Parashat Acharei Mot

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Sermon West London Synagogue
Parashat Acharei Mot

The Feast of Freedom

Freedom is not a privilege inherited.
Freedom is a right passionately fought for, each generation anew.

The poignant words of the Haggadah, echoing the Mishnah, remind us of this difficult truth: ‘one is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she left Egypt’.

Freedom is not only the theory of history books, but a reality to be lived daily. So close to Pesach, it is fitting to remember the moral courage of Rabbi Werner van der Zyl, whose yartzeit we commemorate. Rabbi van der Zyl escaped the dire straits of Nazi Germany. In 1956, true to the spirit of his Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, Rabbi van der Zyl founded the institution at which I am privileged to train. We are much indebted to his courage and vision.

These last few months, the call for freedom has been sweeping across the world. We have seen dictators topple and nations unchained.
Often this call is a still, small voice echoed in the deeds of ordinary people. The ritual of the Pesach Seder acknowledges the power of coming together to celebrate freedom as families, friends and welcome strangers.

All the more troubling it is then, that our freedoms to practice our religion are under threat.

I bring you news of a worrying development taking place on the continent from which Rabbi van der Zyl hailed. Only two days ago, my Dutch government gathered a majority vote to ban shechitah and dhabibah, Jewish and Islamic ritual slaughter. The impending ban is whipped up by misinformed populism, at times fueled by Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments and cheap prejudice. The consequences are severe for Holland’s minority Islamic and Jewish communities. Ritual slaughter comprises only a miniscule fraction of the extensive Dutch meat industry.

As religious minorities, we should be keen to defend our religious freedoms.

The question begs itself, what comes next?
A committee of medical doctors has advised a ban on brit milah (male circumcision) and a Dutch politician calls for the removal of ‘freedom of religion’ from our Constitution.

In this country, there have been similar developments concerning the labeling of kosher meat. The European Parliament is scheduled to vote on whether ritually slaughtered meat should be labeled as non-pre-stunned slaughter (and ‘stunning’ is a less gentle method of slaughter than the term suggests). If this law passes, it will raise the price on kosher meat and create economic hardship for Jews committed to keeping a kosher home.

These developments and discussions raise a number of important questions that we as a Jewish community should ponder.
Once the law on labeling is passed, what other religious freedoms will come under question?
How can we as religious minorities defend our principles and create solidarity with other minority faith communities?
And how can we integrate a concern for both kashrut with a concern for animal welfare and ecological awareness?

This week’s parasha, Acharei Mot brushes up against Pesach and explores some of these themes including the slaughter and consumption of meat. In Vayikra, the ethical and ritual intersect. Although Deuteronomy 21:12 grants us the specifics of ritual slaughter, the issue is also visited here.

“This is what the Eternal has commanded: if anyone in the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the Eternal… bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man… ” (Lev. 17: 3-4)

The accusation of ‘spilling blood’ (shafakh dam) is remarkable.
‘Spilling blood’ is usually voiced in the context of murder or manslaughter. The Torah appears to be saying that we should be ethical in our dealings with animals. Indeed, the Torah ideal for ethical consumption is vegetarianism, as Bereshit stipulates.
We eat meat that is sanctified, cared for, respected and humanely slaughtered.
We eat it in relationship with both Heaven and Earth, interwoven in the ecology of our earth and our lives.

It is said that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. Both animals and (religious) minorities need our protection and deserve our respect. Sensitivity towards both minorities and animals is legislated in the Torah.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot ask challenging questions or explore the ethical ramification of certain religious practices.
But it does mean that we stand firm when basic freedoms are infringed upon.

It is ironic that labeling and bans on kosher meat are done in the name of animal welfare. Focusing on ritual slaughter obscures the real issues that should be a concern: the bio-industry and factory farming.

Our Parasha suggests that once we have mastered kindness towards animals, we can master moral interactions with others. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the ‘arayot’, a list of sexual prohibitions designed to sanctify our relationships, follow on. Holiness, like freedom, is a state not only to be lived but also to be conquered in everyday living.

Leo Baeck College and its commitment to Progressive values equip our communities with the tools to think deeply and speak out courageously on these issues. We are armed by the legacy of Rabbi van der Zyl who had the strength of heart to renew Progressive Judaism after the onslaught of history. We are called to remember our Exodus from Egypt in every generation and to heed this call for freedom.

And so these different calls for freedom, in past, present and future, intersect.
There is a lot at stake this Passover Seder.
Let us ensure that it is truly a Feast of Freedom celebrated by—and in solidarity with—all.

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