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Sunday, 16 July 2017

Developing a Spirit of Independent-Mindedness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

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

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

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


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





Sunday, 18 June 2017

Democracy, Leadership and ‘The Book of Jeremy Corbyn’

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

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

The Book of Corbyn

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

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

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

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

And the High Priestess said, Piece of cake.

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

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

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

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

And the young people went absolutely nuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the young people said, The what?

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

And the young people said, The what?

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

And the elders said, The what?

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

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

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

And nobody paid attention.

And it came to the vote.

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

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

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

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

And of the pollsters there was no sign.

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

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

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

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

And the Lord thought the whole thing was absolutely hilarious.

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

And the Lord said, The what?

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

Which is just about where we are now.

And here endeth the lesson.

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





Sunday, 7 May 2017

Child-Sacrifice Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Some Thoughts on Responsibility in the Age of Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Rabbi Lionel Blue z”l 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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