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Sunday, 24 September 2017

Is Religion 'Post-Truth'?

Sometimes, during a synagogue service, something odd happens to me. I don’t know how frequent this is for others. One phrase from the texts, or just one word, jumps out of the general smooth surface of ‘blah’ that we are saying or singing and really catches my attention. Don’t misunderstand me – of course all the words we have in the prayer book are wonderful and thought-provoking and packed with meaning and relevance – but...you know what I mean. They can float by us, or we can float away somewhere else while they are happening.

So what I’m talking about is that moment, that occasional experience, when something pokes through the surface same-old, same-old, blandness and really captures my attention, my imagination. Like being at sea and suddenly a dolphin leaps out, playful and attention-grabbing. Or maybe like the glint of a shark’s fin – and one senses there’s danger there. Sometimes the words in our liturgy invite us in to play; at other times they might contain hidden threats: they can bite us, confront us, endanger our wellbeing or our complacency.

This year the word that keeps getting at me is a little word that we say quite a lot, whether in the Hebrew or in the English. It’s the word emet – true/truth. “Your word is true forever”, “It is true that the Eternal God is our Sovereign”, “It is true that You are the Faithful One...who rescues and delivers us”, “The sound of the shofar breaks into our lives. It shatters our illusions and we awake to truth”. Emet – dolphin or shark?
What kind of truth are these texts proclaiming, exposing us to?  do the truth claims hold up, or do they expose themselves to ridicule? “It is true that You are the Faithful One...who rescues and delivers us” – how do we, after the Shoah, get away with this? What kind of ‘truth’ is this, that we repeat day in day out, year in year out, during our services? What sense does it have? What sense do we make of it?

So, I’m setting my stall out right now. The ‘truth’ stall. There’s a lot of examples on display here, vying for attention. And I’ll come back to them. But I’m going to set out another market stall next to it. And let’s call this other stall by the term that during this last year was named ‘Word of the Year’ by the Oxford Dictionaries: yes, it’s our old-new favourite word: ‘post-truth’. Let’s have a look what’s on the ‘post-truth’ stall.  

You know what will come to mind first, I imagine. Trump and his ‘alternative facts’ - and the finger-in-his-ears, la-la land of his internal world which calls ‘fake news’ anything  he doesn’t want to hear. Many politicians – including not a few American Presidents (remember Nixon?) – bend the truth (which is sometimes complex), or avoid the inconvenient truths, but Trump is gruesomely fascinating in being the first one who seems genuinely to revel in lying. Which includes lying to himself - which we all might do on occasion, but he’s made it into a defining character trait. In doing so he’s creating a ‘post-truth’ presidency based on feelings (his own unregulated, erratic  and narcissistic feelings) rather than facts.

So Trump is an easy target. Our first exhibit on the ‘post-truth’ stall. I probably shares pride of place with that other phenomenon that possibly comes to mind when we think about what might be displayed on the ‘post-truth’ stall: Brexit and that notorious £350 million a week figure, on the side of the VoteLeave bus, that would be freed up for the NHS once we left the EU; or the perhaps more pernicious ‘post-truth’ claim by Farage and others that Turkey would be joining the EU in 2020 and this would allow 70 million-plus sexually-predatory Muslim terrorists into the UK.

These are obvious examples of ‘post-truth’ phenomena in our current landscape. But I’m sure anyone reading this you could add items to the ‘post-truth’ inventory. Because ‘post-truth’ claims have been around for a long time, almost as long as recorded human history - if by ‘post-truth’ we mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary now defines it: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

So the infamous Russian anti-Semitic pamphlet of 1903,'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion', describing a Jewish plan for global domination, would be a classic example of a ‘post-truth’ document; as would the blood libels issued verbally against Jews for the 800 years before that. Jews have particular historical reasons to be sensitive to, and to call out, ‘post-truth’ texts and claims. They are always dangerous to - and sometimes deadly to - someone’s wellbeing, individual or group.

The more you think about it, the more you can see how much we are surrounded by ‘post-truth’. The advertising industry used to be built on it – though there’s regulation now to mitigate some of the more slippery bits of ‘truthiness’. Newspapers are full of it, some more than others: I name no names - on this occasion.

But if we are thinking about what in our world relates to or denotes  “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, what about religion? With that definition the New Testament and the Gospels would be completely ‘post-truth’ documents  – naked appeals to emotion and personal belief. So what about (closer to home) the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, the Torah – is this just another ‘post-truth’ text?

God making the world in 6 days? Adam and Eve? Truth or ‘post-truth’? The patriarchs and matriarchs - are they real historical figures (“objective facts”), or creations of the literary imagination of inspired national storytellers? The Exodus from Egypt of 600,000 Hebrew slaves, crossing the Red Sea; Moses receiving Torah at Sinai? Truth or ‘post-truth’? Are you shifting uneasily in your seats? I hope so.

Suddenly our two market stalls – truth and ‘post-truth’ – seem to be uncomfortably close together. In fact – interesting phrase: ‘in fact’ – what’s on display on them may be getting all jumbled up. We need to do some sorting out here. I’m not claiming that my perspective is the ‘truth’, by the way - but it’s not ‘post-truth’ either. Let’s just call what I’m saying provisional signposts towards what’s ‘true’. 

The fundamental point about the word ‘true’ or truth’ – and the word emet in Hebrew - is that it covers two rather different kinds of human experience. One kind of experience, and we are immersed in this, is about facts, reason, logic, the mind, scientific understanding, mathematical understanding. It is true that 2 + 2 = 4, the capital of France is Paris, Auschwitz was an extermination camp with gas chambers, penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 at St.Mary’s Hospital here in London, there was once a king of the Hebrew people called David who ruled from Jerusalem.   All of these are true – there is evidence of different kinds to back up their claims to being true. And a million other examples could be set out on our truth stall.

But none of them in and of themselves offer meaning in our lives - and although some people are happy to live in a world just of facts and statistics, others of us are interested in questions of meaning and purpose: a world where we need comfort after someone dies, where we need hope when things look dark, where we feel there is value in our activities and relationships - a world of emotional and spiritual realities that are true, or that we hold are true, in a quite different sense.

I don’t want to live only in a world of information and rational thinking where meaning can be found through a Google search - as important as that world is: I wouldn’t want to live in a world without penicillin, without the know-how to make that and a thousand other medicines, the result of a hundred and fifty years of rigorous truth-searching in chemistry and biology and so on.

The modern world – the world of electricity and  technology and scientific endeavour – is a wondrous human achievement. It is truth-seeking, finding answers to questions of ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ But it doesn’t address our human aspirations and dreams, and our innate human questions about ‘why?’, our questions about meaning. Why did that person have to die? or leave me? Why does she seem more popular than me? Why is he more successful than me? Why am I always struggling, or on the verge of tears? Why do they always seem so happy? Why am I moved when I see others’ suffering? Why am I not moved when I see others’ suffering?

For those kind of questions – and there’s a million of them - we need another kind of truth-telling: the truths contained in stories, in art, in novels, in myths, in psychology, in poetry, in – dare I say it - in religion, all of which create meaning . This other kind of truth is not rooted in historically accurate information but in the truth of the human spirit and the more elusive aspects of human experience. These kinds of truths can’t be proven rationally or arrived at scientifically.

You can’t prove that love is a more creative impulse for human society than hate; or that generosity is more life-enhancing than greed; or that compassion is a sounder basis for building a meaningful life than cruelty. These things are true, I would say, (although you can always find counter-examples) - but they aren’t true in the way that 2+2 = 4 is true. These truths don’t belong to the world of ‘logos’ but to the world of ‘mythos’ – this is the ancient Greek distinction between two kinds of truth, two categories of truth. And if we confuse these two categories we can end up in a lot of trouble. In the history of religion people got - and still get – oppressed, persecuted and killed because of the muddle between ‘logos’ and ‘mythos’.

Nowadays the word ‘myth’ has lost its original meaning. When we say something’s ‘a bit of a myth’, we tend to mean it’s not true; it’s even come to mean that something is a lie. But it’s a real shame – and sometimes a tragedy – that ‘myth’ has lost its original meaning of a narrative or story that offered meaning to human life, that gave a perspective on values, that created a container, a framework, to help us think about the purposes of human life and family life and social, community life; ‘mythic thinking’ generated  narratives and stories that spoke about the daily dramas and dynamics of our lives, and the fragility of all human life, and animal life, and natural life on this irreplaceable, extraordinary planet, a cosmic speck in the universe.    

I think there’s a lot of confusion between these two kinds of truth - ‘mythic’ truth and ‘rational’ truth, if we use a shorthand. If you read the opening chapters of Genesis through the lens of rational truth, we can see that it is absurd, in the light of scientific knowledge, to believe that the world was created in 6 days. Some people of course do believe in that literal understanding of the text. But as a poetic myth, the story of how humanity emerged as part of an evolving process, stage by stage, which then moved generation by generation into family groups, then tribal groups, each with their own identity and purpose, and we trace how the Hebrew Bible’s ‘mythos’ develops its story with this small undistinguished  Hebrew tribe finding itself with a value system and a destiny to live out certain  values and be an inspiration and model for other tribes and nations – wow, this is another kind of truth-telling; and we find we are in the middle of a truth-creating story, a truth-revealing story, a story about meaning and purpose, in which we can, and still do, locate our own lives.

So that when we read in our liturgy now – the liturgy being the creation of generations of rabbinical writers who accepted that original ‘mythos’/truth-generating story as having something of value to shape their own lives – when we read the words they composed - “Your word is true forever”, “It is true that the Eternal God is our Sovereign”, “It is true that You are the Faithful One...” -then yes, our ‘logos’ mind can jump in and object ‘but this isn’t true, it’s not rational, it’s not scientific!’.We can get snagged on that part of us, like being in a wool jumper that gets snagged on barbed wire and starts to unravel - those internal (or external) ‘logos’ voices can pierce us and unravel our minds.

 But if our mythically-sensitive minds - otherwise known as our souls - wait a moment and allow the words in, allow them to breathe in us, to inspire us, allow their meaning-generating mythic wisdom to embrace us, hold us, then these words – words like “It is true that You are the Faithful One...”  - can cajole us, seduce us,  into inspecting our lives, and asking ‘what are we faithful to?’, ‘what do we value and hold dear?’

 “Your word is true forever”:  how can God’s ‘word’ - that is God’s ‘mythic’ truths , about justice and compassion and lovingkindness and generosity and mercy – how can they help shape our lives, our vision, our daily actions? These values aren’t post-truths. Care for the stranger, the outsider, the homeless, the impoverished – this is written into our ‘mythos’, the story the Jewish people has been telling itself for millennia.

They are the signposts that can give us direction, provisional signposts maybe – yet  still they are signposts towards what is true. These words, these teachings are – as in the title of the new exhibition by the American artist Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy – they are “Something Resembling Truth”; at least until anyone or anything can point us in a better direction towards what is emet, “true forever”. But after two and half millennia I’m not holding my breath for that to happen any time soon.


[adapted from a sermon given on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah (New Year), at Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 22nd, 2017]

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Repairing What's Broken

I recently came across a delightful Japanese word, kint’suk’uroi – and realised how useful it was in helping me think about the themes of the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. It’s the word used for the Japanese art of repairing with gold, so that a broken artefact becomes more beautiful afterwards than it had been before it was broken.

This is the period of the Jewish year when the themes of mending what’s fractured in our lives, repairing the damage we have done to others and to ourselves, are highlighted by the tradition. This is the spiritual and psychological  work of what the tradition calls the ‘Days of Awe’.   
Judaism has its own language for this of course. Teshuvah, we are told, means to return, to repair, to restore – we may have harmed someone close to us, hurt them: are we able to have the humility, the courage, to admit this, to address this, to try to put something right in a relationship. We may have harmed a part of ourselves wittingly, or unwittingly – our bodies, our souls, our values, our vision, our integrity, our confidence, they can get damaged, battered by the stresses of everyday life. What do we need to repair, what can we repair? – these are the questions we wrestle with as the New Year approaches.
And they are hard questions. But kint’suk’uroi sets the bar higher than that – it’s an idea not just of repair (where the cracks might still show), but adding something in to make it more beautiful than it was before. With a ceramic pot this might be possible, and we may be ‘clay in the hands of the potter’ (i.e. God) as one of our medieval penitential poems puts it, but what if we have had a falling out with a friend, or a neighbour, or someone in our family, or someone at work? Are we really supposed not just to repair the relationship but make it better than it was before, more ‘beautiful’, as it were? Maybe patching things up is the best we can do. It’s a question – the kind of question we struggle with at this time of the year. 
This concept of kint’suk’uroi reminded me of a parable from the Maggid of Dubno (1740-1804) which tells of a king who had a beautiful diamond that was accidentally scratched. No jewellers were able to repair it, until one craftsman came and promised to make it even more beautiful than it had been originally. And this he did by engraving a rosebud around the imperfection - and using the scratch to make the stem.
The Dubner Maggid was an itinerant storyteller, maybe he’d been to Japan and pinched the idea – it’s not likely though – but his story is certainly a close relative of  kint’suk’uroi . Though psychologically it’s also subtly different. There’s  a difference between covering something over, covering it up, so you can’t see what’s happened, and thereby enhancing the whole object (or situation ), making it more beautiful – and keeping the scratch, the wound, visible (conscious, one could say) and part of a new picture which emerges around it, which can be built around it.
If there’s been a breakdown of trust in a relationship and yet the relationship is important enough to want to maintain it, the hurt has to be aired, it has to be acknowledged and light thrown on it, and if things go well  that old hurt might lessen in its painfulness. But it may be better not to pretend it hasn’t happened. Ideally it can become part of the next stage in the relationship. “Do you remember that time when you did that? And how upset I was? Well it’s still there, I haven’t forgotten, but I’m glad that  we have moved on, built something else...”
But there is an art in doing this – building and repairing relationships – and not everyone is an artist. Or wants to be. There’s also pleasure in destruction, in smashing up crockery, in breaking things – and sometimes relationships, situations, need to be broken, or destroyed. Where there’s abuse or injustice, oppression, victimisation, or a psychological habit that persecutes us  – the energy needs to go into breaking what’s there, not repairing it.
So where does that leave us? Brokenness, repairing damage, letting the scratches, the hurts, the wounds show - or soldering something over them. These are the metaphors I find myself playing with as we start this annual pilgrimage once more. The soul’s journey of return, or renewal (teshuvah).
The other sentiment that kint’suk’uroi reminded me of is the saying by the  Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859): “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart”. That’s a hard one. I’m not sure I can quite inhabit it. I’m not sure I believe it - or want to believe it. It sounds as if it could be a very profound spiritual or psychological understanding – or a very trite one. I’m not sure. Maybe it depends on who says it, and when . I know it’s not something I’d ever say to someone who was broken-hearted.
It’s so paradoxical  - “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart” – so counterintuitive: if you are feeling broken-hearted - if you have lost someone you love, or you have lost your home, or your homeland, or your work, or you are seriously, maybe terminally ill, if you are feeling completely bereft, broken - is it a comfort to be told by an outsider that, “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart”? Or would you want to hit them? I don’t know.
Yes, there is an integrity to upset, fully felt; distress that overwhelms the heart; grief that rends the soul – these pain-filled states of being, of mind, are real, unquestionably, our naked humanity and fragility exposed. There is an integrity to these experiences (and we hope, we pray, that we are spared too many of them in our lives), but we don’t feel “whole” when we are going through them:  we feel empty, and despairing, and hopeless and angry. We don’t feel “whole”  with our broken heart – we feel in pieces. 
I don’t know why I wanted to talk about this. Or why I am talking about this theme in this way. I intuit - or maybe I just hope - that something in what I am saying connects to some of you, connects to what you might have struggled with this past year, or be struggling with now in your lives.
I suppose I’m trying to dig down into an aspect of teshuvah, this word that we repeat over and over at this time of the year, like  a mantra, almost until it loses any meaning. I suppose I’m drilling down into it to see what the inner dimensions of this returning, repairing, might look like, feel like. Because however many times we say it or chant it - whatever harmonious  or plaintive melodies accompany it - it’s a word on a mission, it has designs on us:  it aims to pierce us, pierce through us, penetrate our defences, our rationalisations, our laziness, our callousness, break through our sclerotic hearts, the way we harden ourselves to the sorrows of the world, the sorrows of others, the sorrows in ourselves.
When we come into synagogue through security on these High Holy Days we just have to wave our tickets, they don’t ask us - as they do sometimes (bizarrely) at airports – “Are you carrying anything explosive?”. But if they did ask us that during these days – “Are you carrying anything explosive?” - we could say: “Yes. Yes we are. We are carrying words, words like teshuvah; and they are explosive, they are meant to be explosive, to set off chain reactions of thinking and feeling inside us; they are words that threaten (and promise) to change our inner landscapes - unless they do that, they aren’t doing their job, we’re not doing our job. The words can become duds, blanks. We become duds. We become blank. We can let it all wash over us, safe from the creative dangers of getting too close to the explosive nature, the disruptive potential,  of the words we read.
In these days when explosions are a live topic for us, it may seem strange to talk about the aim of these words as being to be explosive. But one of the questions of these times is about security: where can our security can come from in fraught times? And maybe over these days ahead of us now we can start to find our security in this re-engagement with our tradition, in re-connecting to the power packed into the language, the words of our machzor (prayer book); the security that comes from rooting ourselves again within our tradition that offers and promises the opportunity for change, for renewal, for transformation; the security of discovering anew that the power, the energy, that animates all being, that animates all of life, flows in us too - in our brokenness as much as in our hopefulness.
[based on a sermon given at Selichot service at Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 16th evening]

 

 

Monday, 11 September 2017

On Magpies, Sermons and Lego

I was invited to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue  a couple of weeks ago to lead a pre-High Holy Day workshop for rabbis on sermon giving. Somewhat apprehensively, I went along with a few ideas but not knowing quite what to expect.  As it turned out it was a lively morning – and I learnt a lot (I’m not so sure what they learnt).

At one point I asked my colleagues what they thought was the point of a sermon? What’s its aim or purpose? They came up with an interesting list: comfort, hope, provocation, challenge, a space for personal reflection, providing a Jewish map/framework for thinking about an issue, an opportunity for learning, to stimulate curiosity, to stimulate change, to begin a conversation.  

Afterwards, it occurred to me that there seemed to be things missing from that list: there was nothing about God (as if it’s almost a taboo subject) or spirituality (though that begs the question as to what we might mean by the spiritual); nothing about offering people a way of making meaning out of tragedies, personal or collective; or just helping us to cope with the everyday battles and bruises of lived experience; nothing explicit about Jewish values (though maybe that was implied in some of the list); and, at a different level, nobody spoke about the sermon as entertainment.

Entertainment as ‘a  performance that offers pleasure, diversion or amusement’ (Longman dictionary). I think that’s an underrated aspect of sermon-giving. I’m not talking about entertainment as frivolity, as lacking in - or an avoidance of - seriousness of purpose, but unless it is a form of pleasure, of stimulating pleasure in the listener – and that could be emotional or intellectual  pleasure - I’m not sure why we’d bother with it. Either rabbis or congregants...

I think of sermons as a kind of play - it’s like being a child with a whole heap of Lego pieces, you can make anything you want. I remember when my son was young he used to have those Lego sets where you could build a castle or a spaceship: you’d get all the pieces, and instructions on how to build what was pictured on the box, but when you’d done  that and had the satisfaction of ‘getting it right’, it was much more fun to mix the castle pieces with the spaceship pieces and make your own imaginary constructions. And the more boxes you had the more intriguing could be the designs you could make. There was no limit to what you could do – the only limits were self-imposed ones originating in the limits you put on your own imagination.

So here’s an image to play with: sermon-giving is like playing with Lego – the pleasure is in bringing different sets of ideas (and images) together. I talked a bit in that workshop about how I see myself as a magpie. My eye is caught by, I’m always on the look-out for, things that I can use for sermons. Because I’m not really interested in straight-out-of-the-box building to an existing design. That’s not very creative or satisfying, for me. I’d rather be a magpie, and pick up lines of poetry or songs, quotations from the newspaper, biblical verses, jokes, ideas from novels, from TV characters, from films, from exhibitions in galleries, from a conversation I might have with someone, or something I overhear or see in the street, stuff that floats up from the unconscious when I’m taking a walk, or a shower. We are all bombarded all the time by stuff that comes at us, as well as things we go out deliberately and engage with, it’s all the stuff of life, randomly generated, the kaleidoscopic chaos of everyday life.  I am happy to make use of any of it, to play with it and see what I can shape it into – for my, and others’, entertainment and stimulation.

But  when I ‘play’ with this material, I am aware that there is also a concentrated seriousness at the heart of it. I might even call it a moral seriousness. Because although I appear to be writing right now about how I build a sermon, out of bits and pieces, what I am also talking about – what I am really talking about - is how we all construct a life for ourselves, brick by brick, day by day.

The question underlying what I’m saying is something like: how do we each build our life? what are the values we assemble, the beliefs we utilise, the ways of living we cobble together, the ways of doing things we learn, the ways of finding meaning and purpose  we seek out? For example: what parts of our family history do we treasure and integrate into our lives?; and what parts cause us grief and we can discard? What happens if things in the past that we don’t want – old hurts, grudges, grievances, fears - still stick to us, like pieces of Lego that get jammed together so we can’t prise them apart and build something new? what do we do when our options seem lessened? 

We are all building our lives out of the ‘boxes’ around us. There’s the box called ‘what our parents gave us’, boxes called ‘what our schooling and education gave us’ and ‘what our life experience taught us’ and ‘what our disappointments taught us’ and ‘what our successes taught us’ and ‘what our relationships taught us’; and religious or Jewish boxes with values packed inside,  like generosity, kindness, lack of ostentation, righteousness in all its multi-coloured forms? And we are all making up our lives as we go along from how we assemble the bricks. We are limited only by our imaginations.

We are all constructing patterns of meaning, though someone from the outside might look at what we are building and wonder : ‘What is that supposed to be?’, like I sometimes used to do with my son: but he had his story about what he was building. And one of the worst things you can do for a child is to tell them they have got it wrong because what they have put together isn’t the same as the picture on the box. Similarly with an adult. Other people might not recognise what you are building – how important is that to you, that it should look like what’s on the box?

It’s different if a child is frustrated because they want to follow the instructions and can’t; or they can’t find the right pieces because the ones they are looking for have got all mixed up with pieces from other boxes, and they need help sorting things out. Then your job might be to patiently sit with them and help them sort things out – this belongs here, that belongs over there, where can we look for that blue round bit? Ah, it’s hidden over there.

Similarly with an adult. Help might be needed to sort things out. To work out what belongs where. Because we all have, one way or another, assembled our lives from all sorts of bits and pieces of experience and knowledge and desire and hardship - and fragments of wisdom accrued along the way. And we may not be sure what we have achieved, what we’ve built. In this Hebrew month of Elul, the for reflection before the High Holy Days, we are encouraged to give some more sustained attention to what we have fabricated out of our lives. What do we value? What might we have overlooked? What might we might want to change, or re-design?

 It’s a month when we can be on the look-out for new pieces to build into our lives, and on the look-out too for bricks that are stuck together, that are stuck inside us, that we might want to pull apart. It’s a month to be magpies, to find things that you want to gather in to yourself, add to your life: it might be a story, or text, or a film you have been meaning to see; it might be in a relationship that you want to develop; or a call that you have been waiting to make; it might be a project of work, or study, or volunteering you might want to explore; it might be  a holiday you have been putting off, or a health check.

So – a month to be magpies. Or be like the prophet Isaiah. We read a text in the synagogue this week (Isaiah 60:1-14) which contained the wonderful, numinous words : “Raise your eyes and look about: everything can be gathered together and comes to you...” (verse 4 – my translation). You build your life out of what comes to you - the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, the serendipitous - along with what you seek out: love, meaning, adventure, security, joyfulness...everything can be ‘gathered together’.

And then Isaiah, the great poet/prophet, goes on say: “As you behold what is there, you will glow, your heart will throb and thrill...” (verse 5). What an amazing promise!  Paying magpie-like attention, gathering in what is there, will allow you to 'glow', will make your heart ‘throb and thrill’. A promise to take with us as we come towards our Days of Awe, as the Jewish New Year approaches.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 10th, 2017]






Sunday, 16 July 2017

Developing a Spirit of Independent-Mindedness

How would you feel if you went to a synagogue or church and the service was led by a robot? if the words and the music had been machine generated? (Some of you may already think you have such a figure in your community, but stay with me). You could programme a machine to lead services, to give sermons, Rabbi Google can teach you about Judaism even now. Your robot minister could listen and talk to you if you had a pastoral problem. Machines can do all these things already.

In Germany they have just unveiled a robot-priest in the Protestant Church called – can you guess? – “BlessU-2”. It has a touch-screen chest, two arms and a head. You can choose to be blessed in German, English, French, Spanish or Polish. You can choose a male or female voice. The robot pastor raises its arms, flashes lights, and recites the Biblical verse “May God bless you and protect you”.  If you want, you can press the screen and get a print-out of the words. In case of malfunction or breakdown, the Church has invested in a backup robot. ‘O brave new world, That has such pastors in it’ (as Shakespeare almost said).  

This may be the future - who knows? -  but the point of the church’s experiment is to provoke debate, which it has done. We all know – or think we know – the difference between a machine and a person, even if we sometimes end up treating other people as machines. But what does it mean to be human? We talk, casually, about the ‘human spirit’ but it is a mystery, this thing we call consciousness. The Book of Genesis tries to capture the extraordinary nature of what it means to be a person, to be alive, to be animated (that word of course is from the Latin ‘anima/spirit’). In the Biblical myth, the inanimate, as-yet-not-quite-human, Adam,  made of dust, inert matter, Adamah, becomes a nefesh chaya , a living being,  by having the breath of life breathed into it by the divine spirit (Genesis 2:7). That’s one, poetic, way of imagining what a human being is.

But in spite of all the amazing neuroscience and genetic understanding and the insights from biology and chemistry, and all the knowledge we have about what makes a human being human, what still remains elusive is the problem - the philosophers call it the ‘hard problem’ - of what consciousness is, what this human spirit in us is. I think this is going to remain a tantalising question for a long time yet: apart from these amazing neural connections up here in our heads, in this ‘three pounds of jelly’ as the great neurologist Oliver Sacks once called the brain, what is it that makes us an aware, spirited human being?  

Whatever this mysterious essence is, it does define the difference between us and a robot, however sophisticated a machine that is, however many millions of calculations per second it can make. We can live in awe of what humanity can now build. Our smartphones are smarter than us. That’s awesome. But it is nothing like the awe of what it is to be human, a living being.

Our Torah text this week describes the qualities of Joshua, Moses’ successor.  Moses is told “Take Joshua, the son of Nun, a man who has spirit/ruach in him, and place your hand upon him...and give him instructions in the sight of the whole community...” (Numbers 27:18-20). This is a bit puzzling if you think about it. Surely everyone has ruach in them – spirit. This is what makes them human – the spirit animating human flesh. The poetry of the earliest verses of Genesis (1:2) describes the spirit of God – the ruach Elohim – generating, animating, all of life, moving through all creation, breathing life into us too.

Ruach  means breath, and wind, and spirit. It’s tangible and it’s intangible, it’s the energy that keeps everything going and it’s a metaphor for the energy that keeps everything going. So what is the text inviting us to think about when it describes the next leader of the community after Moses as a person who has ruach, spirit, in them?
Remember that Joshua is the person who returned from spying out the promised land with a positive report, unlike the majority view of the 10 other spies who were frightened about their futures. They came back and said to the Israelites: we went there and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, the cities are huge, the people are fierce, we’ll never prevail there, let’s get back to Egypt where at least we knew what the next day would bring.

But Joshua, along with Caleb, give a minority report:  they didn’t follow the consensus, the group-think, they are independent-minded, they offer an Obama-esque ‘Yes, we can’:  we can overcome the forces ranged against us.

We had that story a few chapters ago and now we arrive at the text where  Joshua is described as having spirit within him, ruach. So is it suggesting that this is what makes him a potential leader? That he’s not an automaton? that he’s not pre-programmed? that he’s not robotic?

Do we intuit here something vital being shown to us through these stories, these legends, about leadership?  The importance of being able to really think for oneself, not succumbing to one’s fears, not being an automatic machine-like follower of the views of majority opinion? Is it this spirit of independent-mindedness what makes you someone who can lead, who can inspire, who can animate others, breathe new life into them and stop them becoming petrified, stuck, robotic, soulless?

This notion of independent-mindedness is complicated: I’m not talking about just being contrary, bloody-minded - just because you dissent from majority views doesn’t mean you are filled with the spirit of wise leadership.  I wouldn’t describe climate change deniers as independent-minded voices dissenting from the scientific consensus, but head-in-the-sand, and often self-serving, deniers of reality. Similarly, Brexiteer politicians dissenting from the extensive majority view of informed opinion and expertise, across many fields,  that says that leaving the EU will be culturally, economically and socially disastrous, a form of national self-harm – well, that spirit of independent-mindedness seems to some of us just delusional.

So the question is:  when do you dissent from a majority view? And when do you support a majority view? The point about independent-mindedness is your capacity to bring together in yourself thinking and feeling, to be able to research, and reflect , to listen with an open mind, to weigh up multiple possibilities, to ponder over inconsistencies, to allow doubt to be part of the fabric of your thinking. Like ruach – breathe, wind, spirit – this spirit of independent-mindedness  is always in motion.

It’s a gift to be animated by the spirit, and it requires work not to let your spirit atrophy, or go into eclipse. Sometimes it means learning from the wisdom of youth. And their directness: “Being religious means believing in a culture and a community that bonds over morals and values” – when I hear a young woman at her Bat Mitzvah sharing this thought I can see that she’s understood something that many so-called adults never understand: the recognition that being ‘religious’ is not about whether you believe in a divine being in some form or another, a god of one kind or another - that’s the majority view, the automatic view, the robotic view. No, being religious is about connecting yourself to a way of thinking and living, a culture, a heritage, committed to actions guided by moral values and ethics...

...the Jewish ethical stance towards justice is designed particularly to protect those who are vulnerable - who because of poverty or social status, or being an outsider, or a refugee, or marginalised in some other way, might not be treated with fairness or respect by the powers that be.  So, recent cuts in legal aid which mean citizens are denied access to justice, politicians who wish us to leave the European Court of Justice, government plans to scrap the Human Rights Act (rights developed after the atrocities of the second world war and designed to protect us all from oppression by holding the state to account) - all of these attacks on the principles of running a just society run counter to Jewish ethical principles...

...We have all witnessed recently the kind of horrors that can occur if a society fails to live out its highest moral and ethical principles – the fire at Grenfell Tower, with the burning alive of poor people just yards away from some of the country’s most pricey homes. We know this was not just, straightforwardly, a tragedy for those involved and their families, but a  terrible indictment of a whole set of current attitudes and shabby values: safety regulations are not a luxury, they are a moral necessity - but the mantra of deregulation fails to recognise that; in addition, the privatisation of lower-income property management means that people have to deal with unresponsive companies rather than local authorities whose officials can be voted out (and without legal aid any legal challenge to private companies becomes prohibitively expensive); also, if austerity means cutting housing officers and safety inspectors then you are putting money above morality; all of this is self-evident if you look at society through a Judaeo-Christian ethical lens.

Our sacred texts offer a perspective on these kind of issues that a society ignores at its peril: there’s a huge social inequality that runs through this country like an open wound and I don’t think you have to be a Biblical prophet to realise that a society that allows this to happen has lost its raison d’être and its very soul.

Leadership requires a spirit a independent-mindedness, an ability to avoid automatically following the populist view, the view of what Ibsen called ‘the compact majority’. How we each develop that capacity within us is a spiritual task. But without it we are lost.

[adapted and extracted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, July 15th, 2017]


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

New Rabbis, New Challenges: from Sinai to Kafka, and beyond

Last weekend I had the privilege, the honour, of addressing the graduating rabbinic students of the Leo Baeck College at the College’s annual Ordination service and ceremony. The ceremony is known as semikhah and is rooted in an ancient tradition of rabbinic teachers passing on authority to the next generation of students through a ceremony of ‘laying on of hands’. This rabbinic tradition is itself traced back symbolically to the way in which Moses appointed Joshua as his successor to lead the Israelite community (Numbers 27:15-23).

I received semikhah in 1980. (The rabbi who ordained me happened to be seated next to me on Sunday). That seems a world away in both time and in the ethos of the times, and when I came to think about what I wanted to speak about to the graduating class of 2017 ( four women and three men) I found myself thinking about the extraordinary challenges not just Jewish communities will be facing in the next decades, but challenges all of us in Europe will be facing. What will a new generation of rabbis need to find within themselves? These new Jewish leaders will be asked to teach in, and minister to,  communities in circumstances quite different, I felt, from the challenges rabbis have faced in the last 40 years. What follows here is an edited version of the address I offered the graduating class and the assembled gathering of family, friends and congregants who came together at West London Synagogue to celebrate this special occasion. I was grateful to the students for asking me. And grateful to the Leo Baeck College for acceding to their request.

                                                            **

You all know the parable, Kafka’s numinous midrash: I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stable. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. Each one of you has heard this call, this summons, addressed to you, when others may have heard nothing – or doubted your hearing of it - and it took you eventually on your journey to the Leo Baeck College, and into the rabbinate.
Kafka’s bugle (Trompete in the original) is a close relative of the shofar, present at the revelation at Sinai when the Israelite community, our people, learn of the moral and ethical vision that it has been their burden and destiny to carry and try to enact. And just as at Sinai when the call went out and tradition says that each person heard it in their own way, according to their own character and personality, each one of you has heard that collective call in your own way, interpreted it, wrestled with it, questioned it, inhabited it, on this path into the rabbinate.
So you are inheritors of both mythopoeic traditions – one speaking of a call addressed to all the Jewish people that each one of you has been developing your own relationship to; the other speaking of a call that only you alone have heard. This dialogue, and dialectic, between these two traditions – between Sinai and modernity - will form and inform your future careers.
So, attuned to that call – for they are, at root, a single call -  what are you each going to do with it? ’Where are you riding to, master?’ ‘I do not know’, I said, ‘only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.’  On one level of course you know your destination [the communities in the UK and Europe in which they will serve]...but of course, in reality, ‘away from here’, none of you have any idea about your destinations.
In the next 30 years, 40 years with strength, the timeframe (more or less) of your rabbinate, the world we have all grown up in, that you have grown up in and know, will increasingly come under strain. It’s been said that ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms can appear’ [Antonio Gramsci].  The signs of stress and fracture are all around us – the ‘morbid symptoms’.   
What resources will you have – intellectual, emotional, spiritual – what resources will you bring, to this morbidity when it breaks apart the familiar world we feel so settled  within? What kind of Judaic hopefulness will you represent, enact? How will you stay attuned to that ancient call of the shofar that in our tradition also announces the possibility of, the coming of, a time of messianic transformation for humanity on our fragile planet? How– attuned to that call – how will you help your communities respond to - and those you work with adapt to - what might happen? How will you support them through the enormous changes people are facing in the world of work? how will you help them through  ethnic tensions, societal tensions? How will you guide them through in the face of some of the dark human impulses that have recently come to the fore, from the small-minded and mean-spirited to the murderous?  How will you guide them through the consequences of the build-up of carbon in the air and nitrogen in the soil, the acidification of oceans and the desertification of once-fertile lands, as the Anthropocene age really takes a grip and globalisation and late capitalism increases the gaps between the haves and the have-nots?
Will you have the inner strength, the resilience, to resist colluding with the many modes of concealment of these realities, that prevent people taking effective action?
In these decades ahead the spiritual and Enlightenment values that you all embrace and embody in such an impressive way – open-minded, liberal, egalitarian, emotionally literate, intellectually clued-in – will come under pressure, we don’t know how severe, from regressive forces of intolerance and fear, communal rivalry and international conflict. What will you as Jewish leaders, Jewish religious leaders and thinkers, need to be saying? What are the Jewish truths that will keep you steady in a post-truth age?
How will you use the truths of Torah to inspire, to soothe, to heal - or to provoke – your communities? How will you help your communities keep their vision alive? their capacity to be attuned to the bugle’s call? How will you help them relate to the truths of Ha-Kadosh Baruch-Hu – the Holy One of Israel – one of whose names is Emet/ truthfulness?
‘You have no provisions with you,’ he said. ‘I need none,’ I said, ‘the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’
If  - in spite of the last five years of intense study at the College - there are ‘no provisions’ that can be prepared in advance to help us cope with the vicissitudes of life and the dramas of history, then you are like the children of Israel in the wilderness who depend on receiving manna from the Eternal One. Nothing can save us, Kafka intuits - channelling his innate spiritual understanding of the Judaic story – unless we are open to receive what life offers us day by day. This is the daily miracle – we receive what we need to keep us going. You have already found this out during your last 5 years together at the College – you do receive what you need, and often it is from each other, from the divine spark active in each other. What a resource! What a resource you have in each other – you know this, and I know that you treasure this.
I hope what I have said hasn’t daunted you too much! Remember that ‘it is, fortunately( es ist ja zum Glück), a truly immense journey’. What a wonderful sense of celebration, anticipation, hopefulness this evokes. That concluding phrase, and indeed the whole parable, is one of the great religious commentaries on the story of the Jewish people.
Today – fortunately! – you are taking your places in that story, the story of a people enamoured by stories, in thrall to stories, who still have a story to tell to the world, a story to live out. May you, ordinands of 2017, live it well. You have all our very best wishes as you set out.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Democracy, Leadership and ‘The Book of Jeremy Corbyn’


As we see in this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 14) – and last week’s election -  leadership is a fraught business. Dissatisfaction is always round the corner, particularly if the leader is seen to be  a bit remote, as Moses was always experienced to be by the Israelites, and Mrs. May came to be regarded during her election campaign.
Maybe it’s a good job that democracy was a Greek invention and not a Judaic one.  In the fifth century BCE, for the first time in any society adult, male citizens of Athens – that is, about 30% of the total population – were allowed a say on who was to be the leader of the city and its surrounding territory (Attica), a model that soon spread to other cities of Greece. By this time the major texts of the Hebrew Bible had already been written, and the different kinds of leadership in the Israelite community had already become part of the people’s consciousness.
Moses is chosen by God, so the texts say, and so too are the leaders of the next generation, Joshua and Caleb with their positive message about the possibility of settling in Canaan: ‘Yes we can’ is their Obama-esque message, which was music to God’s ears, if not the people’s (Numbers 14: 6-9). 
And once the Israelites are in the land of Canaan, leadership is passed to judges, and from judges to kings – but there is not a hint of a democratic ethos in any of it. The people never get a say in choosing leaders. Even the other sources of leadership - the priests for cultic leadership and the prophets for moral and spiritual leadership - are, on the one hand, a kind of family business, inherited within the tribe of Levi and, as regards the prophets, that’s a kind of anti-leadership, a solitary, outsider role holding close to the ethical vision of the tribe.
Prophets are self-appointed, divinely-appointed - the texts offer two ways of thinking about it - but they certainly aren’t chosen by popular acclaim. On the contrary – the prophets had the same status in the eyes of the majority as do candidates from, say, the Monster Raving Looney Party. The prophets were eccentrics – as you have to be, or at least as you will be seen to be,  if you aren’t interested in realpolitik but set out an uncompromising moral vision as the heart and content of your message.

So we can thank the Greeks for the blessings of democracy, not the Jews. And as we know, Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, as Churchill once said.
And we thank the Greeks too for introducing us to those two other concepts which have been around these last 10 days or so, and are still around – ‘hubris’ and ‘chaos’.
To the Greeks, hubris referred to self-confidence, pride and ambition so great that they offend the gods and lead to one's downfall. It was a character flaw often seen in the heroes of classical Greek tragedy – Oedipus, Achilles for example – and we are in the midst of witnessing hubris at work again, though on this occasion it wasn’t the gods who were offended by Theresa May but the people.
And as for chaos – the word means chasm or void in Greek – it has come to mean complete disorder: so  we don’t have to look too far to see how chaos, along with hubris, are dominating our day-to-day politics at the moment.
Mrs. May might be a vicar’s daughter, but she has no hotline to the divine. She’s living out a Greek-style tragedy not a Judaic one.  Tragedy in the Hebrew Bible has a different shape, as we see in this week’s narrative, which  offers us an extraordinary portrait of leadership. Moses might not have been the people’s choice – on the contrary they have distrusted him from the very beginning and in this sedrah we heard the rebellion against him in full cry: “And the people said to each other: ‘Let’s get ourselves another leader, and let’s get back to Egypt’” (14:4) – but Moses acts with humility in the face of this, along with Aaron, and he shows an amazing rhetorical giftedness for such a tongue-tied stutterer when he argues down God, who is portrayed as so angry with the people’s lack of faith in the project of entering the land that he wants to kill off the whole of the Israelite community.  
Moses faces down this divine tantrum with a seductive argument aimed at God’s vanity: ‘when the other nations get to hear that you have destroyed the people of Israel, they are going to say you were too weak to get them to the promised land, and you wouldn’t want that would you? Remember who you are’ – that’s Moses’ message to God - ‘remember your better self,  your better qualities: slow to anger, filled with lovingkindness, forgiving sin and transgression...’ (14: 18). ‘This is who you are’, he reminds God. 
And this flattery just about saves the day – Joshua and Caleb are saved with their descendents; and the youngsters are spared, for they are the future and they will inherit the land after the wanderings are over. But we can still call this whole episode a tragedy because the generation that left Egypt are condemned to schlep around the wilderness until they are die off with their destination never reached. It’s only the next generation who are allowed to complete the journey and eventually to inherit the land.
Neither God nor Moses are the slightest bit interested in democracy. Giving the people a voice, a vote in their future – well, we had to wait another 2000 years before Jews got on board with that project. Of course we probably wouldn’t have it any other way now – but it’s a sobering thought that the Hebrew Bible, our sacred scriptures, are so deeply anti-democratic in their underlying ethos.
Of course the Hebrew Bible is profoundly interested in questions of justice and how a society should be organized well for the benefit of the oppressed and the marginalized, the strangers, the widows, the orphans, the disadvantaged. Loving your neighbour and acting with compassion and care is at the heart of the Jewish ethical vision – but it’s not a democratic vision, it’s a religious vision run more like a benign dictatorship, with God as the ultimate authority and various groups mediating God’s wishes for His people.
As the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron realised this week - another small- scale personal tragedy - a religious vision does not necessarily sit comfortably with an egalitarian, democratic vision. I don’t think they have to conflict but it is salutary to be reminded that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition they might well do.
These issues are all there in the scriptures and I want to share with you now a new scripture that has just been revealed. And I want to share it because I think you’ll enjoy it, in these fraught and chaotic times. We know the author of this scripture: he’s a Brit who writes for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane is his name, and he has uncovered a new text for our edification and enlightenment and entertainment and its name is ‘The Book of Jeremy Corbyn’, and this is what it tells:

The Book of Corbyn

And it came to pass, in the land of Britain, that the High Priestess went unto the people and said, Behold, I bring ye tidings of great joy. For on the eighth day of the sixth month there shall be  a general election.

And the people said, Not another one. And they waxed wroth against the High Priestess and said, Didst thou not sware, even unto seven times, that thou wouldst not call a snap election?

And the High Priestess said, I know, I know. But Brexit is come upon us, and I must go into battle against the tribes of France, Germany, and sundry other holiday destinations. And I must put on the armour of a strong majority in the people’s house. Therefore go ye out and vote.

And there came from the temple pollsters, who said, Surely this woman shall flourish. For her enemy is as grass; she cutteth him down. He is as straw in the wind, and he will blow away. And the trumpet of her triumph shall sound in the land.

And the High Priestess said, Piece of cake.

And there came from the same country a prophet, whose name was Jeremy. His beard was as the pelt of beasts, and his raiments were not of the finest. And he cried aloud in the wilderness and said, Behold, I bring you hope.

And suddenly there was with him a host of young people. And he said unto them, Ye shall study and grow wise in all things, and I shall not ask ye for gold. And the sick shall be made well, and they also will heal freely. And he promised them all manner of goodly things.

And the young people said unto him, How shall these things be rendered, seeing that thou hast no money in thy purse?

And he spake unto them in a voice of sounding brass and said, Soak the rich. And again, Pull down the mighty from their seats.

And the young people went absolutely nuts.

And they hearkened unto the word of Jeremy, and believed. For they said unto themselves, Lo, he bringeth unto us the desire of our hearts. He cometh by bicycle, with a helmet upon his head. And he eateth neither flesh nor fowl, according to the Scriptures. for man cannot live by bread alone, but hummus is quite another matter.

And the High Priestess saw all these things and was sore. And she gathered unto her the chief scribes and the Pharisees and said unto them, What the hell is going on?

And they said unto her, It is a blip, as if it were a rough place along the road.

But they said unto themselves, When the government was upon her shoulders, this woman was mighty. But now that she has gone abroad unto every corner of the land, she stumbleth. For surely it is written that ruling and campaigning are as oil and water, and there shall be no concord betwixt them.

And the chief scribes wrote upon tablets, saying, Jeremy is false of tongue. He hideth wickedness in his heart. And his sums do not add up. And nobody paid attention.

And the elders rose up and said to the young people, If ye choose Jeremy, he will bring distress in your toils and wailing upon your streets. Do ye not remember the nineteen-seventies?

And the young people said, The what?

And the elders spoke again, and said to the young people, Beware, for he gave succour in days of yore to the IRA.

And the young people said, The what?

And the young people said, Jeremy shall bring peace unto all nations, for he hateth the engines of war that take wing across the heavens. And he showeth respect for all peoples, even unto the transgender community.

And the elders said, The what?

And it came to pass that the heathen of this land came among the people, with fire and sword, and slew many among the faithful. And great was the lamentation.

And the High Priestess waxed exceeding wroth and said to the people, Fear not. For I shall bind your wounds and give ye shelter from the heathen, and shall take up sword against them.

And there came again pollsters from the temple, who said, Will the people not vote for her in this hour of need?

And nobody paid attention.

And it came to the vote.

And the elders went up to vote, and the young people. And the young people were a multitude. And in the hours of darkness there was much counting. And the young people watched by night, and the elders went to bed.

And there came in the morning news that the High Priestess had vanquished the prophet Jeremy. But the triumph of the High Priestess was as the width of a nail. And she was vexed.

And the elders and the chief scribes and the Pharisees spoke among themselves, yea, even in the corners of their houses.

And there was great rejoicing amidst the multitude of the young. And they took strong wine, and did feast among themselves. And there were twelve baskets left over.

And of the pollsters there was no sign.

And the people saw Jeremy and said, Surely this man has won? Doth he not skip in gladness like  a young hart upon the hills?

And there was great murmuring among the elders. And they said unto themselves, Weep not. For the High Priestess doth but prepare the way. Cometh there not one who is greater than she?

And they said, Behold, for the hour of the redeemer is upon us. And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. And they cried in one voice, Boris.

And the people gave tongue, and made supplication unto the Lord, saying, Lord, let our cry come unto thee..

And the Lord thought the whole thing was absolutely hilarious.

And then the people said, Lord, what shall we do regarding Brexit? For henceforth the High Priestess shall be as weak as a newborn lamb. How shall we hope for continued access to the single market?

And the Lord said, The what?

[ Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, 9th June 2017]

Which is just about where we are now.

And here endeth the lesson.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, June 17th, 2017]