This is not going to be a political sermon – but I shall be talking about Margaret Thatcher. Dangerous territory? Well, I’m going to try to avoid falling into the love her/loath her binary trap. In fact, that’s the main reason I want to speak about her today – to challenge the view that the only way to relate to Britain’s first woman Prime Minister is to be for her or against her.

Don’t get me wrong. I marched against Margaret Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s – against the closure of the mines and against Clause 28,[1] which was supposed to protect innocent school pupils from the danger of being exposed to lesbian and gay ‘propaganda’. ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!’ Like tens of thousands of others, I chanted the endless refrain at the top of my lungs.

As it happens, having grown up in Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley constituency,[2] with my Labour-aligned parents tactically voting Liberal in the hope that their local MP would not be returned endlessly, I missed out on the day that Margaret Thatcher actually became Prime Minister on May 3rd 1979. If I had been aware of this momentous occasion, it would have spoiled my 24th birthday, but I was living on a tiny left-wing, ha-shomer ha-tzair kibbutz on a hilltop in the Western Galilee at the time, preoccupied with matters agricultural.[3] Indeed, the impact of inhabiting what felt like another planet, stayed with me for several weeks after I returned to London in late June and started looking for a job. I saw an advert for a post in the housing department at Wandsworth Council and went for it. Oh dear! I gave my socialist shpiel about the entitlement of council tenants to a decent home at a reasonable rent, only to discover that the Council had gone Tory in my absence! It was a bit embarrassing to say the least…

Anyway, the main point of this biographical digression is to demonstrate that I’m as good a candidate for perpetuating binary thinking about Margaret Thatcher as the best of them. But as I said a moment ago – that’s not what I want to do. What would be the point of simply rehearsing the same ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ sentiments? To prove my credentials? No, I want to go deeper today. But first, before I explore a non-binary way of thinking, let me be clear about where I’m coming from in binary terms as far as Margaret Thatcher is concerned. In my view, the real culprit in the reshaping of the economic landscape in Britain in the 1980s, was unbridled free-market liberal capitalism given a free rein by the new sweep-clean-and-privatise Conservative government.

Okay – so what else is there to say? I’d like to begin my challenge to binary thinking by looking at the kernel of the issue – that famous oft-quoted, arguably, misquoted statement of Margaret Thatcher’s about there being, ‘no such thing as society’[4]. It is easy seize on the fact that Margaret Thatcher championed the rights of the individual at the expense of maintaining the social fabric. But what is the alternative to this approach – to champion the needs of society at the expense of the individual? Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, the next few decades were marked by this kind of Ping-Pong between the two main political parties. Perhaps, Margaret Thatcher’s greatest legacy is that following her Premiership, this binary approach to politics has been largely abandoned by, both, Labour and the Conservatives.

Interestingly, Jewish teaching – which may be harnessed to either side, depending on which verses from the Torah one selects – actually also offers an understanding which values, both, the rights of the individual and the individual’s responsibilities to contribute to the maintenance of an equitable society. Leviticus chapter 19, which formed part of last week’s double Torah portion, Acharey Mot-K’doshim, articulates a legal code that does just this. Individual citizens are entitled to own land, to trade, to employ others and to prosper. At the same time, individuals with means, have a responsibility to the wider community and are obligated to share the fruits of the land with the landless, to conduct their business dealings honestly and to pay their employees what is due to them on time. Further, the legal system has to be operated in such a way that judges neither favour the poor, nor show deference to the rich – and this imperative is echoed in Deuteronomy chapter 16 in parashat Shof’tim which opens with the appointment of magistrates and officials and their responsibilities (:18-20).

In both these codes, there are references to the concept of ‘justice’ – tzedek. Tzedek is about equity and is the basis of a social compact based on honouring, both, the rights of individuals and their social responsibilities towards others. According to the Torah, tzedek – ‘justice’ – provides the basis of all aspects of the social fabric – political, economic and legal. The mitzvah – obligation – to practice tz’dakah, which devolves on all individuals, regardless of their economic circumstances, sharing the same Hebrew root as tzedek – Tzadi Dalet Kuf – is an expression of this understanding. In his Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish law, the 12th century codifier and philosopher, Maimonides, Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam, described eight levels of tz’dakah – the highest being, making someone a loan to enable them to become economically independent.[5] The rules of tz’dakah as Maimonides sets them out make it clear that a just welfare system is one which corrects the inequitable distribution of wealth while at the same time ensuring that the dignity and independence of the individual is respected.

So, Jewish teaching encourages us not to fall into the individualism versus collectivism binary trap. This is not to say that binary thinking is absent in Jewish thought. One might argue, indeed, that the binary approach is fundamental to the concept of k’dushah, the ‘sacred’, which in Jewish terms means that which is separate or set apart. Indeed, the Book of Leviticus, in particular, articulates the meaning of the sacred in explicitly binary terms: the people Israel are set apart from the other nations; the Levites are set apart from the other Israelite tribes; particular food sources are set apart from others for exclusive consumption, men and women are set apart from one another and inhabit separate realms.

This last binary preoccupation brings me back to Margaret Thatcher: She wasn’t just caught in the political-economic binary trap, she was also caught in the gender binary trap – and most of the binary reflections about her reflect an obsession with binary gender. The Iron Lady? Certainly, Margaret Thatcher was dominant, tough, determined, uncompromising. She had, in other words, all the attributes that are normally associated with powerful male leaders. She was, indeed, ‘the best man’ in her Cabinet.[6] But these attributes are, precisely, not deemed normal in a woman – hence, she was less ‘a lady’ in all the senses that that word is used – demure, well-behaved, compliant – and more. ‘The Iron Lady’: The definite article offers an additional resonance because Margaret Thatcher was the one and only ‘Iron Lady’ – a one off, set apart from all other proper ladies – apart from, perhaps, Boudicca the Queen of the ancient Britons. And yet, while quaking in the presence of the 20th century equivalent of the ironclad female warrior, rallying her troops for war on the economic battlefield with the same single-mindedness with which she approached the Falklands conflict, both Margaret Thatcher’s supporters and her detractors could not help themselves commenting on her clothes and ‘nice legs’. ‘The Iron Lady’ was a woman after all and the woman before us is always assessed by her appearance. Indeed, like many attractive women, Margaret Thatcher also used her looks, as well as that other marker of the female gender stereotype, her ‘feminine wiles’.

It is virtually impossible to assess what Margaret Thatcher did and her impact on Britain without getting caught up in the gender binary trap. Just try to imagine for a moment, not Margaret Thatcher, but rather Martin Thatcher – pursuing the same economic policies with the same single-minded determination. Is it likely that he would have become such an object of adoration on the one hand, and target of hatred on the other? – Which brings me to Margaret Thatcher’s death and funeral.

When Margaret Thatcher died she had not been involved in British politics for over 20 years. During that time she had become frail and developed dementia. Who was this Margaret Thatcher? A ‘Dame of the British Empire’: but ‘The Iron Lady’ no longer; a woman who had moved into that beyond-gender territory, known as ‘old age’. A widow, living without her beloved husband; an individual, like other individuals who suffer dementia, losing her individual character and characteristics, as her brain function deteriorated. Margaret Thatcher a woman with a past, but like every single human being on their journey through life, without a future. The Bishop of London echoed Jewish teaching when he said at her funeral that all are equal in death. So does the demise of a once powerful person, who held power and exerted power over others, mean that those who go on living after she has died should change their feelings about her – should stop loving her or hating her? Of course, not. We are all entitled to our feelings. But alongside our feelings, unless the individual concerned has committed acts of genocide, we should perhaps find a way of acknowledging that venerated or reviled, she or he is/was also, simply, like us and one of us. The Jewish principle of kibbud ha-meit, the honour due to the person who has died does not prescribe how we should feel about the person who has died, but it does prescribe how we should behave towards them after their death.

But of course, Margaret Thatcher did not have the kind of simple funeral dictated by the Jewish principle of kibbud ha-meit – that equal in death, all should be treated equally. She did not have a full State funeral, but she was given full military honours, and the Queen attended the last rites of a political figure for the first time since the funeral of Winston Churchill. So what justifies this special treatment? Was the funeral a testament to Margaret Thatcher’s unique impact on British society? If so, what about the impact of the funeral on British society, on the day that it took place – the way in which it reinforced the binary divide once again, giving Margaret Thatcher’s supporters an opportunity to celebrate her, while rubbing salt into the wounds of those who still bear the scars of her economic policies? Perhaps, there is no way of avoiding the binary trap when it comes to this particular individual? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I would suggest that what we should certainly avoid doing hereon is promoting a binary vision for Britain. The time has come for us to learn to live with complexity and to acknowledge and embrace, both, the rights of the individual and the needs of society. As we read in Shof’tim, in Deuteronomy 16 verse 20: Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’. Rather than getting caught up in singular ideologies that lead us down single tracks, and force us into binary traps, let us pursue justice for the individual and a just society. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, 27th April 2013 – 17th Iyyar 5773

[1] Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 caused the controversial addition of Section 2A to the Local Government Act 1986 (affecting England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland), enacted on 24 May 1988. The amendment stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” (Local Government Act 1988 (c. 9), section 28). It was repealed on 21 June 2000 in Scotland as one of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the new Scottish Parliament, and on 18 November 2003 in the rest of Great Britain by section 122 of the Local Government Act 2003 (Local Government Act 2003 (c. 26) – Statute Law Database (

[2] Margaret Thatcher became MP of Finchley in 1959.

[3] The kibbutz was called, Adamit. Ha-shomer Ha-tza’ir, ‘The Youth Guard’, formed in Europe in 1913, was the first Zionist Youth Movement. (

[4] In an interview in Woman’s Own in 1987: “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” (

[5] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tz’dakah, 10:7–14.

[6] The reference to Margaret Thatcher as the ‘best man’ is attributed first to Barbara Castle, commenting on Margaret Thatcher in her diary. Simon Schama writes in the obituary he co-wrote with Simon Kuper, published in the Financial Times Magazine, 12 April 2013: ‘Barbara Castle, a minister in the Wilson Labour governments and a fierce warrior, her voice hardened by northern smoke, and too much nicotine, confessed reluctant excitement to her diary when Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Tories in 1975. “She is so clearly the best man among them and will in my view have enormous advantages in being a woman too. I can’t help feeling a thrill even though I believe her election will make things much more difficult for us.”’ (