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Bare winter trees
into the sky
of wind-driven rain
drenching every step.
the weathered detritus
of long-gone autumn
and at the full moon
the 15th day of Sh’vat
Rosh Ha-Shanah La-Ilanot
New Year for The Trees
reminding me – us
that in every buried root
the sap is rising
new life is stirring
in a few short weeks
will give way
Elli Tikvah Sarah
‘Thought’ on Mikkeitz – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
LJ E-Bulletin, 12.23
COP28, which brought together 50,370 delegates (including 2,456 fossil-fuel lobbyists), 15,063 registered NGOs, and 1,293 Media organisations, concluded on 13 December after two weeks of intense deliberations in a compromise: an agreement to transition away from fossil fuels, but no commitment to phase them out https://unfccc.int/cop28 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/dec/05/record-number-of-fossil-fuel-lobbyists-get-access-to-cop28-climate-talks https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/dec/13/cop28-second-draft-text-of-climate-deal-calls-for-transitioning-away-from-fossil-fuels
Twenty-eight years of UN climate conferences, so far. The target for avoiding the permanent breach of the 1.5°C increase in global warming, is in just seven years’ time. What are the plans for those seven years?
Interestingly, ‘sevens’ are an important feature of the Torah, from the seventh day set apart for ceasing from work (Genesis 2:1-3), through the seven-year agricultural cycle, and the seven cycles of seven culminating in Yoveil, ‘Jubilee’ in the 50th year, a year of D’ror, ‘Liberty’, proclaimed on Yom Kippur with the blasting of the shofar (Leviticus 25).
In this week’s parashah, Mikkeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), we encounter the number seven in the context of the ongoing Joseph story. Pharaoh has dreamt two dreams: First, seven fat healthy-looking cows are eaten by seven lean ones, and then seven abundant ears of corn are swallowed up by seven feeble ones. On waking, Pharaoh is keen for an interpretation. His Chief Butler remembers that when he was in prison, a certain Hebrew slave interpreted his dream, as well as the dream of the Baker, who was imprisoned with them, and that the interpretations had come to pass. Fetched out of prison, Pharaoh reiterates his dreams to Joseph, who promptly explains them: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one… / The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. / And the seven ill-favoured cows and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine’ (41:25-27). Going on to inform Pharaoh that he should designate someone to oversee the taking up of the produce of a fifth of the land during the seven years of plenty to provide food for the seven years of famine, Pharaoh decides to appoint Joseph to the task. The plan goes so well that there is more than enough to feed the people when crops fail, which is why the famine having extended to Canaan, Jacob decides to send his ten eldest sons down to Egypt to buy corn (Genesis 41: 1-3).
With those seven years before the 2030 deadline at the forefront of our minds, we are all too aware that not only is there no plan in place to ensure that the 1.5° Celsius limit is not breached, but that the UK government is in the process of generating policies that will mean the deadline for UK compliance is extended for another five years to 2035 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/sep/20/uk-net-zero-policies-scrapped-what-do-changes-mean https://www.which.co.uk/news/article/government-delays-ban-on-new-petrol-and-diesel-cars-aS7HJ8O5JC3q
There is a particularly pressing issue in connection with the failure to meet the 2030 deadline, which our Torah portion highlights. As the climate continues to heat, the planet is increasingly beset by extreme weather events year after year, both droughts and floods. What happens to life-giving crops, like corn, maise, wheat and barley in these conditions? They are utterly destroyed; unable to thrive, either, in the baked cracked soil, or when the ground is submerged in water. The global refugee crisis is not only driven by war and persecution, it is also a product of famine, flood and destitution. The famine having extended to Canaan, Jacob’s sons went down to Egypt to buy corn from the store houses. As we contemplate impending climate catastrophe, we may well ask: Where are the store houses? Where are the plans to feed and house millions of destitute people? Closing with the death of Joseph, the focus of the last portion of the Book of Genesis, Va-y’chi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), is on Joseph’s reunion with Jacob and the whole family moving to Egypt, and settling there. Refugees from famine made welcome. But then, the Book of Exodus opens with a tale of a new Pharsaoh ‘who did not know Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8), and the fate of the ‘children of Israel’, the descendants of Jacob, changes dramatically from peaceful coexistence to slavery and genocide (Ex. 19-16). It’s a familiar story, retold at Pesach. So well-known that sometimes we forget that before they became a persecuted people, the ‘children of Israel’ lived and thrived in the land of Goshen by the Nile in Egypt for many generations in peace, prosperity and security (Genesis 47:5-6; Exodus 1:1-7). Of course, minority peoples, especially, migrants and refugees, dependent on the goodwill of the host nation, are always vulnerable to persecution. As Jews, we know this only too well. It is for this reason that as we call on the governments of the world to keep to the 2030 deadline, we must also continue to demand that climate refugees and those in flight from war and persecution are given sanctuary amongst us.
- We dedicate the 1st flame to the people of Tibet, a proud nation that was annexed by China in 1951, and remains subject to Chinese authority.
- We dedicate the 2nd flame to the Muslim Uyghurs, and the other ethnic and religious minorities in the Xinjiang province of China, who are being subjected to ethnocide – cultural genocide – involving arbitrary detention, political indoctrination, suppression of religious practices, forced labour, forced sterilisation, contraception, and abortion.
- We dedicate the 3rd flame to the 25,000 Muslim Rohingya people murdered by the military forces of Myanmar in 2016-17, in addition to the 36,000 who were thrown into fires, the 116,000 beaten, the 18,000 women and girls subjected to sexual violence, and the more than 1 million forced to flee, mostly to Bangladesh.
- We dedicate the 4th flame to the 580,000 people, including 306,000 non-combatants, killed in the Syrian Civil War that has involved the destruction of the ancient cities of Aleppo and Homs, the forcible displacement of 14 million Syrians, and caused 7 million to flee as refugees.
- We dedicate the 5th flame to the over 150,000 people killed in the Yemeni Civil War, and more than 227,000 people who have died of ongoing famine and lack of healthcare facilities as a consequence of the war.
- We dedicate the 6th flame to the 10,000 people killed and up to 12,000 injured in the war between rival factions of the military government of Sudan, the 4.8 million who have been internally displaced, and more than 1.3 million who have fled the country as refugees.
- We dedicate the 7th flame to the people of Ukraine following the Russian invasion of 24 February 2022 that has resulted in tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties, hundreds of thousands of military casualties, 8 million Ukrainians being internally displaced, and more than 8.2 million fleeing the country, creating the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
- We dedicate the 8th flame to the people of Israel and Palestine, caught up in a cycle of violence following the establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948, which has included wars of annihilation launched against Israel by its Arab neighbours, and since 1967, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the expansion of illegal settlements, the active dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians, and campaigns of terror on the part of extremist Palestinian groups in response. In particular, we dedicate the 8th flame to the memory of the 1400 people massacred by Hamas terrorists on 7 October 2023, the 240 adults and children taken hostage, and the thousands of Gazans killed and hundreds of thousands displaced as a consequence of Israel’s retaliatory war against Hamas.
LGBTQ Panel: What is the Legacy of Queer Rabbis? Rabbis Judith Levitt, Daniel Lichman, indigo Raphael, Judith Rosen-Berry, Elli Tikvah Sarah, Anna Wolfson Finchley Reform Synagogue, 8 November 2023
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah’s contribution to the Panel
It’s good to be here with you all for this special event.
I was ordained on July 9th 1989 by my tutor, Rabbi Lionel Blue, Zichrono Livrachah, alongside my classmate Rabbi Sheila Shulman, Zichronah Livrachah. May their memory be for blessing.
Lionel and Sheila are both in my thoughts this evening.
Given that at that time, Lionel was the only out gay rabbi, and that Sheila and I became the first lesbians to receive s’michah at Leo Baeck College, some background feels appropriate.
I met Sheila when we were both involved in creating a Jewish Lesbian Group following the first Jewish Feminist conference in London in January 1982. The Jewish Feminist movement was formed in response to the experience of marginalisation felt by Jewish women in the WASP milieu of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Later that year, Israel invaded Lebanon, and the Women’s Liberation Movement got caught up in anti-Israel / anti-Zionist sentiment, expressed chiefly through the weekly Xeroxed WLM newsletter, and the monthly journal, Spare Rib. Our Jewish lesbian group began to write letters.
We also started reading Jewish writers. One of the books we tackled was Emil Fackenheim’s, The Jewish Return Into History (Schocken Books, New York, 1978). After we read the chapter about the 614th commandment, ‘Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory’, I began to feel compelled to commit myself more fully to Jewish communal existence.
I had been a Lesbian Separatist. I was still a radical feminist when I decided in 1983 to apply to the LBC rabbinic programme. I was motivated by two imperatives: to contribute to the rejuvenation of Jewish life after the Sho’ah, and to do what I could to help transform the Jewish community so that it would become fully inclusive.
From the very outset, it was a struggle. During the interview process, Sheila and I were subjected to two psychological assessments, rather than the usual one. When we were accepted, we were put on probation for the full five years of the rabbinic programme. Enquiring about the terms of probation and what behaviour might constitute a breach, we were told that no one knew, and that we might be asked to leave at any time, if the two movements that funded the college were not happy.
Our situation remained precarious right up to ordination. It was for this reason that we insisted that the names of the ordinands should appear on the ordination invitation, so the college couldn’t back out at the last moment.
Even after we received s’michah, since we were both taking up positions under the auspices of the Reform movement, the Rabbinic Assembly spent an entire day debating whether or not we should be accepted as members.
During the challenging obstacle course of rabbinic training, establishing a connection with the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group, and leading the monthly Erev Shabbat chavurah services provided a much-needed oasis of support and solidarity.
So much has changed over the past almost thirty-five years. I will say more when I reflect on ‘formative moments in my queer rabbinate’. Suffice it to say now: When I retired at the end of April 2021 after over twenty years as Rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, I had the satisfaction of knowing that the congregation had been transformed into a proud, vibrant, and inclusive centre of Jewish life.
What have been formative moments in your queer rabbinate?
The first formative moment
From the time that I entered Leo Baeck College, I knew that I wanted to be a rabbi in a mainstream Liberal or Reform synagogue, so I could work with congregants to make congregational life inclusive.
I was thrilled when the shul I served as a 5th year student, Buckhurst Hill Reform Synagogue, invited me to be their first full-time rabbi.
Things went well for a couple of years, but then a small group began to agitate against me. One couple was afraid that I might molest their daughters. Fortunately, when it became clear that some people wanted to get rid of me, a groundswell of support, which manifested itself at the AGM that year, overcame the opposition. Grateful for that validation, I was nonetheless very disheartened by the homophobia that had preceded it, and when the post of Director of the Programmes Division in the reorganised RSGB was created, I applied and got the job, starting in the autumn of 1994.
The second formative moment
I loved my new role, and felt, as they say, that ‘things could only get better’. One development and one event fuelled my optimism: At my suggestion, a rabbinic/lay working party on same sex commitment ceremonies was set up in 1995; a few months later in February 1996, I appeared in my official capacity alongside Peter Tatchell on BBC 2’s ‘Heart of the Matter’ with Joan Bakewell on the issue of lesbian and gay equality.
They also say that ‘pride comes before a fall’: In September that year, I gave the Kol Nidrei sermon at Radlett and Bushey Reform Synagogue, the shul where, with the support of the then Rabbi, Barbara Borts, I had begun teaching in the cheder the summer before entering Leo Baeck College. Addressing the theme of Covenant, I mentioned that I was going to be conducting a ‘covenant of love’ ceremony for a lesbian couple.
The immediate horrified reaction of a handful of people indicated that I had misjudged the moment. The broader reaction that followed Yom Kippur underlined the gravity of my mistake. I paid a very high price for it. Having to give multiple apologies. Receiving hate-mail. Because there were those in the wider Reform movement who no longer felt comfortable working with me, in March 1997 I offered my resignation, which was accepted.
When I was preparing to leave RSGB in July 1997, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue were seeking a new rabbi. I applied, but I was not invited for interview. Fortunately, after a visit in January 1998 to Leicester Progressive, one of the congregations I had served as a 4th year student, I was invited to be their first rabbi. I began working on a weekend-a-month basis six months later.
The third formative moment
In July 2000, after I had already moved to Brighton, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue was once again looking for a rabbi. The then Liberal Judaism Executive Director, Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh urged me to re-apply. Meanwhile, he encouraged the lay leadership to have an informal conversation with me.
It was during that informal conversation with the congregation’s Chair and Vice President that the Vice President referred to a report on the Jewish Chronicle’s front-page the previous Friday about the decision taken by Finchley Reform Synagogue not to employ a lesbian as full-time Principal Rabbi. The Vice President asked me how to avoid that happening at BHPS. I suggested that rather than leaving the decision to the congregation, the Council, the shul’s elected representatives, should take responsibility for it. That is exactly what happened. After leading a Shabbat morning service, I was interviewed by the entire Council, and although the Vice Chair objected, the majority were prepared to take a leap into the unknown, and I was offered the job.
The fourth formative moment
I started work on December 1st 2000. Half a dozen member families resigned in the first six months. On Sukkot morning 2001, I conducted a blessing ceremony for the two children of a lesbian couple, who had joined the congregation when I became the rabbi. At Kiddush, the Vice Chair who had objected to my employment, confronted the Vice President. It was very gratifying to overhear her response: ‘This family belongs to our shul and all congregants are entitled to receive the congregation’s services on an equal basis.’ The Vice Chair and his family subsequently left the shul.
The fifth formative moment
I was a member of the LJ Rabbinic Working Party on Same Sex Commitment Ceremonies set up in 2000. The new policy was ratified at the LJ Council in 2002, and the Working Party was tasked with creating a liturgy.
With the publication of the new liturgy arranged for December 2005 to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act coming into force, and aware that there were a few BHPS Council members who were not completely on board, I suggested that the Council consider homophobia training before taking a vote on whether or not ceremonies might be conducted under the shul’s auspices. The Council agreed and attended two consecutive Sunday morning sessions conducted by my partner, Jess Wood, in her role as Founder Director of Allsorts, a charity working with LGBTQ Youth in Brighton. Shortly afterwards, the Council vote in support of same-sex ceremonies was unanimous.
When, two days after our Civil Partnership in March 2006, Jess and I celebrated our chuppah at the shul, half the congregation attended.
Achieving full acknowledgement for same-sex couples in the shul made it possible to re-draft the synagogue leaflet to include a welcome to LGBTQ individuals, couples and families. It also meant that when I met with individuals on their journeys, some of whom were LGBTQ, I could reassure them that they could make a home in the congregation, feel valued for who they were, and be supported to make their own unique contribution to congregational life.
The sixth formative moment
The rebuilding of the synagogue, which began in the autumn of 2011, and was completed fifty months later, created the opportunity for the congregation’s vision of an inclusive community to be expressed in the fabric of our congregational home.
In addition to refashioning the building so that it ensured complete physical accessibility, including a lift that could take a mobility scooter, and the absence of a bimah, attention was also paid to signalling a clear welcome to LGBTQ people. And so, a beautiful Rainbow Ark became the dominant feature of the sanctuary, and alongside female and male toilets, all-gender toilets, too.
In the past seven years since the rebuilding was completed, LGBTQ exhibitions and events have entered the shul calendar, including the annual eve of Brighton Pride Erev Shabbat celebration.
The seventh and final formative moment
The re-designed building opened for the first time on Shabbat Chanukkah December 12th 2015, when we were also celebrating the adult bat mitzvah of one of our lesbian members.
Present at Kiddush, was one of our younger members, whose bar mitzvah we had celebrated a few years earlier. I knew it was their birthday that day. I also knew that they were transitioning. I invited the congregation to sing her ‘happy birthday’. It was wonderful hearing everyone sing her new name. A few months later, we celebrated her again with a ceremony on a Shabbat morning sanctifying her transition, when she received a Mi Shebeirach in her chosen new Hebrew name.
More recently, a year after my retirement, one of the young people who had come to speak with me a few years earlier, a trans man who later studied for his conversion with me, was elected to the shul Council. In his new position, he was supported to organise the first eve of Trans Pride Erev Shabbat celebration in July.
I am very proud that BHPS continues to be a beacon of LGBTQ inclusivity.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Rabbi Lionel Blue Memorial Lecture (Leo Baeck College)
Finchley Reform Synagogue
8th November 2023 / 25th Cheshvan 5784
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
As the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues decade after decade, to pray for peace seems a hopeless and naïve folly. And yet, today it is more urgent than ever that a resolution is achieved that acknowledges the needs of both peoples for peace and justice, sovereignty and security. And so, we pray:
El Malei Rachamim, God Full of Compassion, who heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds, we ask You to show all Your children the way of love and compassion, so that hatred ceases to scar their lives.
Ein Ha-Chayyim, Source of Life, we call upon You to send Your abundant blessings into every home, Israeli and Palestinian, so that new hope may overcome old fears.
Adonai Tzadik, Righteous One, who exhorts us to pursue Justice, we fervently pray that a spirit of righteousness may prevail, so that both peoples find the courage to reach a just settlement of their differences.
Oseh Shalom, Maker of Peace, who teaches us to be seekers of peace, we entreat You now to spread Your tabernacle of shalom–salaam over all the inhabitants of Your land, and to support the peacemakers among both peoples in their efforts to walk the path of reconciliation, so that a just peace may reign supreme at last – bimheirah b’yameinu, speedily in our own day.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
the ‘Eighth (day of)
the sacred season
the days set apart
for repairing ourselves
in nature’s bounty.
But this year
kind of closure
on that holy-day
which was also
as Hamas terrorists
in their hundreds
in the desert
as they woke
to a new day
their homes set aflame.
girls and women
dozens of lives
into bloody fragments
the cycle of violence
with no end
over and over
in the possibility of
is never extinguished.
Elli Tikvah Sarah
the joy of Torah
for agile minds
into the flow
the annual rejoicing
stirring the heart
and the feet
Eitz Chayyim hi
‘She is a Tree of Life
to those who grasp Her’
in loving embrace
its ancient letters
into new life
with every step.
Elli Tikvah Sarah
Post-Biblical festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings from Genesis to Deuteronomy, and inaugurates the resumption of the cycle. ↑
the eighth day
the sacred season
of the seventh month.
In ancient times
the annual cycle of
on that day.
the returning pilgrims
for the bare months
that the late harvest’s
might not last
until the spring
the month of beginnings
when the full moon
would coax them
out of their homesteads
to lift their spirits
bearing the blessings
of new life
of their ancestors’
redemption from slavery.
of change and upheaval
flight and fruitfulness
across the world
as in the land
of long-gone days
in the search
Elli Tikvah Sarah
‘Booths’ (Leviticus 23.34-43). Also known as Chag ha-Asif, ‘the Feast of Ingathering’ (Exodus 23.16), the festival that celebrates the last harvest of the agricultural year. ↑
Literally, the ‘Eighth day of Closure’ (Leviticus 23.36; Numbers 29.35). ↑
Exodus 12.2; 13.4. Later given the Babylonian name, Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year. ↑
Exodus 12.1-11. ↑