Sermon Shoftim – Dragging faith back into the 21st Century

In R. Ishmael’s School it was taught: And like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29): i.e., just as [the rock] is split into many splinters,  so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 34a)

I’ve been thinking a great deal about world events and the rise of intolerant and fundamentalist tendencies in religion and the abuse of religion for ulterior motives (mainly for power). But I’ve also been thinking about the radicalisation of textual interpretation that seemingly permits abhorrent and evil acts. In the hands of the charismatic, manipulative and wicked pseudo-religious leaders the vulnerable are persuaded to believe the text can say just about anything. Which is surely in contrast to the plain meaning of our Torah portion this morning and the role of leadership. Let me give you two examples of changing meaning or outright ignoring it:

1 – From the Bible to Prayer book with love

This is the period of introspection – Elul – the month that leads us up to Rosh Hashanah and the ten days of repentance. In one of our most famous texts used in our prayerbook for the coming holy days we read the 13 Attributes of God found in the book of Exodus, chapter 34.

But did you know that the prayer book almost completely reverses the meaning of the end of the phrase – and understandably. If you don’t believe me read it for yourself:

In the Torah the verse ends, “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty”

Yet in our machzor listen, “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will clear the guilty.”

As my teacher and former principal of the Leo Baeck College, Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet, writes, “when the rabbis chose this passage, they cut off the last two words, to give it the opposite meaning to that in the Bible.   Instead of v’nakei lo yenakei, God will not hold guilty people guiltless, they stopped at the first word v’nakei, suggesting that God holds everyone guiltless.   They made God even nicer.  An extraordinary example of rabbinic ‘chutzpah’.” (D’var Torah for Yom Kippur 2011)

2 – When do not becomes do – death of the author in the Talmud

There’s good precedent for this, reading the text so radically that it takes on the opposite meaning to the ‘plain’ sense. In a famous story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) in which Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with his colleagues on an issue of purity, they argue and end up stating, ‘It is not in heaven’ that is the Torah is not in heaven. Which is to say, once God has given the words of the Torah, it is for us to interpret – the ultimate death of the author – and we can interpret the text so radically that in spite of God telling the majority of the rabbis they were incorrect in their interpretation the sages quote, “After the majority one should incline”. Which is the complete opposite of the meaning of the verse. They quote it to mean Rabbi Eliezer should follow the majority of his colleagues, but the verse says, “do not…follow after the majority to pervert justice.” (Exodus 23:2). Talk about ‘chutzpah’ – instead of a warning about being swayed by the majority the Talmud turns the phrase into a command to follow the majority.

Religious belief and behaviour, you see, can be forced to state anything using religious texts as the foundation. These were two ‘benign’ examples – yet it gives ample proof that even within our own tradition there is the possibility to make a text say what you want.

The Revelator is silent, long live the interpreter.

Now, in addition to my fascination with the 13 Attributes text at this time of year, I was also thinking about this issue because of a conversation I had this week. I’m not sure any door knocking evangelist has ever been accused of terrorist activity, or of the fascistic behaviour which we have witnessed with the rise of ISIS and other organisations like Hamas, so forgive the association. But this came to a head when, on my last day of holiday I sat down to peace and quiet at home…finally opened up my Talmud (I know I lead such an exciting life) got my dictionary and notebook to think through my preparation for teaching rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College, when the doorbell rang with the evangelist coming to give me a leaflet.

The encounter is familiar to you I’m sure, but I never let on that I’m a rabbi, which is unfair and fair in my opinion. In the course of our extensive conversation it transpired that my visitor believed that science can over-reach itself and that the story of creation must be true because it was written by Moses…to which he added, “No I don’t believe we come from monkeys.”

I opted out of the lesson in evolutionary theory – though last week my daughter was reading her book with me about the development of Homo Sapiens around 250,000 years ago. Even she can tell you we don’t come from monkeys but evolved larger brains, ability to speak, use of tools, change in posture and physical form from our predecessors such as Homo Erectus. We even excitedly talked about the news of the recent discovery about Neanderthals coexistence with Homo Sapiens – which was comforting for my daughter that there’s still lots for science to discover and we don’t know everything. She’s 4.5 years old. Perhaps I could have shared her book with my new friend.

Still he was adamant that one day in the creation story didn’t necessarily mean one day (as in 24 hours) – though why you would care what it means once you’ve opted to avoid rational thought I don’t know. So I set him a challenge. To go away, learn Hebrew and come back having analysed every occurrence of the word ‘יום’ (day) in the Torah and tell me how many times it is used to mean something other than a day (as in the time from one morning to the next).

The problem, as it becomes ever clearer to me, is that we can use our religious texts to mean whatever bonkers ideas we like (and my visitor just caught me at the wrong time) – in theory anyway, notwithstanding an extended cultural tradition of a mode of interpretation. But if I wanted to interpret my text to argue as a religious leader the killing of non-Jews is permitted in the name of Judaism, or raping, murdering and selling into slavery young girls to keep them from Western education in the name of Islam, or abuse the mourners at the funeral of an actor because he once acted a part in drag in the name of Christianity – I could, and of course I’ve only picked real examples and a small carefully chosen sample.

Us and Them

I don’t want to risk creating more hate but we need to accept that on the one hand it is ‘us and them’ – the extremists vs the moderates and the religious terrorising of populations is frightening today particularly with the abuse of Islam in places like Iraq – roundly denounced by the Muslim Council of Britain with whom the Board of Deputies release an unprecedented statement. And at the same time it’s us. The most powerful moderating force comes from within not from the outsider. If there’s a job for interfaith work it’s to make a stand against the extremist tendencies in all our faith communities – a sort of massive inter-intrafaith effort. We must once again moderate the religious extremist tendencies, even whilst we tackle the rising hatred in the form of Antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The enlightenment values which drove Liberal Judaism forwards – rationalism, universalism, humanism and personal autonomy must be combined with the most important normative interpretations of Judaism and other religions’ textual traditions: compassion, the sanctity of life, loving our fellow as ourselves, justice and peace. Enough talking past religious fundamentalists and extremists – we, all liberal religions, must set about making the case more persuasive and more persistent and drag, kicking and screaming if necessary, the world of faith back into the 21st century.

May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.


The Big Questions television programme – 12 January 2014

As the Big Questions show airs today I have prepared a few sources and resources about the various issues which were touched upon – some of which reflect my position as a rabbi working within Liberal Judaism and others which simply present a more nuanced and, in my opinion, coherent comment on the issues that were discussed.

I should add that the debate as it progressed placed me curiously at the end of the panel containing the ‘against’ voices (ie advocating that Human Rights should not always override Religious Rights). I actually don’t think my position is so clear, though the false dichotomy of the question is really the problem in that regard.

The truth is that whilst all of us were forced to defend our religious communities we should remember it is easy to mock behaviours and customs which seem strange to us and the people exhibiting them (is there a cultural superiority at work here? I’m reminded of the commentary on Modernity and Jewish practice in Prof Arnold Eisen’s book ‘Rethinking Modern Judaism’ – chapter 1). We should be careful because I suspect behind the debate lie the seeds of division and hatred in humanity.

I want to add one other thing to the question of the t-shirt wearing students. I personally have no issue with the wearing of the t-shirts and would not seek to ban the freedom of expression that allows them to be worn. We all, as followers of religion, need to reinforce our sense of humour and remain impervious to provocation and thick skinned to anyone who would like to cause offense. But, I do have an anxiety about the way in which public discourse and the t-shirts themselves seek to provoke conflict. I wonder what is actually at the heart of this debate in which the two sides back off into their corners? I am not convinced that it is really about secularism or freedom of speech or in fact religious doctrine. And in fact, the debate about the veil and the t-shirts have a number of similarities – they’re about clothing, about belief, identity and are at the nexus between one’s self and the outside world (and making statements about that world).

Anyway, I digress. Here are some resources and I also commend to readers that they follow the UK Human Rights Blog and the Law and Religion UK Blog. There is also useful information on the EHRC website. I’m also grateful to the tweeters whom I follow, who comment on these issues, frequently as professionals and often in the field of law and philosophy.

A brief summary to the Human Rights Act and religion is here:

Some posts by me about Human Rights

Is Christianity in the UK under attack?

I’m not the person to answer this, but I followed closely the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on this subject last summer (that is aside from the threat to Christians in some parts of the world at the moment). Personally, I think religious communities on the whole in the UK have it pretty good at the moment. There is a tolerance, respect and constructive involvement of religious communities in public debates. We even have, though it bothers me slightly, a minister for faith and communities. The reality is that religious groups need to come to terms with the fact that they no longer carry the authority as they used to, which means they have a role to play in the conversations in the ‘public square’ but do not get to veto our elected politicians when it comes to law making. I’m certain that there is a difference between Christianity and Islam (both of which were dominant religions of whole geopolitical regions) and Judaism and other minority religions in the UK which have negotiated the way in which their religion plays a role in public and private. It is no surprise that an established church feels threatened as its traditional role changes and authority wanes:

B+B judgement:

Homosexuality, Equal Marriage and Liberal Judaism:

Refusal to serve pork products:


This was the issue on which I was taken to task most in the programme. I recently gave comment to the Ham & High Newspaper on the subject, but my comments were not printed very extensively. However the conversation with the reporter was considerably more civilised! The ignorant assertion of the student (as I understood it), in the programme, that the Talmud’s description of infant mortality post-circumcision is like a mandate to kill Jewish babies was in my opinion a gross misreading of the sources. The Talmud is not written in a time of modern medicine and actually reinforces, through a limited understanding of medical conditions, the view that circumcision is not permitted in Jewish law in cases where the child’s life will be at risk.

Liberal Judaism publication on the subject:

A general document about some myths.

One of the mohelim from the Association of Reform and Liberal Mohelim has his own  website.

Segregated seating at Universities:

Professor Mary Beard wrote her own response to the furore itself –

Guidance on Sikh articles of faith

Obsessions of the faith and traditional values:

A blog post from me in which I bemoan the fact that we (politicians and religious leaders) seem obsessed by sex and reproduction.

I wrote a post here about why I hate it when (particularly Christian leaders and politicians) talk of ‘traditional’ values.

French Secularism: