their language and live their culture. When Erdoğan launched counter attacks against ISIS, part of his goal was to crush Kurdish rebellion and extend Turkish military control.

Turkey is not unique. Nationalism has defined the politics of Europe and the Middle East for over a century. Entire groups seem increasingly set on defining themselves by ever narrower criteria, and enforcing the boundaries of who belongs with greater violence. 

This nationalist tendency permeates religious thought too. There are those who want to claim Abraham only as their own. There are those who try to say that they, and only they, have access to the true religion. There are people who want to pretend they are exceptional, and that with their difference comes claims to land, wealth and military might.

What could be more antithetical to the message of Abraham! This prophet sought to unify. His mission was one of going beyond borders, defying the lies of national gods and bringing people together under the truth of something beautiful and transcendent. 

There are many stories about Abraham. These stories can place him all over the world and ascribe to him all kinds of miracles. These stories can be used to bridge divisions and form common purpose. And they can be used to foster conflict and hatred.

We must be careful with which stories we tell.

Shabbat shalom. 

high holy days · sermon

God has decided to let you off this year

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial. The Heavenly Court convenes and charges the Jewish people with its sins. 

The Accuser lays out the prosecution. They have sinned. They have betrayed. They have been two-faced. The people have been angry, cruel, violent, hypocritical, dishonest and corrupt. All the evidence is laid out before the Holy One, who presides over the case as its Judge. 

The evidence is pretty compelling. We have been everything that the Accuser says we have, and more. We cannot pretend to have been perfect. In fact, we have fallen pretty far short of decent. 

The Angel of Mercy steps forward to plead in our defence. True, the Jews have been callous and unkind, but they have also been charitable, supportive, participated in mutual aid groups, called up vulnerable people, tried to make peace with their friends and neighbours. They have done their best.

The Accuser laughs out scornfully. “I challenge you,” says the avenging angel, “to weigh up this people’s good deeds against its pad. Set their mitzvot on the scales of justice and see how they manage against all their malice. Let’s see whether their good even comes close to counter-balancing their bad.”

The Angel of Mercy is nervous. Of course, they won’t win. The good deeds aren’t nearly numerous enough. Every one has been kept and held tight over the year. This is a sure way for the Jews to lose.

Perhaps the compassionate Angel can plead extenuating circumstances. After all, we’ve been through a pandemic. There has been so much uncertainty. The Jews have had to work from home with screaming children. They have been cut off from all their usual support systems. They have dealt with unimaginable stress. 

Surely, God understands that they can’t be expected to have been on their best behaviour. Not this year. This has been the hardest year yet. And, yes, to be fair, the Angel of Mercy did make the same excuse last year, but this year really was even worse. It really was.

God interjects; raises a single finger. “Enough evidence,” God says. “This year, I have decided just to let it slide.”

Now, both prosecution and defence look confused. They glance at each other, the assembled Heavenly Court room, and we defendants here gathered in our witness box. Perhaps the Holy One has made a mistake?

“It is true,” says God “that this people Israel has done much evil, and it is true that they have done some good. Their good does not amount to much and their evil is pretty damning. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances, but they are not very convincing. I did, after all, give this Torah to all times and places, including to Covid-stricken Britain. So there is no good reason to forgive the Jews. But, having weighed up all the evidence, I’ve decided I’m just going to forgive anyway. I’m just going to pardon them. Court adjourned.”

And that’s it. That’s the end of Yom Kippur on high for another year. 

It was over quickly. But it went exactly as it did last year. And the year before that. And every year going back to when humanity was first created. 

This is the story told by Pesikta Rabbati, a great collection of stories and sermons from Jews in the 9th Century CE. According to this midrash, when Yom Kippur comes around, the Accusing Angel charges the Jews with all its sins before God.

This Angel heaps all of our sins on top of the scales of justice. They weigh down heavily, and it’s clear that the sins outnumber the good deeds.

God then gives greater value to the good deeds so that they can override the evil, but the Accuser has many more sins to submit in evidence.

So, says our midrash, God hides our sins. God wears a long purple cloak and shoves all the sins under it. God sneaks the sins off the scales, and determines to find us innocent anyway.

Our sins are removed and hidden away.

“Yom Kippur” is often translated as “The Day of Atonement,” but the literal meaning of “kippur” is “cover,” “curtail,” “tuck away.” This is the day when our sins are submerged under the great cover of God’s forgiveness. 

They don’t disappear, but God is able to hide them away and forget them. For the sake of love of humanity, God just lets us off.

Lo ‘al tzidkateinu – not because of our righteousness do we pray for God’s forgiveness, but because of God’s unending love. Only on account of God’s infinite compassion do we get to carry on. God’s forgiveness is infinite and instant. 

But if we already knew God would forgive us, why do we bother? Why turn up here for Kol Nidrei, and afflict ourselves, and spend 25 hours in prayer? What’s all this for? 

Well, it might take God only a short while to forgive, but for us it takes a bit more work. We have to go through some effort to get to a fraction of that clemency. So, we take our time to look within, examine our imperfections, and release the guilt we have been feeling. Now is the time for us to forgive.

This year may seem like it requires more forgiveness than usual. This is an unprecedented time for conflict between friends and family, personal struggles, grief, job losses and frustration. It is hardly surprising that people feel so much resentment. 

I speak to people angry about how much they have lost. Time. Money. Strength. Health. Joy. Socialising. All these things that we have been robbed of. We have struggled in ways never experienced before.

Understandably, people want to place the blame elsewhere. They project their anger onto others who they imagine haven’t followed the rules enough, or who have taken it all too seriously, or who don’t think the same way as they do. 

All that anger does is sit inside of the people who hold onto it. It won’t help get back what has been lost. The weight of holding onto slights without forgiving just pulls us down. It just holds us back from growth. The only way to move forward is to let go.

That is why we have forgiveness. We acknowledge our hurt. We take stock of the injuries. And then, although it may be painful, we let go. We accept the way things are and make peace with what can’t be undone.

So, I urge you to forgive.

You might not get closure. You might not get apologies. You might not get reconciliation. Try to forgive anyway. 

The people who have hurt you probably did much wrong. And they probably didn’t do enough to make up for it. And all the dire circumstances will not feel like enough to excuse their behaviour. If you can, excuse it anyway.

The people who you forgive might not be big enough to forgive you back. Still, consider forgiveness.

In the build up to Yom Kippur, we were supposed to apologise to everyone we wronged. You did apologise, didn’t you? Me neither. Not enough. Not completely. Not to everyone. Not for everything. 

And I know my own reasons. I have been so tired and preoccupied and overworked and anxious. I have been too busy getting by to be trusting or vulnerable. The right time to apologise just never came up. 

But I still want to be forgiven. And I know God has already found a way to be merciful towards me. So I will have to reciprocate. 

At Yom Kippur, we stand trial, and God finds us not guilty. Not because we deserve it, but because God has decided to put trust in us. Our task over Yom Kippur is to validate that trust. 

So, we will try to forgive. It is not easy. It may well feel incomplete, and some things may be beyond pardon. Nevertheless, let us try to leave some of the pain of the previous year behind. 

Let us endeavour to accept people, including ourselves, flawed as we are, and move on.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

This is my Kol Nidrei sermon for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

judaism · sermon · social justice

How much should I give away?

In 2013, a survey revealed that Jews were the second biggest charitable donors in the UK. 

Muslims were first. 

Ever since, I’ve been trying to recruit Jews into competition so that next time a survey is run, we will win.

Coming second is fine, I guess. But if we’re going to be a light unto the nations and take moral responsibility for the world, we should be coming first no problem. 

They didn’t win because there are more of them than us. That wouldn’t be a fair comparison. Muslims outdid us on both how much each person gave on average, and how much they gave as a proportion of their income.

I’m not really advocating getting into a competition between the religions. There’s enough of that going on in the world.

But I do think there is something important we can learn from Muslims. One of the reasons they do so well on charitable giving is because of how seriously they take the messsage from this week’s parashah. 

Here, we read Reeh. This part of Torah introduces the concept of tithing. Tithing is an old English word, meaning ‘taking a tenth.’ And that is exactly what is prescribed here. Every Israelite must take a tenth of their produce and give it to the priests for redistribution. 

The priests then use some of it for upkeep of the community; some for orphans and widows; some for the poor; and some for supporting migrants passing through. 

This is the basis of Ancient Israelite society. The world of the Bible was very unequal, and living conditions were particularly harsh, so they truly saw the importance of a basic welfare system. 

In the Ancient Near East, almost everyone was a subsistence farmer. Each extended family had a small plot of land, which they would use for harvesting crops, rearing animals, and general living. One bad year on the farm could render an entire family destitute.

The Torah introduced social provision, so that everyone contributed and anyone who needed it could benefit. Richer people did pay additional levies on their crops, so that a tenth was the minimum, but some could give much more. The earliest tzedakah was probably much more like modern taxes for the welfare state than charity. 

But that should not excuse us taking seriously our obligation to give to charity. I’m sure we all agree that the welfare state is a wonderful thing, and that it is impressive that it has a biblical basis. I don’t need to tell you to pay your taxes. You don’t have much choice in that.

What you do have control over is your tzedakah. Your charitable giving. It is a mitzvah doraita, a commandment from Torah, that we are supposed to give 10% of our take-home income to charity. 

Now, who actually gives 10% of their income to charity? Anyone here? I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t. I have regular standing orders that go out to causes I care about, but when I look back on the year, I never actually make it to a tenth of my income.

I feel especially ashamed to admit this, because that tenth is supposed to be the bare minimum. Maimonides teaches that people should give more if they can, as long as they are not consequently rendering themselves in need of charity. 

But my motto is never to lead perfect be the enemy of good. All of us can start by taking charitable giving seriously as a spiritual practice and building it into our daily lives.

Muslims do this with what they call “zakat.” At the end of every week, they give at least 2.5% of their earnings to charity. They’re big donors because they make this a consistent practice and see it as a fundamental part of their religion.

It is also a fundamental part of Judaism. Charitable giving is supposed to be essential for us all. Some older members may remember that, not long ago, every home had a pushke, or tzedaka box, which would collect whatever spare change a person had. Giving has been heavily integrated into some people’s Jewish lives, and it should be again.

Elul is coming. It is the last month of the Jewish year. It is our time for reflection. We use this time to look inward and assess our deeds. 

In Hebrew, this process of introspection is called “cheshbon hanefesh” – auditing the soul. We weigh up our good deeds with our bad, and put our own morals on the scales of judgement. A part of this must surely mean re-examining our giving. A cheshbon is a bill, a record of how much you owe. We owe many things: deeds, love, kindness and study. But we also do literally owe money to those who need it more than we do. 

Now is the time to redouble our efforts at donating and to make sure we do fulfil our sacred requirements. The synagogue will be sending round its High Holy Day appeal soon, and I encourage you to give it a good look.

Giving to others is good for us. It strengthens our soul and sense of self-worth. It is good for others. It means people less fortunate get the support they need. It means great causes can continue to thrive.

And, of course, giving is good for the Jews. Especially if it might mean we win a competition. 

Shabbat shalom.

judaism · liturgy · sermon

Pray for the right kind of rain

Every day, we pray for the right kind of rain. 

The Amidah praises God’s holiness and dominion over the natural world. 

We change how we address God in rhythm with the seasons. In the summer, we thank God for making dew descend. in the winter, for bringing on heavy rains. 

For us living in cities, we can feel quite disconnected from how important this water cycle is. I only catch snippets of how it causes concern. A radio broadcast says British farmers are worried that there hasn’t been enough frost in January. In a supermarket, a cashier tells me there is a shortage of aubergines because there wasn’t enough rain in Portugal this year. 

The cycle of the right rains affects whether we have enough to eat. It can mean the difference between living safely and losing everything. There is a reason the greatest catastrophe our ancestors could imagine was a flood.

This week, we gained a sense of how important and delicate the rain cycle is. 

At the start of the week, I was heading back from a holiday in the Lake District. It was searing hot. The hottest summer we’ve ever had, people kept saying. As I climbed mountains, normally soft moss felt like dry straw under my hands. The shops had stopped selling barbecues and matches. 

Everyone said that the slightest spark could set the whole forest on fire. We would wind up like California or the Amazon, with acres burnt to a crisp. Thankfully, it didn’t happen, but I left with an awareness of the forests’ fragility and a deep concern that England was not ready for climate catastrophe. 

Only days later, I came back to intense flooding. The rains fell intensely, relentlessly. I thanked God that I was safe inside as the skies turned black and stayed that way for what seemed like days. The area around our synagogue was drenched. Charlie Brown’s roundabout flooded again. Some in this community saw damage to their property. Members of our synagogue were displaced: moved initially to the higher floor of the care home, then relocated. 

I was taken aback by how well our care team took to handling the crisis. Claire, Sue, Debz and others made sure everyone who might be affected received calls, and that anyone who needed help got it. They showed the very best of what this synagogue is for. 

But I was most impressed by the bnei mitzvah students I met this week. Jacob and Layla, twins, are preparing to come of age around Pesach, at the time when we stop praying for heavy winter rains and start celebrating the gentle dew. I asked them what they want to be when they grow up. Jacob wants to be a primary school teacher. Layla says she wants to be an environmental activist.

I have to be honest. When I was Layla’s age, I had no idea campaigning could be a job. It is a testament to her curiosity and sense of justice that she has found this out.

But it is also a wake-up call of how dire things are with our environment that Layla has to think of this job. The problems we saw this week had many causes. We have a rapidly changing climate. Companies have over-consumed fossil fuels and spoiled the ecosystem. Developers have built on flood plains. Much of the development after the Olympics destroyed natural wetlands, worsening the situation. But all of these factors share a common problem: we have taken nature for granted.

In this week’s parashah, we read: 

If you listen, if you truly pay attention, the Eternal One your God will grant the right rains at the right times: autumn rain for autumn and spring rain for spring. You will be able to eat and so will your cattle. 

But you must guard yourself against a straying heart. If you serve other gods and bow down to them, God’s anger will blaze out against you. God will shut up the sky. There will be no rain.

This text might feel familiar. It is the second paragraph of the Shema, found on page 214 in your siddur for the Shabbat morning service. You may have read it before, but it’s unlikely you’ll have heard it read aloud in any service. 

It is the custom of this synagogue, and of all Reform synagogues, to read these verses in silence. So, why do we whisper it? 

One reason is that we are very uncomfortable with what is implied theologically here. It suggests that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. We know this isn’t true. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Our rabbis knew long ago that there is no individual reward for good deeds in this life. So we won’t say it out loud when we have doubts about it.

But what if it is true? The warnings in these verses are not about how God might deal with individuals, but the impact of actions on entire groups of people. If you don’t pay attention to the ethics of Torah, you all can be destroyed. If you worship gods other than the Source of all creation, you will find yourself helpless before the forces of nature. Cause and effect. Action and consequence. 

In the biblical world, worshipping other gods meant turning to material things. Whereas the idol-worshippers bowed down to wood and stone, what marked out the ancient Israelites was that they only prayed to the transcendental God, who held all of nature in balance.

And that is what is happening in our world today. We are disregarding our ethical obligations to care for the planet, and we are seeing what happens. People have substituted the Eternal God for the material elilim of oil and gas. We have traded humility before nature for the arrogant belief that we can control and manipulate our environment without consequences. 

Now we are living the impact. We are dealing with the wrong rains. We are witnessing floods here, in China, in Germany, in New York, and in India. 

The Torah warns us: “Do not believe you have made all this with your own hands!”

We may have built cities and roads and bombs and planes, but we didn’t make the grass grow. We haven’t made the sun shine. It’s not us that makes the rains fall. 

All that is in the hands of a supreme Creator, who has charged us with protecting and sustaining this planet. We must hear, and truly pay attention, to that God, whose Word calls to us today. We must take up the challenge of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy; of rebuilding our world in harmony with nature, rather than against it; of tackling carbon emissions and climate disaster. We must enable Layla to inherit a living planet so that she actually has something to protect.

We must act now. 

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue, 31 July, Parashat Eikev

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 · 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.