Sermon: The authentic voice of religion

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 January 2014

There’s a little bit of me that wishes I could be a bit more fire and brimstone.
Sometimes I try.  But my heart is never in it.
Even when I try, I can’t get much beyond the polite request of a very English Reform Rabbi.
I don’t have it in me to do the pulpit- bashing social commentary thing.

But there’s a bit of me that wishes I could.
That I could put aside my English self, my Reform self, and my rational self, and harness a bit more righteous indignation.
I want to exclaim from the Bimah: “God wants you to do such and such…”
I want to say: “God is angry with us because we are not doing XYZ”;
But I can’t.

That voice is not our voice.
It is, most of all, not our theological voice.
I don’t believe in a God who intervenes in the world in that way.  I don’t believe I have a special line to God, a special understanding of God’s will.  I think religion is not simple, but incredibly hard work.  The Judaism that we inherited from the Sages, is far more sophisticated than that, recognises the complexity of divine intervention in the world.

Because of that subtlety, the appropriation of divine wrath is simply not our voice.
That certainty, that stridency, with its claim of divine anger, requires a level of arrogance in claiming an understanding of God’s will.  And it is now almost exclusively the domain of a certain sort of right wing, moral messaging.

We saw it again last week in the claim made by David Silvester, an obscure, briefly famous, and now obscure again UKIP councillor, who suggested that the rain we’ve been having recently is God’s punishment for our lax attitude to homosexuality and the legalisation of same-sex marriage.  He, apparently, wrote to David Cameron to warn him something like this would happen, but the Prime Minister didn’t listen.

While faintly comical, the prominence of that strident voice is coming at a cost.  When we ask, “what is the voice of religion in this country?” – the answer for many, is that.
Religion has been hijacked by a particular subsection of religious life.
Liberal ideals and human goodness, values of equality, compassion,  these are no longer primarily associated with God, but are associated with secularity.
And the prominent religious voice in the world – the voice that quotes the bible, the voice that asks what divine will for humanity might be – that is now associated with a socially right-wing moral agenda.

We see this not only in extreme examples such as our UKIP friend, but also more deeply in our public discourse.
Take the debate over gender segregation in universities.  In itself, this is another sermon for another time, but in December of last year there was a specific debate about gender segregation in universities.  It produced comment like this, from columnist Deborah Orr in the Guardian:  “For human rights to flourish”, she stated, “religious rights have to come second…  One cannot protect religious rights… used as a reason to abuse human rights, human equalities, as so often they are”.
Humanity and religion were presented as antithetical.  ‘Human’ values were understood to be equality, tolerance; the ‘religious view’ to be the desire to suppress, to discriminate.

We see it around the world.  Religion is associated with intolerance.  A report on attitudes to homosexuality last year by the Pew Research Centre found a direct correlation between attitudes to homosexuality and the secularity of society.
The more religious a country, the more intolerant:
The report’s authors wrote: “There is a strong relationship between a country’s religiosity and opinions about homosexuality. There is far less acceptance in countries where religion is central to people’s lives – measured by whether they consider religion to be very important, whether they believe it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral, and whether they pray at least once a day.”

So, in Africa religion has been one of the driving forces in anti-gay legislation – including in Nigeria and Uganda, both of which have this year introduced severe laws against same sex relations.
The Religious voice is not one of care and compassion, but prohibition and condemnation.  One Nigerian minister, the Reverend Michael Kimundu, was expelled from the Anglican Church in Nigeria because of his leadership of a religious organisation called The Other Sheep, which preaches tolerance towards gay people. “I am a preacher, I should be spreading love, not hate”, he said.

We saw it once again with the news over night that an elderly British man has been sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy – and most horrifically, in the fact that no-one is surprised.  Blasphemy, for what it is worth, ceased to be a capital offence in Judaism within the first generation of the rabbinic exercise, despite the explicit commandment of Torah.

These examples, and plenty of others, should give us cause to worry, wherever we are placed in the Jewish spectrum.  Religion is seen as either comical or terrifying.
So somehow we have to shout, too, saying: The voice of God is not an intolerant voice.

To see this we need only look at this week’s portion.  Here is a text which cries out about compassion, which demands of us to respond to the needs of the vulnerable, which asks us to empathise and reconcile ourselves with our enemy.
We need look only at texts like our Haftarah which equates evil with lack of justice and inequality – “Establish justice in the gates” it says, “let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.”

Of course, I, choose to privilege those texts, and must also account for those sections which are more problematic – as did the ancient Rabbis, and every critically thinking Jew since.

But equally, and so rarely demanded, those who use religion as a stick to wield against the vulnerable must also account for the words of Torah.  As this week’s portion commands us: “You shall not side with the mighty to do wrong”.
If it is illegitimate to read the Torah as a modern, moral work, without recognising its harsher elements –it is also fundamentally illegitimate to use Religion for the sake of intolerance while forgetting the other stuff.

So what do I want to say?
That the authentic voice of religion is not the voice of David Silvester, of Rabbi Daniel Levy, of those who condemn homosexuality or convict a mentally ill man of blasphemy.
Human values and religious rights are not in tension.  This very idea comes from a misappropriation of the text.

The belief in equality, in compassion, in care, these are not beliefs that we impose upon our otherwise ‘religious’ perspective.  They come out from our religious perspective, from our relationship with the text, from our grappling with understanding divine will.

And just because I can’t claim to have divine wrath on my side, doesn’t mean I’m not angry – just about different things.

The God of Parashat Mishpatim, ki v’yachol, if I could say such a thing, is angry because orphans and widows in this country are forced to eat in soup kitchens; because the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion; because almost a billion people in the world are without clean drinking water, killing over 3000 children a day, while there are nearly 1500 billionaires in the world; because people are being killed right now because they are the wrong tribe, the wrong sex, the wrong sexual orientation.

I can’t do the fire and brimstone thing.  But just because that other voice is louder and more strident, doesn’t mean it is authentic, doesn’t mean it speaks for me, doesn’t mean it’s right.