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Thursday, 18 October 2018

“What Does It Mean To Be A British Jew in 2018?”

I was invited this week to be part of a panel discussion in my synagogue on the topic of “What Does It Mean To Be A British Jew in 2018?”

Other members of the panel took the opportunity in their allocated five minutes to explore this theme from a variety of perspectives: one portrayed the Jewish community in the UK as “riddled by fear and anxiety”, assailed by “never-ending hostility”, and  suffering the threat of diminishing numbers and a “crisis of meaning” in relation to their Jewish identity. Another panellist used the occasion to list the multiple challenges the community faced - internally, financially and externally –  and culminated his observations with a denigration of any Jew who remained within the “anti-Semitic Labour party” led by that renowned “anti-Semite” Jeremy Corbyn.  And so on.

I took a different approach to this question. What I said was the following:

“To me, being a British Jew in 2018 means that I’m concerned that in England and Wales on an average day there are 1400 sexual assaults on women; 25 hate crimes committed against gay and transgender people; 6 attacks on Muslims because of their religion; and between one and two reported incidents each day against Jews.  

It means I’m concerned about: the dire consequences of Brexit  for the social fabric of this country; I’m concerned about the 4.1 million children in the UK already living in relative poverty – that’s 30% of all children in the country – as well as the 5000 people sleeping rough every night: I’m concerned about the impact of bad housing on health, and the growing inequality in this country which leads to multiple forms of deprivation; and as a British Jew I’m concerned about the fractured nature of the social contract in this country, and the generation who will probably never own their own homes.

To be a British Jew in 2018 means I’m concerned about melting ice caps; immigrants left to die at sea, and that the world’s worst famine in a hundred years is about to descend on Yemen – up to 10 million are at extreme risk.

It means I’m concerned that there are fascists in power in Hungary, there’s been a significant rise of the far-right in Germany and Italy and the Czech Republic and France; and there’s more and more evidence of the proto-fascist leanings of some members of the Knesset and the legislation they have enacted, including the victimisation of NGOs working for civil rights and social justice within Israel.

It means I’m concerned about the durability of modern democracy in Europe over the next decade, upon which all of us depend. This is what it means to me to be  British Jew in 2018.

And it means something else too. It means having a dual focus: 1) looking with Jewish eyes thousands of years old at the long arc of history and the ways in which that ancient Jewish vision – articulated at Sinai and by the prophets – of a world in which justice and social responsibility defines the purpose of our being - it’s the sole justification of our continued existence, to be and bring a blessing to humanity – it means keeping one eye fixed on that.  

While at the same time – dual focus – it means: 2) keeping attentive to the questions: What is possible now? Where is holiness waiting to be enacted now? What is our responsibility today?

And keeping that dual focus means, lastly, resisting Jewish voices that focus relentlessly on the past – and, in particular, what has happened to us, our Jewish suffering; resisting voices haunted by, in thrall to, Jewish victimhood.

It means resisting backing into the future, walking backwards with eyes glued to what has already happened, whether it is in ghettoes or pogroms or Germany in the 1930s. That backward-looking orientation is a hopeless stance. Literally. It’s actually the abandonment of the Judaic vision of hopefulness, the vision of us having a religious and spiritual purpose.

And I refuse - intellectually, emotionally, spiritually -  to submit to that backward-oriented anti-vision.

That’s me, being British and Jewish, 2018”

Perhaps needless to say, not everyone in the audience was sympathetic to my remarks. But perhaps my favourite response was from a guest who said that he’d felt his hackles rise as I spoke, and that I was “living in a dream world”. Yes, I thought, someone has to do that. Someone has to keep alive the dream, the vision, of what it means to be Jewish, what the inner core of our being-in-the-world is all about. That’s what I thought - so that’s what I said.

I’m never sure how useful these kind of events are. At their worst, they are angry and polarising; there’s a breakdown of any meaningful communication, with people talking across each other - or bombarding each other - from within their own silos. At their best, they can offer new perspectives, or at least a small space for reflection, a space to hold up to the light our own precious opinions, attitudes and views, and see their flaws and limitations as well as their strengths. In an increasingly fractured and fractious world, we need such spaces for reflection, as many as we can find.  

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Is there an "existential threat" to Jews in the UK? (on George Orwell, anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn)

In the spring of 1945 George Orwell was having difficulty finding a publisher for his latest work. He’d written a novella entitled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story and had sent it first to his regular publisher, the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, - who rejected it - and then to several other publishers, including T.S.Eliot at Faber and Faber. Nobody would publish it, this allegory of the way cults of personality form and lead to dictatorship and terror. For these publishers, the fable - woven around a  thinly-disguised critique of Stalin and the Soviet Union - could not be allowed into the public domain. The  Soviet Union were Allies, and a key member of the alliance that were about to defeat Hitler and the Axis powers after six years of bloody and exhausting conflict.
Orwell however was undaunted. That spring, 1945, he wrote an introduction to Animal Farm confident that he’d soon find someone who would publish his work. He was right. Yet when Secker and Warburg did publish it in mid-August of that year, Orwell’s introduction was missing, for reasons that remain obscure.  So you are unlikely to have read his introduction, even if you have read at some stage in your life what became this internationally recognised classic tale, Animal Farm.
Here’s his introduction – or at least, here’s part of it:
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.
In its way this is an amplification of the remark made by the playwright Ibsen sixty years before that in his play An Enemy of the People (1882): “The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society is the compact majority”. Later on, Orwell developed this theme about how hard it is to go against prevailing orthodoxies, when he wrote in his novel 1984 about societies that succumb, willingly, or unwillingly, to what he termed ‘Groupthink’ - Orwell had a sure instinct about the ways in which societies can become dominated by hyper-conformity and manufactured consent, often out of deference to, or compliance with, the thoughts of strong personalities or leaders. People are persuaded – or bullied – into believing a strongly stated view, regardless of whether it is true or not. It becomes just what ‘we’ think. Or are supposed to think.
One more sentence from Orwell’s unpublished introduction – self-justifying, but understandably so - and then I’d like to connect these themes to some contemporary issues:  
If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.
That’s a very interesting proviso, isn’t it? – the right to say or print anything one believes to be true, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. I want to keep this in mind because the question of what ‘harms’ a community is a moot point.  It gets close to the nub of our current discontents and distresses in the Jewish community here in the UK. For we are being told, by people who should know better, that we as a community are being harmed ‘in some quite unmistakable way’.
Let’s be clear though what it means that people have the right to say or print what they believe to be true. It means Donald Trump has the right to tweet whatever fatuous, blustering and narcissistic remarks he wants – and each of us has the right, as do commentators anywhere, to mock, scorn, argue with, point out the inconsistencies and lies in, or just ignore, what he has tweeted. He’s not harming the rest of the American community – people agree with him or not – the harm he’s doing is more to the Office of the Presidency, and to the notion that there is a difference between facts and opinions (and that that difference matters), and not least there’s the harm he’s doing to the English language itself.
So what about Jeremy Corbyn? ‘Oh - Jeremy Corbyn’. What does he have a right to say, and what has he said that might have done harm to the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way?
First of all, obviously, he has the right to say that he abhors racism and anti-Semitism. He has a long track record supporting that claim - the problems that have arisen for some in the Jewish community revolve not around this claim but around him offering  support to pro-Palestinian groups, and solidarity with some who themselves have clear anti-Semitic views. That was enough, some three or so years ago, for the Jewish press in this country and some leaders of communal organizations to start a campaign to expose him as an anti-Semite himself. Until recently it’s been a campaign of slurs and innuendo and guilt by association but then came that revelation - gold dust - posted online by the Daily Mail, (who of course have no agenda of their own about Corbyn), about his remarks in 2013 at a meeting with the Palestinian ambassador Manuel Hassassian.
And yes, when you refer to a group of people in a room – or even if they aren’t in the room – as Zionists who despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony” – then, yes indeed, that crosses a line. The implication of that is pretty clear: Jews are fundamentally ‘other’, alien, people who will never be truly English/British. It’s a classic antisemitic trope, and as my colleague Rabbi Alexandra Wright of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue wrote, his words were “indefensible, ill-advised and, no doubt, designed to rebuke and give maximum offence” – offence to those Jews who were at the meeting to argue with the Ambassador.
Was he aware when he said this, that this was antisemitic? Who knows? Unlike Trump, Corbyn is not an ignoramus. Stubborn maybe, but not stupid. But at the very least these comments revealed a clear moral blind spot - and this needs to be, as it has now been, called out.  People can be, and are, unconscious of, unaware of, their anti-Semitism. That’s not an excuse, just a reality. He may in private be horrified to realise, as we all would be, that he’s unwittingly given voice to a deeply pernicious and prejudicial view. I don’t know about Corbyn, and none of us knows, or can know.
I would suggest though, before we get too much on our high horse, that all of us can at times be unconscious of the potential offensiveness of some of our views and opinions. We are all capable of moral blind-spots. And if these things are ever exposed we feel shame and humiliation, sometimes too much to bear. We get defensive and, often, belligerent. And for politicians in particular this puts them in a truly unbearable position. Corbyn could never admit it, publicly, even if he felt it, that he’d got something seriously wrong in those off-the-cuff remarks.
But I’m not worrying about Corbyn’s soul – this is the time of the year, this period of reflectiveness and inward-looking heart-searching between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to focus on our own souls, not those of others. Part of our work at this time of the year is not to cast our eyes outwards and see the faults in others, but to see how what we perceive as faults in others reflect parts of ourselves we’d rather disown, or not know about. Where are we guilty of sins of prejudice? And stereotyping? of sins of hatred? of sins of disdain towards others? Let’s use Corbyn, in other words, as a mirror, as uncomfortable as that might be, to reflect on our own failings to live up to our ideals, our better selves; to reflect on the gap in ourselves between the vision of how we’d like to be, how we’d like to think about ourselves - and our failures to live up to those ideals.
I want to leave Corbyn for now, he will soon enough become just a footnote in the history of these decades. I hold no candle for him, by the way – I think his leadership on the gravest issue facing this country, the Brexit fiasco, has been quite hopeless. So don’t hear my remarks about him as coming from some Labour-supporting cronyism. I’m much more concerned about the witch hunt against him by elements within the Jewish community and the harm that could do to the well-being of our community, than I am concerned about one leader’s failures to be rigorous in his commitment to anti-racist views.
We know that the issue that has been concerning the community is wider than Corbyn – that it’s been about real antisemitism in parts of the Labour party, and the party’s relative failure to address this thoroughly and comprehensively.
I’m not na├»ve: I have no doubt that strands of real hostility to Jews exists in the UK – this is nothing new, it exists in all political parties and in all sectors of British society, from what used to be called the working classes through polite English middle class prejudices to the aristocracy and their longstanding contempt for interlopers into their ranks – think of the upper-class opprobrium heaped in the 19th century on men like Disraeli, the Prime Minister, and the Rothschilds; or of the common-or-garden antipathy towards Jews expressed by writers like T.S.Eliot and Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and Graham Greene. Anti-Semitism has always  been part of the fabric of this country: always has been, always will be. But we have survived it and thrived, in spite of it all. And we’ll survive these latest shenanigans as well.
So why am I wanting to bring Orwell into all this current furore? What is he speaking about that is so relevant to us today? Well, sadly, it’s prompted by what I see going on around me: am I alone in thinking that it’s all become rather hysterical, all this talk about ‘existential threat’, this fantasy that British Jews are getting ready to pack their bags en masse and leave the country out of fear for their well-being and very survival?
What I am concerned about is the way in which an atmosphere has been created, led by some very prominent communal voices (rabbinic and lay) and by the Jewish press, an atmosphere and attitude that has become a kind of orthodoxy. As Orwell reminds us: At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it.
Well, it might be “not done” to say this, but I need to say it: it’s as if a virus has been let loose amongst us, and it is affecting our mental well-being, our capacity to discriminate the wood for the trees, our ability to think clearly about what is happening, to get a perspective on events. There are elements of hysteria in this, elements of paranoia, elements of attention-seeking, and I sometimes wonder – and I hesitate to say this, as if I’m breaking a taboo – I even wonder if there’s a strand of hidden feeling, a kind of unconscious wish, where we Jews in this generation can secretly compare ourselves to Jews in Germany in the 1930s, but this time make the story turn out differently: as a victory over the forces of evil rather than being annihilated by them.
Jews have always been haunted (understandably) since the events of the Holocaust by questions like: would I have had the courage to leave everything behind, leave family members, or all my material comforts and possessions? how would I have known what to do? what would I have done and when would I have done it?
An atmosphere has been stoked up over this last year or so, and particularly in recent months, with the strong subtext that there’s this unprecedented threat to the future safety of the Jewish community in this country. Comparisons with the 1930s are the most convenient historical peg for some Jews to hang their anxieties on to. So, I have heard people comparing Corbyn to Hitler – but this is  bonkers (as we used to say up North).
And to compare Corbyn’s ignorant remarks to Enoch Powell’s inflammatory speech of fifty years ago – which was made as Shadow Defence Secretary in the highly charged atmosphere of the arrival of thousands of Kenyan Asian British citizens and the debate over the 1968 Race Relations Act to outlaw discrimination – to make that comparison might be a piece of slick rhetoric but it is a wilful misappropriation of history. It was a reckless analogy. It hardly helps Jews in this country to be aligned in the public mind, as Lord Sacks did, with that wave of immigration that was stirring up ill-feeling and that Powell was addressing. That is not our situation as Jews in this country.
This is all terrible stuff to have to talk about, and for some it might be unbearable to hear it, or it may make you very angry. So when I talk about these things in public, I’m sorry if that is the response. But I feel a deep responsibility – as a rabbi, and as someone who has been thinking about these kind of issues, and the psychology of these issues, all my life - to try to throw some dispassionate light on all this rhetoric and drama that is being played out around us.  
Over recent years I’ve noted the number of speeches given by major British Jewish figures, rabbis and lay leaders, who go to conferences - often in other parts of Europe, or in Israel - or they give interviews to European or American newspapers, and they talk about Anglo-Jewry as being awash with fear for their survival, about to pack up and leave, suffering from existential dread - and this kind of hyperbolic language has now flooded into our communal discourse and it is ratcheting up our fears in ways that are just not congruent with our external realities.
Because when I look around me at the community I know best, Finchley Reform and at other synagogue communities across the religious spectrum in London, what do I see? I see dynamic programming, whether it is for Jewish learning or Jewish social action or interfaith work – I don’t know how it is outside London, but I get reports from Manchester or Brighton, Glasgow which certainly aren’t filled with doom and gloom – but what I can see across London is a vibrancy, a creativity, a freedom to innovate and explore Jewishness that isn’t only within religious sectors of the community, but is there in communal institutions like JW3 and the Jewish Museum, it’s in Limmud and its offshoots, it’s in the passionate commitment of workers in and supporters of a huge range of Jewish charities, it’s in festivals of music and cooking and the arts and film, it’s in the spread of Jewish schools, primary and secondary, it’s in a healthy sub-community of Israelis who have left their homeland to set up life here in the UK - no doubt for a variety of reasons, but surely not unaffected by having had to live for two and more generations being told daily by Israel’s leaders that they are under daily “existential threat” for their very lives. I see all that rich fabric of Jewish life.
And then I note how it’s Netanyahu’s language that has now contaminated British Jewish leaders’ responses to our own recent local manifestations of that-age old antipathy towards Jews. (So thank you for that, Bibi, that’s a great contribution you have made to our well-being).   
So what I see when I look around me - and in emails I get from people confused about what on earth is going on over these last six months, and when I talk to people about how they actually feel - what I see is not a community waiting to pack its bags, a community living with a sense of “existential dread”, but a community that is a leading European centre for Jewish life.
It was ironic – thank you Jeremy Corbyn, my sense of irony is fully developed, intact and robust, I can spot an irony at 100 yards – there was an irony for me over this summer, a sobering irony, that while all this brouhaha was going on here, I was at a conference of Christians and Jews in Germany. And listening to some of the pastors there, and to members of congregations, Catholic and Protestant - people who are wholeheartedly committed to their historical work of reparation for the sins of the past - when they spoke about issues they are dealing with in their local areas, and about their concerns about the rise of the AfD in Germany, a right-wing, anti-immigrant party who entered parliament for the first time in September last year and are gathering 20-30% support in the polls, a party behind the attacks on foreigners in Chemnitz last month, a party that joins in demonstrations with Nazi salutes, a party that is not as overtly anti-Semitic as other parties in Europe (in Hungary, in Poland, in the Czech republic) but only because Muslims make a more readily identifiable target at the moment, when I look at the rise of real anti-Semitic activity on the mainland of Europe, when I look at all that, I know that many European Jews still do remain vulnerable, more so in some countries than others. But that’s not the situation we are faced with.
As this New Year begins I’d like us to feel what a privilege it is to be able to live freely as Jews in this country at this time in our history, free to celebrate, free to be as expressive and creative as we want to be.  And free to critique and resist the ‘groupthink’ some in the Jewish community would like to impose on us, free to resist bodies of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question’.
I hope this New Year brings us all much fulfilment, joy, contentment, good health, and a renewed sense that – in spite of the problems the UK faces – as a Jew one can make  a real contribution to the well-being of this nation, and to our own community, local or Jewish. Let’s keep our vision clear, as individuals and as communities,  and continue to celebrate who we are, what we have - and the good fortune we have, the blessing we have, to be living in this place at this time in the long and glorious history of our people. 
 [based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, September 11th, 2018] 


Monday, 10 September 2018

Imagination and the Jewish New Year

As this Jewish New Year is born, I want to talk about imagination: our capacity for imagination. Because a New Year is an invitation to us to be imaginative, to extend our thinking, our mental wondering and wandering, to stretch our thinking beyond its habitual grooves and routines.

But as soon as I start to talk about our imaginations I feel I’m entering dangerous territory. Because we know what our imaginations can do: how our minds can become filled with fears, anxieties, apprehensions about everything from our bodily health to the health of the planet, everything from the material and mental well-being of ourselves and those whom we love, to the well-being of our Jewish community, or the very future of our country. Our imaginations can wrap themselves around these issues and cause us sometimes to feel anything from vaguely ill-at-ease to acute distress.

As we enter a New Year, tentatively, hesitantly, and think of – imagine – what these  next 12 months might bring, it’s easy for our imaginations (as we project forward) to run riot, but not in ways that are advantageous to our well-being. We can already, and do, let our minds run amok amidst the bewildering complexities of the world we live in; our imaginations become polluted – it’s not only that our brains become contaminated, literally, from the toxins in the very air we breathe - but metaphorically and just as perniciously, our minds and imaginations become polluted from the poisonous miasma that arises from that quagmire of news and information and opinion and analysis and rumour and scaremongering and recrimination and suspicion that fills the airwaves and the social media – and we inhale that stuff whether we want to or not.

None of us can insulate ourselves from the toxic vapours of the contemporary social environment in which we live and breathe – well, you have to work very hard  to keep yourself uncontaminated by these toxins, and by what passes for thinking in the communal and national and international spheres we inhabit.

The novelist Saul Bellow once described this hyped-up modern world of ours as a ‘moronic inferno’, and that was before the age of the internet and Twitter, and all the rest of our dementing 24/7 culture was even dreamed of.  

So if I’m going to talk about imagination, this remarkable dimension of what it means to be human, I’m very aware of its double-sidedness. And yes, I’m starting by acknowledging, as the New Year begins, the way our imaginations already gravitate towards worry, concerns, paranoia sometimes: about our personal lives, our health, our relationships, our financial situation, as well as our lives as Jews, and our lives as citizens of this precious kingdom, and world citizens on this fragile planet.

But I want to turn, deliberately, defiantly, almost counter-intuitively, I want to turn – a turn that is also a return -  to consider our imaginations as a source not of fear and suspicion and accusation, but our imaginations as a source of wonder, a space within us not of dread but of hope, a source not of anxiety but of playfulness and creativity and inspiration. Imagination not as a source of nightmare but of vision, and opportunity, and glorious possibilities.

Do you remember a time, when you were very young, when you would get fascinated by something in the world around you: it might be watching an insect move - an ant, or a butterfly; or how the sun refracted into the colours of a rainbow in a puddle; or wondering how the new baby got into mummy’s tummy – or how it would get out – or you’d be fascinated by the hairs on your grandmother’s chin, or by how exactly the microwave heated up your pudding,  or where snow goes when it melts. It’s the stage we all go through, if things go well for us growing up, the stage of ‘why’, (the bane of a parent’s life sometimes), ‘why’ this, ‘why’ that, ‘’, question after question, that endless curiosity, fascination, about the world around us.

It’s the stage of life when our imaginations really get going, not only around the things we observe, but around ‘imaginary’ things that we encounter in books and in stories, on TV and in films, and in conversations we overhear. Our imaginations become populated by realities that we create, and by the creations of others. We enter into a world of ghosts and giants, talking animals, cartoon characters that change shape, superheroes that fly, a world of magic spells and elves and angels and God and Mad Hatter’s tea parties.

One of the most problematic things you can say to a child is “stop imagining things” – when we should be interested in expanding a child’s capacity for imagination and wonder, because the world is a mystery and a constant source of wonder - but as life goes on we may well become dulled to the mystery and wonder and aliveness of this period of our development. Something of that capacity for imagination and wonder and curiosity becomes blunted in us, ground down by what we come to think of as ‘reality’; something in us that responded to the newness and exciting strangeness of what we saw and heard and thought gets calloused over. We learn to be ‘sensible’ – God help us. The glory fades, and the light can go out of our eyes.

And maybe as time goes on we vaguely feel that there’s something’s missing in our lives, but we don’t know what it is, we can’t pin it down. And then we one day, if we are lucky, or have some help, we find something, or something finds us, that puts us back in touch with these early glimmers of everyday wonder and helps us recollect and reconnect with something precious we have lost.

Maybe we find Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” where he recalls a time:

When meadow, grove, and stream,/The earth, and every common sight,/to me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light,/The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Or we discover William Blake’s poetic vision, a state of mind and imagination in which we can “see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”.  Or we watch again that extraordinary moment in cinema history when Stanley Kubrick in ‘2001:A Space Odyssey’ shows us our ancestor the ape beating the ground with a stick, breaking up bones, and one bone flies up into the air and the slow motion of movement into the skies cuts to the vehicle in space somersaulting over and over - and our heart leaps in amazement and awe: ‘oh, this is us now, this is how far we have travelled in the blink of an eye, aeons long’. We are opened up in these moments to something beyond, or within, a way of seeing, a way of feeling.

Or we recall that last interview with that rascally playwright Dennis Potter, knowing he was dying, talking to Melvyn Bragg for Channel 4, and speaking about the blossom he could see from his window in Ross-on-Wye:

“…the blossom is out in full now…it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you, you have to experience it, but the glory of it…the comfort of it, the reassurance…not that I’m interested in reassuring people, bugger that. The fact is, if you can see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it…”

This is what Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, can be for us: the time in the year we have been given to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’ – that’s Aldous Huxley’s phrase, borrowed from William Blake - and see the world anew. The High Holy Day machzor [prayer book] often refers to that text from Isaiah that precedes by two millennia all those other writers and artists I’ve mentioned: ki hinneni voray shamayim hadashim va’artez hadasha… – “For behold, now, I create new heavens and a new earth…be glad and rejoice in what I am creating” (65:17-18). “What I am creating…”– if you can “see the present tense……boy, can you celebrate it”.

Rosh Hashanah is our celebration of the present tense. So as we move into the New Year, and the new moon appears in the sky, and we are reminded through that – even if only subliminally - how our Jewish cycle of the year revolves around the ‘heavens’, we have this opportunity in these days, these ten precious days, to begin again this journey which depends upon our capacity to use our imaginations benignly, creatively. Can we regain some of that wide-eyed innocence and curiosity of childhood, that sense of wonder?

Entering these days is like entering some sacred space, separated out from that toxic environment I spoke about before, that is all around us. We can choose not to be contaminated, polluted, by what chokes that everyday world we also live in, we can choose to use our inner faculties of imagination and resourcefulness and really see what is there within us - and within our tradition, with all its dark richness.

And what’s in us, and what we need our imaginations to nurture, are things like our capacity for kindness, our capacity for compassion, our passion for justice, our ability to give of ourselves, our capacity to be honest with ourselves, and others, our capacity for self-sacrifice, and generosity (generosity of heart and our pockets), our capacity for tolerance, for tolerating difference, for not getting swept away by populism and cheap rhetoric, whether it’s in the Jewish community or the wider community.

I intend to address in a couple of days the theme of antisemitism, that everyone is grappling with at the moment (it appears) – but right now I’m talking about how to use our imaginations not for fearfulness and hysteria but for righteousness and reflection: reflection on our remarkable human capacity for recognising wondrousness and transforming what isn’t working, what isn’t right in our lives, transforming it into something more life-enhancing and life-giving.

And that work of transformation requires us to be imaginative, to use this divine strand of creativity within us, our imaginations. We have that capacity grafted to our souls and as the New Year begins we remember it again, we rejoice in it again, we renew our commitment to it again.

It may be true that, as John Keats wrote in a letter to his younger brothers exactly 200 years ago, “There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music”– that may indeed say something true about 2018 as well as 1818: so on one level nothing much has changed since then; but it is also the case that Keats was on to something vital for us today when he wrote in another letter: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination”.

So as we move into and through these days, let’s remember and renew and rejoice in the holiness of our ‘heart’s affections’ – all that sacred work we do are capable of doing, in our relationships with each other and with the world around us. And let’s remember and renew and rejoice in our own personal and collective connection to ‘the truth of the imagination’. What a gift it is. 
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, Sunday evening, September 9th 2018]

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

On Being Found By What We Need

In the period leading up to the Jewish New Year I feel like an explorer who first has to set up base camp, as it were, in preparation for the expedition ahead of him. On a good day I think of what will follow as an annual adventure into the spiritual and psychological terrain of the so-called ‘Days of Awe’, the Yomim Noraim - an opportunity for reflection and re-evaluation during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).  It’s a time of potential renewal. But on a bad day, I’m reminded of the myth of Sisyphus, condemned to push the same boulder up the mountain over and over again: a thankless task.

The Selichot service, that takes place during an evening preceding the New Year itself, is an opportunity to check the route ahead, discover if we have the right provisions - even if we don’t quite know what provisions we might need – and maybe have a look at the maps drawn by those who have gone before us (which also seems to involve questioning whether their maps will be of any help for us). Some of us intuit that our journey – if we wish to take it - will require us to draw our own map rather than relying entirely on the routes that others have taken.

So, the questions for the evening circle around: what’s our route looking like this year? what provisions do we need? what resources can we draw on? This expedition is fraught work, filled with uncertainty and insecurity. At least initially. And who amongst us can claim to be an expert? At best we may feel like a willing amateur. And sometimes not so willing - for the resistance to this work can be strong.  

Over the years I’ve found it helpful to find a text to start me off – usually a text that might not seem an obvious starting place for a Jewish journey of inwardness: it might be something from Waiting for Godot, or King Lear, or a few lines of Seamus Heaney; even something from Alice in Wonderland has provided the springboard. I’m seeking out help to get myself deeper into the themes of the season. 

Now I say that I ‘find a text’ but that isn’t strictly accurate; it’d be more true to say that it often feels that the texts find me. If I’m working in a congregational setting I don’t go looking for good texts to bring to the community, like a mother bird searching out some juicy worms for her fledglings; but something will come my way, randomly, unexpectedly, unplanned, in the days or weeks leading up to the Selichot service; and it’ll get me thinking, and it won’t let go of me until I’ve done something with it, until I’ve used it as a building block in the flimsy construction of words (otherwise known as ‘a sermon’) which I offer as a starting point as the community sets off on its religious expedition.

This year it occurred to me that the process I’m describing – of being ‘found’ by a text – might offer a clue to one approach to the themes and the work of the High Holy Days. Those themes are the same every year: teshuvah - returning, seeking forgiveness, repentance, renewal. This is the heavy-duty religious baggage Jews grapple with over these weeks. And this stuff comes with so many expectations, that we may need something that helps to subvert these expectations.

The expectations may come from community, or family, or the liturgy, or are just expectations we put on ourselves, about change and transformation. We are weighed down by beliefs about what we ‘should’ be doing, or ‘should’ be feeling: and these expectations can get in the way of just experiencing what happens to us (and in us) during these weeks. Our prior expectations and beliefs about what we ought be doing, or feeling, or thinking, can block us being open to what actually happens, moment by moment: what happens naturally, we might say.

So when I talk about texts ‘finding’ me I’m offering a model that might be helpful in a wider sense:  that the things we need (the words, the ideas, the hope, the confidence, the resolve, the ability to forgive ourselves, the ability to forgive others: whatever it is we need) - they find us. They find us if we are open to them. So what  I’m describing, struggling to describe - because it’s hard to put into words – what I’m talking about is a stance in relation to the spiritual and religious work of these days.

Maybe I can describe it as ‘wandering attentiveness’ – even ‘distracted attentiveness’; it’s akin to what Shakespeare described, incomparably, in the words he put in Polonius’s mouth in Hamlet: “By indirections find directions out”.

So, if I had to summarise what I am saying, it’d be something like: ‘What you need to help you on this expedition through the High Holy Days is waiting for you - but you don’t need to work too hard to search for it, or seek it out, because it will arrive, it will come to you – your job, the job of each one of us, is to wait and be open to see it or hear it when it comes, to receive it into our hearts, our souls’. But when I say it like that, it makes it sound almost too easy, or inevitable: too deterministic.

So I want to say it tentatively, hesitantly, because, as Franz Kafka understood and described, in our times there is no longer a “broad…smooth road” leading from, or to, “Mount Sinai”[i]; there are no straight paths to religious revelation, no certainties, no programmes that will automatically get you there, no practices or rituals guaranteed to lead to enlightenment or inner change.

There’s no single Jewish text or prayer that will open up a failsafe surefooted pathway to heaven. (Although it’s also the case that there’s no single Jewish text or prayer that might not, on one unforeseen occasion, suddenly speak to you in a new, unexpected way: a word, or a phrase, or an idea, can pop out of the text and offer you a new thought about some aspect of your life).    

But I know that for many people now, it’s not usually the texts and prayers of tradition that light the way. As Rabbi Lionel Blue helped us understand, what is revealed to us that we need on our own journey through life can come from all sorts of places undreamt of by formal Jewish tradition: it may be a conversation that we overhear in the supermarket, or a headline on a stranger’s paper on the tube, it may be something a grandchild says, or a remark from a neighbour we bump into in the street, it may be an act of kindness we witness that highlights how we’d like to be, or an act of cruelty that we see that reminds us of, maybe shames us about, what we too are capable of, and makes us resolve to live from our better selves.

It may be a piece of music we hear that is new to us that we experience like an oasis in the desert - or music that we hear as if for the first time after hearing it a 100 times before. It might be a scene from a film, or a moment in the garden, or a sentence from a book that’s been lying around at home and that we decide to pick up and we open it up and there’s a thought or a phrase that penetrates some outer layer of indifference in us, that stirs something in us, that makes us realise something about ourselves – that we are a better person than we judge ourselves to be in our harshest moments, or that we have hurt someone and we need to do something about it, or any one of a thousand small revelations that can piece us, and change us, just a millimetre. But that millimetre is everything. This is teshuvah, the teshuvah of small moments – which are huge.  

But the thing is that we can’t search out these unexpected moments of revelation in everyday life: they find us; they arrive; they are for us; it can even feel that they are aimed at us – like the call of the bugle in Kafka’s parable that he hears but the servant doesn’t. We can’t make these experiences happen - but we have to be open to hear them, see them, feel them, to think about them. That’s down to us. That’s our work: we are receivers of revelation, we are given glimpses into a deeper reality, signs of deeper truths about life: about our life.

And it can be so frustrating that we can’t create these moments, we can’t plan for them, we can’t control them. Because we may have a real wish to change, to be the recipients of new insights, new understanding – and our tradition encourages us to strive in that direction – but it can end up with us empty-handed and feeling flat or disillusioned or angry. And if that happens – and it does - it’s probably because we are working too hard, too determinedly, too consciously, when what we need to do is wait, wait without hope (as the mystics said), “for hope might be hope for the wrong thing” (T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets). Often we are hoping for the thing we think we want, rather than the thing we need. So this year I’m suggesting that in this frenetic world maybe we can try to wait - patiently, without too much striving - wait with what I rather inadequately described earlier as a ‘wandering attentiveness’. 

For me this waiting – when I can bear to let it happen - is done in the spirit of that  wonderful short text from Kafka, which reads:

It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.

That’s the promise of these Jewish ‘Days of Awe’, Yomim Noraim:  if we remain open and attentive, we will be given what we need.

[adapted from a sermon given on Selichot evening at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, September 1st 2018]

[i] Many people prowl around Mount Sinai. Their speech is blurred, either they are garrulous or they shout or they are taciturn. But none of them comes straight down a broad, newly made, smooth road that does its own part in making one’s strides long and swifter.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

On Hatred

I want to talk about something difficult: hatred. It’s one of the most powerful emotions in the human heart, it is a universal experience, and as old as humanity, and it has the capacity to make toxic everything it touches: personal relationships, family relationships, communal relationships, national and international relationships, relationships between ethnic groups and within ethnic groups, relationships between religions and within religions, relationships between men and women, relationships between political groupings and within political parties – there is no area of human life spared the debilitating and destructive nature of hatred.

Even within an individual, hatred doesn’t need an external target, because we can experience hatred towards oneself, or parts of oneself: and that can be conscious – I hate the way I look, I hate the way my voice sounds, I hate myself when I fail to achieve what I set out to do, I hate myself for having so much hatred in me – or it can be unconscious.

But conscious or unconscious, directed at oneself or directed at others, it is a powerful spoiler of well-being, an inner aggression that we struggle to tame,  and sometimes give up trying to tame, because the expression of hatred has, dare one say this, it has its pleasures too: we might struggle to admit this,  but the expression of hatred can purge something inside us, temporarily maybe, like lancing a boil, like the emptying out of a seeming bottomless well of rage; but a well that gets filled up again pretty quickly and then needs and waits for another opportunity to spill out. In that sense hatred is a condition of psychic bulimia and unless we are able to get a grip on this basic human emotion, and understand it, and do the hard psychological and spiritual and mental work to contain it, it will destroy the world we know, and love.

Too dramatic a statement? I fear not. Wherever we look, if we have eyes to see, we can perceive hatred in play.  I am not going to rehearse here all the countless domains where we see hatred – you can construct your own anthology and it would no doubt embrace everything from wars and rape and knife crime to the renewed European hatred of immigrants to the strands of racial hatred in America towards the black community or towards scientific truth on evolution or climate change.

But it’s been on my mind recently particularly because of the way in which one of the youngsters in this community (Finchley Reform) has attracted (along with her family) the most vile abuse in social media concerning her participation in the recent ‘Kaddish for Gaza’ event. And whatever you think about the wisdom of that form of demonstration of concern about the Palestinian deaths on the Gaza border some weeks ago, the invective unleashed has been truly despicable. This is hatred from Jews against other Jews. You can Google all the background to this if you want to - it is too shameful for me to go into here, the hate-fuelled sewage that has emerged from our fellow religionists.

It's revealed a tragic irony about us Jews. Because we Jews often think that hatred is what the world – or groups in the world, or individuals  - feel towards us (and of course there is a reality to that, and to anti-Semitism), but when you see what happens within the so-called Jewish ‘community’, the kind of hatred that is expressed – and it’s not a new phenomenon, Jewish hatred of other Jews, but I think it is amplified now through the new channels that social media offer – when you see the levels of bile and misogyny and racist invective and ugly polemic that lie beneath the surface, in Jewish hearts and minds, one can genuinely fear for our collective well-being.

What I am saying here is far from being an original idea, though maybe I’m trying to say something about it with perhaps a new emphasis on the psychological complexity of this universal emotion. But it’s certainly not new in Jewish history for there to be an awareness of the destructive nature of Jewish hatred.  We are in the midst of Tisha B’Av, the annual day of memorialising the losses of Jewish history – focused on the destruction of the First then the Second Temple, but over the generations becoming a day when we recognise the cycles of loss and persecution that Jews have gone through, throughout the ages.  

But the remarkable thing about the way the rabbis of the time thought about the loss of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 - which marked the end of a whole era of worship and ritual life and the very ordering of society into priests, Cohanim,  and administrators of the cult, Levites, and then the mass of other Israelites - the way they came to understand the disaster that had befallen them was that it was due to one thing above all. They said, and I quote from the Talmud : “In spite of the Torah we studied, the commandments we kept, and the deeds of love enacted, the Temple fell because of groundless hatred: sinat chinam – hatred without reason” (Yoma 9b).  And they weren’t talking about groundless hatred by the Romans, they were talking about Jewish hatred of other Jews. This was our downfall, those Talmudic rabbis said.

They could have blamed the Romans, but they didn’t – they reflected on their experience and realised that there was something endemically self-destructive in the very fabric of the Jewish community: that in spite of adherence to study and practice, in spite of acts of compassion and kindness within the community, it wasn’t enough - because there was something else which undermined all that: it was the way that hatred exists within us and seeps out. Hatred which is groundless.

Another way of saying that might be: hatred which is felt and not reflected on, but acted out; hatred which is grounded in our inability to tolerate difference, our inability to bear someone having a different opinion to us, our incapacity to manage the feelings of envy of other people, our inability to prosper like them, or be as beautiful as them, or as visionary as them, or as lucky as them – a thousand reasons why in the fine-grained relationships in a family, a society, a community, we can’t bear the otherness of people, what they do, what they think, what they are. And hatred just arises in us, and we can’t manage it. And then it is acted out. And this is as old a story as humanity – it’s there in the mythic tale of Cain and Abel – and it’s as newly-minted as today’s newspapers and the omnipresent social media, which are full of it.  

Those Talmudic rabbis , in their wisdom, saw into the heart of something profound. What we value, they said, gets destroyed because we can’t contain our own hatred. In the past, when I have reflected on this Talmudic self-indictment, I tended to think about it in a different way. I thought of their response as being like the victim blaming herself, himself, themselves – an inability in the rabbis of that generation to own up to their rage at what had been done to them.  Jews do have a long history of turning  rage away from their persecutors and looking inside themselves to see what they as a community had done wrong. 

Over the generations, and particularly in the Middle Ages as a response to the Crusades and blood libels and massacres in Europe, there developed a whole theology around this – the theology of mipnei chata’einu: we were punished because of our own sinfulness. So the outrage at what was done to us is turned away from the goyim and it becomes our fault. And there have been relics of this thinking even today in some Orthodox circles – there was the extreme view that the reason for the Holocaust was that Jews had assimilated, or become Reform, so it wasn’t the Nazis and their acolytes that were to blame but we were to blame.

This inability to take responsibility for one’s anger and feel it in relation to the right object is a very common human trait but as an attempted explanation for Jewish victimhood it is woefully inadequate, misguided. It’s actually perverse. Or at least it is perverse when carried to an extreme: because it is still psychologically healthy to be able to reflect on what role one plays in one’s own victimhood. We have spectacularly lost this instinct for looking at what part we might play in our persecution – the tendency now is just to blame ‘the other’.

So I’m sketching this out because, as I say, in the past I might have thought about our Talmudic passage about sinat chinam along those lines: a failure of the rabbis of that generation to come to terms with their hatred of the Romans, their hatred of what had been done to them without reason. I might have thought: well, this is where it all begins, this problem the Jews have through history in dealing with their rage at the non-Jewish world - they turn it inwards, they blame themselves. The Temple was destroyed because of our groundless hatred.

Turning the blame inwards can be a psychological defence against outwardly-directed rage: this is certainly a problem in Jewish (and other) families today, and I think it is a collective problem historically; but I also now think that this Talmudic passage is on to something even more important: the way in which the hateful feelings in each of us that we don’t manage to deal with become destructive of the social fabric.

We are certainly seeing this all around us at the moment: in the Jewish community around the toxic debates and differences of view about Israel and its occupation; in Israel itself in - for example, in its new Nation-State law, although some of the more hateful proto-fascist aspects of it were fudged or dropped before it was passed this week; we see it in the Labour party as it wrestles with antisemitism, in the Conservative party as it wrestles with Islamophobia, in Parliament as it wrestles with the poisonous legacy of that self-destructive Brexit vote; we see it in the country as a whole as it struggles to keep afloat under the tide of hate speech and hate crimes that somehow have been released following the referendum, as if (consciously or unconsciously) the Leave vote was felt to have legitimised expressions of disdain and antipathy towards, and sometimes outright hatred towards, migrants and immigrants and asylum seekers, anyone who isn’t self-evidently one of ‘us’. And we see it in the rise of far-right groups across Europe.

And we see it in the hatred directed against our planet.

At a global level it might be helpful to think of this planet we all inhabit as if it were a Temple, a sacred space where the world community comes together: this fragile planet of ours is the site of everything we value in life, where we are dependent on the earth and the seas and the sky and the rain, on the natural world in all its miraculous abundance, on the delicate balance that exists to keep everything sustained for our well-being, our survival. And this sacred space we inhabit is at risk: it can be destroyed, we can destroy it if we don’t curb our hatred, which is evidenced in our casual disdain for it, our disregard of its animals and trees and plants, the whole ecosystems on which our lives depend. And we are all complicit in this low-level aggression against the Temple we inhabit.

So much is at stake, I fear, in all the multiple ways this question of what we do with our hatred is played out.

The Jewish tradition recognises the basic ingrained nature of hatred, it’s part of the fabric of our consciousness; our tradition even recognises that hatred is something that God experiences too, so to speak. You hear it in our prophetic reading this week, which included Isaiah 1:14: “Your new moons and fixed festivals fill me with loathing…” – sana nafshi, literally “my soul hates them”. The prophet intuits that from the ultimate point of view, the viewpoint of divinity, all this religious ritual stuff we do is hateful – not in and of itself, but if it is a substitute for what matters, which he goes on to talk about: “goodness, justice, helping those wronged, protecting the vulnerable and society’s outsiders” (verse 17, paraphrase).

The text suggests that God hates the way outer observance of so-called ‘religious’ traditions takes the place of certain core values. So, we might think, if even God has hatred enmeshed into God’s Being, what hope is there for us? We aren’t going to get rid of it. In which case  the work is to manage it better: which means to reflect on it, to think about why things are hateful to us, rather than reacting hatefully to them. And if we are going to feel hate – and we do feel hate - then at least let it be directed into channels that could be life-enhancing rather than life-destroying. There's a text from Amos that can help us here.  

At one point the prophet says: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live, and that God may truly be with you; hate evil and love good, and establish justice in your gates.” (Amos 5:14-15). So if you are going to hate – and you will – let it be directed not against people but against manifestations of evil: if you are going to hate, hate evil – ‘evil’, note, not ‘evildoers’. 
Now, there’s a challenge: learn to hate evil without hating those who are perpetrators of evil! Once we elide the distinction between acts of evil and those who enact evil, once we merge in our minds evil and evildoers, we are sunk. This is hard work but it’s the spiritual, psychological and mental challenge humanity is set. If we fail in this task we will, I fear, sooner or later destroy ourselves.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, July 21, 2018]

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Lessons from Philip Roth

There is one sentence that I keep in mind when I’m thinking about sermons. I say ‘keep it in mind’ - but that’s not strictly true, it’s not a conscious decision. On the contrary, it’s more true to say that this  sentence haunts me, shadows me, nags at me, won’t let me go – and because it could end up persecuting me, I long ago decided I’d rather befriend it, have it as my travelling companion, to let it guide me (inspire me even), but also if need be to warn me.

Have I captured your curiosity? ‘What is this extraordinary sentence?’ I’m  giving it a big build-up, I know: like a storyteller, one might say. I will let you in on my secret – though it might come as a bit of an anti-climax. I’ll have to risk that.

First though, I want to put this sentence I’m talking about – it’s a Philip Roth sentence - in its context. Ever since some of his first stories were published in 1959 in the volume Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth’s work was (in his own words) “attacked from certain pulpits and in certain periodicals as dangerous, dishonest and irresponsible”. He was accused by various Jewish leaders, and rabbis, of creating “a distorted image of the basic values of…Judaism”, of “being anti-Semitic and ‘self-hating’”, “tasteless”, of “offering ‘fuel’ for the fire” of anti-Semites, and so on.  When he spoke at Jewish events at that time, he’s said that invariably there would be people who’d come up to him afterwards and say: “Why don’t you leave us alone? Why don’t you write about the Gentiles? Why must you be so critical? Why do you disapprove of us so?” “This last question”, he says, “asked as often with incredulity as with anger” (p.50).

I am taking all this from an essay Roth wrote in 1963 called ‘Writing About Jews’ [in Philip Roth, Why Write? Collected Nonfiction, 1960-2013] in which he describes some of these responses to his early short stories. He writes:

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in that in many instances they haven’t been bitten at all. Not always, but frequently, what such readers have taken to be my disapproval of the lives lived by Jews seems to have more to do with their own moral perspective than with the one they would ascribe to me: at times they see wickedness where I myself had seen energy or courage or spontaneity; they are ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and defensive where there is no cause for defence. Not only do they seem to me often to have cramped and untenable notions of right and wrong, but looking at fiction as they do – in terms of “approval” and “disapproval” of Jews, “positive” and “negative attitudes toward Jewish life – they are likely not to see what it is that a story is really about” (p.51).

In other words, Roth is saying that his Jewish critics misunderstood what he was doing when his stories contained Jewish characters: they were poor readers, in effect. “It is not my purpose in writing a story of an adulterous man”, he writes, “to make it clear how right we all are if we disapprove of the act and are disappointed in the man. Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everyone seems to hold, nor does it seek to guarantee the appropriateness of our feelings. The world of fiction, in fact, frees us from the circumscriptions that society places upon feeling; one of the greatnesses of the art is that it allows both the writer and the reader to respond to experience in ways not always available in day-to-day conduct…Ceasing for a while to be upright citizens, we drop into another layer of consciousness. And this expansion of moral consciousness, this exploration of moral fantasy, is of some value to a man and to society.” (p.51-2)

Let’s think about this for a moment. He’s saying that reading works of fiction allows an expansion of our “moral consciousness” – this is a very significant claim: that literature helps us imagine other people – their joys and struggles, their life dilemmas, their victories and defeats, their passions and heartaches. It helps expand our sense of what it is to be human. This is what fiction does. And poetry, one might add. Non-fiction can do this too of course, but I am focusing here, as Roth did in his career, primarily on the way that fiction can help sensitise us to complexity, and the emotionally and spiritually layered nature of moral issues; in other words stories, well-written, can make us larger moral beings rather than narrow ones.  

All of this essay, by the way, was written years before Roth became an international name with Portnoy’s Complaint (in 1969)a novel which was in part his pent-up fictional riposte to all those years of being told how ‘tasteless’ he was, how he was portraying the Jewish community in such a  bad light to the goyim. It was if in Portnoy’s Complaint he was saying ‘You think the fiction I’ve been writing is tasteless? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet…’ 

I came to Philip Roth’s work relatively late, in the mid-1980s, prompted by a friend who encouraged me to overcome any prejudices I had about him – and I did have some - and just read his Zuckerman books; and so I did read start reading them and I was captivated. He was writing about life - about desire and death and human folly and human vulnerability and human ambition - in a way I found compelling. And it was during this period that I came across the sentence that has steered me, and goaded me, ever since.

It’s at the very end of that 1963 essay ‘Writing About Jews’, which he concludes with this remark: “The question really is, who is going to address men and women like men and women, and who like children. If there are Jews who have begun to find the stories the novelists tell more provocative and pertinent than the sermons of some of the rabbis, perhaps it is because there are regions of feeling and consciousness in them which cannot be reached by the oratory of self-congratulation and self-pity.” (p.64).

That struck a deep chord with me; and there’s a lot packed into Roth’s words that have particularly stuck with me. Firstly – and this is actually the prelude to the sentence that I want to speak about - if you are going to offer your thoughts in the public domain, whether it is in writing or in speaking, you need to address people as adults, not as children: so you don’t talk down, you don’t patronise, or condescend, but assume that the audience is able to take your words and think about them. This may sound obvious but I’m not sure that it is. Addressing people as “men and women” means granting people a kind of basic respect: a belief that they, like you, are thoughtful beings, capable of holding two or more contrasting ideas in their minds, for example, and a belief that people are able to reflect with some degree of fairmindedness on what you are offering. Yes, they may well have feelings about what you say – people may not like what you say, but you don’t avoid saying difficult things for that reason.

‘Able to reflect’ of course is not the same as ‘prepared to’ – and one knows that people are not always able to listen open-mindedly or open-heartedly: that people listen with prejudice and judgment and criticism and envy and a whole range of emotional responses that can get in the way of listening to what you are saying; but in Roth’s terms, addressing them as “men and women” means speaking to the best selves you know people can be, not the worst selves – so, hopefully, not pandering to people’s prejudices and emotionality.  

By the way, I think you should also talk to children in the same way as to adults: that is, without condescending to them or patronising them. I don’t believe in hiding from children the complexities of life, they know that anyway: you might just as well validate their experience rather than deny it or over-simplify it or, worse still, cover over something because you might find it hard to talk about, things like sex or death (two of Roth’s major themes, by the way). So in that sense I  don’t go along with Roth’s splitting things into ‘you should talk to people like adults not like children’. But I get what he is saying, it’s a kind of shorthand way of talking – and dare I say, a touch of laziness on his part.  

But the next point Roth makes is the key one I want to focus on: that what draws people in is storytelling; people find stories “provocative and pertinent” - by which I understand him to mean intellectually thought-provoking, imaginatively thought-and-feeling provoking, and relevant to their own experience, pertinent to the joys and troubles and moral dilemmas of their own lives. And that when you are in the presence of a good storyteller, when you are engaging with well-written fiction, this is what people are drawn to – it reaches regions of feeling and consciousness’ that, in Roth’s view, sermons can’t reach. Of course Philip Roth never heard one of my sermons but I forgive him for that: anyway, he was talking about the kind of sermons that were common fare in 1950s America, that he describes, in a somewhat provocative, and more-than-slightly condescending way as ‘the oratory of self-congratulation and self-pity.’

But if you read those sermons now, and such sermons are by no means unique to America, or to the 1950s, we can recognise what he’s talking about. “Self-congratulation” refers, to my mind, to all those sermons that tell us how wonderful the Jewish people are - all those Nobel prizes! – all that wonderful Jewish philanthropy and ethical high-mindedness; or how wonderful Israel is, making the deserts bloom, our cutting edge technology: you know - all that PR stuff. And ‘self-pity’ – well, we are good at that: Jews as eternal victims, the world hates us, poor little beleaguered Israel, all that anti-Semitism flooding through Europe or behind the chintz curtains of middle England: we almost take pride in our capacity for self-pity, the rich profusion of forms in which it comes. We certainly joke about it. ‘How many Jewish sons does it take to change a lightbulb? It only takes one, but don’t worry about it, I’ll just sit here in the dark’. If there was a Nobel prize for self-pity, we’d walk away with it every year.

I hope you can see what I’m doing now: I’m doing what I learned, one of the things I learned, from Philip Roth. I’m beginning to move into a narrative/storytelling mode; and also one of his gifts was in using humour to make serious moral points.

I do try to avoid “self-congratulation” in my sermons and writing, and “self-pity”. I don’t think I always succeed in this, because it’s very easy to slip into, like comfy slippers - it’s simple and tempting, but it’s also lazy and manipulative. ‘Look how wonderful we are’ is ‘feel good’ stuff for sermons, and sometimes we do just need to feel good about ourselves, individually and collectively: but it’s always only part of the truth of things, and sometimes only a very minor part. And ‘poor us’ is also, paradoxically, a kind of ‘feel good’ form of speaking, because self-pity is comforting, it’s like wrapping oneself up in a warm duvet on a cold winter’s night. To feel that the world’s against us, and that’s how it always was and is and will be, can offer a paradoxical form of pleasure - even if it avoids the complexity of how we are experienced, the huge range of responses through time (and today) to Jews and Jewishness. And maybe ‘poor us’ is perversely pleasurable because it avoids the messy complexity of real life, real experience.

Anyway, Roth has been a touchstone for me as I think about what I am doing when I write or when I speak. One of the things I learned from is that if you find the right ‘voice’ to speak in, you can explore even the most difficult ‘regions of feeling and consciousness’. He was the master craftsman of narrative art who acted as a guide to me in the moral seriousness of literature. He helped me understand story as argument, story as exploring moral dilemmas, commitment and betrayal, “uncontrollable longings, unworkable love…exhaustion, estrangement, derangement” , and the rest (p.381), and in his last decade of writing produced a series of works exploring in a profound and moving way the vital topics of the second half of life: ageing, illness and the inevitability of death.

I know that many women readers have found his work hard going, and some refuse to engage with it at all: accusations of misogyny have dogged him from the beginning. And it’s true that his female characters sometimes lacked the complex inner turmoil of his male characters – maybe that’s why he never received the one award that eluded him, the Nobel Prize for Literature – but many of his characters are wrestling with universal human concerns rather than solely male concerns, so if you have turned your back on him, for whatever reason, give him another try. Try ‘American Pastoral’ where Roth explores America’s political turmoil of the Vietnam years, a book which contains a beautifully loving evocation too of the Jewish Newark he grew up in. Or try ‘The Plot Against America’ with its counterfactual exploration of what happens in America in the 1940s when a right-wing demagogue captures the presidency and the fascistic takeover leads to the gradual exclusion and then persecution of one ethnic group: not Muslims but Jews. In the era of Trump, of course, this novel from 2004 has taken on an eerie prescience.

Roth had his finger on the pulse of our times like no other novelist. I’ll really miss him. But I will continue to re-read him, the ruthless intimacy of his fiction and the discursive intelligence of his essays. And I hope to be able to use the spirit of his gifts to continue to inform my own work with a minimum of self-pity or self-congratulation. 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 9th, 2018]