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Sunday, 25 September 2016

Preparing for the New Year with 'Alice in Wonderland'

...suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable in that: nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural)...

I guess you didn’t know that everything we need for the High Holy Days – spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, maybe even intellectually – everything we might need to guide us through these days, is on the opening page of Alice in Wonderland. Who would have imagined it?
As the story begins Alice is sitting on a river bank next to her sister who is reading a book ‘but it had no pictures or conversations in it’, writes Lewis Carroll, ‘ ”and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”’. Like the Anglican deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who knew a lot about having to engage with books without pictures and conversations – books of hymns, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer – Jews know what it means to be stuck with a book like that: the liturgy of the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement is thin on pictures and devoid of conversations - the very stuff that might make it come alive imaginatively. Who over these High Holy Days hasn’t unknowingly echoed Alice’s disappointed complaint?
Of course the Jewish liturgy does have pictures of a different kind – word pictures. There’s some vivid imagery:  a Book of Life, a Court of Law, a Judge and King waiting and reaching out to a chastened community, a searching community seeking forgiveness, atonement, wholeness; the closing of the gates as the souls rush to be included in the gathering of life as the final Neilah service draws to a close: these are the word pictures we play and wrestle with each year. But as for the conversation, it is a bit...let’s say, one-sided. We do a lot of talking, praying,  singing,  beseeching, repeating,  rehearsing the familiar stories and themes and motifs - but it’s basically a monologue, not a dialogue. It’s not really, hand on heart, a conversation.
To have HaKadosh Baruch Hu as a dialogue partner, the 'Holy One of Israel', is always going to be a daunting task. It’s not conversation as we know it, the kind of conversation that enlivens us, or stretches us, or provokes us, or nurtures us, or inspires us, or consoles us. Or am I being too harsh? Could we make it that? What would that look like? What would that feel like? If our machzor (prayer book) was a place, a space, for that kind of conversation? If our word-pictures helped us into that kind of conversation, the kind that we cherish? If our machzor opened up for us an imaginative space where we experienced something alive, a presence animating the space and the words? This is something to think about for these forthcoming days – how do we engage with the liturgy as if it’s part of a dynamic conversation? Is that possible?
Alice gives up with the book her sister is reading. She turns aside, ‘considering [things] in her own mind’ as Carroll puts it. She turns aside, turns inwards and  – like Moses at the burning bush – when she turns aside and turns inwards, she suddenly sees something: ...suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. High Holy Days is the time we turn aside, turn inwards, and try to see what’s there. We look around us and into ourselves and ask: What’s going on that we haven’t seen up till now? What’s the story that we are in? What’s the story our lives are part of? And who’s writing the story?
At this time of the year we are always encouraged to remember: “Days are scrolls, write on what you want to be remembered” (Bachya ibn Pakuda, 1050-1120). But there’s a partial illusion in this: I don’t think  we should get too carried away with thinking that we are the authors of our own lives. First of all it’s a statement that – like all the traditional liturgy itself – comes from an era that didn’t realise we have an unconscious, we have a part of ourselves that is out of conscious sight and control and can subvert our best intentions. Having an unconscious means that all this Jewish religious talk about free will and consciously changing ourselves through teshuvah needs to be treated with caution. Days may be scrolls - but a lot of the time the best we can do is write a few footnotes to the text that unfolds in front of us – I do love footnotes, mind you, they are sometimes the most creative part of a text.
The reality of our lives is that most of the time we are responding to stuff that comes at us. Stuff happens – to us or to the ones we love and care about -  and often it’s painful stuff. The things that appear in our lives are not always the things we want: ill-health, loss of a job, loss of a parent, or a partner, or a child, loss of a relationship. We might write our response, but we are always being reminded that we are part of a bigger picture of events that happen to us without our asking for them. This is the time of the year when we reflect on all this, and how we respond to what life throws at us. Sometimes of course there are wonderful things that happen to us, unexpectedly, and we feel grateful, we feel blessed. We do know when it feels good to be alive. Sometimes we glimpse how the world is tinged with the miraculous. We have our White Rabbit moments.
But don’t we also recognise, deep inside us, what Alice hears the Rabbit say to itself? :  Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”
I don’t think it is only a question of how old we are, that this question can be so powerful, so oppressive: the question of ‘too late’. I don’t think you have to be in your 60s, 70s, 80s to feel the force of this, I think you can feel it in your 20s and 30s, any age : ‘it’s too late’ – too late to find that special relationship, too late to have the family I want, or the friends, too late to have job satisfaction, too late to fulfil my ambitions, my hopes, too late to rid myself of my anxieties and fears, too late to learn a new language, a new skill, too late to exorcise the malign influence of my past, too late to heal that relationship, heal that old wound... “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” – we feel it as ‘it is too late’.
But what this period of the Jewish year that we are entering into says to us, promises us, is : it’s not too late. Not yet. That’s what the Talmud intuits when It tells us the story of Rabbi Eliezer, who says to his disciples ‘Repent one day before your death’ and they naturally respond to him: ‘Does that mean one is supposed to know when one will die?’ And Eliezer replies, in effect, ‘I think you get it: you don’t know how long you have in this world so you need to be attending to teshuvah – returning, changing - every day of your life.’  In other words: It’s never too late. It’s never too late for something to change – in us, to us.
Of course none of us lives each day as if it were our last – that would be sort of unbearable - but we have been gifted a period each year (these Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe) when we can focus on teshuvah, change: our capacity to change before it is too late. We may feel it’s too late – “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”, but we are entering a period when we are reminded: it’s not too late. It’s never ‘too late’.
I am focusing on the personal here, because that is at the heart of these days: ourselves as individuals and our capacity to change in such a way that our better selves are allowed to emerge, or have more room to grow. We as individuals are at the heart of  this collective call for change, for return; but the High Holy Days remind us that this call to change – and this question of ‘too lateness’ – is also collective.
We know that our lives, fragile and vulnerable as they are, are held in a web of connections to community, and nation, and the community of nations that exist on this fragile and vulnerable planet: concentric circles of interconnection that bind us in to the fabric of life on this planet. And this dilemma of ‘too lateness’ haunts the imagination. It echoes through each of these concentric circles.
Think of the issues we face as a Jewish community. Is it too late to save our Jewish community from being overwhelmed by the toxic spillage that has seeped into so much of the discourse in the public domain around Israel and the Palestinians? We are coming up this year to 50 years of occupation and it has had an effect, for two generations now, on how Jews are seen throughout the world. This isn’t fair but it is a reality we are aware of, even if we hate it being the case. Is it too late to change the flow of history in the Middle East? It laps onto our shores we just see as natural – synagogues with heavy security, CCTV cameras, shut away behind high walls... “when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural...”  But it’s not natural. And we need to wonder at this. Occupation is not natural. Injustice is not natural. Security guards checking us in and out is not natural. But is it all too late?
And what about our country? Is it too late for the United Kingdom? This year we have had to face the possibility that it is. That act of national self-harm that was Brexit has happened. Too late to change it. We have to live with the consequences. And find out nationally what it is not too late for, what can still change for the better.
And is it too late for the larger issues to be addressed in ways that are on the side of life, rather than death? Is it too late to solve creatively and compassionately the European humanitarian crisis over refugees and displaced families and children? Is it too late to stop the poisonous xenophobia and racism that is stalking every country in Europe from gradually taking over? Is it too late, now that the Arctic ice (as we heard this week) has shrunk to its smallest ever size, is it too late to change the rising of tides, the flooding of cities, the droughts and the floods and the food shortages that will overtake the planet this century as the temperatures keep on rising? 
All these questions are in play as we enter our New Year. “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Who knew that Alice in Wonderland was a prophetic text?
But lets’ come back to our little lives, our own hugely significant and insignificant lives. I have been asking: what should we be wondering at, that’s in front of our eyes in these concentric circles – but don’t wonder at, just grow accustomed to, just treat as natural, the way things are, even though they aren’t  natural. I want to end though by turning this marvellous sentence by Lewis Carroll in the other direction, closer to his intention perhaps: “when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural...” What should we be reflecting on that we take for granted - but should in fact be a source of wonder?
What do we fail to see in front of our eyes – Alice saw her White Rabbit, Moses saw his burning bush – but what do we fail to see that is an intimation of something exceptional, something made present that can inspire, can enlighten, can illumine, can transform, can enliven and stir us in our lives? These High Holy Days are a special opportunity for opening our eyes – to see something we have never seen before.
What is our White Rabbit going to be? Which direction will it come from? Who will bring it? What shape will it be? Who will be it? What will this new insight look like? This new understanding? What is going to be revealed to us, in us? The promise of these days, these weeks in front of us, is that something will occur, something will appear – only we as individuals will see it, only we will notice it, each one of us -  because it is only for us. If, like Alice, we turn aside, turn inwards, it will happened:  something new will be given to us, something that stirs our imagination, our hopefulness, our resolve, something that counters our deep fear “I shall be too late”  – no wonder the rabbis called this period the ‘Days of Awe’.
[based on a Selichot sermon given on the evning of September 24th 2016 at the Finchley Reform Synagogue, London]

 

 

Monday, 8 August 2016

"What Is Essential Is Invisible To The Eye"

‘The Little Prince’  (Le Petit Prince), by the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was published in 1943, a year before the author’s death  -  he was probably shot down during a reconnaissance mission for the French Air Force. It’s a poetic tale, simply told, in which a pilot stranded in the desert (desert settings are a staple of the Torah narratives too) meets a young prince who has fallen to Earth from a tiny asteroid.

The story is a philosophical allegory about the search for love, for relationships that matter, for inner peace – and about the complications that arise in all those human enterprises. One of the key ‘messages’ of the tale is uttered by a fox, who meets the young prince during his travels on Earth, and eventually tells him : "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes."
Simplistic and sentimental as this may seem, we could call this a very ‘Jewish’ insight; or at least - Saint-Exupéry was not Jewish – an insight that resonates strongly with a Jewish religious and spiritual understanding. After all, this is how our storytellers in the Torah present the dilemma for the Hebrew people – a dilemma they faced from the wilderness days until today: if you have a God, a divine force, an energy that animates all being, that cannot be seen, cannot be pictured – except in words – then what is essential is indeed ‘invisible to the eyes’.
This text from ‘The Little Prince’ came to mind when I looked at the section of the Torah we were to read this week: Numbers 33. On the surface it seemed a rather dreary list of place names – there are 42 in the chapter – starting with Ramses in Egypt before the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and finishing in Moab, at the edge of the Jordan river, opposite Jericho. But as we read the verses we notice that it isn’t a mere route map – in places we are given tiny vignettes that jog the historical memory. So Ramses isn’t just the start of the journey, it’s the place they left as the Egyptians are still burying their first-born (33:4), a poignant reminder of the cost of the Exodus in human lives, and a stern reminder that the God of Israel is not only a force for redemption and liberation but is also portrayed as  a destructive force as well - something the people came to discover to their own cost during their 40 years wandering. 
In addition, there’s the reminder that the people left Egypt defiantly, ‘high-handedly’ – b’yad rama (33:3) – and we realize that what is being recoded here for the next generation isn’t just a dry list, an itinerary of stops on a journey, but a series of reminiscences, memory-bursts of historical moments, triggered by the geographical locations.
And we know – though the text don’t mention it – that this is an historical and geographical record for a generation who weren’t there at the beginning of the journey. Only Joshua and Caleb of the previous generation survive the wilderness years. Once Moses dies, as he will before the people cross over the Jordan, those two are the only ones who hold the collective memory of the people, a people for whom ‘Egypt’ is already a mythic event.
And we realize that is this what happens in every generation – events in the past slip over the horizon of time behind us and disappear from active memory. This has happened recently to the First World War – we have film and diaries and letters, of course, but nobody who holds it inside themselves any more as a lived experience: ‘I was there, I saw this, I felt this’.  This will happen quite soon – 20 years or so? - to the Holocaust. What is essential becomes invisible to the eyes.
And so we have our list in chapter 33, each place bearing a memory, but most of the memories passed over in silence. Then suddenly a detail is added – Elim, we hear, is the place of 12 springs and 70 palm trees (33:9):  symbolically, one spring for each tribe and one palm tree for each of the 70 elders mentioned in the Torah texts (Exodus 24:1; Numbers 11:25). So these incidental details open up windows onto larger horizons of the people’s experience.
But for me what is most striking – and this takes us back to our quotation from  Saint-Exupéry – is what isn’t mentioned in this text which describes a written record of the desert journey being composed for posterity. An experience you might have thought was ‘essential’, but ‘invisible to the eye’. And that is what happened at Mt. Sinai. Between verse 15 and verse 16 there is a large narrative and experiential hole. ‘They set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai and they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kivroth-Hattavah’ (33: 15-16). 
The whole purpose of the Exodus, the whole focus of Israelite history, was not just to free a group of slaves and give them a place of their own in the sun, but to give them a vision and a purpose – to enact a moral and ethical and cultural and social way of being, inspired by principles of justice and compassion. They were to be a people with a spiritual destiny, a collective mission, to bring a blessing to humanity, to be a blessing. This is what the revelation at Sinai was about: Torah, teaching, a way of life, a purpose to be lived out, striven for, from generation to generation.
And what do we hear about it in this detailed listing of the desert journeying? ‘They set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai and they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kivroth-Hattavah’. Nothing. Not a murmur. Silence. How come?
I couldn’t find a single traditional commentator who questions this, or even comments on it. Even the great medieval commentator Rashi is silent. Modern commentators sometimes note it but have almost nothing to say about it: the doyen of Biblical scholars Robert Alter acknowledges it, saying it is ‘surprising’ (‘The Five Books of Moses’, p.853) – but he doesn’t offer any insight into why it isn’t mentioned. 
The commentary in the American Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim chumash offers this considered view (p.955): ‘The narrative omits the war with Amalek at Rephidim as well as the manna at Sin, the revelation at Sinai, and other notable events of the wilderness trek. These events were so well known that they did not need to be repeated’ (my italics added). Are we prepared to be satisfied by that?  The American Reform Torah commentary says something almost identical: ‘Perhaps these events were so well known they did not need a special note’(p.1234). Not just inelegantly phrased but, along with the Conservative version, one of the weakest so-called ‘explanations’ you will ever hear for such a significant puzzle in the Torah.
We need to keep this question alive. Why is the revelation at Sinai passed over in silence? As if it hadn’t happened. As if it is a secret wound. As if it were better to avert one’s gaze. As if there is nothing to be said. As if there’s nothing to be done. As if darkness were preferable to light. As if silence was more comforting that knowledge.  As if what is essential must remain invisible to the eye. As if the heart knows something that the mind represses, refuses to grasp.  As if revelation is too painful. As if the word of God cannot be borne. As if Torah is trauma.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry disappeared over the Mediterranean in July 1944. I said earlier that he was probably shot down, by the Luftwaffe, but nobody knows for certain. He just disappeared, his body was never found. Fifty four years later, in September 1998, a fisherman found a silver identity bracelet off the coast of Marseille, bearing the name of Saint-Exupéry and his wife. Puzzlingly, it was far from his intended flight path. Two years later, parts of his plane were discovered on the sea-bed nearby and three years later the French government allowed the plane’s remnants to be recovered and put on display.  But what actually happened to this aviator-storyteller nobody knows, or will ever know. What we have, and can know, are his words.  His mysterious death exemplifies those tantalizing words : "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes."
We will never know about the mystery of Sinai. What happened. Whether anything happened. Whether the silence of Numbers 33 contains a profound truth about an event that exists only in words, in story, in the heart of the Jewish people. As if it were a dream, where we see clearly, but on awakening realize that what we have seen cannot bear the light of day. That we cannot bear it in the light of day.
Something was revealed - and our lives depend on it. Something was revealed, invisible to the eyes, and we go on speaking about it - though it is lost forever. The Torah - like the identity-bracelet, like the relics of a crashed plane - is all we have left, as an aide-mémoireaide-mémoire. The Torah reminds us: something can be too painful, or awesome, to keep in mind. For better, or worse, "What is essential is invisible to the eyes."

[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, August 6th, 2016]

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Brexit: - and 40 years in the wilderness

Friday morning, when I woke up and looked outside, it was a beautiful morning:  the deluge of Thursday’s rain-storms had passed, and there was a luminous soft blue summer sky, and birdsong and a warmth in the air. And on any other day I might have experienced this with gratitude, as a blessing; on any other day I might have turned over in my mind the words of our greatest writer, the words put into John of Gaunt’s mouth in Richard II:

“This happy breed of men, this little world/This precious stone set in the silver sea...Against the envy of less happy lands,/ This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
On any other day I would have ignored the propaganda encoded in the patriotism of the speech and just appreciated the beauty of the language mirroring the beauty of the day and the feeling of it being good to be alive, ‘Now and in England.’ [T.S.Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets]. But Friday was not any other day. On Friday, when I woke and had the overnight news confirmed, I just felt sick at heart – a mixture of upset and anger and bitterness and (if truth be told) more than a smattering of contempt for the Brexiters, who in my mind are represented (in their crudest incarnation) by those tanked-up English football fans who have been going round France this month singing (to the tune of 10 Green Bottles) about ‘Ten German bombers’ shot down by heroic British pilots, followed by the chant ‘Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out’. (Never mind the irony that over 10% of the pilots fighting in the Battle of Britain were Polish or Czech – historical amnesia has been entrenched in this Referendum campaign.) 
I’m not proud of my class-based disdain – but I recognise it within that swirling mix of feelings from Friday morning.  Contempt and disdain is a way we all have of dealing with indigestible painful feelings. And part of the pain I was feeling was, I suppose, the pain of loss – the loss of a particular vision of a European identity and culture that I value, and that I value the UK being part of.
Maybe the lines that I needed to express this pain and sadness and sense of loss were those also put by Shakespeare into John of Gaunt’s mouth: “That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
I do feel a deep sorrow about ‘The Road Not Taken’ – like in Robert Frost’s poem from 1916, we as a nation will never come back to that fork in the road, this historical moment in 2016 when ‘two roads diverged in a wood’; we won’t now be able to take a different route from the populist-driven road that we have been marched into - towards who knows what for us, and our children, and our children’s children?
This isn’t just sorrow for myself, it’s a deep sadness for our young people, who voted overwhelmingly for Remain – apparently more than 75% of 18-25s. They knew better than to succumb to bigotry – the antipathy to foreigners , those on the Continent or those living amongst us. They knew what the best voices in our culture knew and always have known, that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” [John Donne, ‘Devotions upon Emergent Occasions’, 1624]. That’s a small-c ‘continent’ that Donne is writing about. But the resonance of his imagery transcends time and space and speaks to us now – as our young people appreciated when they voted. The fantasy of a self-contained, self-sufficient existence, separated from others  is just that, a fantasy. John Donne knew that as both an MP and a clergyman (he was Dean of St.Paul’s).
We woke up on Friday a divided kingdom, a very dis-United Kingdom. And the challenge now - a challenge for politicians, for all sectors of the community, including religious communities - is to ensure that the ethos of John Donne’s lines is heeded: we need to nurture the spirit and culture of human connection, and inter-connection, to hold to our better selves in order to keep the toxic forces of nationalism and racism at bay. Those powerful, regressive forces of hatred and aggression that led to the tragic death of John Donne’s successor as an MP, Jo Cox, have been unleashed in this campaign – and when they are mixed up with nostalgia for a mythic past, the wished-for return of a non-existent past, well, these forces of un-reason can turn a people very ugly indeed.
You don’t have to look further than our Torah portion this week (Numbers 13-14) to see this illustrated. It’s a strange co-incidence that this week’s sedrah  contains so many of the themes that we are seeing enacted around us. But then, as the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “co-incidence is not a kosher word” – from a Jewish perspective certain events can be seen to come together in inherently meaningful ways. They are ‘beshert’ - the Yiddish word best expresses it - ‘meant to be’. I am not saying (of course) that Brexit was beshert, but that the vote this week resonates with our own Jewish story in uncomfortable and disturbing ways. 
We saw in our text how a national group, the Children of Israel, when faced with the uncertainties of a long journey to a promised land, become filled with fear by the reports of the 10 spies. Even though the spies bring back grapes and pomegranates and figs (it’s like loading up your car with French wine and cheeses to enjoy at home), and they acknowledge that the place is “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27) – this is how it’s been advertised to them ,and the analogy would be to a travel brochure for a Continental holiday - they then proceed to offer an exaggerated account about the terrible foreigners who live there: how crowded it is, how powerful they seem (like Brussels), and then the spies drop into their account a mention of the old enemy Amalek, whom the Israelites have already done battle with (they play the role in the nBiblical arrative that historically Germany has done in our national post-War narrative). 
And as soon as Caleb steps forward and offers another view, a more positive view, he’s shouted down and the mood turns ugly. The text says that the no-sayers then conjure up a deliberately malicious report – dibat ha-aretz (13:32), the Hebrew word means ‘defamatory’: the land “eats up its inhabitants” – it’s how the Brexiters talked about the Greeks consumed by debts, the European banks eating them up. The people are of “great stature” – like that dragon woman Mrs Merkel. “And we caught sight of those ancient giants the Nephilim, bnei Anak’ (13:33) : this is a classic tactic - scare the people with pictures of being overwhelmed by old enemies: in the Brexit campaign this role was  assigned to the Turks.
It’s brilliantly-composed archetypal propaganda that the Biblical narrators offer us - put into the mouths of the 10 spies. And then the coup de grace – if we are allowed to use a French expression now in good old England – “we seemed in our own eyes to be like grasshoppers, and that’s how they saw us.” (13:33). The spies’ Project Fear is complete.
And it works. The people are terrified. They think: why would we want to go there? Why would we want to join up with them? And the ancient tropes – “our wives and children would become prey”, they say (14:3) – are just those we heard from that grinning buffoon Farage with his scaremongering about rapists and murderers having free access to our shores. And the solution to such fear – then and now – is the retreat into a nostalgia for the good old days – “let’s go back to Egypt” (14:3). “Let us find a leader and let us return to the land we knew – Egypt” (14:4). Give us back our country.
The tragedy for the children of Israel is that this response seals the fate of that generation. God recognises that they are still slaves in their hearts: they have a slave mentality even though they have been liberated from the house of slavery. Brexiters were enslaved by the lies and half-truths of Farage and Johnson and the Daily Mail and the Daily Express - and we are all the poorer because of it. In the Biblical account that whole generation have to die out before a more hope-filled generation can take over: the generation of Joshua and Caleb.
In the Biblical text we are in the second year of what turns out to be a 40 year wandering in the wilderness. We think these numbers are mythic – and they are. But there are moments that transcend time when the wisdom of the past pierces the pretensions and illusions of today. This week, after this vote, I sense the resonance and power of that 40 years.
We were in the EU for 40 years – and, in spite of its limitations, we gained more from it than most people ever realised. And now we are out of it, and having to start again - and it may take another 40 years to recover from what we have just done. It’s going to be, I fear, a long and painful journey, bamidbar, in the wilderness. “That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 25th 2016]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Saying Yes to Europe

Who is in? And who is out? Who remains – and who leaves? Who belongs – and who doesn’t belong? Who is included – and who is excluded: thrust ‘outside the camp’, so to speak?  Mi’chutz la’machane (Numbers 5: 3-4). Every group, every tribe, every community, every nation – throughout history  – asks this question, seems to need to ask this question, from time to time. It’s fundamental  to how groups experience themselves: the very identity of the group is seen to be at stake in this question:  are you part of ‘us’? or are you part of ‘them’?

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the identity of religious groups, political groups, family groups, social or cultural groups, ethnic groups, national groups, international groups – the same core questions keep arising: Who is in? And who is out? Who remains – and who has to leave, or wants to leave? 
And once you start asking this set of questions you realise that there’s another set of  questions fused to them: it isn’t just who is in and who is out. It’s who decides who is in and who is out, who decides who remains and who leaves? And also: who makes up the rules in the first place? and who administers the rules, who polices the rules? So issues about identity are fused with issues about authority.
In Judaism, traditionally, rabbis decided who belonged and who couldn’t belong. It was through the maternal line; or through a conversion process and a Beth Din. And it wasn’t too complicated. In Britain nowadays, there are complex government procedures to determine who is a British citizen and who can’t have a British passport. Every group – from synagogues to golf clubs to nation states – has their rules as to who is allowed to belong and who is defined as ‘not one of us’.
Of course in Judaism, what for 1800 years was a straightforward question about belonging has in the recent past become much more problematic . Because now the old question of defining who is a Jew has been replaced by the question ‘Who is a rabbi?’ – who has the authority to decide who is in and who is out? Is it Orthodoxy, or Reform, or the Chief Rabbinate in Israel? And is that the Ashkenazi rabbinate or the Sephardi rabbinate? Whether you belong or don’t belong to any club is all about the authority of who is doing the asking and who makes up the rules, and who polices the rules. This is how questions of identity and questions of authority become fused. And confused.  
This week we read in the Torah a rather simplified picture about this question of belonging or not belonging.  As the people of Israel start off on their great journey through the desert, with the Sanctuary in their midst, certain people are set apart: they aren’t left behind, but they aren’t allowed to remain in the body of the community, they are judged to be blemished, or tainted in some way – temporarily – and are excluded. Those with  indecorous, anxiety-producing skin-conditions, and those in recent contact with a corpse (Numbers 5:2) – they are excluded.  And who decides this? Who has the authority over this, and administers the system?  It’s the priests, the cohanim. 
The symbolic purity of the group – those who belong, those who are part of ‘us’ – can only be maintained by having a group who are not ‘us’, who have to be quarantined as ‘other’ than us. It’s as though if ‘we’ and ‘they’ were allowed to rub shoulders together, as it were, something nasty might happen. It’d not just be confusing, but dangerous.
You can see a fantasy in play that something would happen to the community’s sense of itself if ‘we’ and ‘they’ got mixed up together. In any group, mixing too freely with those thought of as ‘other’ - and managing the differences that arise - is often seen to be too threatening : either to our inner sense of who we are, or who our group is, or our country.  The moral, or material, well-being of our group is felt to be at risk; or our physical health; or our ‘cultural’ health. Sometimes it’s our very freedom that is felt to be at stake – or our ‘sovereignty’. 
You can tell what I am pre-occupied with at the moment. Rumour has it that a rather big question about our country’s future is on the horizon. As we drift towards this fateful day when we will decide whether to remain or to leave the European Union, the seas are quite choppy, turbulent. These are not calm waters we are floating in. Some people in the boat are struggling to row us in to the shore – and others are just as furiously trying to keep us from, as they see it, crashing onto the rocks.
Closeness – or distance: which do we want? We know that beyond Europe there are storms brewing, the global weather is unsettled in unprecedented ways - and I’m talking economic uncertainty and political upheavals as well as environmentally  -  and the question is: are we going to be safer in the harbour next to the shore – or safer further removed, adrift from the mainland.
It probably won’t surprise you that I am going to vote Remain. There are many reasons for this but I want here to say something of how my Yes is informed by my understanding of Judaism, and Jewish values. You might not think that this is a decision in which Jewishness makes any difference to your vote  - but I do think there is a Jewish perspective on the referendum.
For me, it consists of two parts. The first is historical, the second is ethical -though the two parts intersect, as they often do in Judaism. If you are Jewish and reading this I’d imagine that most of you have your roots in Europe, one, two, three, four generations ago: Central or Eastern Europe, or what are now the Baltic States, or Western Europe (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain) – this is where our roots are, historically. And although Europe has been the home of longstanding anti-Semitism against Jews – which is possibly why our predecessors left their countries of origin and sought a new life in this country – European Jews have always had a sense of belonging to a trans-national community. They were loyal citizens of their host community but aware of a larger identity, and the strength that comes from a larger identity of belonging.
You could go into any synagogue in any country of Europe, wherever the borders were and however often those borders changed over the centuries, and you would find a home, be at home. You were at home in the community as a Jew, you were at home in the texts, you were at home in the liturgy, you were at home in a shared identity, a shared history, a shared set of values that did not depend on nationality, but on your trans-national identity as Jew. You could open your page of Talmud in any community you visited and there was the same text: and side by side on the page - the design of which was laid out in Venice - was the Rashi commentary written in France, next to the Ibn Ezra commentary written in Spain, which nestles next to commentators from Vilna and Germany. The Talmud was a Euro-text centuries before the European Union was dreamed up.
This is just one way in which Ashkenazi Jews are historically, in their bones, in their souls, part of a wider European consciousness.  We in the Reform movement have inherited that European identity in our liturgy – open the pages of the Shabbat prayer book, or the High Holy Day prayer book, and you find representatives of almost every European country past and present in its pages and in its anthologies: Franz Kafka from Prague sits next to Freud and Herzl from Vienna, next to Germany’s Moses Mendelssohn and Glueckel of Hameln, and the UK’s Louis Jacobs and the eastern European Hasidic masters rub shoulders with Spain’s Judah Ha-Levi.
Jews were originally known as Ivrim – Hebrews: the word, just to remind you, is from the verb ‘to cross over’, to cross boundaries, ‘to migrate’. Jews are those who live in countries with boundaries but know no boundaries in their hearts. Proud in the sovereignty of our separate identity we diasporic Jews glory in the way in which that identity is not limited by nationality: we know that to belong to something larger, more collective, something that transcends the insular, is a source of strength not something to fear.
Take the example of the Rothschild family: since the 1760s, when Mayer Amschel Rothschild established his banking business in Germany and through his five sons instituted a revolutionary international banking system embracing London, Paris, Naples, Frankfurt  and Vienna, diaspora Jews have recognized the economic, social and political limitations of nationalism.
All of this is second nature to Jewish self-perception, all of the above is part of the historical case for saying Yes as a Jew to Europe – it’s historical, it’s spiritual, it’s psychological, all together. It’s ingrained in our heritage. This is where we belong.
And that’s leaving aside the more obvious historical rationale: that 70 years ago, from the midst of the rubble and ruin and wretchedness of a devastated continent, a grand vision arose: to ''make war unthinkable and materially impossible''. Nationalism had proved a dead end, literally and metaphorically. The dream of a supra-national union of states based on close economic ties and treaties was born. It was an extraordinary and moving vision of a way of living together peacefully with our differences.
I feel blessed that I am part of a generation - and have seen the next two generations grow up – freed from the terrible burden of war. After the bloodshed of the 20th century it is no small thing that the European Union has ensured that no blood has been spilled between its members.  Nobody has had to die because of ancient or nationalistic hatreds. If Yugoslavia had been part of the European Union twenty-five years ago we would not have had a Bosnian war with all its suffering.
And it’s not part of so-called ‘Project Fear’ to recognise that the breakup of the European Union becomes more likely if the UK leaves than if it stays. To say nothing of the breakup of the UK itself. If someone is wanting to jump off a cliff and their friend described the consequences of doing that, you wouldn’t respond: ‘Oh you’re just trying to frighten them!’
God knows, there are multiple ways in which the EU is a flawed arrangement -  but informed scepticism about the limitations of this complex  transnational project can be combined with a commitment to adhering to the vision that inspired its founders. Are we really as a nation going to cut ourselves adrift from the protections that accrue from belonging to this club – of human rights, employment rights and the rest – along with the benefits of trans-national co-operation on terrorism, the environment, scientific research, cultural projects, and so on?  Maybe we are. Maybe the anti-establishment rage that is fuelling American politics, channeled through Donald Trump, will win the day here.
The UK is simmering with anger and frustration: social grievances that successive governments here have failed to address are leading to much bitterness over the lack of affordable housing, the decline in secure jobs, and underfunded public services (the NHS and mental health services, schools, social care for the elderly, the disabled). And in relation to all of these grievances, symptoms of a felt sense of deprivation, or a decline in the quality of living – there isn’t  a single one of them that can’t be blamed on immigrants.  And this is where , from a Jewish perspective, history and ethics/moral values, intersect.
Swirling around Europe, with a toxicity that has become part of this Referendum debate here, are strands of xenophobia. It is most obvious in France and Hungary and Austria and Denmark - but that anger against immigrants is being stoked up here too. And a Jewish contribution to this debate is to call out the fraudulence of this. We Jews who have eyes thousands of years old and know how minority groups can become the scapegoats for social ills, the victims for prejudices and hatreds which have nothing to do with them, and everything to do with governments who fail to care for the well-being of poor and rich alike, we Jews have the experience and the insight to see it when it is happening. And it is happening in this Referendum debate.
Issues to do with immigration have become a very convenient framework narrative to speak about economic and social insecurities. It’s the prism through which Farage and the Daily Mail (amongst others) see everything. People’s  insecurities are real – and need to be addressed – but blaming immigrants for them is morally suspect, and thinking you can protect yourself from these insecurities by isolating yourself  from the rest of Europe is just deluded thinking.
But once this virus of prejudice is released in a society and legitimized as just another aspect of a national debate, it won’t just go away - whichever way the vote goes.  The ancient Hebrews had rams they could sacrifice, to gain atonement for wrongdoing committed against fellow human beings (Numbers 5: 8). We as a society no longer have the rituals to atone for such wrongs. We have different collective rituals – voting is one of them – but whichever way this vote does go, it won’t deal with  the ‘sins’ this Referendum campaign has unleashed. And we are all impoverished by that.
[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 11th 2016]
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Postscript
On Shavuot, the symbolic commemoration of the giving of the 10 Commandments, here are 10 reasons to say Yes to Europe.:
Certain problems and threats we face as a country can only be addressed through working closely with others:
1) climate change and the collapse of eco-systems
2) terrorism
3) health issues to do with epidemics, smoking, obesity, diabetes, alcohol, air pollution
4)antibiotic resistance research
5) limiting the power of transnational corporations to further enlarge the gap between rich and poor
6) The humanitarian crisis concerning refugees in Europe can’t be addressed by closing our borders
7) Objective views of the economic benefits of remaining seem comprehensive
8) The protection of employment rights
9) The protection of human rights through the European Court of Human Rights
10) cultural and educational projects that depend on the free movement of European and UK citizens
 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Did Hitler “support Zionism”?

This week London is holding, for the fifth time, elections for the prestigious political job of Mayor of London.  Ken Livingstone won the first two of these elections: 2000 and 2004. A staunch left-winger, he stood twice more and was defeated on each occasion: 2008 and 2012. So this week is the first time he has not been involved, not been the intense focus of media and public attention and speculation. Except that he has found a way – the unconscious is such a devious vehicle for our hidden desires! – to ensure that he is still dominating the news.

In  a classic piece of unconscious attention-seeking he found himself on the radio defending Labour MP, Naz Shah, who had been suspended by the party for anti-Zionist remarks on social media (before she was a MP) that Israel should be “re-located”  and their people “transported” to the United States. It would save the US money, you see.
Now I don’t hold to the view that all anti-Zionist remarks are necessarily anti-semitic. By ‘anti-Zionist’ I mean: critical of, or antagonistic to, the policies and actions  - historically and in the present - of various governments of the State of Israel. But to my mind such anti-Zionist views shade into anti-semitism  when there is a wish to de-legitimise the very existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people: such a view makes Jews into the only people who are not permitted to have a  self-determining existence as a nation state. Thus the rhetoric of anti-Zionism can hide, or mask, anti-semitism. And such hiding or masking of deeper-seated anti-semitic feelings (i.e. anti-Jewish feelings) can be consciously done - or it may not even be conscious for the one holding ‘anti-Zionist’ views.
Naz Shah’s remarks are hard to defend as anything other than anti-semitic. Her use of the vocabulary of “transportation” is particularly chilling to Jewish ears. But Ken Livingstone, while admitting that her views were “over the top”, denied that Naz Shah was anti-semitic. This is actually an interesting test case as to what we mean by ‘anti-semitic’, for now that she is an MP, in Bradford, Ms. Shah apparently has very good relationships with the Jewish community. Can someone who can say, as it were and un-ironically, ‘some of my best friends are Jews’ still be anti-semitic? I suppose so, because while any of us might have warm individual relationships with other people we perceive as ‘other’ than us, we can still harbour prejudices and antipathies to whatever group they belong to; and that group could be an ethnic, sexual or national group. This is part of what it means to be human – to be contradictory, to be a composite of different, sometimes mutually opposing, views and feelings and impulses.
Part of the difficulty of discussing these issues of anti-semitism and anti-Zionism is that acknowledgement of the unconscious, and the tendency for all of us to be holding within us contradictory views and feelings, rarely figures as part of our public conversation. Psychological complexity goes by the board as everything is reduced to simplicities and essentialist formulations like ‘she’s an antisemite’, ‘he’s a monster’, ‘they are crazy’. But things – and people – are rarely that black and white.
Let me return to Ken Livingstone.  After defending Naz Shah, he seemed to become bewitched by his own rhetoric and proceeded to utter remarks that have stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy - and have led to his own suspension (not for the first time) from the Labour party. “Let’s remember”, he said, “when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews”.
Livingstone has subsequently defended these gratuitous remarks as “historical fact”. Which is bizarre, given that each of the separate parts of that sentence - other than the last phrase - is incorrect.
Let’s start with Hitler’s so-called ‘election’: there were in fact four major elections in Germany in 1932, none of which Hitler ‘won’ – there were 2 rounds of Presidential elections, in both of which Hitler was defeated by Paul von Hindenburg; in the Federal election of July 1932, the Nazi party gained more seats than other parties but didn’t have a majority, leading to a minority government led by Franz von Papen; in the Federal election of November 1932, the Nazi party saw a significant drop in both votes and seats. So Hitler never won an election in 1932. In January 1933 the weakened 84-year old President von Hindenburg made Adolf Hitler Chancellor. Following a systemic campaign of terror and suppression directed at other political parties, particularly the communists, Hitler then ‘won’ 43% of the vote in the subsequent March 1933 Federal election - which still necessitated a coalition in order to rule.  
Secondly, the statement that Hitler believed that “Jews should be moved to Israel” might be Livingstone’s  shorthand way of speaking, but is of course a historical absurdity as even he must know: Israel did not come into being until – following the UN’s Partition Plan for Palestine of November 1947 (Resolution 181) - the State of Israel was declared on 14th May, 1948. 
But of course most controversial of all – a piece of polemic that he must have known would engage and enrage his audience (which these days, with 24/7 news, includes us all) – is the statement that Hitler “was supporting Zionism”. What on earth does Livingstone think is the “historical fact” behind that?  As he hasn’t said, I can only surmise.
 If you do a bit of digging in the history books you can read about the so-called ‘Ha’avara (Transfer) Agreement’ signed between Nazi Germany and the Zionist Federation of Germany on 25th August 1933. This was designed to facilitate the transfer of German Jews to Palestine. German Jews gave up their possessions to the government before departing for Palestine,  having paid the equivalent of £1000 into the Anglo-Palestine Bank (which was under the direction of the Jewish Agency in Palestine).This money which could then be used to buy back their goods and have them transferred to Palestine as German export goods.
This agreement was, inevitably, controversial at the time: it was criticised by many Jewish leaders, both in the Zionist movement and outside it, and Hitler’s support of it seems unclear, veering from criticism at the beginning to support in the period 1937-9. Is this what Livingstone means when he said that Hitler “was supporting Zionism”?  If so, then by Livingstone’s confused and devious logic, Donald Trump’s call for 11 million unregistered Mexicans to be returned – ‘transferred’ – back to Mexico could be described as evidence for him being a pro-Mexico patriot and supporter. Or as commentator Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian in regard to Livingstone’s “garbled and insulting” version of history: it’s “as if there is any moral comparison between wishing to inflict mass expulsion on a minority and the desire to build a thriving society where that minority might live.”
Of course what underlies Livingstone’s bombastic and egregious comments is his wish to set up a moral comparison between Nazism and Israel (and its alleged ‘war crimes’). It could be argued that it is not overtly anti-semitic to make this comparison: I was shocked to read 25 years ago about the way in which soldiers in the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] routinely described their activities in the occupied territories by using - with bitter and self-knowing irony - Nazi vocabulary such as going out on an Aktion (see Ari  Shavit’s On Gaza Beach, New York Review of Books, July 18th, 1991). But Livingstone’s tarring of Israel with the brush of Nazism is a regular and depressing trope of ideologically-rigid leftist rhetoric as well as some strands of Islamist-inspired Muslim prejudice.
What leads me to the last error in Livingstone’s polemical sentence. His belief that the murder of 6 million Jews happened because Hitler “went mad”. This betrays, sadly but significantly, a real blind-spot in Livingstone’s thinking. For it was not a mental aberration that led to genocide. It was the cold and calculated result of an ideology. The logic of Nazi Aryan ideology required the extinction of ‘inferior’ classes of people: Jews, the mentally handicapped, the disabled, and so on.  (Too rigid belief-systems are forms of cruelty – the one who suffers may be the believer themselves, but more often someone else has to suffer). That Livingstone can’t see that it was the pernicious effects of an ideology that led to mass murder – and not one man’s mental derangement – is a reflection of his own lack of insight about the destructive nature of so much ideological political thinking, including his own.
A final word. Livingstone’s reckless display of his own unconscious antisemitism may have damaged the chances of the Labour candidate for Mayor, the liberal Muslim Sadiq Khan, a decent man who has had to endure from some quarters a semi-racist and Islamophobic campaign against him. If it has, then Livingstone can enjoy his – what shall we call it? – perhaps schadenfreude is the necessary word in this context.  If he can’t be London Mayor, no other Labour candidate can be allowed to. That remains to be seen.
But what is clearer is that in the presence of Livingstone-like hostility to the Jewish State, inflected with stands of antisemitic discourse, it becomes harder for Jews to continue undauntedly to express their loving concern about Israel’s ongoing failure to correct the historic injustices of the  nearly 50-year occupation of Palestinian lands, the systematic daily brutalisation of Palestinians that is a consequence of occupation, and their intransigence in relation to agreeing to a two-state solution and an independent Palestine.  Yet for Jews  the moral case for the existence of a Jewish State and the moral critique of the existing State will continue to go hand in hand.

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For those who are interested in these issues
there is an interview with me available from BBC London’s Sunday morning ‘In Spirit’ programme. Go to :


You can find it at 02:11:10 into the programme. 
 
This may not be available outside the UK

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Is Illness Linked to Moral Failings?

 There is a well-known rabbinic saying about the Torah – in Pirkei Avot [‘The Ethics of the Fathers’] it’s credited to Hillel’s disciple, Ben Bag Bag from the 1st century – ‘Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it’ (5:25). Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘everything’.  You could think of a million things that aren’t in it, from the EU referendum to smart phones, from Mozart to Premier League football. So what he seems to mean, Ben Bag Bag, must be something rather different.

Maybe what he was trying to say was something like this : whatever  situation you face in life you can find it addressed in Torah, if you search long and hard enough. Family dynamics, between husbands and wives, or parents and children, or sibling relationships; social dynamics  - how you structure a society in terms of justice and equality and relationships between people, both neighbours and strangers; how you deal with creating a moral framework for living, learning to distinguish between good and bad actions; how you deal with psychological dynamics: guilt, forgiveness, envy, jealousy,  possessiveness, sexual desire, aggression...; how you deal with the structure of a life, one’s life cycle: birth, marriage, divorce, health and disease, ageing, death; how you form a collective identity as a people through festivals and celebrations and rituals, through singing and memorializing and story-telling.

From this perspective, the Torah is a set of texts that in one way or another speak about ‘everything’ you might experience: from the foods you eat to the clothes you wear to the money you spend to the historical memories you retain. And if it doesn’t seem to cover it, what Ben Bag Bag is intimating is that those who study these texts, the rabbis, will turn the texts inside out, and upside down, and dig and dig until they, the rabbis, will discover whatever they need to address a real-life situation.

He is suggesting that the text of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible as a whole is infinitely rich, and fertile - and our human ingenuity and creativity and imagination can make anything out of it, discover anything in it. The Torah becomes a kind of Rorschach test, a Rorschach text, where we will find in it whatever we want to find: we will see patterns and themes and ideas, we will see in it whatever we want to see, layer after layer of sacred truths. And although the rabbis of tradition would have said that they were discovering what was already implicitly there, we could also say that they were projecting onto the text their own contemporary views and values and needs. But whichever way you see it, this has been the Jewish way, for two millennia, to turn it and turn it, and keep on discovering new everythings that are in it, or suggested by it.

So when the rabbinic commentators through the ages were faced with the chapters we read this week, Metzorah (Leviticus 14+15), they were quick to dig beneath the original, primary meaning of its opening verses – how to re-integrate into society someone who was temporarily afflicted with a physical skin condition that made them unfit to remain in the body of the community. They diverted their attention away from the literal meaning – not least because the institutional setting of the Temple with the priesthood and the offerings  was no longer in existence, so the rituals described couldn’t be enacted in any case. The rabbis turned it into a text about something else - that appears to be quite different from outer skin conditions and fungus in houses. It became a text about malicious outbreaks of a different kind: gossip, slander, bad-mouthing others, talking in a hateful or destructive way.

So how did they get from outer afflictions, discoloration – of skin, or fabrics, or houses,  metzorah – to speech acts? First of all they looked at where else this word came in the Hebrew Bible and saw that it was used when Miriam spoke against her brother Moses (Numbers 12: 1-15) after which she suffered from tzara’at; and it is also used at the burning bush when Moses spoke ill of the Israelites by saying they wouldn’t believe him about God’s plans to redeem them, and his hand turned metzora’at and ‘white as snow’(Exodus 4:6). We find the same Hebrew word (in different variations) in all these places.

So with these precedents, the rabbis interpreted our sedrah’s texts as speaking not so much about adverse physical conditions that people or buildings might suffer, but about a moral issue - what people say: people expressing disparaging  thoughts, off-colour thoughts, about other people. And they backed up this interpretation by pointing to a play on words, a pun, in the Hebrew. They saw that metzorah sounds like and looks like motsi ra, short for motsi shem ra (literally: ‘putting out a bad name’ – bad-mouthing, slander, defamation).

So the link with slander is made on two levels – through looking at other texts where the word comes, and speaking badly about people is the context; and by using their own rabbinic theory of the plasticity of language: the words are there, they thought, to be read both literally and creatively - midrashically, imaginatively, homiletically. 

So the Torah text of Metzorah is turned over and dug into so that it could offer something of value that transcended its original setting and original meaning. It was made into something relevant for all times and all people and all settings: it was used to talk about l’shon hara – speaking ill of people. Because we can all relate to that: to the temptation, the impulse, the experience, of speaking badly about other people. And we can all relate, when we have done it, to the wish to find a way of recovering from it, dealing with the consequences of it, this kind of moral affliction.

The problem for us, now, is that we don’t have any rituals for this, or priests who help us – though people do go to their secular equivalents, therapists, to deal with the feelings that lead to this kind of stuff breaking out in us, or in our homes - outbreaks of verbal aggression (which is what gossip is, and slander, and other forms speaking abusively about others). We know how damaging this is on an individual level, when we do it, or when we are on the receiving end of it; how corrosive it is of good relationships, of trust, how it undermines the fabric of social relationships.

And we don’t have to look too far to see how destructive it is on a collective level, where we have no rituals to deal with outbreaks of metzorah, motsi ra: it spreads in a quite uncontained way and poisons public life and private life. The omnipresence of social media actively promotes unrestrained verbal aggression, trolling, hate speech. The tabloid press couldn’t exist without gossip and the denigration of individuals and groups. We have as a society a really profound problem with metzorah, motsi ra. And no rituals to contain it or help us recover from it.

What happens to our well-being as a society when individuals and groups are made into ‘lepers’ [the old translation], to be bad-mouthed and shunned? Immigrants, Muslims, Zionists, paedophiles, benefit claimants, old people, young people, politicians, trades unionists: any group can be demonised, any individual can be outed and abused, made into an outcast by a self-righteous group (or individual) who set themselves up as judge and jury.

Before we look down, with the vast condescension of posterity, on these ancient rituals and archaic beliefs that we think we are seeing in the Torah, and smile at how superior we are morally and intellectually to our ancestors, we just need to take a cool dispassionate look around us and wonder what the effects are, short-term  and long-term, of living with, and colluding with, the metzorah that is part of our daily reality.

Yet there is one way, I think, in which we moderns might have an insight into something that our ancestors didn’t fully appreciate. You see, these Torah texts, and the later rabbinic commentaries on them, sometimes give the impression – when they connect issues about physical well-being, health and illness with moral issues and moral failings - that there’s a cause and effect relationship. Although it never says in our Metzorah chapters why a person or a house might be afflicted, once you start to link that condition with a moral failing like slander, an association is set up in our minds - and it is sometimes spelled out specifically this way by the rabbis - that the affliction is caused by the moral failing.

But there is a big difference between saying that when you read text A it can make you think about theme B (you read about discoloration on skin or stones and you then link it imaginatively to bad-mouthing others) and saying ‘A is caused by B’. A might lead you to think about B, but that doesn’t mean ‘A happens because of B’ or ‘A is a punishment because of B’.  And I’m saying this because one very common belief people have, ancient and modern, is that physical illnesses happen to us because we are being punished.

Those brought up in a traditional religious framework – Catholics are almost as good at this as Jews – often believe that if they are ill, or something bad happens – that this is a punishment from God for something they have done wrong. And even if the belief doesn’t come in that religious form - ‘God is punishing me because I’m bad’ - there is a secular variant that takes God out of the picture but still says ‘I’m suffering this because I did that - and I shouldn’t have done that’: ‘I’ve got cancer because I cheated on my partner’.

I come across this a lot as both a rabbi and a therapist: the belief that suffering, physical or emotional, is a punishment. But, unlike the ancient texts and rabbis,  I just don’t think the world works that way. Although I’m sure that’s how it felt to us when we were very small. Because when we are very small we are hard-wired to think of things as being about us: ‘Mummy’s in a bad mood because I’ve done something wrong. Daddy’s angry because I’m bad.’ When we are 3, 4, 5 years old we don’t think, we can’t think, ‘Mummy’s in a bad mood because she’s just lost her job. Daddy’s angry because he can’t find his mobile phone, or his team has just lost.’  What the child believes is that something is going wrong - they are being ignored or punished or told off - because it is something they have done wrong. And that way of thinking – bad things happen to me as punishments for my misdeeds, illness happens because I’m bad – persists into adulthood, in both religious and secular forms. And that kind of belief really doesn’t serve us well. It’s basically anti-life.

But I want to add a further twist to this theme about the relationship between physical ailments and moral failings. And this may sound paradoxical after what I have just said. Every day in my psychotherapy consulting room I find that there is often a relationship between our body’s state and our behaviour and emotions. But it isn’t anything to do with being punished. It’s about the ways in which our bodies and minds, our physical state  and our emotional state, are completely inter-related.

So – to take an example directly linked to our Torah portion - skin complaints:  spots, boils, eczema, psoriasis, rashes, skin irritations of various kinds. These are often linked to what’s going on in our lives:  what we are feeling, or not feeling; what stresses and emotions we are aware of, but can’t express; or we might not even be aware of a range of feelings, that are unconscious. Very often skin complaints are to do with anger, unexpressed feelings that are translated into a symptom. We might be aware of the anger, but we might not. Either way, that anger has nowhere to go except into the body, where it produces an outbreak of one kind or another.

And we talk about it this way in our everyday speech, as if we intuitively know what the problem is: we speak about an ‘angry rash’ without realising that yes, the rash is there because we are angry. (I’m simplifying here to make my point, things are often more complex than this). But what I do know is that physical ailments are very often connected to something else - something that we can’t manage in our lives, or emotions that we have no access to, or we are ashamed of, or we can’t find an outlet for: back pain, headaches, stiff necks, heartburn, constipation, sore throats - our bodies are a theatre in which the stresses and strains and emotional dramas and psychological problems of  our lives are constantly played out.

Our Torah portion – and the rabbis who traditionally linked Metzorah to the envy and jealousy and fears in us that end up with us speaking ill of others – is intuiting a deep understanding that things are linked together in life in surprising and sometimes disconcerting ways. How we might long for a modern ritual as powerful as the ancient one to help us move on beyond our afflictions, our meanness of spirit, our spite, our tendency to make ‘lepers’ of others.

Consider the symbolism of the ritual. Two birds were taken, and one is killed. The blood is sprinkled on the afflicted person or building. The other bird is set free. Atonement is achieved. At-one-ment. The movement is from death to life. Something has to die, something has to be scattered, something has to be set free: that’s the process that leads to well-being. Don’t we need some modern rituals of transformation that can help us transform the destructive polemics of our lives and society into creative and life-giving forms of expression?

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it’. This ancient text from the much-maligned Book of Leviticus gives as a kind of route map, a  symbolic pathway towards wholeness , to help us renew a sense of well-being in a society. Something has to die, to end; something has to be scattered, dispersed; something has to be released, set free. Zot Torat Ha’za’ra’at (Leviticus 14:57) – ‘this is the law concerning afflictions’: ‘this is the teaching concerning these deep ailments we suffer...’


I wonder what it is going to take before we really are ready to listen to this Torah, this teaching? 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, April 16th, 2016]