Sunday, 24 September 2023

On Israel - Kol Nidrei Sermon

I feel the need to address Israel from the Bimah this year. I don’t think it’s appropriate to ignore what’s been going on in the one Jewish nation-state, in this, its 75th year, the 50th Anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. But it’s hard to bring a community of Jews closer together and closer to our faith by giving a sermon about Israel at the moment. And Yom Kippur should be a time when we feel closer to each other and closer to our faith.

So, for the sin of getting the sermon wrong on the holiest night of the year, I hope you will forgive me.

I have, as I arrive here, two angels, one sitting on each shoulder.

On one side I have an angel whispering this sort of stuff;

·       it’s important to stand together and not create division in our people,

·       it’s important to stand up for Israel when there are so many haters out there,

·       it’s important to acknowledge the electoral mandates of Israel’s elected leaders and my own decision to live here, in the Diaspora.

and I do know all of that.

But on the other shoulder, I have a real sense of fear. I fear for Israel, I fear for my relationship with Israel, and those of so many of us, both in the Diaspora and in the Land. I fear the loss of a connection that will weaken me, and the Jewish people, both here and in the Land.

So, I’m going to try and take some advice shared by Megan Phelps-Roper in that Ted Talk about leaving the Westboro Baptist Church I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah. She counsels “making the case.” It can happen, she notes, that we assume everyone sees the world the same way we do – and they don’t of course. We do need to set out the argument.

There is, as so many of us will be aware, a row in Israel about judicial reform. And those making the case for judicial reform argue there is an elected majority of Kenesset Members in favour of these reforms and they suggest these reforms are necessary tweaks to the system of checks and balances of the State of Israel. On that basis, they suggest, these reforms should be treated like any other proposed government legislation.

I don’t accept that. The Forum of Political Scientists for Israeli Democracy have a list of 225 legislative bills submitted before the Kenesset.[1] Each Bill raises issues that should concern a Supreme seat of justice in a country. Taken one at a time, each might seem only marginally concerning. Taken together the list terrifies me. There’s Bill 2801/25 which would immunize the Prime Minister from criminal investigation. There’s Bill 25/2881 weakening the Law of Return and the recognition of non-orthodox conversions. There are Bills threaten all kinds of minority groups. And there are many Bills that seem to promote cronyism and corruption and pork-barrel funding of the desires of the settlers and ultra-orthodox extremists on whose support the government relies. And amongst all this are the Bills that limit and politicise the application of the rule of law, not only at the level of the Supreme Court, but up and down the legal system of Israel.

Taken individually each of these Bills deserves detailed discussion. Take the Supreme Court out of that discussion and taken together these Bills transform Israel in ways I find deeply troubling.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asks Mike in Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises, “Two ways,” he responds. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

I get why members of Israel’s Government feel excited about these reforms. I get that the Prime Minister is excited about a Bill that offers an immunity from criminal prosecution. I get that the ultra-orthodox want more money for their Yeshivot and power for their courts. I even get that the elected members of the Government are frustrated that the Supreme Court bounce back their proposals. But being excited about doing something in one’s own self-interest isn’t the same as doing what is just and loving and good.

I know Israel was founded with a deep commitment to do what is just and good. In the Declaration of Independence, the founders of the State claimed, the country would, “promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets.”

And, if the prophets taught us anything, it is that strength –real strength – comes not from pursuing self-interest and protexia, but from being just and loving and good.

And on the subject of judicial reform, there are very clear prophetic precepts when it comes to matters of judicial appointments and judicial reform. “Place judges at all your gates,” taught Moses, ensure they function independently and without prejudice so they can “pursue justice, only justice.”

And Abraham was, surely, the first model for all later prophets when he stood up against an arguably unjust proposal of God, of God!, demanding, “How can the judge of all the world not act with justice.” Abraham launches a judicial review of God! Actually, Abraham launches not one, but six rounds of judicial review of God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gemorah. And God accepted each of the six rounds of review because, it could not be clearer, God would rather have God’s own will be vetted for its judiciousness than impose God’s will simply because God has the power to pursue God’s own will.

No Hebrew prophet has ever been recorded sounding impressed by the nature of mandate. Hebrew prophets stand up to Israelite priests – who had a divine mandate – to Israelite Kings – who had a divine mandate. They even stand up to God – whose mandate is absolute. The very determinant of a Hebrew prophet is that they are prepared to stand up to power and say, as Yitro said before Moses when Moses underestimated the value of a good judicial system, לֹא-טוֹב, הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, עֹשֶׂה. This thing you are doing is not good.

Being in favour of prophetic precepts means being in favour of having people accuse you of misdeed, and doing it bluntly – just wait for tomorrow’s Haftarah. Being in favour of prophetic precepts certainly doesn’t mean you should expect people to be impressed by the size of your crown or priestly vestments or democratic mandate.

If a prophet thinks what you are doing is not good, they will come after you, partly because prophets love justice and hate the mistreatment of those at the margins of society.

But even more than that, if a prophet thinks the thing you are doing is not good, they are going to come after you because they think to err is to bring destruction on the state and its people. And as much as prophets love justice, the thing they really can’t abide is the threat of destruction.

It’s a very religious thing to protest the actions of leaders of Israel when these actions threaten the application of justice and the future of the people and State. We’ve been doing it for millennia. It’s what’s makes being a leader of Israel such a challenge. But it also might be reason that we are still here, millennia later. It might be that the very reason for the survival of the Jewish people is that century after century and unjust bill after unjust bill, the religious leadership of our faith have stood up to speak out in favour of justice, no matter from where the threat of injustice comes.

By the way, the one thing good prophets don’t do is walk away. I mean there is one prophet who tries to run away, but the Talmud pours scorn on Jonah for trying to run away, and God is having none of it.

You aren’t allowed to run away, you aren’t allowed to walk away, not even when it’s such a mess. Not even if you make no claim to be a prophet.

I know I’m no prophet.

But the line in the Talmud is Kol Yisrael Aravim Ze LeZeh, all of Israel is obligated to one another. The State of Israel is the most extraordinary transformation in the hopes and possibility for self-determination of our people in 2,000 years. You, me, all of us here in our British levels of comfort, we can’t walk away from the millions protesting in Israel, asking for our help and saying the level of threat they experience is existential.


That’s why I’ve been at the protests, and that’s why I feel I’ve been pushed right up against the edge of how far I think I, as your Rabbi, should be engaging in these political matters, on this holy night. It’s why I think we should all be protesting. And why I think we dare not walk away.

What to do? read Israelis – if you don’t know where to go, try The Times of Israel, listen to Israelis – if you don’t know what to listen to, my favourite is - The Promised Podcast. [Salon] Give money to Israel, yes we should certainly give money, but think about who we support, check out the kind of Israel they, in turn, support. I’m proud of our Kol Nidrei partner UJIA, but for this more political philanthropy, I’m proud to support the New Israel Fund. Just don’t walk away.

It's 50 years to the day since the greatest existential threat to the State of Israel was launched on this holy day of Yom Kippur. I was two and a half years old. Just about my earliest memory is accompanying my parents to a blood drive held just up the road at St John's Wood United. Packets of blood drawn from the arms of the members of the Synagogues of St Johns Wood were flown out to the front lines of the Yom Kippur War. We came together to support Israel in her greatest hour of need. We didn’t give up then. I’m not in the mood to give up now. This isn’t a day and this isn’t a relationship predicated on giving up.

Chatimah Tovah

Quitting - A Neilah Sermon

I should probably start with a spoiler.

I’ve no big personal announcement to make in this sermon. I want to talk about its subject because I think it’s important. I want to talk about quitting, or moving on to new challenges or … that sort of thing. But, as I said, I’ve no big personal announcement.

Over the summer, an article spread through the social media of my friends.[1] The fact that I don’t think anyone here saw it, says much about my social media friendship circle. A lot of rabbis.

In the article, the Rev Alexander Lang, formerly of the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Illinois, explained why he was leaving his Church, actually not just moving on from his church, but as he put it, “leaving the pastorate all together. I have become,” he wrote, “Part of what is known as the Great Pastor Resignation” – capital ‘G’, capital ‘P’, capital ‘R’

He had some rather pointed insight into some of the more unusual elements of being a Pastor. The management lines in my profession are, indeed, rather confusing. On the one hand I’m supposed to be spiritually advising you, but on the other hand you pay my wage. And my real direct line manager – for all God’s remarkable qualities - doesn’t give me a six-monthly opportunity to discuss Sustainable Measurable Attainable Reasonable and Time-Bound targets.

The Rev Lang cited a survey that suggested that 38% of protestant pastors considered leaving the ministry last year, citing a combination of the stress, feeling lonely, political divisions the toll on their personal and family life and … well there’s a long list.[2]

I hope, you can understand the partially lurid fascination my rabbinic friends and I had with the article. But I don’t suspect – that even those of you who aren’t ordained - you would be particularly surprised.

While there are things in the article that are particular to the pastorate, the Great Resignation is quite definitely a thing. There are the school teachers; 7,800 left teaching in 2021 and 40,000 left last year. And the health care professionals. And the corporate executives and … I suspect you all have more than enough understanding that combination of over-stressed, under-appreciated, febrile, burnt-out …

Actually, there’s another thing on my mind, in that space that hovers between the over-stressed, under-appreciated and febrile space – marriages. It might just be the age of my cohorts, but among my peers, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of divorces as marriages I have known, and sometimes officiated at, have come to an end.

And on the one hand, change is the thing we talk about on Yom Kippur. Change, the ability to take agency over a life that could be better and doing things to make our life different, is exactly what we are supposed to be doing here.

But on the other hand, there’s a sadness.

It’s not that there is anything particularly wrong, I think, with changing careers, I’ve done it, many of us have. It’s not, I believe, that there is anything wrong with divorce. We aren’t Catholics – divorce is definitely no sin. But there’s a sadness.

For the most part the language is fine, people sharing that fifteen years, or whatever, has been a good run, there’s much to be grateful for, they just don’t want to be there anymore. But for me, I was at these weddings, I was there under the Chuppah and I remember the conversations before the Chuppah when the language was so very different.

For those couples, at that time – just before the wedding, the notion that they would be moving on fifteen years later calling it a good run would have been astounding. And it would have felt like failure.

Again, I want to be really careful. For many of the people leaving teaching, or medicine or even the rabbinate, the problem isn’t the teaching or the medicine, but a whole bunch of other factors that have nothing to do with how much they love teaching or medicine. And it may well be that when a couple tell a Rabbi their relationship has merely run its course there are other far sharper and more destructive elements at play. There may be very good, very healthy and very spiritually refined reasons why a person wants out.

But, I think, there is still something, even making allowance for all that. There are ways in which we empty ourselves out of the ability to stay in love with things we once loved. There’s something about the pace of the world and a loss of the ability to find regenerating energies, maybe because of the way the world has been heading for some time, or possibly because of how the world has been functioning since lockdown.

Viewed from the present, what would the ‘now’ version of our lives go back and say to the ‘back then’ version of our lives. Can we see moments in our past where, with more bravery and more insight, we could have adjusted our trajectory so we wouldn’t arrive at ‘today’ feeling the need to walk away from something we once loved.

Teshuvah – return. Can we take this to mean the return to find delight and love in things that once did, but threaten no longer to, delight us, and nurture us?

For me there are two sides to this – sustainability and amazement.

I spend a lot of time thinking about sustainability, not just from an ecological perspective, but a personal and professional one.

There’s an idea in professional cycling – the Tour de France riders – that they are incredibly careful about how and when they go into the red. It’s something they can do for a short burst, but it’s not sustainable for the duration of a race and they know they need to time these moments of maximum effort incredibly carefully and protect the opportunity to replenish with real effort. For the sprinters, the very fastest speed merchants in the peleton, they expect to go in the red for fifteen seconds over the course of a four-hour bike race. Because they know if they do more than that, it comes at a long-term cost. Fifteen seconds in a four hour race.

How are we doing with our policing our dips into the red?

We need to fight harder to make ourselves sustainable. We can’t always be cycling ‘in the red.’ And while I know there are always opportunities to consider moments emergent, we do, as a society, as family members and as professionals, need to work so much harder to make sure we find opportunities to replenish.

It's not a new problem. God took six days to create the world – on the pressures of our workaday existence – and then took a day off to Vayinafash – to be re-ensouled, to regenerate, to balance out the dip into the red.

I know the world out there doesn’t look as though it’s prepared to cut a bunch of observant Jews the space in which to leave work early on a Friday afternoon in winter – it’s been, I know for many of you, hard enough just to take a day from work for Yom Kippur. But I wonder if there is a different way of selling to ourselves and the worlds in which we live, both personal and professional, that we need to care for our sustainable existence.

We need to carve out and protect the places and practices which allow us to take pleasure from our lives, for our love and for our work. Taking a Friday dinner together with friends and family, spending an evening with the phones off and away. The wisdom of desperately ancient modes of the observance of Shabbat is, I think, ever more obvious.

This attempt to carve out and protect has always been a demand. Again, the models are very ancient. Biblically, celebration of the day of rest would always take an additional sacrifice. Sustainability takes sacrifice of the now for the future. What that looks like, for our personal relationships or professional ones will be radically different. None of us is going to be offering up an additional cow. But we need to get better at saying no, and prioritising our longer term over the thing that feels so immediate.

I hope, somewhere in our exhaustion at the end of this, entirely non-sustainable, twenty-five hour fast, we can feel that. I hope that somewhere in our exhaustion, we can experience the benefit of taking time away from the things that grind us down and we can make the case for it, and be prepared to sacrifice to protect those re-charging moments.

That’s one side – sustainability.

The other side is amazement. By which I mean the sacred work of trying to be amazed by things that could, so easily feel just normal.

There is a line in the morning service, in the part where we are supposed to feel awe for the creation of the world and it’s light, where we say, of God,

עוֹשֶׂה חֲדָשׁוֹת.

הַמְ֒חַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל־יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית

The Doer of new things, the One who in goodness, renews each day continually, the stuff of creation.

What a wonderful thing it would be to see this supposed newness. What a thing if we didn’t take for granted the newness all around. There is, of course, newness all around. From the way the light is beginning to set in this room, never been seen before, to the way I can look up and catch an eye of someone here, never happened before.

But similarly, I can be just too tired or stressed to see anything different about anything. Even if there are miracles unfolded before my eyes at every moment.

I think, to stay excited about the life we have, we need to tend our sense of wonder, amazement. There is another blessing, almost the very first of a morning, 

We bless God for the ability to see. It’s a blessing to say when you wake up to see the same room, the same sheets, possibly even the same life partner, to inculcate a sense of wonder at the amazing thing it is to be able to see at all.

There’s an effort involved, a sort of will-full finding of things delightful.

I don’t think it just happens, it needs to be cultivated and tended. It is the sacred work of our existence. And it is the thing that keeps us feeling delight in our life.

Sustainability and amazement.

If you are fortunate enough to love the thing you do and the people you do it with, I salute you. I wish you continue to feel those things for the rest of your life. But even if you do, I urge you not to rest easy in that privileged position. It’s easy to burn out, it’s easy to habituate.

And if there is a niggling, what do we call it?, sense of fatigue, sense that we might be emptying out our reserves of love, I urge you to take  more care to be sustainable and amazed by life.

And if you’re thoroughly miserable at your life, I’m sorry but, I think, even in misery, making time for a recharge of our spirits and making the effort to be amazed by the gifts we have is so important. It’s how we can know and build confidence in the necessity of doing differently as we go forward.

A commitment to sustainability and amazement might even be the keys for the new life, in this new year, we wish for ourselves.

May it come to us all and all we care for, in peace, in health and in sweetness,

May we be so sealed,

Chatimah Tovah.

What is Left for the Human - A Yizkor Sermon in the Age of Chat GPT

Mah Adam V’Tedayhu, Ben Enosh vTechashveyhu

What is a human that you, God, should know us? What is humanity that you should consider us?

These questions, from the opening of the Yizkor service, always awaken in me the memories of those I have loved and lost, but, for me, this year, they also have particularly technological resonance. I’ll come back to the Yizkor piece, but I want, in a year when I could have, I supposed prompted Chat GPT to write a Yizkor sermon,

I want to think about what is left of the human, now there has been this technological encroachment onto what we had previously considered our inviolate territory.

Mah Adam V’Tedayhu,

There was a time when humans felt inviolate, because you needed a human to operate a loom or answer the telephone or win at chess, or …

In 1637 Renee Descartes wrote

We can easily understand a machine being built to emit [words]; But [Descartes continued] it could never happen that [a machine would] arrange its speech to reply appropriately to everything said in its presence.[1]

I suppose Descartes did well enough, holding accurate for almost 400 years.

And these Large Language Models are really only just getting started.

Mah Adam V’Tedayhu

What’s left for the human now technology has so triumphantly moved in on the front lawn.

Here’s the good news. For me, this sense of humanity losing more and more of the things that, once, we felt were unique to us feels familiar. I’ve been here before. And it’s OK. I think.

Because this argument about humans losing out to technology reminds me of an argument about God, an argument I’ve never felt to be very persuasive.

I mean, God used to be held as important in ways we no longer understand as God’s unique preserve. There’s that story about pomegranate seeds and the changing seasons, or the idea that God rides a chariot bearing the sun from horizon to horizon, that sort of stuff.

And, for centuries now, technology, science – progress – has chipped away at any sense that these things are, indeed, an inviolate part of what really makes God, God.

And there are, I suppose, some for whom God was only ever a useful concept to explain things science had yet to explain instead; the approach to theology often called ‘God of the gaps.’ For those whose theology was only ever a theology of the gaps, I suspect the advances of technology replaced any need to think about God long ago. I wonder how people who feel that technology replaces the need to consider God important feel about humanity losing out to technology in a similar way.

For what it’s worth, I’m not one of those people.

For as long as I’ve had a theology, understanding more about the world hasn’t lessened my sense of the mystery of existence. I don’t feel God is less impressive because I understand (to the extent I understand) the structure and function of DNA or the mechanics of the Big Bang. Those are things that fill me with wonder and amazement at the sheer existence of it all.

Marvin Fox, in a review of Abraham Heschel’s book, Who is Man, wrote this

In the benediction on drinking water, we express thanks to God "by Whose word everything was created." To see all the marvels of creation in a simple glass of water is a high achievement. When we not only see but also respond with awe and gratitude for the water itself and for all that it mirrors, that is an even higher achievement.[2]

An understanding of technology, of science, I think, allows us to see the marvellous in the world, to be in awe of science and technological progress. It should inspire within us gratitude, not a dismissive rejection. And so too the human. The tech is definitely impressive, it might be changing the future of job markets, but to me it feels as far away from removing a role for humanity, as the discovery of the structure of DNA feels as removing the need for a relationship with God.

Perhaps the real theological gift of an increased understanding of science, is that it frees the notion of God from a swathe of projections dating from the time we had no better explanations to give. God was always God, even when we used to think God hauled the sun across the heavens in a chariot every morning. And so too the human. The thing that was truly special about humanity was never our technical accomplishment - that we could make cloth, or play chess, or write a passable undergraduate-level essay. And maybe, now we are no longer in danger of claiming that these technical accomplishments are at the heart of who we are, we are freed to understand more deeply - who, really, is the Human.

One we put aside the technical accomplishments of human technology, we can work out who really are we and what we really should be doing.

I know we’ve been here before. Technology’s advances have long been accompanied by a suggestion that now, finally now, we’ll have more time to do different things. I mean, that was said about emails, right? But I wonder if this might be different – I wonder if we are going to have think entirely differently about who we are, no longer thinking about ourselves in terms of technological accomplishments we may or may not do better than machines, but instead about the very nature of our humanity.

My greatest companion on this quest, has been Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, Who is Man. It’s a book based on lectures given in the 1960s. Heschel used the masculine term for humanity. I’m not going to correct that as I quote from the book, though I’m as sure he would written in a less gendered way if he were alive today.

Heschel starts with the way in which a human being is unfinalisable.

Where is man? At what stage of his life and in what situation of his existence do we meet him as he really is? Is he the same as father or mother as he is as salesman or soldier? Does he remain the same from the cradle to the grave, from the cave to the rocket?

To insist [Heschel continued] that I must be only what I am now is a restriction which human nature must abhor. The being of a person is never completed, final. There is no standing still.

For Heschel, the human is special because we aren’t done yet. Our essence is not based on any specific technical accomplishment already achieved, but rather, in the idea that there is a difference between who we are today, and who we could be. It’s part of what we are doing here, in Shul on Yom Kippur. We aren’t scraping the data of the world into our operating systems because we are programmed to do so, we are measuring our actual state against our ideal – and it makes us existentially hungry to review, reflect and try better, or at least it should.

For Heschel, we know that we have this gift – a life – and that that gift requires as a certain response. As he puts it;

In spite of our pride, in spite of our acquisitiveness, we are driven by an awareness that something is asked of us, that we are asked to wonder, to revere, to think and to live in a way compatible with the grandeur and mystery of living.

If Descartes thought the essence of existence was thinking – cogito ergo sum, Heschel makes the case that “I am commanded therefore I am.”

It’s living in this genuine relationship with the mystery of living that, for Heschel, is the source of everything most special about humanity. It’s the source of morality and creativity, of obligation and hope. This is the essence of humanity that will be, I think, hardest for a machine to truly mimic, and even if it does mimic – mimicking isn’t really the thing.

I think love, too, is touched by a sense of marvelling at the mystery of life – it feels radically amazing to be in love, to love. I think love too, will be something safe from the encroachment of the robots for some time longer; Pygmalion’s best attempts put gently aside for now.

Heschel’s fear, writing in the 1960s, before the advent of Facebook, or frankly before the BBC started broadcasting colour television,[3] was that we would run away from celebrating the gift of our lives and instead divert ourselves from our true task with triviality.

The man of our time [he wrote] is losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating, he seeks to be amused or entertained. To be entertained is a passive state—it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle. Entertainment is a diversion, a distraction of the attention of the mind from the preoccupations of daily living.

Celebration, on the other hand, was, for Heschel, “ris[ing] above the confines of consumption.”

I like that line. I suspect that, for humanity to have a bright future, and I believe in our future, we need to rise above the confines of consumption and the limits of technological accomplishment. We need to lean into our ability to celebrate existence, to seek to better our lives as if they really were works of art, to do the thing that Francis Bacon said was job of all artists; “to deepen the mystery within each [of us] so that [we] have no choice but to give up shallowness.”

Who is the human? A questing, marvelling, hoping being, who feels an obligation to prove worthy of the gift of life, a being who wants to love and be loved. This is the essence of what it means to be a human, even in the age of AI.

After all, if all you want is a piece of technology produced, you’ll be able to get a computer to write it or a robot to build it. If you just want an 1800-word sermon, Chat GPT has got you covered. I hope you are here because you want something human, from a human, from me. We’ll have to learn how to appreciate the human for being a human.

The good news is, we’ve got experience appreciating that humans are more than our technological achievements. By we, I mean the people here, at this most sacred time on this most sacred day.

These are the moments just before Yizkor, when we come together to remember those we have loved most, who have passed away. And we know, deeply and painfully, what was special about those we stand here today remembering. We know, as deeply as we have loved, who is that man, and that woman. It’s not their technological accomplishments as mighty as they might be. It’s not the way they sought distractions of shallow entertainment, but their celebration of life, ‘the way they rose above the confines of consumption’ to touch our lives.

It’s not about being serious, it’s often about being rather silly – the things that touch me most as I stand at funerals or shiva services or around deathbeds, it’s about love and the way that love is the ultimate marker of who we are as humans.

We know all that when we think of the lives of those we remember at this time. Our charge is to bring that knowledge into the way in which we live our own lives, the celebration of the grand mystery of our own existence. There’s plenty left to do, for us as humans. We need to leave memories of a life lived nobly in the face of the remarkable miracle of our existence. That is who we are, that is what we must strive to be.

Chatimah Tovah

Friday, 15 September 2023

To See Others, To Change Others - A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day One 5784

Here’s a cute thing little kids do. They’ll cover their eyes and assume that just because they can’t see you, you can’t see them. “Peekabo.” For a tiny child, the idea that anyone else sees the world differently from the way they see the world is so absurd you can get peals of laughter from playing along.

Adorable isn’t it. From a small child.

My concern, my fear and the driving force of my sermon, on this most holy of days, is that not enough of us have grown far enough beyond this development stage. Not enough of us care deeply enough about nurturing and loving and committing ourselves to understand the different ways the not-me-s of the world see the world. We are all so stressed and tired and so in fear of this divisive and fractured society, that we think the only way forward is to muster every resource we can to protect the way we see the world right now. And while we think this helps - while at a certain level we think that if I can’t see you then you can’t see me – we do know, don’t we, that peekaboo doesn’t really work.

But, despite its obvious flaws, this pre-occupation with allowing into our awareness only our own way of seeing the world, is compelling.

Lee Ross, the recently deceased sociologist, studied and engaged in conflict negotiation in, among other realms, Israel-Palestine. Not once, he wrote, in forty years’ experience, did anyone arrive at a conflict resolution seminar he was running eager to learn how the other side saw the matter at hand. When we call for empathy or gentleness in society, what we tend to mean is, “I deserve more empathy than you –  you better treat me gently,” and we forget that thing Hillel once said, “That which is hateful for you, do not do to others.”

When it comes to the way we engage with the great political challenges of this day; in this country, in Israel, in the States, we are quick to write off that vast part of society that doesn’t hold the same views as me as either a bunch of out-of-touch liberal elites or racist bullies. We consider our own position one of careful nuance and compassion, and the positions of those with whom we disagree as blunt and wilfully cruel. We’re all so busy being concerned about being unfairly cancelled by those with whom we disagree, that we end up cancelling them first. That helps, of course, at a certain basic level. If we get our cancelling in first, then we really don’t need to pay any attention to the way they see the world.

Somewhere between Kant telling us that the self is categorically important, and the algorithms that sensationalise and fracture the information we let into our brains, we’ve convinced ourselves that our version of truth is the ultimate destination of all ethics, good behaviour and value. And, as an approach, that will guide us towards an ever more divisive, angry and nasty society, a society that, given a moment’s true and deeper consideration, none of us would wish to inhabit.

We know it’s better to try a different way from our most intimate social spaces, from our families. Just suppose that I vote Tory and my brother votes Labour, or vice versa, it’s not the point. We’re going to hang on in there, fighting not to demonise each other in our differences, disagreeing, sure, but not barricading ourselves in and them out, because it’s my brother.

This isn’t, for what it’s worth, a call to meekly accept every position of every person who disagrees with me as equally acceptable. I’m definitely in favour of some positions, and definitely opposed to others, and I’m up for debate and up for changing minds. But the question is, how do we engage with others when we want to make change and we don’t want to add to the fractured, nasty culture of what sometimes passes for debate in this country?

How do I try and get my brother to change his opinion – and full disclosure, I’m not sure I’ve ever successfully persuaded my brother of anything – I take time, share love, listen hard, ask honest and open questions. That’s the way to change the world, with love and humility, not with shouts and barricades.

I like psychologist John Walen’s image, “You can’t move a string by pushing it, you have to pull it.” When it comes to families, we know, I think, most of us, of the need to pull together. We know, I think, most of us, that pushing apart doesn’t get us to where we want to be. We just need to carry that attitude with us when we encounter everyone else.

So, how do we pull strings in, how can we engage compassionately and pro-actively with each other?

I’ve been hugely moved by the tale of Megan Phelps-Roper and David Abitol, a Jew she met via Twitter. Phelps-Roper grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church, you might have heard of them; a particularly nasty organisation committed to demonising those who have different theological understandings – and among the long list of people they demonise are Jews. In one of those 10-million-people-have-viewed-this-presentation Ted Talks, Phelps-Roper explains why she left Westboro.[1] She was on Twitter, busy demonising, when this Jew, David Abitol, the founder of the blog Jewlicious, started to take her seriously and engaging with her reasonably. He seems a remarkable person. And at one point, Abitol heads to meet with Megan in New Orleans in person. As Phelps-Roper retells the story;

after several months of heated but friendly arguments online, he came out to see me at a picket. He brought me a Middle Eastern dessert from Jerusalem, and I brought him kosher chocolate and held a "God hates Jews" sign. There was no confusion about our positions, but the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred. We'd started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another.

And eventually Phelps-Roper left Westboro, and the most important thing that shifted her was the humanity she found in David. She shares later in her Ted Talk

David, my "Jewlicious" friend from Twitter, invited me to spend time among a Jewish community in Los Angeles. We slept on couches in the home of a Hasidic rabbi and his wife and their four kids -- the same rabbi that I'd protested three years earlier with a sign that said, "Your rabbi is a whore." We spent long hours talking about theology and Judaism and life while we washed dishes in their kosher kitchen and chopped vegetables for dinner. I was astonished.

The thing that changed Phelps-Roper wasn’t the intellectual arguments, or the abuse directed at her, but the humanity of the human prepared to stand vulnerable before her.

It turns out the thing that changes other people is, to a great extent, the same thing as holds us together when we disagree with one another. If we treat other people, even people with whom we disagree as real human beings, not caricatures, if we hang on in there, even when conversations get difficult, if we pull in on the strings that bind us, rather than push away, we can achieve both. We can be part of a less divisive world and fight for the change we want to see in the world.

That’s a tall order, I know. I struggle with it too. But let me try and offer two gentle steps, as we set out in this new year to better ourselves and the society in which we find ourselves. Two steps that are, and forgive me, I’m a rabbi and it’s Rosh Hashanah, very Jewish.

The first is – stop digging; as in, if you are in a pit, stop digging. It’s monetised, you know, all those media groups who draw us in to watch one human being fighting another human being in a digital pit. They are making money, you know, off our inability to just say no. The real question is how do we allow ourselves to be shaped by our encounters with others? I send out a feedback form every year after Yom Kippur and every year I say something about God in my sermons and every year someone complains that they didn’t come to Shul on Rosh Hashanah to hear the Rabbi bang on about God. Sorry. But God is at the heart of this. Not the vindictive, bogus theology taught in places like the Westboro Church, but the kind of God we believe in here.

The kind of God we’ve spent this morning praying to; a God who is powerful at a level beyond human power, mysterious and unknowable beyond human knowledge, certainly, but, we believe merciful, slow to anger and willing to bear the weight of our transgressions if we can only find it in our hearts to change our ways. I’ll take that God above any of the social media influencers out there. It’s worth turning off the phones and re-centring our sense of what is important away from the bear pits that pass for debate, and towards El Rahum v’Hanun, a God of mercy and grace. It’s worth our prayers.


And the second is this - for a human being to change, we need to encounter other human beings. We need to be vulnerable human beings encountering other humans to change them, and ourselves. I think that’s part of why it’s worth being here, in a Synagogue, a Bet Kenesset – literally, a place for people to come together. There are different human beings here. Some older, some younger, some distracting because they pray too loudly, or chat too loudly, or snore too loudly.

But we need to be jostled up against different people with different levels of … well everything to grow and learn and heal. We’re a better community and a stronger community by being egalitarian, by having more members of colour, or of different sexualities or who are well … everything.

By the time we are done with the service today, I suspect we are all going to be too interested in lunch to want to have particularly deep conversations about the great matters of our time with our fellow Synagogue-attendees. We’re not even offering a proper Kiddush.

But we could take a moment now to look around this incredible room of incredible human beings, all of whom are created in the image of God, none of whom, despite the ways in which they might disagree with me, are worthy of being demonised or stereotyped or abnegated, all of whom, if I can just connect with them, human-to-human could teach me so much I could never understand just by myself.

We could take a second moment to embed that attitude into our heart, fixing this sense of the vital important of treating other people as valuable fellow wanderers, even if we disagree – perhaps most especially if we disagree.

And dare I request a third moment; to appreciate what it is to be part of a community, this special community, where there are so many different people to learn from?

With our prayers and with this remarkable assembly of human beings there might be everything we need to heal this world here, in this special space, on this special day. As Hillel said, that’s the very essence of the Torah, the rest is commentary, now go complete it.

May we go on to do just that, tomorrow, and beyond, and onwards into the year of sweetness, health and peace we wish for ourselves,

Shannah Tovah


Accommodate the Environment - A Sermon for Second Day Rosh Hashanah 5784

The choice of subject was easy. I wanted to talk about the environment today, partly because it’s possibly the most significant area of our lives where we, as humanity, owe a responsibility to our Creator and our fellow human beings to change. And partly because it’s proving so difficult for us, as humanity, to make that change. We’re stuck.

There’s an old joke that feels less funny every time I hear it. A man is taking shelter in a storm. And an announcement comes over the radio that everyone should evacuate. But the man reflects that since he’s a decent person, God will take care of him. So he stays put.

And when the waters start to rise and a storm marshall comes, knocking door-to-door, telling everyone to evacuate, the man protests his decency, assures the marshall God will take care of him and stays put.

And when the waters rise higher, and the man escapes to the roof of his house, a helicopter comes whirring by, and the pilot, through the loudhailer, tells the man to hang onto a rope and be winched aboard, and the man protests his decency and refuses to leave.

And when the man drowns in the flood, he insists on a private meeting with God, “How, God, could you do this to as decent a man as myself.” And God responds, “Who do you think sent the marshal and the helicopter?”

I did warn you, it’s not as funny as it used to be.

I’m not going to do the facts, I think we all have enough of a sense of the facts.

The problem is the link between the input of the facts and the output of a transformed relationship with our natural environment.

I’ve been thinking about an idea attributed to the great Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget.

Piaget’s thought we deal with new destabilising knowledge in two ways; we assimilate and we accommodate. When we assimilate new knowledge, says Piaget, we add the incoming knowledge to the sense of the world we have in place without having to alter anything, without having to alter our schema.

The example of a dog will do. Let’s say, our parent shows us, as a child, a picture of a four-legged, furry creature and tells us that this is a dog – dog, got it. We go to the park, and there’s a four-legged, furry creature that, suddenly, barks. And we don’t know what to do with this new knowledge, but, hopefully, someone confirms to us that, despite our concerns, this is nonetheless a dog, and we assimilate into our schema of ‘dog’ that dogs bark.

But what if, having been shown a picture of a four-legged, furry dog, we go to the park and see a four-legged, furry creature that miaows. Again, we are going to be thrown a bit, but, hopefully, someone confirms to us that this is not a dog, but a cat. And we accommodate our schema, we create a new way of understanding that four-legged furry creatures that miaow are NOT dogs, but instead a cat.

So assimilation – there’s new information out there, and it momentarily destabilises us, but we assimilate that information into our existing schema, and we go on with our lives unchanged.

And accommodation – there’s new information out there and we are destabilised to the extent that we change our schema, and change our understanding of the world.

The issue, I think, with our relationship with the environment, is that we keep assimilating new pieces of information into our existing schema. And don’t accommodate our schema to change.

We encounter a bit of information that suggests our actions are destroying the planet and we will ourselves into a belief the science isn’t clear, or that it isn’t not going to affect us, or that we can’t do anything about it or any one of a litany of different emotional responses that allow us to carry on regardless, or with just enough of a response that we kid ourselves we have greenwashed over an ecological sin. Ahhh the human psyche.

I hope this helps, just naming and calling the difference between an assimilating response to destabilising information and an accommodating response. I hope it can help us accommodate, and change.

But I want to share three other ideas, religious ideas, Jewish ideas that, I hope, can help us accommodate to the environmental challenge, in this year to come.

The first has something to do with the way we treat eco-warriors, or doomsayers, or extinction rebellion protestors or … those sorts of people.

Prophets Are There to Help, But It’s a Tough Job – So Be Nice

When God tells Moses to stand before Pharoah, Moses doesn’t want to do it. He’s convinced no-one will believe him. When God tells Isaiah to instruct the Children of Israel to change their ways, Isaiah says, and this is the original Hebrew, Oy. When Jonah is told to prophecy destruction, he thinks he’s more likely to be killed than change the ways of the people of Nineveh.

I think many of the great, and not so great, ecological prophets of our time would absolutely understand how they felt.

But were it not for Moses, or Isaiah or Jonah …

I’m reminded of the Talmudic account of how Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai saved Judaism. The Jews of Jerusalem had barricaded themselves inside the city and the Biryoni, the Jewish leadership inside the city, threaten to kill anyone who even suggests negotiating with the Romans. It took Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s remarkable leadership to see that the path followed by the Biryoni was self-destructive, and it took bravery, even a foolhardy bravery to do something about it.

The prophetic voices are there, in our faith and beyond. They have warned us of exactly what has already happened and they are still warning us of what is to happen. We have to stop barricading ourselves in and shooting the messengers.

Responsibility over Rights

There’s a remarkable line in the Talmud that suggests that a person who doesn’t make a blessing before and after eating is a thief. It’s thieving from God, and blessing is how we seek permission. Because the food we eat, it’s not really ours, not even if we planted it, or paid for it with our earned wages. The same goes for, well, everything. The clothes we wear, the roof over our heads, even the very breath in our lungs. Consumption is not a right, but a responsibility, in Hebrew a Chovah, literally a debit. We are stewards of our possessions, there is only one Master in the Universe and we were placed on earth LOvdah UleShomrah – to serve and tend, not as a god ourselves.

Laws of Shabbat, sabbatical and on and on the list goes can be understood as an attempt to inculcate in us a sense, as it says in the Leviticus that gerim v’toshavim atem imadi – we are strangers and temporary dwellers on God’s property. It’s not ours, even if we are temporarily in possession.

We are not a better or a worse person because we have more, or less, of one thing or another, but we because of how we steward that temporarily in our hands. It’s a remarkably freeing idea. It should free us from the suffering Buddhists articulate so well – that our cravings for temporal material objects bring pain.

But it’s a salutary idea too. Freed of the notion that accumulation is important, we should find it easier to understand that many of the things we chase, we do not genuinely need, we could genuinely do without and, for sake of the planet, we must learn to do without. There are radical changes we need to make to our lives. And, of course, that will feel scary. But we, as a nation, as a species, we’ve made dramatic changes before. Once upon a time, smoking was a fine thing to do, drink driving was fine, human slavery was fine. We’ve changed before, we can change again. We can cut down on our use of petro-carbons, plastics, air miles, it’s not that hard.

I think that seeing the resources of the world as our responsibility, not our right, will help.

We Are the Weather

And finally this. Here are some of the most significant verses in our faith – they come from the second paragraph of the Shema, we recited them last night, and this morning. If you are good, it says in the book of Deuteronomy, “there will be rain in its season. You will gather in grain and wine and oil” But if you are not good, “God will shut up the skies so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce and you will soon perish from the good land God is giving you.”

Or, later in the Book of Deuteronomy, just before Moses passes away, he repeats the idea. If you do well, God will “open for you the bounteous store of the heavens to bless you.” But if you do not do well, “God will strike you, scorching heat and drought; the skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you, iron.”

Some 3,000 years ago, Moses suggested we are the weather. We are the reason it rains or doesn’t - or rains as and when it should, or floods and destroys when it shouldn’t. It is our doing and it is our fault.

And at one level, this Deuteronomistic way of thinking is so easy to disprove. It feels so obviously absurd when we know there are good people who suffer drought and wicked people who experience plenty. And for three thousand years theologians have argued and pontificated and struggled to explain these seemingly absurd verses.

And then along comes climate catastrophe.

And now, suddenly, this way of thinking about the environment feels obviously, transparently, true. If you cut down all the trees, and if you don’t take care of the ecosystems and if you don’t … and if you don’t … then you are the weather.

It turns out that the way to solve the absurdity of how to make sense of these verses was to think about the environment. Let greed and wanton consumption run unfettered through the planet for 250 years or so and we’ll absolutely get copper skies and iron earth. It will all come to pass, just as Moses always said it would.

Here's the good news.

If we are the weather as we turn the skies copper, we can be the weather in healing some of the scars we’ve inflicted. We know there are things that can work and maybe, maybe even whisper it, are already starting to work.

We are powerful, if we can unite and organise and, perhaps most especially, if we can be prepared to put up with inconveniences today so we don’t mess things up too badly tomorrow. I urge us to try.

We need to listen to the prophets. We need to recalibrate our relationship to stuff to make sure we treat consumption as a responsibility not a right, and we need to take seriously that we are the weather.

It's not that we don’t know what to do. It’s that we have allowed ourselves to assimilate the greatest challenge of our times into something that doesn’t require our attention. In this year to come, for all our sakes, and the sake of our human future on this planet, may we learn to do differently.

And may that bring us the year of sweetness and joy that we wish for ourselves.

Shannah Tovah


Sunday, 10 September 2023

A Speech Given at the Pro-Democracy Rally, Trafalgar Square, London, 10th Sept 2023


I’m Rabbi Jeremy Gordon from New London Synagogue. It’s an honour to be here.

Anachnu Nitzavim Kulanu Hayom

We are all stood here today; the religious, the secular, the old and the young, the men and the women to say that this is wrong.

And I know, within the government of the State of Israel, there are those who think that, that we protest because, somehow, we lack love for the State of Israel, or the people, or the traditions of our faith. But that is so untrue.

In Synagogues across the Jewish world, just yesterday, we read this about who needed to hear about the first State of Israel. To hear about the first State of Israel Moses says this

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל.

   טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם--וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ: 

מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ.

You are all stood here today; the heads of the tribes, the elders, every man, woman and child, even the refugee in the midst of the camp, even the wood-choppers and water-carriers

That’s the list Moses thinks it’s important to bring together to hear about the project to create the first State of Israel. And it has to be right that the State of Israel is there for everyone; the Jew, the Ger, the refugee, the Arab citizen, the Palestinian non-citizen, the straight and the gay and those wonderful human beings for whom such distinctions are too binary.

Because I don’t care if you have 59 mandates or 64 mandates, or 119 mandates; a democracy is NOT a place where the powerful get to do whatever they want.

Democracies are places where the powerful are checked.

Democracies are places that care more about doing what is good, than allowing the powerful to do whatever they want.

Democracies are places where there are counterbalances on the exercise of power so everyone, even the woodchopper and the water-drawer, knows they are protected and their inviolate rights as a human being, a creation in the image of God, are acknowledged.

And for a government to take the opportunity of an elected majority to govern on behalf of only some of its people is worse than wrong, it is, as Moses said in verses we read in Synagogues yesterday, the thing that brings curse and destruction.

I had the opportunity to share Torah, this teaching, with Chaver Kenesset, Minister Amichai Chikli on his visit to London this week. He had the decency to look uncomfortable.

By the way, I think it’s fine for Jews to protest against powerful people who are doing wrong. We’ve been protesting against powerful people doing wrong since the time of Pharoah.

Great miracles have been wrought by Jews protesting against powerful people doing wrong.

So, how do you know, if you are a powerful person, let’s say a minister or a Prime Minister,  how do you know if thing you want to do as a person of power is not just what you want to do, but is indeed good?

The answer, the religious answer, the Jewish answer, is abundantly clear. If you are a powerful person and you care about doing good, you make space for judicial review.

When God, the creator of heaven and earth, when God who had the ultimate mandate, when God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gemorah, God made space for judicial review.

הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה

How can I hide from Abraham what I want to do?

And Abraham responds, the Rabbinic term is, as a Sangoria – as a defence attorney. And this is what Abraham says in the Supreme Court of all Supreme Courts

חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, חָלִלָה לָּךְ-

-הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט

“How dare you do such a thing?”, says Abraham before God,

 חָלִלָה לָּךְ how dare you, judge of all the world not act with justice?!

And God takes it. The book of Genesis records God submitting to Abraham’s judicial review not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but six times.

Because God knows the judicial review is at the heart of how you ensure power is used for good,

It's one of the greatest stories in our faith tradition.

And the idea that there are rabbis who give a Hechsher – who support this attempt to dismantle the power of the courts, the idea there are rabbis who are complicit in this act of self-destruction staggers me.

To my fellow Rabbonim, and religious leaders whatever your denomination, speak up, teach this Torah of Moshe and Avraham. Learn from Yitro the courage to say clearly and in public;

לֹא-טוֹב, הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, עֹשֶׂה.

This thing you are doing is not good.


A Brachah, a Kavanah, a prayer, for this vitally important week, as all stand here on the cusp of a New Year.

God, source of justice, of compassion and power, send your blessings to all your people

To your people who are protesting injustice, fill our hearts with strength and resolution. Hazak v’Amatz LeKulanu.

And to your people who are invested with electorally mandated power. Open their hearts to the need to serve all their people, even the woodchooper and the watercarrier. Bless them with the understanding that great democracies need powerful courts to ensure that power is always wielded for good and for blessing.

And grant us all a year of sweetness,

Shannah Tovah and thank you.

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