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Thursday, 20 October 2016

Reflections on Simchat Torah and a Kafka Parable

And so we come to the close of the spiritual year. But this is a paradoxical closure – for it’s a closure in which the door to new beginnings is left wide open. On Simchat Torah – added to the end of the festival of impermanence, Sukkot - the slow, regular, week-by-week progression of the Jewish liturgical year, based on the cycle of weekly readings from the Torah, comes to an end.

We read the last verses of the Torah where Moses, a legendary 120 years old, goes up the mountain overlooking the so-called ‘promised land’, the land of Canaan, and before he dies he is allowed to look at the inheritance which has been promised to his people. ‘You can look at it, but you can’t touch it, eat from it’ – the message to humanity at the beginning of the Torah about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil finds its symbolic echo at the end of the Torah in God’s refusal to allow Moses more than a glimpse of what the whole wilderness journey has been leading to. He cannot enter the land. It is the next generation who will inherit the land. It is always the next generation whom we believe will fulfil our dreams of a better tomorrow. So the Torah ends on this bitter-sweet moment of loss – and hope deferred.
But on this festival of Simchat Torah, the pain of unfulfilled longing immediately segues into a new beginning. The opening verses of the book of Genesis follow on straight away and the holy drama begins again. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...’ Moses has died, but creation is renewed. The journey is over, we have failed to reach our destination. And the journey is beginning again, and all lies before us, waiting. “In my end is my beginning” (T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets).
When we dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah we are celebrating the return to the beginning, we are celebrating the renewal of our quest for a story that can give meaning to our lives. We are rejoicing in the unending journey of our people towards a destiny which can never be fulfilled. As Franz Rosenzweig puts it: “this close of the spiritual year is not permitted to be an actual close but must flow back into the beginning...the last word in the Torah gives rise to the first.” In the liturgical year, the spiritual year, we never reach the ‘promised land’. We are always journeying. The spiritual journey itself  – personal and collective - is our destination, our homeland.
The Jewish people, a people who have survived the vicissitudes of history, are a people on an endless journey through time,  a people whose sense of journeying is evoked in Franz Kafka’s incomparable parable:
I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stable. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: ’Where are you riding to, master?’ ‘I do not know’, I said, ‘only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.’ ‘And so you know your destination?’, he asked. ‘Yes’, I answered, ‘didn’t I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination.’ ‘You have no provisions with you,’ he said. ‘I need none,’ I said, ‘the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’
‘Fortunately’ – ‘es ist ja zum Glück’ – what a wonderful sense of celebration, anticipation, hopefulness is evoked! That concluding phrase, and indeed the whole parable, is one of the great religious commentaries on the story of the Jewish people. A contemporary midrash to stand alongside the midrashim of old.
What thoughts come to mind as we ponder on Kafka’s parable? We have the destiny of the Jewish people not to be understood; and to have to rely on themselves. They are attuned to a call, a summons, that they alone can hear – Kafka’s bugle (Trompete) is a close relative of the shofar, present at the revelation at Sinai when the people learn of the moral and ethical vision they are to enact; the shofar that in the tradition also announces the coming of the Messianic age and the redemption of humanity. And the journey is always ‘Away-From-Here’,  away from the compromises and disappointments, defeats and suffering of everyday personal life, away from the empty promises and false solutions and unending conflicts of social and political life.
And if there are ‘no provisions’ that can be prepared in advance to help us cope with the dramas of life, then we are like the children of Israel in the wilderness who depend on receiving manna from the Eternal One - their lesson in dependence, their lesson on the hubris of believing that we can be masters of our own fate.  Nothing can save us, Kafka intuits – channelling his innate understanding of the Judaic story as portrayed in the texts of old – unless we are open to receive what life offers us day by day. This is the daily miracle – we receive what we need to keep us going. And we do keep on going – day after day, generation after generation. ‘For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’
The Hebrew word torah is from the root y’r’h – ‘to point in a direction’. It’s used of an archer shooting arrows. Torah is not only ‘Law’ – forbiddingly revealed for all time, static and unchanging. Torah is about the direction we are called upon to move. It is the lightning flash of insight when we see the way ahead. It is what we hear when we listen in deeply to the call to our better selves, to enact moments of messianic hopefulness through our compassion, our generosity, our passion for justice. It is the moment of knowing how we have to act. On Simchat Torah we celebrate both the Torah of tradition – that creative wellspring of stories and legends, ethical teachings  and social responsibilities - and the ‘Torah’ of our own times, the teachings and wisdom of voices like Kafka, sometimes far from the mainstream of traditional Jewish texts, that nevertheless flow towards us and nurture our souls.
[This piece is one of a series of weekly 'Rabbi-in-Residence' pieces I am writing from September - November 2016 that are appearing in JEU, the online journal of Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden ]



Thursday, 6 October 2016

Challenging our Assumptions about Learning and Liturgy - and What We Need to Help Us to Fly.

A few years ago a team of psychologists set up an experiment with some pre-school children. They gave the children a toy made of lots of plastic tubes. Each tube had something different about it. One tube squeaked when you touched it. One lit up. One tube made music. One had a mirror hidden inside it. With half the children, one of the psychologists came into the room and – as if by accident – bumped into the tube that squeaked. “Oops!”, she said as the tube squeaked. The children were then left alone to play with the toy. The psychologist-team watched to see what happened next. What do you think they observed?  

The other half of the children had a different experience. The psychologist came into the room and acted more like a teacher, picking up the toy and saying enthusiastically “Look at my great toy! Let me show you how it works” and then pressing the tube that squeaked, which of course it did. The children were then left alone to play with the toy, with the psychologist-team  watching to see what happened next in that group of children.
Although Rosh Hashanah is the time of the year when we are asking ourselves ‘what will happen next? how will our next year unfold?’, we don’t usually have any window, any vantage point, from which we can observe the action. We are in that sense like the children being tested to see how we respond to what life presents us with.  We are still as a people, the children of Israel, caught up in something bigger than we know, larger than we understand. Part of the religious work, the spiritual work, of this time of the year is to see if we can get a different vantage point onto our daily lives.
But back to the experiment. What do you think the psychologist team saw happening in the first group of children, the one where there’d been this ‘accidental’ bumping into the toy, which then squeaked?  That group, they found, began playing with the toy in all sorts of random ways, pulling, pushing, prodding, until  gradually they discovered all the functions of the tubes: the light, the music, the mirror. And the other group? Those children who’d been enthusiastically shown how the squeaking part of the tube worked – those who’d been deliberately taught, had their attention directed, by the experimenter – they played with the tube in a much more limited and repetitive way. ‘Squeak, squeak! Squeak, squeak!’ – they hardly ever discovered all the other things the toy could do. 
When I came across this piece of research – it’s from Alison Gopnik’s  book The Gardener and the Carpenter, she’s a Jewish professor of both psychology and philosophy at Berkeley, California - I have to say that I found it quite unsettling, disquieting. It seemed at first quite counter-intuitive.
Surely if you are just left to find things out for yourself, randomly, you could end up lost, bored, frustrated, distressingly all-at-sea. And if you are directed in your learning, your discovery of what’s in the world, by an enthusiastic teacher – can’t they open up things for you that you might never find by yourself, hidden wonders you’d never otherwise come across on your own? So this research seemed to undermine some basic assumptions of mine.
It is quite destabilising to think: have I got something fundamentally  wrong? will I have to think again about how I see the world, build it up again with different foundations? These are High Holy Day questions, I suppose – certainly they are pertinent to the self-examination we are encouraged to undertake -  but they weren’t questions I welcomed when I came across this peer-reviewed research.
But the more I thought about this experiment, the more I realised the truth embedded within it, and the more significant, profound, I found it. And still find it.
I thought back to my own childhood and realised just how self-directing my learning had been. I’d go to the local library and just take out whatever books captured my imagination. There were lots of books at home too, but I never remember being told, by either of my parents, ‘you really must read that’. They just left me to it - a sort of blessing in disguise, I now realise.  At secondary school  there were some texts that were set - novels to read, poems to learn - and I am grateful for those because, perhaps fortunately, they didn’t narrow my focus but made me realise how much there was to discover. But on the whole I can now see how free I was both as a child and then an adolescent to find my own way – and not just in literature and poetry, but in music and art and films as well. Looking back, I can see that I was embarked on a lifetime of exploring what interested me, allowing  randomness and serendipity and chance to do its work.
That lack of external direction has, I think, allowed me to be relatively eclectic and wide-ranging in following my own enthusiasms and not anyone else’s. (It has also meant that I have vast areas of ignorance). But what about studying to become  a rabbi? Obviously at  Leo Baeck College there was a huge amount of directedness that went on; historically, traditionally, there’s a strong voice of authority that says, like the one directed to that second group of kids, ‘Look over there, those are the texts that matter: Torah, Talmud, commentaries, collections of midrash, liturgical texts’.  In the past Jews – not just rabbis – were clearly directed where to go for wisdom. Certain texts were solid links in a chain of tradition stretching back millennia.
But again, I was fortunate - another blessing in disguise - in that the teachers that I had at and around the College were not quite like that. Or it may be the other way round – that the teachers I found were not like that. The rabbis and teachers I gravitated towards seemed to have been the ones who, each in their own way, represented that first kind of psychologist-experimenter.
I am thinking of Rabbi Lionel Blue and Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, each in their own very different-from-each-other idiosyncratic ways teaching how Jewish religious life is, in essence,  about exploration, about a journey of discovery in which the answers aren’t always given by the past; where in fact the asking of a good question, and the exploration of where it takes you, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, is central what it means to be Jewishly religious.
I had other teachers at rabbinical college, but they didn’t enthuse me in the same way. In retrospect I can see that perhaps  my mind-set had already been formed – a pre-disposition towards a certain stance in relation to learning, how we learn, where we learn, who we can learn from. Where you bump into things – “oops!” – and learn from that, rather than have your learning focused by someone else.
So I leant that wisdom could be found in engaging with Christian pastors and Scottish shepherds, Dominican fathers and atheist artists, displaced poets and Sufi mystics; and that the traditional advice given at the beginning of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, asay l’cha rav – ‘Get yourself a rav, a teacher’ (1:6), was fine – and maybe important – as long as you didn’t restrict yourself to a too-narrow definition of who a teacher might be, or where new insights might come from.
All of which is to say that by looking back at my own journey I can now see that Alison Gopnik’s research experiment – and there’s a lot of other work that she and her colleagues have done that confirm her conclusions – seems to me to be on to something extremely significant about how learning takes place, what kind of direction is needed, and what gets in the way and limits a person’s development. But I still find her conclusions unsettling. Because I think the implications are far-reaching. I want to speak about two very different areas where the implications challenge, very directly, how we do things, how we think about things.
The first is parenting – which is a large part of the focus of her book ‘The Gardener and the Carpenter’. Gopnik puts it very clearly – in a sentence that might make many middle-class parents apoplectic with rage, and maybe fear : “Our job [as parents] is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows.”
Explore all the possibilities – what, go to the local park unsupervised? choose for themselves what school they go to? what subjects to study? decide for themselves whether they do really want extra music lessons, or ballet, or to complete their Duke of Edinburgh awards? “A parent’s job is to help youngsters explore all the possibilities that the world allows”?!  What about exploring drugs? exploring sex? exploring the vast regions of the internet?  This woman needs to be locked up, we might be thinking, encouraging us to think about our parenting in the affluent West as too restrictive, as not conducive to our children’s well-being.
But if we can resist giving in to our knee-jerk reactions, we might create some space to think about the deep wisdom of what she is saying: that we might be getting in the way of our children’s overall well-being by eliminating the random, the serendipitous, by not letting them discover things for themselves - through their mistakes, and what hurts them, as well as what they might thrill to by being allowed to follow their own desires and passions. 
You can see all around us the results of the way children are often now being parented, and it is very painful.  I see it and hear about it every day in my therapy consulting room: an epidemic of self-harm, eating disorders, mental health problems, in girls especially; but boys too are much more fragile than their bravado would let us know about. All that educational emphasis on outcomes and test scores and all that parental emphasis on achievement and success – along with peer pressures and the relentless presence of social media sites – has created a perfect storm of un-wellness, of dis-ease.
As parents we might want to protect our youngsters from dangers, of various kinds, but what Alison Gopnik’s book does is provoke us into thinking about the ways in which unknowingly we become collusive with and part of the problem - rather than offering a viable alternative to it. Parenting should be more like gardening than carpentry, Gopnik argues – it is about creating the best conditions for what is there to be allowed to grow, rather than hammering away at our children to shape them into what we think they need to be.
We never think about it as hammering away of course, we think it’s ‘being sensible’, ‘getting ahead’, ‘getting the most out of the opportunities you’ve been given’ - all sorts of rationalisations which our youngsters buy into, or react against, to their own detriment. Sometimes their problems appear at the time as they are growing up, sometimes it take years and then breaks out at college or university: counselling services in tertiary education are being overwhelmed with young people unable to cope.
We could widen this a bit. Beyond the current debates in the UK about grammar schools or the merits of faith schools there is a more fundamental malaise within the educational system in this country. Did you know that in Finland, which leads the world in terms of both academic achievements and reported well-being amongst school-leavers, they don’t begin to teach maths, reading and spelling until the children are seven years old?  Prior to that  classes are structured around creative play, storytelling, interpersonal and social skills and the role of the imagination in personal development. The UK has a lot to learn: to unlearn and to learn. (Gopnik’s work is a good example of the historical role of Jews in society – to offer a critique of the status quo, to challenge the prevailing idolatry in a culture). 
But I want to finish by bringing this back to ourselves as Jews on the High Holy Days. Because the other thing that unsettled me about Gopnik’s fascinating and passionate arguments is the implications for what we do in our synagogue services. She doesn’t talk in her book about the implications of her ideas for religious belief or practice, but it led me to think about it. That’s an example of her philosophy at work. I bumped into her work and then, in exploring it, I was  led to into quite other areas.
Because the model we have, in our liturgy and our services, is definitely the second route the experimenters took: ‘Look at this, children, see how interesting it is’ - that’s in effect what we who lead the services are saying to you. ‘Turn to page 31’, we say, ‘and we’ll sing this, or read that’. And you probably dutifully follow where you are directed. (Maybe I’m wrong and you are all secret explorers and drifters off. I really hope you are – and I am sure you’ll have heard me encouraging you to use this time to wander through the book, or follow where your mind takes you . But now I have Gopnik’s research to back up my intuitions!).
But if you do just feel an obligation to dutifully follow along, then  - if we think about that through the lens of Alison Gopnik’s work - what we are in effect doing is narrowing your choices and potential adventures  during these services, rather than expanding the possibilities of what you could find out and discover for yourselves if we took that different, first-experimenter approach. I think this is one of the underlying reasons why so many people are put off my formal religious services – and this may be true of Christianity as well as Judaism.   
So the question I want to leave with you with is this: how would Jews do services differently if we took a ‘Oops!’ approach to the liturgy? If we used the time to bump into things rather than be directed towards them? I’m sure our services would look very different and feel very different. Could we bear a service which wasn’t guided so rigidly from on high – and I’m not speaking about from heaven? A service where we left gaps of time for congregants to wander through the liturgy until they found something that caught their eye?  and then maybe, if they wanted to , have a conversation with their neighbour about what they had found significant in it? A service where we did just a fraction of the liturgy and then used it to see where our own thoughts, our own psyche, took us next?
Services like that might take us out of our comfort zone - but they would allow space for the unconscious to work, allow space for the ruach hakodesh, the spirit of divine energy within us, to breathe in us and enlighten us.  These would be services in the spirit of Shakespeare’s ‘By indirections find directions out ‘ (Hamlet, Act 2, scene1). They would be services where kavannah – inner attentiveness to what unfolds within us moment by moment - was given more space than keva, what is fixed and determined by tradition. They would be services that would - to use traditional language - allow God in.
Why don’t we try to wander, to digress, to use the words in our prayer books as springboards into deeper regions of our own soul and heart and mind. Can we make space for chance things to arise in our mind - random thoughts and associations – and follow them, see where they lead. See what can be discovered by bumping into words and images from these texts – allow oneself to be surprised , embarrassed, moved, gratified, ashamed, excited, whatever comes up. See what hurts, see what gives pleasure. Think of our services as an adventure playground and not a place where we have to dutifully tick the boxes of prayers read, songs sung, pages covered.
What kind of adventure playground do we want our services to be? At the moment we are too often like a butterfly pinned to a wheel: we are not only being cruel to ourselves, but we are stopping ourselves flying spiritually, religiously. I can’t believe that in our hearts we want that. But what do we want? What do our souls really need? I leave you with that question.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, October 4th, 2016]



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]
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