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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Child-Sacrifice Today

I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be a guest at a synagogue service when we read a text similar to the one we read this weekend. The Book of Leviticus is full of such texts – about High Priests and purification rituals and sacrifices of bulls and goats and the sprinkling of blood on altars.

We ‘insiders’ just take these texts for granted. We think: this is where we have reached in our annual cycle of reading. We don’t have  a choice. These are our sacred texts, they have been read or chanted word for word, unchanged, week by week, for two millennia. They are central to what’s held the Jewish people together for all this time.

But if you are an outsider - if you aren’t Jewish, or if you are Jewish but an infrequent visitor to services - you come to the synagogue and hear about all these arcane and sometimes frankly repellent cultic practices that Jews don’t do anymore and haven’t done for 2000 years, because we don’t have a Temple any more (thank God, one might say). We’ve moved on into a completely different way of expressing our religious and spiritual identity. The synagogue service is part of that.

And – apart from a small fanatical minority – the vast majority of Jews never want to have anything ever again to do with relating to God, to the divine, in that archaic fashion. And yet we still read these texts, devotedly, and study them and delve into them and repeat them and teach them to our youngsters - as if they contain hidden depths of meaning and significance.
So if you come in from the outside you might well think: what a weird people this is, the Jewish people, the so-called ‘people of the Book’, immersed in these ancient stories and texts and rituals, that seem to bear no relationship to everyday life, to modern life.

Take just the three verses that begin chapter 20 of Leviticus, with their repeated refrain “Don’t give up your offspring to Molech”  -  Molech was one of the local Canaanite gods at the time these texts were composed, when child sacrifice was still prevalent.   “Don’t give up your offspring to Molech”  means ‘don’t sacrifice your children’ - that’s what the other tribes do, the other people in the region; but for you, the Israelite community, it’s a crime condemned in the strongest possible terms. It deserves a death penalty in its own right, the Torah says.

And we read it and think: child-sacrifice?  That’s nothing to do with us. Deliberately killing children, offering them to the gods - it’s barbaric. Yes, it might have been done far off in the past, in so-called ‘primitive’ cultures, but what’s the point of still repeating it now, in our sacred scriptures? Maybe it has historical value to be reminded how far we have come as a culture, but - like sacrificing goats and bullocks as a way of connecting with holiness  - surely it’s part of a whole way of thinking that has disappeared? Surely we don’t need to be reminded when we come to the synagogue that we shouldn’t sacrifice our children to an idol, or an ideology.

Any yet.

Here are three examples of child sacrifice that are still being practiced. (And I could offer a dozen more). They are taken from one newspaper on a single day from the first week in April this year.  

First example – far away, but brought into our homes through the newspapers and television and carried around in our pockets on our screens: rows of lifeless children, some still foaming at the mouth, in a hospital, targeted, bombed, in Syria last month. They’d been taken there directly from the chemical strike in Idlib province. That second wave of bombing, of the hospital to which the victims had been taken, was a deliberate act of child-sacrifice after the first toxic strike. Back in September in besieged Aleppo the two largest hospitals were deliberately targeted : 96 children died - sacrificed.  “You cannot imagine what we see every day: children who are coming to us as body parts. We collect the body parts and wrap them in shrouds and bury them,” said one of the nurses at one of the affected hospitals, who was there during the bombings.

Two and  a half thousand years ago the compilers of the Torah saw the crime and judged the crime worthy of the severest punishment. “Do not sacrifice your own offspring”. This text isn’t past – it’s not from a bygone age. It’s a text speaking to today. And who knows for how long into our collective futures?

Second example, different kind. Not literal child-sacrifice but symbolic sacrifice of our offspring. Nearer to home. On our doorsteps. A joint investigation by Greenpeace and the Guardian newspaper last month revealed that hundreds of thousands of children at schools and nurseries across England and Wales are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution from diesel vehicles. Not just in London but in towns and cities across the UK. Prolonged exposure to the nitrogen dioxide in traffic fumes reduces lung growth in children and youngsters, produces long-term ill-health and can cause premature death.  

What does this mean? It suggests that the cars we drive kill our children. This isn’t about accidents, it’s about air pollution. Who is responsible for this? Are we responsible for this? We don’t want to think that the cars we drive, the cars we choose to buy, are resulting in child-sacrifice. Yet this seemingly archaic text, the Torah, prompts these uncomfortable, inconvenient, in-your-face questions.

Final example. Another difficult one, overtly political this time. The Torah isn’t interested in party politics but it is interested in justice, and injustice, and questions of morality about how a society functions. So, third example of child-sacrifice, symbolic sacrifice: the benefits cuts that came into force last month in the UK will push a quarter of a million more children into poverty. Remove tax credit and a child doesn’t get breakfast. All the children’s charities in the UK will tell you the same thing: the basics of keeping our children safe, healthy and developing are increasingly under threat.  

London already has the highest child poverty rate in the country. It’s not only that the freeze in benefits rates and cuts to child tax credits has  these consequences but when central government cuts the money local councils can put into child social care there are significant knock-on effects in relation to child mental health problems, nutrition and child exploitation.  “Do not sacrifice your children to Molech”  – to a god, an idol, an ideology.  It’s painful to know that children are the hidden sacrifice of a system we’ve voted for: austerity.

But the sad reality is that if you worship at the shrine of nationalism; or unfettered economic neoliberalism; or austerity,  then the victims begin to pile up.

It is the task of religion - certainly of Judaism - to speak truth to power. As the prophets of Israel knew, such truths are often unwelcome. These ancient texts still have the power to disturb us, to disrupt our complacency, to challenge us to question ourselves about the choices we make.

Why else do we read them, year in year out, why else do we pass on their wisdom to the next generation? Jews are – in spite of everything we have suffered and experienced – almost perversely attached to remaining eternal optimists. We believe that things can change, things can improve: we stubbornly insist that if we listen in to the divine spirit which infuses these texts of our tradition, listen in and act upon the values they espouse, we can create the kind of society, the kind of world, we would like to live in. And pass on to our children. This is the promise encoded in our scriptures. It’s hard to believe sometimes, and I suppose it’s easy to ignore. But over the generations we have learnt that we ignore it at our peril.

We still insist that – whatever our own doubts, and whatever opposition we find both inside and outside the Jewish community – that Jewish life depends on, is rooted in, a continual wrestling with the texts of our tradition, however bizarre they might seem, and a continual attempt to live out, be true to,  the inner spiritual and moral values they espouse.

[an abbreviated version of a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, May 6th, 2017]

Sunday, 16 April 2017

“Are We the Messiah?” – a Reflection on Isaiah 11, and Other Related Matters

How do we retain our sense of hopefulness when so much of what we see around us seems frightening or bleak? One of the texts we read during the Passover/Pesach period is from the prophet Isaiah. I want to unpack its imagery and see whether it has anything to say to us in our current predicaments.

The chapter starts with an image of new growth emerging: ‘A shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, a twig shall sprout from his stock’ (11:1). ‘The stump of Jesse’ is an image of kingship – King David and his heirs were from the family of Jesse – so the poet Isaiah is talking about a renewal of hope in a wise leader, an inspired leader  -‘the spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him’ (verse 2).

And the picture is developed into a portrait of an idealised figure, leading the community, a messianic figure filled with ‘a spirit of wisdom and insight’, the text says, ‘counsel and valour’, combining a ‘spirit of devotion and reverence’ for God with perhaps the most important attribute of all, a passion for ‘justice’ (verses 2-4).  
He won’t judge just by ‘what his eyes behold’; he won’t make decisions just by ‘what his ears perceive’ (verse 3) – in other words this is leadership based not on a Trump-like immediacy (what’s  in front of his eyes on the television,  or what he’s told by someone else),  but through his capacity to see beyond the superficial and the immediate and act with justice for the poor and the lowly, the have-nots.

‘Justice shall be the girdle of his loins’ (verse 5) – a fine image, an image of potency:  true potency is a passion for justice, says Isaiah. And that applies to everyone, not just leaders.

Why do we read this text on Passover? There’s another prophetic text we also use at this season, from the book of Ezekiel: the famous image of the valley of the dry bones that come back to life (chapter 37); it’s a symbol of national renewal that was composed during the exile in Babylon. The prophet is offering hope to his people in dark times.  He imagines  the people of Israel revived, regenerated, with a new spirit – there will be  a second exodus, promises Ezekiel. And that’s what happened.  The exile ended. People went back to the land, rebuilt the Temple. 

But centuries later, when it came to the period of the rabbis, they were once more living in a time of exile and diaspora, after the destruction of the second Temple. And they are the ones who decreed that at this festival we should read Ezekiel, the prophet who offered hope when things looked bleak. There’s always a need for sources of hope and inspiration in dark times.

The Isaiah text is also about hope for the future.  We have the picture of the  wise leader who will emerge and lead the people with justice and insight. And then the text goes on to develop a series of images that have become famous, understandably: the images move from those of an idealised leader to those that describe an idealised time in the future. The imagery draws on the animal kingdom, and it pictures natural predators and their prey brought together – but without harm being done: it’s an imagined time when ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb’, ‘the leopard lie down with the kid’, ‘the calf and the young lion shall feed together...and a little child shall lead them’ (verse 6).

And the poet Isaiah finds multiple images to talk about a future world in which aggression won’t disappear - but it won’t be destructive: the cow and the bear shall graze together, the lion like the ox will eat straw, babies and young children will be able to play in the vicinity of vipers and adders, ‘for they shall not hurt and destroy in all my holy mountain’ (verses 7-9). But who is ‘they’? When Isaiah says ‘they’ he doesn’t just mean that the animal kingdom won’t hurt or destroy, but the human world, people, will no longer hurt or destroy, will no longer allow their innate aggression to win out over their innocence and their vulnerability.

This imagery has entered the human imagination in the Western world, through Judaism then Christianity. Isaiah’s vision became a picture of messianic hopefulness, a portrait of a wished-for time – far off in the future – when ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as waters cover the sea’(verse 9). It’s a utopian vision – a world of harmony, understanding, peace, justice, a world where people don’t act out their animal natures, their aggression, their hostility to others who aren’t like them, their wish to make victims of those who are different, their urge to tear others limb from limb. A world  where the natural playfulness of children, the innocence of the baby, the vulnerability of the infant will be present and allowed to have space in adult life – playfulness, simplicity of feeling, vulnerability are qualities in all of us, not just in children and infants.

Isaiah’s utopian vision offers a portrait of a world where these qualities can be present in us, rather than suppressed out of fear - expressed openly  because we won’t have to protect ourselves, defend ourselves, from the hostility and envy of others seeking our harm.

What do we feel when we read this vision? Have we stopped believing in this vision? Have we ever believed in it? Are we now too knowing, too canny, too shrewd, too cynical, too world-weary, too dulled to the cycle of ever-renewed then ever-dashed hopefulness to carry the candle for this kind of messianic hopefulness? A world of justice, and personal liberation from our fearfulness. Is this Biblical fantasy still inspiring? Or does it just make us sad as we see how far away we are from it? And always might be.

Jewish and Christian tradition has always held out this kind of hopefulness – dangling in front of us these wondrous, imaginative texts with their fantastical images. They might inspire us not to succumb to despair; they might help us renew our confidence that things can only get better, that things will turn out for the best, in the end, in the long run, in the very long run; these texts might continually provoke us to keep on believing that human nature is capable of change, that human aggression won’t continue to ‘hurt and destroy’.

But if they do provoke us into keeping our hope alive it means we have to go beyond what ‘our eyes perceive and our ears behold’. Because what our eyes perceive and our ears behold  is that we are a destructive species. Aggression is soldered to the human soul  and it always accompanies our heart’s finer qualities, our extraordinary creativity and goodness and capacity for transforming our world for the better. This text is a suitable one for Passover/Pesach , because this is the festival when we celebrate the possibility that we can be freed from living under the oppressive weigh of tyranny. The tyranny of human aggression – and we are both the victims of aggression and the perpetrators of aggression – is something we have to free ourselves from over and over again.

We know how hard it is to change our aggression into love, and how hard it is for societies to stop producing victims (economic, social, political).As the years go on do we not secretly fear that in the long arc of human history, aggression and destructiveness might win out over human creativity and kindness? Can we retain our utopian hopefulness – or do we fear being crushed by our dystopian fears and nightmares?

You see, we can’t escape the wolf and the leopard, the lion and the viper within us, with their natural aggression. It is an inevitable part of our humanity. Another Isaiah, our late British Jewish public intellectual, Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), was fond of quoting the philosopher  Immanuel Kant: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ 

Berlin was an anti-utopian. He saw how frequently utopian visions, whether they were religious or secular, so often ended up wreaking destruction in the attempt to create the messianic vision of a better, more just society. Revolutionary socialism ended up with the gulags, fascism with the concentration camps, Maoism in mass starvation in which millions died. Free-market individualism ends up with austerity, hardship and increased levels of poverty. Everywhere you look you see how utopianism  - the wish for a transformed society – comes up against the knotted nature of the crooked timber of humanity, and crashes and burns. Isis is another example, the latest version of a very long line of visions of utopianism gone wrong. 

All those ideological groups throughout history were trying to straighten out the knots within human nature without realising that they themselves were part of the problem; indeed those who are most passionate about undoing the crookedness in society and in other people are often quite blind to their own crookedness. If you want a case study, just look at the White House.

So how can this knowledge help us as we read Isaiah’s text brimming full of hopefulness for a world transformed, filled with justice, where hurt and destruction rule no longer?  Maybe we need to stop reading our texts as describing an outer world. Maybe it’s more helpful to read them as texts which imaginatively address our inner worlds. How do we make our wolf and our lamb rest easily with each other?  our urge to devour and possess co-exist with our gentleness and modesty?  Both sides of our natures are real.  How do we make our leopard lie with our inner kid? our biting sarcasm and capacity to hurt: how can it co-exist in harmony with our playfulness and innocence?

Maybe we need to start reading our texts on this festival of freedom as a series of psychological and spiritual exercises and adventures. Where is our inner child who can lead our inner lion – our pride or our fury, the way we pounce on things, tear a strip off others, tear into ourselves? Where is the inner child we have trapped in us, the part of us that can be wide-eyed with wonder and endless curious and endlessly inventive? Where is that part of us that believes in justice, that can promote justice? Rather than project it onto some idealised figure in the future, how about recognising that we have that potential grafted to our souls – to act with justice, to speak about justice, to bring more justice to the poor and the deprived. Let’s look into these ‘messianic’ texts as if they are mirrors: and realise that they are not only speaking to us, they are speaking about us. About our potential.

This festival where freedom is the leading motif – let’s allow it to speak to us about our freedom to be imaginative in our relationship to our tradition, to be playful, to read these stories and images in new ways.

Elijah’s chair at our seder is not only a symbol of the hope for the future. The cup of Elijah is not just about something delayed and distant. Elijah is brought into the seder to announce : the messianic is here and now, it’s present, it’s in us. It’s not out there, it’s in here, in our hearts and mouths to do it and speak it. Each of us has an element of the Messiah within us: our job is to nurture it, develop it, express it, live it.

Passover/Pesach encourages us to free up the Messiah within us, to let it out, release it. Be kind, be generous, be compassionate, be just – this is how you express your inner Messiah. It’s everyday stuff, small scale stuff - but it’s huge. It’s our humble contribution to Isaiah’s lofty vision.
[Based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 15th, 2017]

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Some Thoughts on Responsibility in the Age of Trump

Sometimes it is best to keep quiet. At least for a while. it gives one time to think.

In a period of history such as the one we are living through now, when the pressure is on to respond to political events with the immediacy of one’s feelings, it takes an effort of will - or perhaps it is a spiritual discipline – to stay silent. This should not be confused with quietism, or abdication  of responsibility. But what exactly are we responsible for?  

I can’t subscribe to the British playwright Edward Bond’s Dostoevskian sentiment: “you are responsible not just for your life, or for what happens on your doorstep, but for the universe. You have an extreme moral responsibility”. This seems more akin to an omnipotent fantasy than a guide to responsible moral living.
Yet the question of responsibility is real. What is my responsibility – our responsibility – in the era of Trump, in the era of Brexit, in the era of populist nationalism, in the post-truth era of ‘alternative facts’ (i.e. lies)? These questions have been pressing in on me over these last months. And keeping silent – a time to reflect – is all I have been able to manage.

And yet I can also hear that Edward Bond is right when he says, reflecting on humanity’s consistent and insistent capacity for inhumanity, “problems grow unseen, inch by inch, until it is too late to go back and what was unthinkable becomes inevitable. The impossible always occurs in history”. Indeed.

This week Trump announced details of his long-threatened intention to build his wall between the US and Mexico. Really? The border is almost 2000 miles long. That’s a lot of advertising space that’s going to become available for his businesses. (Spoiler alert: that was an alternative fact). But – if Trump’s Wall is built – it will put the  Berlin Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, the West Bank wall into perspective. America first!

Admittedly the Great Wall of China can’t be surpassed (13,000 miles) but Trump is an emotionally- regressed ignoramus and will be claiming his wall is the longest, the best, in the history of the world. It becomes relatively easy to predict the childlike thinking of Trump: which young boy hasn’t chanted, in narcissistic delight, while standing on a pile of stones, “I’m the king of the castle - and you’re a dirty rascal”?

Even though the tides of history have always swept away all such walls, and the need for them – Israel’s is still too young to be undermined by history – Trump’s wall will serve as a monument to his concrete thinking and (in Melanie Klein’s terminology) his paranoid-schizoid thinking. We all try to build walls – ‘defences’ – against what we find disturbing, uncomfortable, unpalatable, unacceptable, invasive of our fragile sense of well-being. Whatever thoughts enter our minds unbidden  and unwanted – darker, aggressive, disruptive, greedy, lustful or hateful thoughts – need a wall to keep them out. Often these thoughts get projected onto the ‘other’ – and then we feel we have to be protected from those disowned impulses which we now believe are threatening us. Most of us only have the power to build our walls internally, unconsciously, in fantasy. But Trump can enact it. Much good will it do him.

To whom can we turn in dark times? This is what I have been reflecting on in this recent period of quiet. I have no certain answers, because I distrust the impulse in me towards certainty as a response to the certainty articulated by those whose views I abhor. I am going to try to stay true to what I know and what I value. For example, the stance described by the poet  John Keats as ‘Negative Capability’: when a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

This is clearly a time when we need ‘fact and reason’ in our repertoire of responses. And need to know how and when to use it. But Keats is on to something vital. We need also to be ‘capable’ of holding within ourselves all the uncertainties engendered by the new world order. So that’s how I’m beginning to see my task: am I capable of resisting the retreat into split thinking, into horrified condemnation, into a mirror image of Trump’s regressed thinking? I am trying.

And trying too to look to the poets and novelists and dramatists of the past, and the present, who are able to speak about the infinite complexity of our lives, our potential and our limitations. Poets whose work confirms Shelley's famous claim (in 1821) that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".

Sometimes it is the creative artists in our midst who have the surest finger on the pulse of the times - and sometimes a moment of prescient insight into what will unfold in the future, for good or ill. David Mamet, for example, in his 2008 play November, set in the Oval Office, created a ruthless, immoral president, Charles Smith, and penned this piece of dialogue between the President and his adviser Archer:

Archer: (checking his notes) We can’t build the fence to keep out the illegal immigrants
Charles: Why not?
Archer: You need the illegal immigrants to build the fence.

Jews like Mamet are well-versed in using humour to see us through dark times. It is not the only response we need. But it is a vital strand in the fabric of resistance and action and reflective thinking that I sense we will have to call up in ourselves in these next few years. 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Rabbi Lionel Blue z”l 

What I remember most vividly was the cauliflower soup. It was the first time I’d been on a Retreat with my fellow rabbinic students from Leo Baeck College. So I’m going back 40 years or so. It was a cold, November day, in a rather austere, ramshackle Christian priory in Sussex that Rabbi Lionel Blue had taken us to. That first morning we practised sitting in silence – such a hard thing for Jews to do. Lionel suggested half an hour to start with – to be quiet, see where our minds went and whether, beyond the chatter in our heads, we could hear anything else.  

This was hard to do at first – it was such an alien concept, so ‘Christian’ to my provincial Jewish mind. But we trusted Lionel, or at least I did: he was one of my teachers, and a different kind of teacher from the more academically-oriented teachers I was used to at Leo Baeck College. He had something else to teach, something that came out of his own lived experience, his own struggles with faith, his own struggles with life. 

He spoke of his God as a friend, as a conversation partner, as a voice that did not always tell him what he wanted to hear but that was available if he, Lionel, allowed himself to listen. Lionel’s God seemed to accompany him on his journey through life, provoking him, re-assuring him, comforting him, nagging him, reminding him of the things that mattered in life, giving him a perspective on what really counted, helping him understand how something that seemed to be important in the heat of the moment could turn out to be trivial in the larger scheme of things. Lionel’s God helped him discriminate – as Lionel might say - between God’s point of view which was infinite and ours, which is always limited.   

Because we were trainee rabbis we were very keen to discuss the idea of God, to swap theological insights - but we weren’t very good at moving out of our heads towards our hearts. But for me Lionel’s retreats were a highlight of my time as a student rabbi because they allowed time to focus on experience and exploration and not just on thinking and knowing, or pseudo-knowing.  

It’s not that Lionel was not a thinker – on the contrary. Around that time I went to a conference where Lionel was one of the speakers and his theme was post-War European Jewish life; and I remember how he spoke for an hour without notes and gave a brilliant survey of how Jewish life was being lived in Germany and Holland and France and Italy and the UK. It was a stunning tour de force, a vivid, detailed portrait - and he concluded with one thing which has stuck in my mind ever since.  

That what the experience of the War had taught Jews - should have taught Jews - wherever they lived in Europe, was not to put their trust in political parties or economic theories: that ‘boom and bust’ was always going to be the pattern of history – and that if Jews trusted in material things, hoping they would last, hoping that they could gain security from what was in the end transient, they would always come unstuck, or  come to grief. That to be Jewish meant trusting in what you couldn’t see, couldn’t count, couldn’t measure, couldn’t hold in your hands – it meant trusting in the spirit. This was what it meant to live in a tradition with a God you couldn’t see. Judaism was an education in trusting the intangible.  

Lionel had a first-class mind – you might have forgotten that if you just heard his often whimsical, folksy contributions to  BBC radio’s ‘Thought for Today’. He just recognised that he couldn’t rely on the mind, the intellect, alone to get him through life. He was after the inner experience contained within all those clever theological words that we LBC students were bandying about that chilly autumn day.   

But back to the cauliflower soup.  Lionel had disappeared at some stage during the afternoon and by supper time - with an economy of effort and more than a soupçon of unrehearsed love – he produced a giant tureen of the most heart-warming, rich, smooth, creamy, flavoursome cauliflower soup that you could imagine. His soup spoke more eloquently of the spirit than all our high-flown rabbinic waffling. This was food for - and from - the soul.  It tasted, so to speak, of heaven.  

For Lionel, the preparing and cooking and eating and sharing of food was a primary medium for spiritual self-expressiveness. He built a lot of his Jewish thinking around the kitchen. He taught how the cupboards and cabinets and drawers of the Jewish home contained the artefacts of Jewish spirituality: the candlesticks and bread covers and wine cups for Shabbat, lying neglected during the week, were capable of transforming secular time into holy living when the hour was right.  

In his first book – which was arguably his best (To Heaven With Scribes and Pharisees, 1975) – he’d written how: ‘in the cupboards [of the Jewish home] holy and secular meet and jostle, there is no strain, for all things can be transformed if they are turned to God. Cocktail cabinets and the kitchen drawer are the sacristy for the liturgy of the home’.    

Indeed for Lionel any gathering of convivial souls, where food was honoured, was a form of secular transubstantiation: God made present through the bonds of family, friends, guests, brought together to celebrate the joys of sharing food, hospitality, intimacy and laughter.   

Like many people who have pockets of pain tucked away, Lionel used laughter a lot in his teaching. Humour was an essential ingredient in his repertoire – but when he wanted to he could move from laughter and a lightness of being to seriousness and thoughtfulness in the twinkling of an eye.  

But he never pontificated. When I heard him talk over the years I almost never heard him addressing the large themes that rabbis often find themselves speaking about – politics, the environment, social justice, Israel, communal Jewish politics, world events. He usually focused on the human, the local, the small scale, the personal, on individual acts of kindness and generosity he’d witnessed, on people’s relationship to animals, to their actual neighbours, to the everyday joys and sadnesses of family life.  

He spoke about conversations with people he’d actually met: for many years when I lived in Finchley I’d see Lionel in the High Street, stopping or getting stopped every few yards, talking to someone  - they might be well-dressed or a vagrant, it never seemed to make a difference, he treated them the same - and sometimes people were talking to him and he was listening, and sometimes he was talking to them, but he had time for all of them, old and young, rich and poor, he never seemed hurried. It never seemed to me as I watched him – and I did watch him – as if he had his own life to live. It was as if he saw these  random meetings and conversations as his life – his own life was not separate from this – these were the encounters, the meetings, that mattered, that fed his own life, that were his life.  

The stuff that happened to him every day was the religious material of his life: this is what he learnt from; and this is what he taught about. That a random, overheard remark going down the Finchley High Road could change your life – it was like an angel speaking in your ear. No, not ‘like’ an angel, it was an angel. A message and messenger from the Divine. This was a piety both simple and profound.  

Although he ended up paradoxically as head of the Reform Beth Din, Lionel didn’t have much time for the Jewish religious establishment – ‘too much role playing’, he’d say - and he was a religious pragmatist: he thought that the only parts of religious tradition worth saving were the parts that you found worked for you - the rituals or prayers that spoke to you, or that you could use in such a way that God spoke to you through them.  

The rest of it, if it was all jumbo-jumbo to you – well, you should just ditch it and find something else that worked. That’s what I mean by a pragmatist. Find what works and use it – and if what works for you is a Quaker meeting or a Buddhist meditation technique, that’s fine: just use it. Be a magpie, take what you need. That’s part of what made him a great religious ecumenical figure. He could see the value in other religious traditions and didn’t feel the need to claim that his own was better, or more truthful.  

So, to come back to food for a moment, Lionel taught me how -- like the Mass or the Eucharist ceremony, the Hindu food offering to the gods, the Sikh kara prashad holy sweet, the Muslim shir kurma dessert at the end of Ramadan, and the Buddhists in Japan celebrating with red beans and rice -- Jewish food was also a route to holiness. And that anyone, sophisticated or unlearned, could make it part of their journey to holy living.  

So Lionel was a religious pragmatist. But he was also a sentimentalist, after a fashion. He wasn’t a nostalgist for some lost world of Jewish innocence or idealised shtetl life – growing up in the harshness and hard-headedness of the East End of London meant that he was immune to any  idealisation about the Jewish past. But he was a sentimentalist in that he believed – or wanted to believe, I could never quite work out  which – in simple truths about the innate goodness of the human heart. And about how God was his best friend. And a sentimentalist in his belief that a good story could take you a very long way in helping people overcome their fears and problems. And this was in spite of years and years he spent in therapy coming to terms with his own demons.  

And he did become a great storyteller, a great myth-maker, often about his own life. He once admitted to me that he was a mythographer: he wove personal anecdotes into religious material that he could then retail and re-tell. He’d found there was always a ready audience for this kind of storytelling. He told some stories about his formative experiences so many times that they were honed to perfection, but would still change from book to book, from interview to interview, tweaked to bring the best out of them for each occasion.  

This isn’t a criticism – I say it in admiration, and awe, and envy, for the gift he had of being the raconteur of his own life. He was a craftsman weaving a rich tapestry out of the fabric of his eventful and idiosyncratic life.                   

His pragmatism and sentimentalism were often there at the same time. On that first retreat I remember him saying apropos the soup: ‘Theologies alter and beliefs may die, but smells always remain in memory’. And there you have it – the essential religious understanding and the naked appeal to subjective feeling in one sentence. Maybe it was a quote from one of his books, or maybe it ended up in one of his books – but it doesn’t matter. He had a gift for turning experience into memorable language - you can almost always tell in our Reform liturgy the prayers that Lionel wrote. They have stood, and will stand, the test of time because they have a humanity to them, a truthfulness of feeling, that speaks to the heart and not to the head. Words mattered to him – almost as much as food.  

He knew that his legacy would not only be in the memories people would have of him but the words he’d leave behind. A few years ago I interviewed him for a celebratory volume for his co-liturgist Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, about their work together in Europe in the 1960s and 70s, when the trauma of the Shoah was still heavy on the ground, and it became necessary to build a new European Jewish consciousness out of the ashes of destruction. Lionel wanted to see the text of the interview before it was published, to read it and edit it, to shape it as he wanted the story to be remembered - which of course I let him do, even though by that time, because of his Parkinson’s, he could hardly hold in his hand a pen to do the editing.  Words mattered. How you told the story mattered. The truth was in how it was told not just in what was told.  

What would Lionel make, I wonder, of the mess we are in now in Europe, as one annus horribilis ends, and another year breaks onto the shoreline in front of us? He’d probably have a joke to cheer us up, or at least a good story. Maybe the story I first heard him tell during that Retreat, that speaks of where we are and how we need to go about facing our futures. He called it Heaven and Hell.  

It’s the story about a rabbi who wanted to see both heaven and hell. He fell asleep and dreamt that he was standing in front of a door, that opened into a room; and the room was prepared for a feast. A table was set and at its centre lay a great dish of delicious hot food. Guests sat around the table with long spoons in their hands, but they were crying out with hunger and wailing in pain: the spoons were so long that, however they distorted themselves, they could not get the food into their mouths. Unable to nourish themselves, they cursed  God the author of their plight.  And the rabbi awoke, knowing he had seen hell.  

But he fell asleep again and dreamt that he was standing in front of a door, that opened into a room; and the room was prepared for a feast. A table was set and at its centre lay a great dish of delicious hot food. Nothing had changed and he was about to cry out in horror. Then he saw that the guests had smiles on their faces, for with the same long spoons they were reaching out across the table to feed each other. And they were giving thanks to God the author of their joy. The rabbi awoke and he too blessed God who had shown him the nature of heaven and the nature of hell. And the chasm – just a hairsbreadth wide -- that always divides them.


[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, 31st December 2016]


Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Arc of the Moral Universe – and How we Deal with Loss

President Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s hope-filled maxim: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. King himself was borrowing this - from the American Transcendentalist and Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker (1810-1860). Whatever its source – and we can hear within it an echo of traditional Judaic hopefulness – I have always had faith in this notion that over time societies on this planet are moving, can move, will move – with struggle, with regression, two steps forward, one step back – towards a more developed (i.e. more humane, more self-aware, more compassionate) relationship with each other. A faith that the pursuit of justice will lead collectively – over time - to more justice.  

Not that justice somehow arrives by itself, but that it is made out of all the moral, social, political actions of countless individuals, generation by generation. In spite of knowing that the 20th century saw something approaching 200,000,000 government-determined deaths in various wars, genocides, victimizations, internal oppressions and other conflicts, I never gave up on the faith, belief, hope that ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. But I am now beginning to think of this hope as a necessary illusion – a deep wish, rather than a clear-eyed appreciation of the destructiveness that always lurks in the human heart. A destructiveness with the toxic potential to overwhelm human creativity, compassion and millennia-old wishes for an end to injustice.  

It feels as if in recent months my self-delusion has begun to get ruthlessly exposed. After Brexit, and now Trump, and as I see the waves of anti-foreigner, populist aggression swirling through the UK and the rest of Europe, I am beginning to wonder at my own naivety. We seem to be spiralling back towards periods in history when the darker side of human nature expressed itself more forcefully then the generous, creative side. Has it always been this way, and I just didn’t want to see it? We will have to keep our eyes – and hearts – open in these next few years.  

These thoughts have led me to think - not for the first time of course, but this time round with an added seriousness - about loss. How do we manage loss in everyday life? Loss of a job, loss of a loved one or friend, loss of money or something we value, loss of a relationship, loss of a pet, loss of an opportunity, loss of one’s looks, loss of an election, loss of hope? Losses are all around us. They are part of the fabric of life.
All losses challenge us emotionally. How do we respond? Do we become angry or bitter? despairing? sad? do we feel resigned, or accepting? Do we express these feelings - or cover them up? Do we try and compensate for the loss, or do we spend time mourning what has now gone? These are the challenges that life brings us, for loss is a shared and universal human experience.
And all losses involve some loss of hope: hope for continuity, hope for love, hope for security, hope for a future brighter than the past. For hope is inbuilt into the human psyche – but the reality of loss can attack that hopefulness like  a kick in the stomach, like a thief in the night. Loss can make us suddenly feel very vulnerable. We realise that our fantasies of being in control, of controlling our lives, are just that – fantasies, wishes. Losses, of whatever kind, are painful and unwelcome reminders of how little control we have of our own lives and what might happen to us.
As with all the emotional realities that we face as human beings, the Hebrew Bible offers its own insights and perspectives. This week’s sedrahChayai Sara (Genesis 23 - 25:18) – begins with loss: the death of the matriarch Sara at the legendary age of 127. This is narrated matter-of-factly: ‘Sara died in Kiryat Arba – that is Hebron – in the land of Canaan’ (23:2). No other details are given. And this is always an opportunity for later commentators to add their own colour to the monochrome text.
Some linked Sara’s death to the Torah text that immediately precedes it: the trauma of Isaac’s near-sacrifice by his father Abraham. So she dies of shock at hearing the news – or of heartbreak. One midrash has her dying of shock on receiving a false report that Abraham had killed their son at God’s command. (Compare Facebook’s  notorious false anti-Clinton news reports planted by Trump supporters before the election).
One modern commentator, Aviva Zornberg, speculates psychologically about how Sara, although she knew that Isaac had survived, could not bear to live any longer in a world as unreliable, unpredictable – and threatening – as the world she found herself in, where questions of who will live and who will die seem to hang so fragilely in the balance. A world where one is confronted with how little control we have, as I suggested above, over what might happen to us, or to those we love.
Perhaps in recent times we too have got in touch with these deeper feelings -after a terrorist attack. Our vulnerability is exposed and there is a horror not only at the deaths and the suffering, but at the randomness of who will live and who will die.  It could be any of us. Sara’s death, in our mythological narrative following the near-murder of her son, opens us up to these disturbing, maybe unbearable, thoughts. And we recognise too that there is a long back-story to narratives about a God who commands murder. Or rather: there’s a long and bloody history of people who believe that their God commands them to kill others in the name of that God.  
So Sara dies and Abraham weeps for his loss (23:2). And then he gets on with life. He negotiates for a burial plot for Sara, and having bought a plot of land from the local inhabitants he proceeds to bury her (23: 3-20) and then sets out, through the servant in charge of his household, to find a wife for Isaac, their son (chapter 24). 
The long chapter that describes this search for a wife is a tour-de-force of Biblical storytelling – and it ends with this poignant sentence: ‘And Isaac brought her [Rebekkah] into the tent of his mother Sara and he took Rebekkah as his wife and he loved her and Isaac was comforted after his mother - acharei  imo’ (24:67). We might expect ‘after the death of his mother’. But no, the word ‘death’ is absent. We know this is what it means - but the narrator-artists who composed the text have chosen to suppress the word. Through the absence of this word ‘death’ in the text, the narrators provoke us into thinking about it. It is hidden in plain sight.
By looking away from it at the last moment, what does this missing word  - ‘death’ - reveal? Some people – was Isaac one of them? – wish to deny the reality of death. The fantasy is that if you don’t mention something it’s as if it hasn’t happened. After all, he’d been through his own near-death experience. Was the immediate loss of his mother too much to bear after his own trauma? So is the absence of the word ‘death’ pointing to a denial of reality?
Or is it the opposite - a way of speaking about how the loss was healed? Does the comfort he had received when Sara was alive metamorphose into the new comfort he found with Rebekkah? Is the pain of the death of his fiercely protective mother erased through the love of a good woman? Does giving and receiving love heal our losses?
There is no hint in the Torah of what Sara’s death meant to Isaac. But we sense from this concluding verse how present Sara was for him as he takes Rebekkah  into his mother’s intimate space, her tent. And through the intimacy with her – ‘and he loved her’ – he does find comfort for the loss he has suffered. More human connectedness, more closeness, more intimacy – this seems to be one way, the Torah intuits, of managing feelings of loss, dealing with the pain.
Perhaps we don’t have a good enough, rich enough, vocabulary to talk about what we do with the experience of loss. I just used the words ‘managing’ the loss, ‘dealing’ with the loss – but that is too business-like, too bureaucratic a language to evoke the powerful  and subtle stands of feeling that death and loss evoke in us. Some people want people around them, some people want to be left alone. We each will find what route is right for us.  
One thing I do know is that the modern jargon of talking about ‘closure’ after a death is quite unhelpful. This idea of ‘closure’ is now prevalent in the aftermath of any injustice or painful event. But it can be coercive to expect it for oneself - or to have others expect it of you. ‘Have you had closure yet?’ has become a modern mantra - but it promotes an illusion.
‘Closure’ came into contemporary thought from American social psychology. It originates in a 1993 paper from Arie Kruglanski about people’s desire for a clear and definite answer to their life questions - and their aversion to ambiguity. Kruglanski developed what became known as the ‘Need for Closure Scale’ - but this concept of ‘closure’ was gradually transformed from something descriptive of what people wished for into some kind of ideal about what they should have. Psychological health however is about being able to manage ambiguity, not-knowing, uncertainty – without collapsing into the straightjacket of false certainties.
What Kruglanski’s work spawned is a pseudo-solution to a universal problem. ‘Closure’ is a flawed belief that assimilating grief and losses and death into our lives is a process that can be closed, finished with. Jewish tradition however recognises that losses are real, and lasting: they will happen to you and me, they happen to all of us, and the work of mourning can last a lifetime. Isaac didn’t have ‘closure’ about his mother’s death when he and Rebekkah married. Like Abraham his father, he got on with life. We have to learn to live with our sadness, our regrets - or sometimes with our lack of sadness, or our relief, or whatever it is that emerges in the wake of a death. Our reaction to loss and death is always going to be particular to us. We are allowed to be idiosyncratic.  
Sigmund Freud once wrote a condolence letter in which he put his finger on something crucial. His own daughter Sophie had died in 1920 when she was 27, and nine years later, on what would have been her 36th birthday,  Freud wrote to a colleague, Ludwig Binswanger, whose son had just died:  ‘we will never find a substitute [after a loss]. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually, this is how it should be, it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.’
Freud gives us permission to keep on loving what has been lost for as long as we need to. Someone else – or something else – may come along and take the place of what has been lost. But it will be something, or someone, different. And that is how it should be.
And I am left to ponder on what happens after one experiences the loss of hope contained in that inspirational text: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’? There can be no substitute – but what will take its place?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Truth and Lies in a 'Post-Truth' World

We can feel the tectonic plates shifting. First came the challenge to Europe of the largest mass movement of people across borders since the end of World War II, a humanitarian crisis that has  become knotted into what right-wing press were already perceiving as the unravelling fabric of European life. Then there was Brexit and the challenge it poses to the future of the European Union’s increasingly shaky stability.

And now there is Trump – and this much-mocked businessman, TV reality star and egoist is about to destabilise further the post-War US-European network of alliances (NATO) and trade agreements in which our lives are embedded. Or so we have been led to believe: as yet, we have no way of knowing. Will rhetoric become reality?

We can see which European politicians have been celebrating his election win – Martine le Pen, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Frauke Petry of the Alternative für Deutschland. They all hope to capitalise on the nationalistic, anti-establishment and racist populism that Trump’s victory  represents. Economic despair may have given him millions of votes – but it is hard to ignore his anti-immigrant polemics as being a fundamental part of his appeal. His appointment  of Stephen Bannon to the post of Chief of Staff – a white nationalist with a penchant for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories – is a chilling choice.  
And then there is Putin, whose laughter at Trump’s success must be filling the corridors of the Kremlin. Thirty years after the historian David Irving’s Holocaust-denying ‘post-truth’ history we have entered the world of ‘post-truth’ politics.
Both the Brexit and Trump campaigns had no hesitation in offering lies to the public. Both campaigns recognised that once you dispense with truth, you have an astonishing freedom: you can say anything you want in the furtherance of your cause. Joseph Goebbels - Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda - made a career out of this freedom. He understood - and capitalised on - a psychological insight into our human susceptibility to simplistic statements that tell us ‘how things are’ or ‘must be’: “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility, because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily".
This is how propaganda – and advertising – works: it speaks to our unconscious desires, or our  unconscious wishes for clarity, for some graspable ‘truth’ in a chaotic, unstable world. Goebbels statement is often quoted in its own distorted version:  "The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed." There is no documentary evidence that he said this, but in its simplistic form it has become what people think he said. Which is of course an unintended ironic confirmation that if something is distorted but then repeated often enough it becomes ‘true’.
This week’s Torah sedrah,  Va’yera (Genesis 18-22), is a helpful  one to reflect on in the light of these questions about truth and lies. The sedrah’s name is taken from the first word of the section: ‘And there appeared...’ – it alerts us to the themes that will unfold in the narrative that follows. The text will address what can appear before our eyes – and how we interpret what we see. And it will talk about what we refuse to see, the truths we can’t bear to see – and (in the story of Lot’s wife who turns back to see her city in flames) what we can’t bear not to see. It is all about sight, and insight – Biblical Hebrew does not distinguish between the two – and blindness, literal and metaphorical.  
Take the opening narrative. The text says that God – Adonai, the ‘Eternal’ – appeared to Abraham as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day (18:1). We the readers are given an omniscient overview of what is happening. But what does Abraham see? ‘He lifted up his eyes and he saw, and behold there were three people there.’ (18:2). Three strangers. And he greets them with generosity and hospitality. Like a Cubist portrait, the storytellers place the two perspectives side by side, or one on top of the other: the overview and then the view from the perspective of Abraham . This dual perspective opens up a radical piece of theology: you meet ‘God’ in the Other.
Millennia before Martin Buber developed his philosophy of I-Thou, in which our relationships with others become one of the ways we encounter the divine, the Torah offers us a story about seeing in other people the image of ‘God’. Abraham sees other human beings appear before him and he treats them with an open heart and a generous spirit – this is an encounter with the Eternal, the Eternal One.
And then we have a delightful turn of events, as the narrator gives us a picture – shockingly! – of a God made in our human image, a God who lies. How does God lie? One of these strangers tells Abraham: ‘When I come back next year, your wife Sara will have had a son’ and Sara overhears this (18:10). And the storyteller then reminds us that both Abraham and Sara were old, and that Sara no longer was menstruating (18:11). And then: ‘And Sara laughed (vatizchak)  inside herself and she said to herself: “Now that I am so old and worn out, am I to have such pleasure, with my husband being so old?”’ (18:12).
This is a very daring sentence from our narrator. It shows us Sara eavesdropping on the conversation between her husband and the guests, then it reveals an intimate detail from Abraham and Sara’s sex life. The more you think about it, the more remarkable it is, for the storyteller gets us the readers, the listeners, inside of Sara: the verse penetrates her , symbolically, and we find out what this news does to her inside of herself.
It’s the first time in the Torah that we find this key word, tzachak, a word which is to echo and re-echo through the texts and the generations – tzachak, to laugh. It will of course become the name of the son, Yitzchak, Isaac – ‘the one who laughs’.
But where is the lie, God’s lie? The next verse tells us that God says to Abraham: ‘ “Why did Sara laugh, saying, “Shall I really bear a child, being as old as I am?”’ (18:13). And there’s the lie. She says ‘he is too old’. But our narrator has God changing this, when he speaks to Abraham, into Sara saying ‘I am too old’.
So why does God tell this lie to Abraham?  A midrash suggests that God did it so that Abraham wouldn’t feel offended or hurt: in other words, to protect Abraham’s feelings (Baba Metzia 87a). And so important was this principle, that the Rabbis derived a maxim, a rule of thumb, that one is allowed to lie if it will hurt someone’s feelings to tell the truth straightforwardly and honestly (Ketubot 16b-17a). Why? Because to hurt someone’s feelings was equated by the Rabbis with the shedding of blood. There is an extraordinary Judaic sensitivity here towards an individual and their emotional life. The other person is  flesh-and-blood just like you, and has feelings just as real and sensitive as your own. Protect the other’s feelings as if they were as precious as your own.
And the Rabbis went even further than that. ‘When is lying acceptable?’ they asked. ‘Lying is also permissible’, they said, ‘if it is for the sake of peace’ (Yevamot 65a). (So if your partner says:  ‘Do I look good in this?’ – the answer is ‘Yes’).  
So on the one hand the rabbis in the Talmud stated that Emet, ‘truth’,  is one of God’s thirteen attributes – they used the famous text of  Exodus 34:3 as a reference. And they were unequivocal about this: ‘the Seal of God is Truth’ (Shabbat 55). But on the other hand in the real world they saw that there needed to be some flexibility about this. Lying ‘for the sake of peace’ can cover a broad spectrum: from international politics to personal relationships.
Jewish teaching does offer insight and guidance, and ways of thinking about all sorts of everyday situations - but it can’t give us an answer for a specific situation we find ourselves in. Only we are responsible for that. We have to judge and decide how to act, how to be, what to say, each time, every day, and the decision of today may not be relevant tomorrow. That’s part of the God-given burden of being human. 
We live in a world where it can be hard to sort out the truth from the lies. Dizzying amounts of information, opinion, propaganda, deception, distortion, fabrication  swirl though our daily lives. Who has the time, the energy, to sort out the truth from the lies? And yet I think of this task, of trying to stay attuned to what is ‘true’, to be part of the spiritual task of the Jewish people. In a week when Oxford Dictionaries has announced that post-truth is its international ‘word of the year’, our Jewish task seems to have become even harder – and even more important.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

"A Plot Against America" - a Creative Response.

So now we know. After an epic journey of lies, insults and threats, in 2017 there will be a racist, sexist demagogue in the White House. The populist violence-in-the-human-heart  that led to Brexit has another victory. These are sad – and fearful – times for those who value reflection, the ethics of civilised debate, and a compassionate approach to our shared problems.

It seems it could be time to re-read Philip Roth’s prescient novel ‘The Plot Against America’ (2004), which imagines a fascistic US government suspending civil liberties and persecuting minorities deemed to be a threat to security. It’s  a book that had a predecessor in American literature, Sinclair Lewis’s  ‘It Can’t Happen Here?’ (1935) about the takeover of the American government by an unstable mix of far-right and populist forces. Imaginative literature might be the most useful resource we have right now to help us deal with feelings of helplessness, anger, or fear about our shared future on this planet.
I am reminded of Salman Rushdie’s words in 1989 when he went into hiding after he became the victim of the fatwa against him - and the populist violence it unleashed - following publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’: “Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope not to find absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.”
The rabbis of old also took this stance. They called their imaginative literature ‘midrash’. In this spirit I’d like to offer, in relation to this week’s Torah portion, Lech l’cha (Genesis 12 onwards), a creative midrash on the early life of Abraham. It re-works a text I've composed and offered before, but I hear the injunction lech l'cha (12:1) - 'go for your own sake, go into yourself, go towards yourself' - as giving permission, and encouragement, to keep on working at the things that matter, on the journey towards that impossible destination: a place of truth, a space that offers another perspective and antidote to a demagogue's lies, insults and threats.


It’s when they attack my father for what he believed in, that I grow really angry. He was a good man, Terach, a true believer in the old gods. Without his wise counsel and strength of character I would not here today, here to tell my story - even though my story, my beliefs, differ so markedly from his.
His gods, my father’s gods, were gods that failed: they were the gods he’d come to know during his long life, learned to trust from early on, the gods of nature and of death, of the harvests and the seas, of fertility and the seasons; in Ur of the Chaldees where he was born he was ruled by the sun and the moon, and his gods were close to him: he found them living in the earth and he saw them daily in the heavens and in the patterns of the night sky, and he trusted in them, for they gave him life and they gave a meaning to death, they structured the rhythms he lived by, they were all he needed. And he took them with him on his great migration - it is described in the books (Genesis 11:31).
He took us all - myself, Abram; my wife Sarai; my cousin Lot – he took us away from what he’d known, and settled in Haran, on his way to Canaan, where we were always meant to go. Canaan was his Promised Land, before it became mine. But he died there, in Haran, and was buried with his gods around him:  gods that the next generation  (or at least me, in the next generation) could see the limitations of, even though he believed they would always sustain a man and his family, in this world and the world to come.
And when the lazy, the vicious or the ignorant attack his beliefs - when they disparage him, as people do, with the immense condescension of posterity - that’s when I feel aggrieved. 
For although I don’t believe in his gods, and their powers to determine life, he taught me the values of faith, the importance of belief, of holding on to what one feels is true in the face of scorn and derision, of cynicism and fear. He taught me that to have a vision was important - if it is rooted in something other than one's ego: to live one’s vision was life-affirming, and would give life to others. Without that vision of his he would not have left his homeland and planted himself in alien soil.
And I learnt from this courage he possessed– so that when I was called to move on, I was able to listen, to follow where I was led (Genesis 12:1-4). I learnt that gift from him, my father Terach. So when they attack him for his beliefs, they attack me. Even though what I believe is different from what he believed, when the gods were near at hand and seemed to help him every day.
For I was called – as is every youngster, in every generation – to build on the past, to forge a new vision, informed by new situations, new realities, and not to rely, not to put my faith in, the old ways and the old gods. I was called into something new – but it took me a long time to understand what it was all about. I’m not sure I ever really understood. I’m not sure it’s understandable. All that talk of blessing and sacrifice, of ‘being a blessing’ (12:2) and being the bearer of an ‘everlasting covenant’ (17:7). What does it really mean?
I am not sure I ever understood who or what was calling me away from the old ways, calling me on into the unknown – it always came out of the blue, unexpectedly, randomly, the relentless unforeseen, like a message written into the sand beneath my feet:  ‘open your eyes, see what is there, look into yourself, and look up from yourself, look at the stars: they are your family written into the future, your descendents, constellations of faith...’
And every step of the way there was fear - fear and trembling. The fear of the unknown, the dread of what would be demanded next. And the deep dark vision of future suffering, the shadows haunting the blessing: that we would be strangers in a strange land, yidden, not just once, but over and again through the generations, carrying that blessed/cursed covenant seared to our souls.
People forget how painful this process was for me, how hard it was to let go of our old ways of thinking. But gradually it dawned on me - or it was forced on me, sometimes it came like a revelation, a sudden vision, a clarity of seeing, of insight – that all those old gods, different gods for different parts of life, separate gods for separate parts of reality (El and Baal, mot and Shaddai ), I realised that they just couldn’t all be split up, the gods – the elohim -  they couldn’t all have an independent life of their own, but they had to be connected, they had to belong together, they had to One, Echad. The divine couldn’t exist sometimes here and sometimes there, but the divine was in everything - it really was Echad, One - and that meant it embraced me as well.
This is why I lived in fear, trembling before the mystery of Being. The mystery that past and present and future is just our way of seeing, our way of being, but in essence all is One, Ethad. Who could live with this? It demands too much. And yet I found myself bound into a relationship with the One, the Eternal One, bound into a covenant with a new way of seeing, a new way of believing, a new way of being alive where my being resonated with the Being of the universe. Who wouldn’t be frightened of seeing the world this way? 
And it changed me, this new way of seeing. I started off as Avram ben Terach - Avram, son of Terach. And I became Avram ha-Ivri, Avram the ‘one who crossed over’ – for I did cross a border, not just a geographical one but a border of belief. I crossed over from the old gods of my father to a new intuition about divinity: that everything was connected, everything was One. I became Avram ha-Ivri, whom you know as ‘Avram the Hebrew’.
And from there to Avraham, the ‘founder of faith’, the founder of faiths – who could have imagined?  It was a long journey for a boy born in Haran to a father who’d put his faith in the old elohim in all their dazzling multiplicity, a long journey to a new way of thinking about Elohim (same name, different way of seeing what it meant), a long journey to a new kind of faith, a faith not just rooted in nature but rooted in story, in history, filled with surprises, challenges, obligations, duties, a faith austere and joyful, fraught with uncertainty, shadowed by doubts, a faith my descendents began to think of as belonging to me - though it isn’t mine, it belongs to all of us.
And this journey continues, the journey of faith of Avraham Avinu – ‘our father Abraham’ . So if you attack my faith, or my faithful ones (who may not even believe that I ever existed) - if you attack them, then you attack me. 
I am Avram, son of Terach. Proud child of a father in whom I still have pride. As it should be.